Volunteer Appreciation: A Guide to Thanking Your Volunteers

Volunteer appreciation: It’s a term we hear often in the nonprofit world, but do we invest enough time into recognizing our volunteers and thanking them for their hard work? We’re sharing our research and expertise on building better relationships with your volunteers, so that you can evaluate your current volunteer engagement strategy and find more meaningful ways to thank your volunteers. 

FREE DOWNLOAD: Show your appreciation with our Volunteer Thank You Letters and Speech Outline

Why Is Volunteer Appreciation Important to Your Organization?

Over 40% of public charities rely heavily or entirely on volunteers to operate. Nonprofits contribute nearly a trillion dollars to the U.S. economy each year, and per the Urban Institute’s most recent data, Americans volunteer 8.8 billion hours annually. Further, volunteers help organizations like yours fill critical gaps in service for nearly every community in the U.S. Without the unifying force that is our nation’s volunteers, we wouldn’t have some of the organizations communities rely on today. So where does volunteer appreciation fit in? Recognizing your volunteers for their time and efforts is key to better volunteer engagement and retention. Volunteers are more likely to become lifelong supporters of your cause when they feel appreciated. They look to your organization for a sense of community, kinship, and an opportunity to feel good while doing good. Showing appreciation and recognition goes a long way toward supporting a welcoming environment where volunteers regularly enjoy taking part. 

How to Show Volunteer Appreciation  

This is your volunteer appreciation 2020 guide. We’ve updated our volunteer appreciation ideas to match the sentiment of today’s supporters by considering what truly matters to volunteers. However you choose to show your appreciation, this year’s tips are about adding personal touches to make your volunteers feel genuinely valued. Even if your program sees thousands of volunteers each year, a smile, a site visit, or a quick chat show that you are invested in your supporters. Below, we outline 6 ways to recognize and appreciate your volunteers:

1. Rethink the Usual Volunteer Appreciation Gifts

Gifts are a simple way to show your appreciation. When selected thoughtfully, volunteer gifts can be more personal than the generic “volunteer certificate of appreciation” we see often. That being said, while mugs, pens, and t-shirts are nice, your volunteers’ cupboards and drawers are probably overflowing with items like these by now. Instead, we urge you to choose volunteer recognition gifts with some thought. Your volunteers are at different stages of life, and may appreciate different gifts. For example, your college-aged participants might live in those t-shirts you give them. But branded apparel is not necessarily the right gift for all your supporters. In other words, some may be less enthused about getting more “stuff.” Alternatively, try these thoughtful yet inexpensive volunteer appreciation gift ideas:

  • Photos: Put together a yearbook or collection of photos of your volunteers at work, of your services (like before and after pictures of a park you improved), and of those your program serves. Your volunteers can reflect fondly upon their experiences with your program and the smiling faces of the community members they work with. 
  • Letters from Your Community: The best volunteer letter of appreciation comes from those your program served. Volunteers love to see that the work they do is making a difference to the lives of others. If they are able, invite community members to write or dictate letters to the volunteers who have really made a difference in their lives. 
  • Handmade Cards: Handmade cards from the community members you work with is a special thank you gift for volunteers. Plus, the creative time can be fun, even therapeutic, for service recipients. 
  • Time: Some of your volunteers truly cherish the time spent with your organization. You provide a safe place to build relationships, share thoughts, and feel involved in a community. Therefore, giving the gift of your time to your regular volunteers can be more important than you realize. By listening to their concerns and suggestions, celebrating their personal successes at home or school, inviting them for coffee, or promoting their ideas among your organization, you’re showing supporters that they matter not only to your organization, but to you.  
  • Tasteful “Consumables”: Have a favorite coffee roaster in town? Do you love to share gourmet chocolates or tasty treats from your local bakery? Consumables and gift cards don’t collect dust, and you’ll support other local businesses by giving your volunteers a sweet gift that they can enjoy with family and friends.  
  • Recipe Book: Good food is meant to be shared. Have community members or other volunteers bring a favorite family recipe to share. Compile them in a book as a warm, meaningful thank you. The community recipe book is a church volunteer appreciation staple, but they also make for great parent volunteer gifts!
  • Tickets or Gift Cards: Lately, we’re into giving experiences as gifts. Why not thank your volunteers with the gift of a memorable night out? Ask local productions, museums, and restaurants to donate a pair of tickets or gift card to a show or dining experience. Remember to include child care if you’re giving away an experience to busy parents.

2. Invest In Your Volunteers

We often show appreciation by giving gifts. While tangibles can be meaningful, there are also impalpable ways to show your appreciation that can mean even more to your loyal supporters. Your volunteers help to improve the lives of those in your community, but what can your organization do to improve the lives of your volunteers? Whether you can help a young volunteer secure their dream school, or give your enthusiastic forward-thinker a voice in your organization, here are some ways to invest in your volunteers: 

  • Leadership Opportunities: Invite your superstar volunteers to serve as consultants, or to lead training and orientation. Some of your volunteers may want to develop new skills, to grow personally, or to take on more responsibility. By allowing them to shape the direction of your programs, they become a more essential and invested part of your organization. 
  • Community Ambassadors: Invite your veteran volunteers to serve as community ambassadors. Your volunteers are representatives of your organization and your community, so send them out to site visits, fairs, and anywhere else you want to promote your organization. Volunteers are especially skilled in recruiting other volunteers, and they’ll appreciate the opportunity to help grow your program. 
  • Career Training: Does your organization host pre-professional volunteers? Invite them to practice their skills and boost their resumes by filling professional roles. For example, have a team of your high school volunteers assist with your social media and marketing efforts. On the other hand, you can invite your retired supporters to demonstrate their expertise. They’re highly skilled individuals who can offer fellow volunteers and community members a great deal of knowledge, insight, and advice. 

More Ways to Invest in Your Volunteers

  • Keep your volunteers updated of new opportunities, upcoming events, and other important information related to your organization. When you reach out and keep them in the loop, your volunteers are more likely to feel like an integral, valued part of your organization. 
  • Invest in yourself. It may seem selfish to invest in you, but the methods and tools you use to coordinate volunteers can affect your volunteers too. So, reflect on the management processes your volunteers interact on a regular basis. Is your website updated? Are your opportunities easy to locate and register for? Are you recommending opportunities to your volunteers based on their interests or skills? Take some time this year to review your volunteer management tools and look for ways to improve the volunteer experience. Gather feedback from your loyal volunteers about what can be improved to make their experience more enjoyable. By investing in technology, you’ll also be able to invest more time into building personal connections with your volunteers, all while boosting retention. 

3. Recognize Your Volunteers

Volunteer recognition is an important component of volunteer appreciation. While volunteer appreciation is about showing your volunteers you care about them, volunteer recognition is about acknowledging and celebrating their achievements and impact with your organization. Even the most selfless volunteers want to know that their efforts are making a real difference in the community. Here are some tried and true volunteer award ideas to recognize your volunteers in a meaningful way: 

  • Track Their Hours: Track each volunteer’s hours and participation history. This way, you can demonstrate their impact accurately and award them specifically and appropriately. 
  • Create a “Volunteer of the Month” Feature: Recognize your most active volunteers each month with a “Volunteer of the Month” award. You’ll acknowledge their dedication and even invite a bit of light-hearted competition. Feature your monthly volunteers on your website, in your newsletter, and on your social media accounts. 
  • Tell Their Story: Perhaps you have a volunteer that has never missed a week, or one that has participated with your program since its start. There are many ways volunteers are special to your organization, and their stories deserve to be told. Interview your special volunteers, write about why they’re important to your community, and pitch the story to the local newspaper or share it on your website. Good deeds are contagious, and their stories are sure to inspire others. 
  • Master the Volunteer Recognition Letter: The letter of recognition is slightly different from the volunteer thank you letter. Instead of simply thanking them for their time (which should still happen often), you’re recognizing the specific impact your volunteers had. So, for example, at the end of the year, write a letter that details the amount of hours contributed by an individual volunteer or group of volunteers, and the specific impact they had on your community. The goal is to show your volunteers that their efforts have real, powerful outcomes, and that your organization is tracking these outcomes. Volunteers can also use this letter as supporting evidence for college applications, resumes, and employee grant programs.
  • Recognize Young Volunteers: Even if they are unable to contribute as many hours as your other volunteers, it’s important to acknowledge the hard work of your youngest contingent. Why not recognize busy school children and teens at school? Present them with an award at assembly or a school-wide awards ceremony and invite their teachers and parents to join. You may even encourage their peers to take part. Alternatively, present a “Young Changemakers Award” on your website or social media, alongside your “Volunteer of the Month” spotlight. Together, let’s encourage the next generation of volunteers!

One of the best ways to make sure you have the information you need to recognize your volunteers is to use volunteer management software to track their activity. Many systems can help you match volunteers to opportunities, communicate your appreciation, and even gamify the volunteer experience through digital awards and badges. 

4. Host of Volunteer Appreciation Event

A special night out gives your volunteers something to look forward to each year. While it can be tempting to host the typical volunteer banquet, formal volunteer dinners can seem a bit tired and impersonal. Instead, try switching it up with these updated volunteer appreciation event ideas:

  • Switch Up Your Venue: Instead of a banquet hall, hire out a trendy cafe or brewery. Local hangouts can offer good food and drink and a relaxing atmosphere to get to know fellow volunteers and share ideas. Plus, you’ll support independent businesses in your community!
  • Invite a Speaker Who Knows Your Volunteers: The volunteer appreciation speech is a banquet institution. Often times, we invite city officials or board members to deliver a speech. Instead, consider the community members your program works with to share their stories. For example, ask a parent to speak about the profound difference your volunteer tutor made on their child’s education. Stories like these can touch on the ways volunteers have helped improve the community in a more direct way, which will mean much more to your supporters. 
  • Add Personal Touches: If you work with children or the elderly, invite them to make decorations for your appreciation event. Invite children to perform a song or write and deliver original volunteer appreciation poems. These details are sure to make your next event a memorable one. 
  • Opt for Small Gatherings: Big banquets are expensive, and may not excite all your volunteers. Instead, invite volunteers to join you for a variety of small gatherings of appreciation, like an afternoon tea, guest speaker, pizza party, or movie night. In smaller groups, you can spend more time getting to know each of your volunteers, without the stress of managing a larger ordeal.
  • Surprise Your Volunteers: People love surprises big and small. A surprise lunch, a small gift, even a birthday celebration is a nice way to show your volunteers you appreciate all their hard work.
  • Leave Them With a Few Words: Whether you say it in person or in writing, wrap up your appreciation event or gathering with a personal thank you from those involved in managing your volunteer program. Don’t worry, we’ve put together a few examples of words that inspire us below, and may inspire your volunteers, too!

Volunteer Appreciation Words to Inspire:

Find the volunteer appreciation quotes that speak to you and to your volunteers: 

  • “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead
  • “Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
  • “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” – Aesop
  • “We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.” – Mother Teresa

Want more volunteer quotes? See our list of the most of effective words to share >>

5. Participate in Volunteer Appreciation Week

This year, National Volunteer Week, is April 19-25 and International, and Volunteer Day is December 5th. Volunteer holidays can offer a marketing opportunity to engage supporters and boost participation, but volunteer week is also a wonderful chance to show your appreciation and thank your volunteers. In fact, some organizations choose to plan their own annual Volunteer Appreciation Week or Volunteer Appreciation Day as a special way to recognize the achievements of their volunteers. So how should you celebrate your volunteers? Here are a few Volunteer Appreciation Week ideas to get you thinking:

  • Promote a Special Initiative: Create and promote a special volunteer appreciation week initiative or selection of opportunities. Invite volunteers to bring along family and friends to participate–the more helping hands, the merrier! Keep track of all volunteer hours and impact during this time, so you can show your appreciation for all their hard work during Volunteer Appreciation Week! Make it an annual occurrence to give your volunteers something to look forward to each year. 
  • Host a Weekend of Fun: Invite volunteers, their families, and friends to join you and other community organizations in an outdoor festival of food, games, and doing good. Set up booths to raise awareness of programs and causes in your community. Make it a community-wide event and charge a small admission fee, or ask for a donation, to fundraise for your organization (volunteers get in free!).
  • Host a Series of Appreciation Events: Each day of Volunteer Appreciation week, host a gathering or activity (like a movie night or guest speaker series) to celebrate your volunteers the whole week through. See our “Volunteer Appreciation Event” ideas above for some more inspiration!

6. Say Thank You 

This is perhaps the simplest and most important way to show your appreciation. Take the time after each shift, opportunity, or event to say a personal thank you. If you can’t be there in person, spend some time composing a volunteer thank you note and send promptly via email. In 2020, we’re retiring the volunteer appreciation certificate and hello to handwritten letters; once in a while, acknowledge the individual efforts of your volunteers by composing volunteer thank you cards or handwritten letter. Spend the time to focus on the specific traits of the volunteer you’re thanking. Do they always show up to their opportunity with a smile? Do they make exceptionally delicious cookies to share? Even small acts of kindness from your volunteers make your job better, so thank them for it! However you choose to say it, your volunteer thank you should feel personal and specific. 

We hope these ideas will help you find more meaningful ways to recognize and thank your volunteers this year.