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Best Practices for Association Volunteer Recognition

Updated: May 6




With National Volunteer Week just having finished in Canada, volunteer recognition has been on everyone's minds. It’s a time when organizations think most about how to recognize volunteers, and revisit their approach to volunteer recognition to ensure it's still engaging and meaningful.


Managing Matters recently hosted a webinar titled ‘Best Practices for Association Volunteer Recognition’ as a part of our Volunteer Engagement webinar series. The goal of the session was to dive-deep into best practices on recognizing volunteers, and help associations plan their own initiatives. The webinar was created and presented by Erin Spink, our Executive Director, who is also an internationally recognized author and trainer in Volunteer Engagement.


Erin began by sharing research to build on the anecdotal evidence we have through either volunteering ourselves, or from volunteers we work most closely with, which can sometimes skew our ideas about what the best practices in Volunteer Recognition are. Based on that research and her 20+ years of experience working with volunteers, she shares some of the best practices and pitfalls to avoid when recognizing volunteers, with the aim to help associations plan their future volunteer recognition initiatives.


What does the research tell us?


The latest research we have in Canada specifically on Volunteer Recognition is from the Volunteer Canada 2013 survey. The study had over a thousand participants from every sector and industry.


The study found that the top way volunteers want to be recognized – with 80% of participants wanting to be recognised this way – is to hear how their work has made a difference. Volunteering is something people do in their spare time, and they may not have a lot of it. This is the time they could be spending with friends, families or on hobbies. Volunteers want to know that the time we put into the association or organization is making a difference.


A personal thank you was how almost 70% of participants wanted to be recognized. The emphasis here being on personal recognition on an ongoing, informal basis. This is in contrast to the initiatives that charities and associations have as their go to, which is banquets, formal gatherings and public acknowledgement. Hence there is a big disconnect between what volunteers want and the ways in which organizations typically recognize them.


Why do associations need to do recognition well?


Volunteer Recognition is especially important for associations, as most have by-laws and rules which state that to volunteer one must be a member of the organization. Hence, volunteering is a significant opportunity to strengthen relationships with members, enhancing member engagement, retention and your association’s future!


Associations have a more limited pool of where they can seek volunteers – they can’t engage in large marketing campaigns, such as using Volunteer Centres or social media to recruit volunteers from the general public.



Best practices


  1. Timely


Typically a lot of volunteer recognition is clustered around National Volunteer Week, this often means that if a volunteer worked a few months before on a specific project, it’s been months since that activity making the tie between your thank you and their involvement pretty thin. Timely recognition means that it happens within a defined period of time related to the point of engagement of the volunteer. Don’t do it several months later!


Volunteers should also be recognized on an ongoing basis, not as a one-off. Such recognition also has benefits for the organization as it reinforces positive actions, behaviours and contributions. When you recognize people in a timely manner they can make connections about what they’ve done and how they behaved, to the difference they have made.


  1. Personal and Meaningful


The first thing to acknowledge is that there is a difference between recognition and appreciation. Recognition is someone's contribution (you helped lead this event, this is what you contributed). Appreciation, on the other hand, is a person's value (you were consistent, you were patient, you brought positive energy). People need both of these things because they’re tied together – we’re not only recognising their contribution but also its value. Show your volunteers that you see them and their contributions.


This is also a good way to enhance ‘line of sight’ with organizational goals and achievements, connecting the impact of volunteer contributions with the bigger picture.

  1. Aligned and Sustainable


It is important to make recognition align with the options available to the organization. A best practice is not to create multiple one-off initiatives per person, but to have a suite of options available and different tiers. You want to have something aligned to their contribution, for example giving a conference committee discounted price or a free pass to the event, while also having flexibility so that the recognition is something they appreciate.


Make sure your volunteers don’t get shortchanged in comparison to financial donors. This is oftentimes a false dynamic as volunteers can also be your donors.


Pitfalls to avoid


  1. Bad records. Mistakes such as missing groups or individuals, misspelling names, incorrect role contribution is a number one pitfall to avoid. This all comes down to good data management!

  2. Taking a cookie-cutter approach. Don’t be so rigid and firm to say that one form of recognition is what you do for all contributors. Volunteers have different motivations and levels of contributions, they want to be seen as individuals.

  3. Only doing it once a year. Those personal informal thank yous are the most valuable. It’s something that you should build into your culture.

  4. Not changing it over time. Volunteers have different values and different ways in which they contribute. Organizations with longstanding volunteer recognition programs tend to recognize things such as years of service, which are not relevant to volunteers who do a lot of short-term and project-based volunteering. You should talk to volunteers and hear from them what is meaningful and what keeps them engaged. Be responsive while being sustainable, it won’t be possible or ideal to do something new every year.

  5. Thinking everyone will be happy. You will be setting yourself up for failure if you try to make everyone happy. We tend to talk about volunteers as a homogenous group, but they are not. Although they collectively act in the same way (they’re engaging with your organization), that is where similarities tend to end.


Anything you do will tend to have ups and downs. Award programs are a great example of this – some people love them while others hate them. This might be because some volunteers don’t qualify as they do short-term, project based work. Yet their contribution to that project was outstanding.


There will always be pros and cons, so your goal in planning and delivering volunteer recognition should be being sincere and transparent. Remember that recognition and appreciation are outcomes – if what you’re doing isn’t helping volunteers feel valued and that they’re making an impact, you are not really recognizing them!


If you’re looking for more advice from our leading Association Volunteer Engagement experts visit our blog, or connect with us directly!



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