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Volunteer Appreciation: Not just a week, but a culture

Holly D Daniels | Published on 4/20/2022

Pictured above: The Coupons Deanna Johnson at CMH created for her volunteers -- part of her strategy to give them choices for receiving appreciation.

National Volunteer Appreciation Week (which always falls on the third week of April) can be a helpful reminder to get intentional about thanking volunteers. But it’s never too late to appreciate them in a meaningful way! If recognizing volunteers is the key to retaining volunteers, how can we make them feel noticed and honored all year long? 

 

For a thoughtful year-round approach to appreciation: Let volunteers choose their own adventure, enlist partners to help you thank them, and tell them WHAT you’re thankful for.

 

For some real-life examples, I’ve enlisted the help of Deanna Johnson, Volunteer Coordinator at Community Memorial Hospital in Cloquet, MN. Deanna planned an exciting week for volunteers, where they can choose to be appreciated in the way that’s meaningful for them.

 

Let volunteers choose their own adventure

Volunteers have all kinds of preferences around appreciation. There are people who feel special if they’re acknowledged publicly, and others who find the attention embarrassing. Some people love free swag; others throw those little gifts away. Some find it meaningful to connect with other volunteers, like at an appreciation event, and others aren’t interested — maybe they’re too busy or not comfortable.

 

One way to learn a volunteer’s preferences is to ask them (in-person, or on their volunteer account if you have a volunteer management system). Another way is to provide choices. This year, Deanna took a new approach to gifts, and offered lots of choices.

 

“I didn’t just go with one particular item,” Deanna said, “because it’s hard with the wide range of ages, and men and women. I actually got a bundle of different gifts that will be on the table and they can just select one that they like the most. For me that just was easiest, because my biggest stressor was — what can I get that everyone could be happy with?”

 

Volunteers can choose from: Tote bags, cell phone holders, “survival kits” (full of candy and funny quotes), lunch boxes, socks, magnifying lights, and stainless steel tumblers. Deanna ordered the bundle from Positive Promotions.

 

Also, there will be a special volunteer appreciation event at the Hospital with live music, decorations, and food. Deanna will highlight volunteers by the hours and years they've served. Deanna assumed that some volunteers wouldn’t come to the event, and she had this to say: “Hopefully when they receive the invite in the mail, they feel appreciated. Maybe the invite is all they’re gonna get. That’s why I take the time to make sure it looks nice. And in the invite, they’ll see that it’s about them and it’s for them, and maybe they won’t want to leave their house at all. And so that’s why I try to do different things.”

 

Enlist partners to help you thank volunteers

Volunteers are used to getting thanked by the volunteer coordinators and other people who interact with them all the time. But hearing “thank you” from other staff, directors, and board members, can be especially meaningful. Plus, a culture of gratitude can’t be created single-handedly. We must enlist help to make volunteers feel valued.

 

Videos are a popular way to communicate appreciation messages to volunteers. For Deanna’s video, she highlights staff people saying thank you and sharing what the volunteers have meant to them this year. Deanna’s joke is that her goal with the video is to get a couple volunteers to cry.

 

Deanna also enlisted partners from the community to help her appreciate volunteers. She reached out to Cloquet businesses to ask if they’d be willing to provide a small gift or discount to her volunteers over the week. Then, using Canva, she designed coupon books, with coupons for a free flower (from a local florist), and discounts to a coffee shop, candy shop, and theater. This project took time and energy, but not much money aside from printing the coupons.

 

“I hope this helps them feel appreciated,” said Deanna. And it's up to them, if they want to take part in that, and get a free flower on Monday, or $1 off a drink at Bearaboo Coffee on Tuesday, then they can. If they don’t want to, they don’t have to.”

 

Tell them WHAT you’re thankful for

Research shows: The number one way volunteers want to be recognized is: by understanding their impact. (Based on a 2021 study from Sterling Volunteers and VolunteerMatch). 

 

What can you do to make sure they understand how their work fits into the mission? Don’t just thank volunteers for the number of hours, thank them for the outcomes — what did those hours mean for the mission and cause they care about? When you say thank you, can you be specific — Thank you for WHAT? Engaged volunteers understand their impact. 

 

One final tip: When you share about volunteer impact, make sure to share it with your co-workers as well. Building a culture of gratitude across your organization is easier when everybody understands the impact of volunteers.