COVID-19 has taken a toll on many nonprofits over the past year and a half, and volunteer programs have been hit especially hard. While some organizations were able to leverage virtual and socially-distanced volunteer opportunities throughout 2020-21, others have been able to offer significantly less opportunities because of the nature of their work. As a result, many volunteer coordinators have decided it’s time to rebuild and reframe their volunteer management strategies.
And what’s one of the most important facets of these relaunches? Improving volunteer appreciation and recognition. By improving volunteer recognition, your nonprofit can retain more volunteers, build long-lasting relationships with supporters, and save time and energy accomplishing key tasks that keep your nonprofit running.
The specific volunteer appreciation ideas you use will likely depend on your nonprofit’s audience and the types of volunteers you’d like to recognize. To help provide a launching point for your nonprofit, we’ve compiled a quick list of our favorite ideas that can have a significant impact on your volunteer program. Here, we’ll explore:
1. Exclusive merchandise
Offering exclusive merchandise branded to your organization is a multi-faceted win: it shows volunteers that you appreciate their time with a small gift and simultaneously functions as free marketing when others see your merchandise!
You can even provide supporters with different levels of swag based on their engagement with your organization. For example, a nonprofit might base their gifts off of how many hours volunteers contributed, leading them to create a system like this:
- If you volunteer for any amount of time, you get a pin or a sticker.
- Once you volunteer for 10 hours, you get a customized travel mug.
- When you hit 25 volunteer hours, you get a free limited-edition t-shirt.
Get creative with your merchandise—you can create and distribute custom-branded pens, water bottles, hats, hoodies, bracelets, and more. The possibilities are endless!
If you go this route, remember to keep detailed and accurate records of volunteer participation. Use your volunteer hour-tracking method of choice, then be sure to transfer that data to your nonprofit CRM for safekeeping. After all, you don’t want volunteers feeling left out or slighted if they don’t receive a gift after all their hard work!
2. Handwritten letters
Everyone likes getting snail mail in their mailbox. Handwritten and hand-addressed letters are even better.
That’s why personalized thank-you notes are a great way to show volunteers your appreciation. And they even get a physical memento of your gratitude to hold onto if they’re the sentimental type! If you’re looking to make an impact with your thank you letters, consider the following tried-and-true best practices:
- Address the recipient by name. The point of a handwritten note is to make it personal, so starting with your volunteer’s name (or preferred nickname) is essential. Dear Gretchen is always going to be more impactful than Dear cherished volunteer.
- Acknowledge your volunteer for specific tasks they’ve completed. Don’t just thank your volunteers for their help in general. Thank Gretchen for helping out at the bake sale last week (and specifically, for her delicious apple pie), or Dylan for spearheading the parking team at your most recent fundraising event. It lets the recipient know that the letter was written just for them.
- Time the sending of your letters strategically. While you could wait until volunteer appreciation week to send off a huge batch of thank-you notes, it tends to be more personal when you time your appreciation accordingly. Did a group of volunteers attend orientation last weekend? Send them each a note. Has a certain volunteer just passed three years working with your organization? Send one just for them!
- Sign your letters from a real person at your organization. You might be tempted to sign your letters as a group (i.e., Sincerely, your friends at New York Animal Shelter). However, a single person (such as Jenny, Volunteer Coordinator of New York Animal Shelter) signing off can make the letters feel more personal, especially if the volunteer has a connection with that person.
A handwritten letter has a more individualized feel to it than other forms of mass-produced direct mail. However, if you don’t have the time or resources to write a letter to every volunteer, consider printing and sending (still personalized) notes to your low and mid-level supporters. These templates from Fundraising Letters can give you a headstart. Then, you can save your handwritten letters for your highest tier of volunteers.
And if you do decide to use templates and print your thank-you letters, taking a moment to sign them by hand can go a long way.
3. Personal phone calls
As one of the most personal ideas on this list, making a phone call to top volunteers can be a great way to strengthen your relationships and show that you appreciate them.
But how can you make sure your phone call effectively communicates your thankfulness and doesn’t come across as just another spam call? Many of the best practices used for handwritten thank-you notes also apply here.
For example, it’s best to reference specific moments and contributions from the volunteer’s engagement in your conversation. Did Bob recently stay past his agreed-upon shift end to help cover a no-show? Has Suzie been particularly helpful with word-of-mouth marketing and referring loved ones to your organization? Mention what you’re grateful for and the concrete impact an action has on your mission—and show that you’re not just offering another generic “thanks.”
It also helps to know your volunteers’ communication preferences ahead of time. For example, older generations of volunteers might cherish a call from your organization, while younger Millennials and Gen Z supporters may prefer to be contacted through a more “modern” channel.
4. Social media shoutouts
Your organization likely already has a number of social media profiles on the most notable platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Perhaps you use these popular networking sites to recruit new volunteers for upcoming events and opportunities. But did you know that they can also function as a powerful tool for volunteer recognition?
That’s where volunteer shoutouts come in!
Posting dedicated shoutouts to your social media profiles to highlight your volunteers lets you recognize your top supporters publicly while inspiring others to get involved. To do so effectively, we suggest the following tips:
- Address top volunteers by name. Everything is more personal when it includes a name. When you do so in social media shoutouts, your volunteer will feel truly recognized and other followers will see that you take an interest in your supporters.
- Include an image of the volunteer participating in an event or task with your organization. A picture’s worth a thousand words! Showing your volunteers hard at work shows your appreciation for the volunteer being spotlighted, while also demonstrating the types of tasks that volunteers get involved in to their friends and followers.
- Create a regular “volunteer of the month” highlight. While you can recognize volunteers sporadically, making it a regular program can cause your volunteers to strive to be recognized the following month (or even week!).
- Choose your platform based on the volunteer being recognized. Make sure your volunteers are active users on the platform you’re using to honor them. If you’re looking to shout out Doris, the 65-year-old who answers phones on the weekend, she’s unlikely to see her highlight on Snapchat or TikTok.
Even with a regular posting schedule, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to highlight every one of your organization’s volunteers. However, it can be a fantastic way to engage with a smaller number of supporters at different points—such as on a volunteer’s anniversary of joining your organization—to celebrate their extraordinary work!
Then, you can encourage the volunteer(s) being recognized to interact with and share your post to their own social media pages, effectively increasing your reach to new prospects.
5. Volunteer appreciation events
Volunteer appreciation events can be fantastic opportunities to showcase your gratitude to supporters and encourage them to mingle amongst each other. Make it an evening to remember by providing catering, live entertainment, networking opportunities, and more.
As you begin planning and promoting your event, be sure to send personalized invitations to each volunteer you’d like to recognize. You can even use your donor management software to create lists of guests, customize your messaging, and send automated e-vites to your contacts.
Then, at the event, you can take your appreciation a few steps further by recognizing a number of “volunteers of the year.” These might be individuals who went above and beyond typical volunteer expectations either in hours dedicated or scope of work. However, your event should be a night to celebrate, appreciate, and recognize every volunteer who has helped drive your mission forward.
6. Training opportunities
Training opportunities are an often overlooked way to recognize the value you see in your volunteers. That’s because investing in strategic volunteer training shows that you see what these dedicated team members are bringing to your organization and realize the potential for an even greater impact. Plus, some potential volunteers may be inspired to sign up specifically to gain new skills your nonprofit offers.
But nonprofit education comes in all shapes and sizes—how can you choose what to offer? These are a few of our favorite training ideas for volunteers:
- Invite top volunteers to attend a conference or seminar.
- Provide exclusive access to paid online training materials.
- Create a volunteer mentorship program.
Then, not only will your volunteers be equipped with all sorts of new skills and ideas, they’ll also bring their learnings back to better support your nonprofit in the work they do.
While these are some of our favorite volunteer appreciation ideas, this list is by no means exhaustive. Consider reaching out to your own supporters and seeing how they’d like to be recognized and then follow through.
If you’re worried you may have dropped the ball with past volunteers, it may not be too late. You can still try to regain some of those lapsed volunteers – just make sure to show them your appreciation with these tips!
By incorporating a number of these strategies into your management plan, you’re sure to see better relationships, more effective team members, and higher levels of volunteer retention.
This guest post is brought to us by Lumaverse