National Volunteer Week concluded just days ago. All the hashtags and photos of volunteers in action have disappeared, social media campaigns have come to an end, and the week dedicated to recognizing and thanking volunteers is a wrap. Might I be so bold and say it can’t stop there. For all the organizations that engage volunteers, more ought to be done to show appreciation beyond posting photos and saying thanks.
Over the years I’ve come to realize one of the most effective ways to communicate appreciation is through the deliberate act of investing in the person or group of people you’re acknowledging. This is much different than investing money into property or stock options, hoping that your money will double through appreciation. Rather, this is the investment of time, training, development through mentoring and purchasing of resources for the volunteers, to make sure they’re properly equipped to carry out their duties. This also helps nurture them personally and professionally, demonstrating that they’re worth the extra effort. These acts will transcend the work they’ll do to support the organization, having a lasting impact on their lives for years to come.
When I think about gestures that make me feel appreciated, I think back to times where I was sent to training, to conferences, given more responsibility, authority, or little things like being given a name tag. All of these actions demonstrate trust, confidence in my ability, my judgement, and indirectly communicates that I’m a part of the team without actually saying it. If you’re thinking about actions you might take beyond sending a card, letter or posting a photo or hashtag, then you’re in luck. Here are some simple but genuine ways to demonstrate your care and appreciation for the volunteers serving your organization.
Give your time and attention: Yep, I said it. You need to give your undivided time and attention to those who are supporting the organization through volunteerism. This includes being responsive to their emails and phone calls, while handling them with care. When engaging volunteers, get to know them. While this won’t be possible in all instances, where there’s time, take the opportunity to hear their volunteer journey and their hobbies. This can also mean listening to their feedback and grievances. Giving volunteers your time will demonstrate your sincere care about their well being as much as your care about them satisfying the organization's mission. When listening to gripes or constructive criticism, not only will this help the obvious in fixing deficiencies in your program, but will also ensure that they feel like they’re being heard
Provide organizational bonafides: Create legitimacy for volunteers through true organizational backing. Eliminate barriers for volunteers, while pulling them closer in to being a part of the team. Create nametags, provide organizational apparel that’s on par with the paid staff, and think about providing an organizational email, especially if they’re fulfilling an outward facing role (i.e. fundraising, development, public engagement). By providing bonafides like nametags, business cards and organizational emails, you eliminate any hurdles that may be experienced when they’re conducting outreach to solicit for support. Not only does this communicate a trust in that volunteer, but for those who interact with them, it’ll showcase the organization's appreciation for that apparatus of support.
Collect and incorporate their feedback: Whether it’s immediately after an event, annually or everything in between, make the volunteers voice heard. This can be an electronic survey, an in person brown bag session or through an open-door policy that’s established. By collecting their feedback and acting to create positive change, you’ll communicate to the volunteers that not only are they being heard, but they’re a valuable contributor to the organization they support. Not only will this serve as a sounding board for program improvement, but will help forge bonds between volunteers and the organization in a way that makes them feel like they’re continually contributing beyond the life of their service work.
Increase the budget spent on volunteers: With your fundraising and development professionals, aggressively seek funding for volunteers. While there’s a misconception that volunteers are “free,” it’s up to volunteer administrators to help educate others that that’s a myth. Volunteering isn’t free and often times requires out of pocket expenses from volunteers, preventing them from giving their time. Eliminating some of these barriers comes with a price tag. Increasing funding to pay for large expenses incurred by volunteers will make volunteering more accessible. This may include high parking fees, lodging or expensive meals at events that they’re giving large sums of time to support. Volunteers are already giving their most valuable gift; their time. By padding some of these monetary expenses that volunteers would normally pay, you’ll make it infinitely easier for them to support your event. This will help create “ease of volunteering.” The easier and more accessible you make volunteering, the higher the likelihood that they’ll commit, and return.
Don’t waste their time: While this is blatantly obvious, it’s often overlooked. Just like you wouldn’t waste a donor’s money, the same consideration must to be taken for volunteers. Ensure you don’t waste the commodity they’re giving you by being prepared. Do your homework and think about what they need to be successful. This is detailed information, tangible items like tools, having supplies counted out and organized, and making sure the supervising staff are ready to execute on actions when they arrive. By being prepared you’ll be in a position to start the project on time. Just like any meeting or appointment, by being punctual, you’ll communicate that you respect their time. This will create a situation where you’re more successful meeting the requirements, while communicating to volunteers that there’s a mutual respect between them and the organization.
Some organizations already do this, but unfortunately most don’t. People assume that volunteers are expendable resources that’ll bend over backwards or become martyrs for “the cause.” In reality, just like paid employees, if you don’t show your appreciation through actions, they’ll go to the next organization that will. With more than 1.5 million non-profit organizations in the United States, there’s no shortage of outlets that need the support. As customers of volunteer opportunities, volunteers can be impacted negatively by their experience, and this can be a result of lack of actions that communicate appreciation beyond lip service. While posting photos, words of appreciation and hashtags on social media are great, I encourage you to not stop there. While there’s risk management to consider by taking some actions I suggest, I would encourage you to explore these steps and see how it pans out. Some of these don’t require a hefty budget, just kind gestures. I guarantee though, this will pay dividends later through increased retention. Even though National Volunteer Week is over, let’s not think about this as the conclusion until next year, let’s view this as an opportunity to enact change. Make a commitment to yourself, your organization and your volunteers to take action. Share your thoughts or some of the action you’ve taken since, I’d love to hear about changes you’ve made, and the impact.