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To-Ga. To-Ga. To-Ga

By Susan Ellis - May 31, 2013

‘Tis the season to say thank you to volunteers. With the impetus of National Volunteer Week the third week of April and the Conference on Volunteering and Service this month, students leaving as their semesters end, and various programs winding down for the summer (or gearing up), there’s a calendar full of volunteer recognition luncheons and dinner banquets.

Volunteer managers spend a lot time and money planning, in essence, a big wedding. They obsess over the menu, decorations, invitations, and entertainment. While each event might be lovely, there is a stultifying sameness about it all. And, only a small number of people actually enjoy being there. Worse, this tradition has nothing whatsoever to do with making volunteers feel celebrated for their contributions.

There are many wonderfully innovative recognition events: safari-themed zoo picnics, outings to amusement centers, ice cream socials, staff-developed variety shows, special passes to behind-the-scenes tours, discount shopping sprees. The point is not to trash banquets and praise field trips. It’s to question the fundamental rationale of what volunteer managers are trying to do and perhaps come up with ways to make any recognition activity more meaningful, fun and well-attended.

Consider the following possible desired outcomes for an event thanking volunteers:

  • To make as many volunteers as possible feel appreciated by the organization — collectively and individually;
  • To express the impact and value of volunteer involvement;
  • To help volunteers feel a part of the bigger picture and get to know one another;
  • To educate executives, the board of directors (also volunteers), funders and others about the impact of volunteers throughout the year;
  • To acknowledge that paid staff contributes to the success of volunteers, as well as vice versa; and,
  • To re-commit everyone to further enthusiastic volunteer service.

If the above goals resonate with you, can you explain why it is that nonprofit managers:

  • Keep organizing sit-down meals that fewer and fewer people enjoy — particularly men and anyone younger than age 40;
  • Limit attendance because of the cost of the event per person;
  • Applaud the number of hours volunteers worked, rather than praise what they actually did and accomplished, regardless of how long it took? (And in the same vein, are those who give the most hours of service always the best volunteers or the slowest?)
  • Invite an outside guest speaker who doesn’t know anything first-hand about the organization to say “outstanding job” to volunteers insincerely;
  • Allow top executives/the board to give thank-you speeches that others write and they read complete with mispronounced volunteer names;
  • Seat people at big round tables where they can only hear the conversation of those on either side of them, and then remain fixed in place through speeches and award presentations? Note: Buffet lines also do not offer a “mingling” experience; or,
  • Print the names of volunteers in a program booklet without any other information about who they are or what they did all year.


Alternative activities

It’s time to brainstorm new approaches, transforming volunteer recognition into fun, must-go-to events that celebrate the entire organization and re-energize everyone for another year. Here’s a starter set of ideas to re-focus on everyone’s interaction instead of on a mediocre meal:

Only offer great desserts and invite every volunteer who served during the year, even those who only came in once for a single day of service. Allow volunteers to bring a guest, both to acknowledge the support of family and friends, and to introduce your organization to new community members. You can always have different colored nametags to distinguish volunteers who come in regularly from episodic volunteers.

Organize a moveable feast. During the meal (maybe after each course), make people move around the room and take new seats to meet new people. Volunteers actually want to meet each other. They share their volunteer interests and are genuinely curious about the other people in the room. There are lots of ways to move people around, from colored dots on nametags to musical chairs.

Speaking of nametags, use them well. Provide useful information that not only recognizes the wearer but educates the reader: volunteer position(s) held, years of service, occupation outside of volunteer work, something special this volunteer has done, or an unusual talent or life experience they have had.

Make a point of introducing people to one another in such a way as to encourage real conversations. Yes, icebreaker games do work. This is the same sort of information that could go into a program book to illuminate the boring list of only names.

Eliminate the stuffy speeches. Ask various paid staff members to get up and say a few heartfelt or funny words. When possible, involve clients in saying the thank you (they might actually welcome the chance). If you can’t do this on site, record the voices of clients, students, visitors, etc., telling what they like about volunteers. Use the audio as background for a slide show of volunteers in action throughout the past year.

Provide an opportunity for volunteers to speak. Have different units prepare a short recap of their year or perform a skit. Ask several key questions from the podium and allow any number of volunteers to give brief answers. What was the most surprising thing you learned as a volunteer this year? What was the funniest incident that occurred? What touched you the most?

If the executive makes a presentation, share “insider” things of interest to volunteers that they don’t ordinarily learn about, such as plans for future programs or purchases, with lots of references to the ways volunteers will play a role in these upcoming happenings.

Offer something educational. Volunteering is a life-long learning opportunity. Give a seminar on the newest trends in your field. Share social media tips. Bring in a corporate trainer who can teach good customer relations techniques.

Give volunteers a choice of what to attend. Instead of one big, dress-up event, why not offer three less formal activities at three different times: a Sunday afternoon picnic, a guided tour of a special museum exhibit on Tuesday morning, and a make-your-own-salad light dinner on a Thursday evening. The continuity among these events is something you give each volunteer, such as an annual report, a first aid kit to thank everyone for “coming to the rescue” this year, a set of photographs of themselves at their volunteer assignment, etc.

Stop planning recognition events “for” volunteers and do it “with” them. Ask what they’d like to do or what speakers they’d like to hear. Let those who love hosting parties take over the details and free staff time to prepare meaningful program content instead.

If you really want to transform volunteer recognition, make the event an annual “celebration of us” and thank paid and unpaid staff together for the roles they each play in meeting your mission. Think how far that might go in developing team spirit.  NPT

Susan J. Ellis is president of Energize, a Philadelphia, Pa., training, publishing and consulting firm specializing in volunteerism and the Everyone Ready® online volunteer management training program Her email is [email protected] Her Web site is


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