Keeping volunteers happy

Cookies and milk

This week is Volunteer Appreciation Week in the US, and that’s as good an excuse as any for us to take a closer look at how charities can make sure their volunteers feel, well, appreciated.

The internet is bursting with tips for rewarding volunteers- here are a few popular suggestions:

  • Provide treats! The occasional tray of specially presented cookies or cupcakes can be a great way to invigorate volunteers.
  • Commend your volunteers in recognition of their efforts- anything from a certificate to a star volunteer award!
  • Offer your volunteers exposure! Try to have them featured in the local paper, offer to provide glowing references, or promote them on your website.
  • Throw memorable thank-you events! For instance, last year St. Anthony’s hospital in Florida arranged a luxurious cruise for their volunteers.

But while generous gestures make for great short term morale boosters, perhaps the most important part of making volunteers feel appreciated is making sure they feel understood– something which requires a bit more of a long term approach…

There’s an essential difference between somebody who’s hired, and somebody who volunteers. Somebody hired is incentivised to work by their wage; whether or not they enjoy their job, money is always a motivating factor. A volunteer, on the other hand, is only likely to pursue a role they find rewarding in itself. In other words, overtly tangible returns aren’t what make volunteers tick; their objectives are usually more personal. While rewarding them for their work is a vital courtesy, there’s an equally great- perhaps greater- value in knowing what drives it in the first place.

There’s also an obvious problem with over-relying on generalist volunteer rewards. As useful as they can be, different volunteers are inevitably going to react to praise in different ways. Some will delight at the idea of a cruise; others will get sea sick. Some will relish free publicity; others may shy from the attention. Some will enjoy baked goods; others will be violently gluten intolerant and require hospitalisation.

Ultimately, the lasting key to keeping volunteers happy is simply to communicate with them, and keep reinforcing the links between their specific goals and your operation. Why are they eager to work for this charity, what do they hope to achieve from it, and how can you reasonably help them meet these ambitions? Approaching volunteers as individuals helps tailor thanks to fit their nature, and more importantly, forges stronger bonds on a permanent basis. A volunteer who feels understood is more likely to feel properly utilised, and therefore fully satisfied- minimising the need for potentially costly short term morale boosts.

Of course, this doesn’t mean slowly romancing volunteers over dinner and scones- charities have their own priorities to manage. It simply means being alert to them whenever possible. How does a volunteer interact with other workers- are they feeling part of the team, or on the periphery? Is this someone who wants a brightly coloured merit badge, or a discreet tip on corporate advancement? This is especially applicable to skilled volunteer professionals, who often occupy prominent organisational positions with objectives ranging from career advancement to an active retirement to balancing commercial success with advancing the public good.

The UK’s own Volunteers Week is fast approaching, and it’s sure to be a brilliant celebration of the 20 million people a year who generously donate their time and energy to the sector. In the meantime, though, let’s not forget the importance of appreciating volunteers in the little everyday ways, as well as the big ones. After all, there’s more to keeping people happy than Christmas!

…Although, having said all that, it generally doesn’t hurt to bake them cookies every now and again.

Elliot is Reach’s dedicated volunteer blogger
April 22nd, 2013 by