The strength of a nonprofit lies in its people. That includes its staff and its volunteers. One of the most pressing (and difficult) tasks of any nonprofit hoping to expand its reach and make a positive impact in the world is to build and energize a body of volunteers.
Great volunteers make great organizations. They are your best brand advocates and your foremost recruiting instruments. They can help your nonprofit grow, expand, and take on more ambitious projects and goals – but only if they feel appreciated and acknowledged.
Always remember that volunteering is an act of passion and community. People come out and donate their time and effort because they believe in a cause and want to feel like they are a part of a larger movement working towards the same goal. If they are disconnected from the impact their efforts are having, or don't feel like the belong with the group, all that passion and enthusiasm will wither on the vine.
We all know the basics of politeness but motivating a broad base of volunteers takes more than platitudes. Showing true appreciation is a task you must constantly work at and reinforce. It's an attitude that needs to be adopted at every level of your organization. Start with the tips below and be sure your volunteers know how valuable they are to your nonprofit.
Always reward good work and hard effort
Your volunteers were attracted to your organization because they agree with its goals and mission, but that doesn't mean they don't like a little personal recognition themselves! Everybody likes to be appreciated and have their efforts acknowledged and celebrated. This goes beyond saying "good job!” at the end of an event, appreciation should be public, highlighted, and lavish.
Make volunteer appreciation and celebration part of your operations. If you have a newsletter, add in a section that singles out and acknowledges the efforts of particular volunteers. If a group of volunteers helped hold a successful event last month, say so! And don't just say "thanks to our local volunteers,” take the time to name them out individually. It isn't much to do and it makes a big difference to the people who get to see their names recognized in print.
Consider year-end rewards such as badges or pins for particularly motivated volunteers, or even better, volunteers who have been with your organization for multiple years. The idea isn't to create competition or jealousy between volunteers when some get rewards and others don't, but to demonstrate that you see and appreciate everything your volunteers do.
Give your volunteers opportunities to grow together
Appreciation days and get-togethers can go a long way towards strengthening solidarity and a group identity among your volunteers. Even something as simple as a pizza party for volunteers is a great way to get everyone together outside of a task, show your appreciation, and let people mingle and bond.
Find group activities your volunteers can enjoy outside of tasks. Just one or two extracurricular meetings a year can help form a group identity that is hard to establish when your busy with the hustle and bustle of events and day-to-day operations.
Relaxed group meetings are also a great opportunity to get a feel for how your volunteers perceive the organization and sound out their ideas. Understanding how your volunteers see your organization and mission, how they feel they've made an impact, and what they think they the organization should be doing can often lead to surprising insights. Not every suggestion may be actionable, but it’s good to know how things are on the ground level.
Make leadership accessible and open
Organization leadership should always be aware of the important role volunteers play and do everything they can to reinforce that relationship. As a leader, take the time to make the rounds and get to know your volunteers. Introduce yourself, learn their names, listen to them, and share. It really is that simple.
This isn't a new idea by a longshot, but it’s one worth keeping in mind at all levels of your organization. Always practice positive leadership with your volunteers. Encourage them whenever you can and celebrate their successes loudly and in front of others. Never order or "boss” around your volunteers, this is a good way to make even the most passionate volunteer feel used and resentful, always approach requests from a place of humility. When someone screws up and makes a mistake, don't make a huge deal out of it. Use language that de-emphasizes individual blame and instead concentrates on what you as a team can do to avoid similar mistakes in the future. If you ever do need to have a word with someone, make sure it is in private and is focused on ways to improve instead of any kind of condemnation.
Small changes in how you treat your volunteers can make a big difference. Make sincere and open appreciation part of your nonprofit's culture and show the people most passionate about what you do that you truly value their support.