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Volunteer Awards—How, Why, and What to Give in Appreciation

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Recognizing and rewarding volunteers is not just a kind gesture; it's a critical strategy for retaining your most valuable asset—people who give their time and skills to support your cause.

In a world where volunteer turnover can lead to significant operational costs, understanding and implementing effective volunteer award ideas can make all the difference.

Below, we explore various ways to show appreciation for your volunteers, and how to acknowledge their hard work with different types of Volunteer Awards.

Volunteer Award Ideas

Successful volunteer management invariably results in greater satisfaction among the troops, which leads to greater retention.

According to the Stanford School of Business, volunteer turnover costs $38 billion in labor in a year—so retention is a key component of your job description.

Plus, new volunteers require training, so you're just on a hamster wheel to keep up.

The good news?

There's a really simple solution to keeping your volunteers engaged and involved—show them how much you appreciate their efforts. 

Volunteer Recognition Awards

What's the purpose and objective of your volunteer appreciation plan?

Make a list of your goals so that you're clear in your planning. Volunteer recognition awards should cover all the aspects of your organization, and recognize the importance of different talents.

Include your volunteer recognition and volunteer appreciation events in your recruitment materials and your policies and procedures manual.

Letting people know there is a volunteer recognition program beyond the mission itself fosters volunteer engagement. These four are a good starting point. 

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Outstanding Volunteer Service Award

A college kid who's volunteering lots of hours while carrying a full course load and working part-time is more deserving of special recognition than a high-profile socialite who does the bare minimum—we all know this happens, so please reward where it matters most.

Exceptional Volunteer Contribution Award

This is your chance to recognize the volunteer who has the most creative approach to problem-solving. This is the person who figured out a way around city ordinances that appear to prohibit Brownie bake sales.

Volunteer Achievement Award

Here's the opportunity to recognize the person who does excel at something, be it fundraising or envelope stuffing.

Top Volunteer Award

Who's your go-to volunteer, the one who will run through the drive-through to pick up a gallon of tea or clip a hundred toys to clothespins? This award goes to that person—the one who acts and knows better than to ask why you need 200 last-minute coffee filters (because you forgot glitter and paint containers).

What's Your Volunteer's Motivation?

People volunteer their time and talents because they want to be part of a community that has a positive social impact. In light of the fact that there's no financial compensation, you do want to reward all of your volunteers somehow.

Consider the underlying motivation when you are rewarding an individual—would they appreciate a gift card, flowers, or dinner out? Or would a reference letter from you or a board member be more meaningful? 

Examples of Volunteer Rewards

Let's separate individual and group recognitions. If you have a large volunteer corps, you can create a system that rewards teams for different milestones.

If your organization supports community arts, you can break it down into money raised, instruments donated, and hours spent volunteering at museums, concerts, or theater. This lets everyone know that their contributions matter. 

Individual Awards

The superstar volunteers are in line for the big prizes, so how do you make the grand gesture? It's bad PR for a nonprofit to spend much money on recognition, so here are some Volunteer of the Year award ideas that won't raise eyebrows. 

Of course, all of these rewards are somewhat dependent on your budget.

Be creative and ask local businesses to donate gift cards or merchandise specifically for volunteer recognition, and don't be afraid to ask board members to contribute as well.

Any volunteer of the year award should come with a presentation ceremony. 

Volunteer of the Year Award Ideas

Gift Cards

Everybody loves a gift card. It can be as generic as Amazon or a Visa card, or from a retailer that you know the recipient loves. If your special volunteer loves a particular spa or wine shop, let them treat themselves there. 

Event Tickets

Give your super volunteers tickets to an event—board members are really good sources for scoring great tickets with all the amenities—parking, box seats, and better food than the main concourses. Again, ask your committee chairs for help in choosing the right event for a volunteer. 

Annual Report Shout-Out

Your annual report should include at least one page dedicated to volunteer efforts. Spotlight your best and most dedicated volunteers here—include a photo and a short blurb about why they matter so much to the team. 

Social Media Recognition

A social media post, tweet, or story about a volunteer can go viral in a heartbeat—sharing your love for this person with the world at large. It also demonstrates that your organization respects and rewards volunteers, which is great for recruitment and retention. 

Send Flowers and a Note

Sure, it's old-fashioned, but flowers and a hand-written note are a traditional thank-you for a reason. Notes mean you took some time to think about it, and flowers are just nice. 

Offer a Seat on the Board

This is the ultimate recognition of a job well done. A seat on the board signifies that you not only appreciate the work but that you value their thoughts and ideas enough to give them a bigger microphone.

Many nonprofits have at least one board set designated for a member of the constituent community, but a volunteer's voice can have a tremendous impact on decision-making, even if that volunteer doesn't have voting status. 

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Volunteer Recognition Award Ideas

Rewarding your volunteers as a whole builds a sense of community among people who may not interact much on a daily basis.

One way to foster that team spirit and engagement is to provide some branded gear for the group—everybody loves a t-shirt, hoodies, water bottles, and bumper stickers—all make your volunteers feel like they're part of something bigger than themselves and that they are proud to be part of.

How do you come up with volunteer awards ideas that are in line with your mission?

You can even set up a system for swag, where so many accumulated points get them higher levels of stuff. Start with the bumper sticker and have a dinner for the ten or so people with the most points at the end of the year. 

  • Create a "thank you" video and put it on social media
  • Take them for brunch or dinner
  • Provide monthly coffee and donuts, or a happy hour
  • Put together a golf outing
  • Have a movie night
  • Host a volunteer appreciation party 
  • Host a family picnic with games for kids and adults 
  • Send a thank-you email

How Recognition and Rewards Grow Your Volunteer Program

When you recognize superior volunteer efforts, your internal constituency and the community at large are aware that you value your volunteers and go out of your way to reward them.

Volunteers who feel seen and appreciated come back year after year. And for many, the friendly competition to be rewarded results in the extra effort.

Everyone wants and needs to be appreciated, and it doesn't take a huge budget or tickets to the Masters or Final Four to create that environment of gratitude. 

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