Guest blog post by: Margaret Battistelli Gardner
As we roll into December and the winter holiday season, nonprofits naturally are concerned with end-of-year giving. This is, after all, the most wonderful time of the year in terms of donations.
But in the midst of all this receiving, what are you giving? How are you showing appreciation for the many people who work so diligently throughout the year to keep your organization running? Staff, of course, may be getting bonuses or special lunches and other in-house shows of appreciation.
But don’t forget your volunteers – those dedicated folks who are so intensely passionate about your work that they support it and commit many hours of their lives to it without benefit of a salary.
Ideally, your organization is in a constant state of showing volunteer appreciation, since volunteers can be the backbone of a nonprofit, giving freely of their time to do everything from sweeping floors to collecting data for complex research programs.
“Volunteer appreciation is not something that needs to be defined – it is something to be embodied and woven into the fabric of an organization’s value system,” says Jo Sullivan, a longtime fundraising consultant who has worked in various leadership roles at organizations such as the ASPCA, the DMA Nonprofit Federation, Anacostia Playhouse in Washington, DC., and Aspire to Win, a Houston-based program that helps recently paroled individuals reacclimatize to life outside of prison.
“It’s more than the thank-notes that come at year end… it is the way all employees, from executive directors to development associates, treat these individuals during any interaction or project.”
Many organizations survive on volunteer manpower
Whether they show up during times of disaster, holiday program service needs or random Tuesday mornings to do whatever is asked, volunteers allow the organization to fulfill its mission more broadly and deeply. Any role an organization establishes as appropriate to be filled by a volunteer is a role that allows donor dollars to move to other areas aside from staffing.
“Volunteer appreciation isn’t important just because they are giving of time and talent,” Jo says. “It is important because without them, people or causes served would not reach the level of impact they do with them.”
Unfortunately, the stalwart nature that many volunteers share sometimes make it easy to overlook them.
After all, since Amelia shows up every Tuesday at 10am to stuff backpacks for the underprivileged school children your organization serves, of course she’ll be there this Tuesday and the next and the next and…
That’s why volunteer appreciation should be ongoing
Both in formal and informal ways. Informal appreciation is remembering a volunteer’s name and using it and saying hello and thank you when you see them, Jo says.
“Introducing a volunteer to a new staff member so that new person gets the message that ‘our volunteers are important to us’ can also be informal but powerful,” she adds. “Allowing volunteers a place to store their bags, charge their phones, take a break can be really impactful. Imagine if you’re going to do a full day on a Habitat for Humanity house and halfway through, and you’re told there are no bathrooms and they only have break areas for Habitat employees. Wouldn’t fly.
So why not have a section in a break room with small lockers for folks, or in the volunteer coordinator’s office a row of coat hooks so they aren’t balled up and shoved under a table or counter. Make room for them, acknowledge and introduce them and basically treat them like you would if your Mom where coming to volunteer for a day. You can’t go wrong with that.”
Formal volunteer appreciation can include recognition when a person hits hour milestones or longevity.
You can do anything from a plaque with name recognition to a volunteer annual luncheon that has a variety of awards and recognition. Jo mentions a nonprofit in Wisconsin that gives the Volunteer of the Month the parking spot closest to the building in winter.
“Conversely, in NYC where most people take the subway, a nonprofit honored their volunteer of the month with two tickets to a Broadway show starring one of the nonprofit’s donors who was also a pretty big celebrity,” she says.
If you don’t do anything currently to show volunteer appreciation, the holiday season is a good time to start.
But seriously consider using it as a jumping off point toward building a culture of appreciation that includes both formal and informal outreach.
- Walk up to your volunteers and say thank you.
- Every month, print post cards or hand write a card that says thank you and mail it to their home.
- Meet with the volunteer coordinator, finance (for any lunches you wish to buy) and possibly development teams and brainstorm a program. Once you put it together, actually follow through and do it.
But back to the holidays…
When planning holiday volunteer appreciation gifts, remember three things:
- Avoid cookie-cutter, “corporate” type gifts. Think personal and heartfelt. If it feels forced, find something else.
- Unless your organization is very specifically religious, don’t assume anyone’s faith or choice of holiday observance. Gifts/events can refer to the holidays, but it’s best to avoid specifics that could prove to be alienating.
- Your volunteers are happy to work for you for free because they know that it allows more valuable resources to go toward your cause. They really don’t want you to spend a lot of money on gifts.
“Individuals who give of their time to a cause they love usually don’t expect the kind of flowery, over-the-top thank you’s that Great Aunt Melba asks for when she gives another pair of socks,” Jo says, “but it’s in the little things… the trust, the respect and in many cases the engagement as an equal of everyone who gives of time and talent.”
That in mind, here are a few ideas for holiday volunteer appreciation:
- A simple, but heartfelt letter of thanks and appreciation from the executive director, volunteer manager or – and this is really special – a beneficiary of the work that your organization does. Do you serve children? Include their artwork. Work with the homeless? Is there someone who can share their story and how their life was changed? Or consider a CD or video version. The greatest gift of all would be something that shows the real-time, life-affirming effects of the work the volunteers helps to accomplish.
- A holiday ornament that represents the organization, your mission, or the work of the specific person. Depending on the number of volunteers you have, these could be the same for everyone, produced en masse by an outside vendor (ugh, no!), but preferably staff would band together to create truly personal, handcrafted ornaments.
- A framed photograph of the volunteer doing the work they love. Frames can be as elaborate and costly or simple and inexpensive (think dollar store!) as your budget allows, since the photo itself will be the highlight. (If you aren’t already collecting photos of your volunteers at work, now is the time to start so you have a collection for next year.)
- A calendar featuring photos of volunteers on each month, chronicling their hard work and dedication as well as the fun and camaraderie of being part of your organization’s family.
- A cookbook featuring favorite recipes from staff, each accompanied by personal stories and/or notes of thanks for the volunteers. You can create these online and have them printed at the local office supply store.
- Acknowledge that volunteer work often eats into family time by gifting items that support family togetherness: movie passes, board games and puzzles, gift certificates for pizza delivery, etc.
- Host a family event for volunteers. Invite them to bring their partners and children to a picnic, sporting event, bowling night, theme park, movie outing, etc.
- If weather allows, celebrate the spirit of grassroots volunteering with a car wash! Set a place and time frame (on a Saturday afternoon, for example) and invite your volunteers to bring their vehicles for staff members to wash. Serve snacks, provide some music and make it a soapy, sudsy get-together.
- Get social… use social media to celebrate your volunteers. Share stories that shine a light on your volunteers’ work and on individual volunteers.
- It (maybe) goes without saying that if your organization is hosting a holiday party for staff, be sure to invite your volunteers as well. That might be better than hosting an event specifically for volunteers, as it will make them feel more like a part of your organization’s family. Just be sure that:
- The party or luncheon or other get-together is all about socializing and showing appreciation – and not an add-on to an event that revolves around getting work done
- It’s not just a time to nosh and mill. Plan something that will show your volunteers how much they’re valued: awards, certificates of recognition, a specially curated video, truly heartfelt toasts or speeches from leadership and staff. How about a few massage therapists to provide 15-minute massages? Consider making the whole thing a surprise – invite volunteers to a routine meeting that is actually a party!
A note about awards: Many organizations use year-end to recognize both staff and volunteers with awards. However, “Every person who gives time or talent needs to be appreciated. Period,” Jo cautions. “If an organization wants to build programs or levels of ‘thank you’ for volunteers who hit time or accumulated hour milestones – great. Those incentives always make for a good excuse to have cake and post a photo or name plaque in the break room.
“Those things should be reasonably honored,” she says. “But not in lieu of the person who is juggling three children, a full-time job and taking care of her mother and who ALWAYS shows up for that 6am to 8am shift on Sundays. This person may never accumulate record hours and may take a long time to catch up to other volunteers in terms of years, but her sacrifice and commitment is just as great as anyone else’s.”
In thinking about volunteer appreciation at the holidays or any time, remember that appreciation to all and using judicious opportunities to recognize milestones without alienating those who are giving every spare moment they have – even if those moments are few – is a way to ensure that everyone feels valued.
While holidays are the easy time to do something special, many organizations choose to designate another random day in the year (maybe the organization’s founding anniversary day) as volunteer day.
“Make sure you thank volunteers around the holidays just as you would donors, team members and the like,” Jo says. “But it’s such a chaotic time of year that many people are way too busy to fit in more than their hours and their ‘outside the organization’ life! As long as volunteers know that May whatever is their special day, there’s no need to make more work during the holidays.”
Guest Blog Post By: Margaret Battistelli Gardner
Margaret is a collector and teller of stories, and a starry-eyed champion of the people and organizations. She’s been in love with the nonprofit sector since becoming the editor of FundRaising Success magazine in 2003, a position she held until 2015.
From 2016 to 2018, she was the chief scribe and content manager for The Resource Alliance, a global organization dedicated to cultivating new ideas around social change around the world. Currently she is a freelance writer and editor, and president of her fledgling consultancy, LunaSea Communications.
Margaret has been honored to put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) to help support amazing, life-changing organizations such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State (Washington, D.C.), City Harvest (New York), The Resource Alliance (UK), and many more.