What Does Volunteer Recognition Really Mean?


We’ve just completed another full season of the Miracle League of San Diego and this is the time I ponder what volunteer recognition means, and more importantly, what is required.

In our case, we have about 250 regular weekly volunteers between our coaches, buddies, announcers and select umpires. These are people young and old who are dedicated to coming out for eight Saturdays a season to enjoy our special brand of unscripted baseball played by children with special needs. I am convinced that every single one of us who is out there as a regular volunteer does it without any need for recognition – we do it because we love the cause and we have become part of a great, community family. We get much more out of it than we give. Nonetheless, our league faithfully prepares buddy and coach certificates, with the buddy certificates incorporating community service hour records that many of our children need (although I think they’d be out here even if they weren’t getting the credit required for school or church or synagogue). Like typical little leagues, the parents generally pool together and get a gift for the coaches and in our case the announcers.

We also have individual game day volunteers who work the snack bar and BBQ and also serve as umpires. Our organization has become so popular for such volunteering that this season over half of the game days featured an individual group acting as volunteers, through a local church group, through a local university, through a youth group called Teen Volunteers in Action, and through a local Optimist Club (who do it every season). What recognition do these volunteers deserve? I know that our announcer makes a point of recognizing these volunteers and their efforts at least once during every game. Do we need to do more than send a letter thanking the organization and its members for their time?

My bigger question is what is required of the organization? Of course, like most non-profits, we rely heavily on volunteers (we have only one part-time paid position) and would be remiss in not formally thanking them for their efforts. Yet, from my personal experience of thanking people who show up and helping every Saturday, the almost universal response is that they love being there and no thanks is necessary.

Much is made of putting on special volunteer recognition parties, providing modest gifts, etc. I don’t think the volunteers put their time in expecting such recognition, nor do they want us spending hard-earned donation dollars recognizing them, either at an event with free food or with gifts.

So what is the best way to recognize them? I’m very interested in hearing your thoughts on what works, especially when we need to keep our volunteers coming back while keeping our cash outlays low. I know that your thoughts will be helpful for every non-profit organization.

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About Dan Engel at NPPG

CEO of the Non-Profit Purchasing Group (www.nonprofitpurchasinggroup.org), co-founder and President of the Miracle League of San Diego (www.miracleleagueofsandiego.org), Vice-Chairman of the California Oncology Research Institute (www.corigroup.org)
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2 Responses to What Does Volunteer Recognition Really Mean?

  1. Barbara Cecil says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I think volunteers want to be thanked, appreciated, and recognized but who really needs another coffee mug that says “Cheers for Volunteers?” Modest gifts often don’t convey the real difference volunteers have made.

    Big volunteer recognition luncheons require more time from volunteers. They have to put another event on their calendars. Also, some people are nervous about standing up in front of an audience to receive a certificate or applause.

    At the nonprofit where I work, we try to think of creative ways to recognize volunteers. I really believe the most important thing a volunteer can receive is a specific knowledge of how he or she made a difference. Therefore, I believe that a report on the number of children served and/or a story about how the cause made a compelling and heartwarming difference in the life of a specific child can be especially meaningful. Even information about how your cause or effort is part of a larger, national effort can be helpful to volunteers who want to feel part of a larger movement (e.g. our special Olympics served 50 children in our neighborhood and was one of however many special Olympics serving however many children in the United States on the same day).

    My supervisor often gifts collage photos to people who have helped out it a big way. So if you have an event, select ten photos and upload them to the Walgreens website. Walgreens will arrange them into a collage photo for you and all you have to do is pick up the photo and pop it into an inexpensive frame. Then, your volunteers will have something to display somewhere in their home or office to remind them of the most special, memorable, and fun moments of their volunteer experience. I think that if a modest gift is given, it’s best to make it as personal as possible and something that connects the person emotionally with the cause.

    Finally, I have a new volunteer recognition idea but I haven’t had a chance to pilot it. At my agency, we have a corps of volunteers who serve weekly or monthly throughout the year. But we also have many group volunteers who want to come and help out for a few hours on one day. With MLK Day approaching, I thought maybe we could have a volunteer group from a local business or civic organization handwrite messages to our long-term volunteers. The message would say something like, “As an MLK Day volunteer, I want to thank you for the volunteer service you provide year round as a tutor for a homeless child. Thank you for making our community a better place to live through volunteering.” I was thinking of this as a way to provide volunteers with the public recognition they deserve but not put pressure on them to stand up in front of a large, applauding crowd. It also fits well with the spirit of MLK Day and promoting/rewarding volunteerism.

    We also interview volunteers about why they choose to work with us and post their thoughts to our blog or publish in our agency newsletter. We’ve never done this but a letter to the editor of the local newspaper thanking volunteers may also be nice — as long as your volunteers aren’t too concerned about remaining anonymous.

  2. Volunteers love to help because it is their nature but they are human and everyone likes to be patted on the back and recognized for their efforts. They may say the opposite because it is the right thing to say however a thank you and a reward are always appreciated no matter who you are.

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