Episode #006: The 4-Part Power Thank You Letter for Volunteers

Welcome to the Volunteer Nation Podcast, bringing you practical tips and advice on how to build, grow, and scale volunteer talent. I’m your host, Tobi Johnson. And if you rely on volunteers to fuel your charity, cause, or movement, stay tuned. I made this podcast just for you.

I recently heard someone say that their organization would not be celebrating National Volunteer Week because they simply didn’t have the budget for it. I thought that was a pretty sad state of affairs, especially because gratitude really costs nothing but a little time and care.

You know, volunteers don’t really need stuff. They don’t even want stuff, but they do want to be acknowledged. So if you’re a nonprofit leader, volunteer coordinator or a volunteer yourself, I hope this podcast will help you acknowledge the efforts of volunteers, both large and small.

And I want to kick us off by asking you a question. Have you ever received a handwritten note, a handwritten note that you kept, or an email that you kept? I myself keep a kudos file of emails, notes, things people send me to just say thanks for what I’m doing.

And once in a while, I open it up and just take a look when I’m having a bad day, I’m like, you know what, you’re doing this because it matters. And I thought I would pull out from the archive a few notes that I received in the past few months, even past few weeks.

One of them is from a colleague of mine, Joan Garry. She’s over at the Nonprofit Leadership Lab. She’s fantastic. If you ever get a chance to check out her podcast, do it, we’ll link to it in the notes, but she’s an expert at volunteer and nonprofit leadership specifically around boards and nonprofit executive directors. She’s also really good at just giving thanks. So I thought I’d share this best practice.

So here’s a really good note from Joan to me, and this is a holiday note she sent out. She said, “Tobi, so very grateful for all you’ve done for the Leadership Lab, and for all you do to educate and advocate on the power of volunteerism in the nonprofit sector. All the best in 2022, Joan.”

Just a short couple sentences. And you know, it meant so much to me because it meant I was seen, my work was seen. And so I kept it and I probably will keep it in my kudos file for a while.

I also get notes from some of our listeners and readers. Here’s one from Mary. She says, “I just wanted to tell you how much your blogs have meant to me. I became a volunteer coordinator three and a half years ago and knew absolutely nothing about being one. You have helped me take our small company’s volunteers from 36 to over 100. I even started a junior program with an effort to teach our children about helping others and volunteering their time. I truly could not have done it without your guidance. God bless you and your team for all you do.”

So thanks Mary, and thanks Joan for sending me those things! I hope you’re listening to this podcast, and you recognize your voice here. So super powerful. Doesn’t take very long to do, but it made me feel like my work mattered and that I was truly seen.

Getting an actual card in the mail from an actual person is super rare. And I think it is the number one way we should be appreciating our volunteers. It’s also a super efficient use of resources.

Many volunteers don’t want nonprofits to spend limited resources on plaques, pins, or slick email campaigns. They just don’t want that. If you ask them, they’ll tell you that. It’s important, nonetheless, to cultivate a culture of appreciation.

There’s an abundance of research that tells us this. Gratitude boosts optimism and resilience, research tells us. Expressing and experiencing gratitude is greater, and it gives us greater tendencies towards positivity.

Research has found that gratitude and respect in the workplace can help workers feel embedded in their organization, welcomed and valued. Not only paid employees, but unpaid volunteers as well.

Also, research shows that gratitude creates more gratitude, and even inspires more giving. Gratitude can decrease our self-centeredness and make us more likely to share with others, even at the expense of ourselves, if we feel that people are grateful.

And even if the receiver is a stranger, even when we tell a stranger “thank you,” it creates this continuous cycle of giving. it’s good stuff, gang. It’s super powerful.

In this podcast, I want to spend a little bit of time just giving you a very simple formula for a thank-you letter. You can also use this formula for expressing gratitude face-to-face. Super simple, super powerful, and doesn’t cost a single dime. Doesn’t cost a single dime.

Let’s start with some mindset. Next time you think about planning your thank-you letters to volunteers, I want you to remember a few of these things.

Do not wait until the end of a big project or event. Gratitude should be something you’re doing every day of the week, or at least on a weekly basis. You want to acknowledge the contributions of time and talent, big and small all year round.

You can send thank-you notes, not only to volunteers, but spouses, partners, bosses, and kids supporting their community work. In fact, back in the day, I used to work with a volunteer group. I used to train them every month, come out to where they were located, travel out and do my update training every month.

And their volunteer coordinator would host an annual luncheon where volunteers would bring their spouses. And she would specifically thank the spouses, because she knew that those partners were making volunteerism possible for their loved ones. So everybody deserves a little bit of thanks when we’re talking about volunteerism.

Also, most volunteers understand how busy you are, and knowing that you take time to personally thank them makes it feel even more valuable. So handwritten notes are really powerful in a lot of different ways. And you know, cards and notes like these that I just read put a smile on people’s faces all day long. It also will help you feel good.

Your thank-you letters don’t need to be complicated either. So just keep those things in mind. Why is it important? You can keep it simple, create a habit. You don’t have to do it every day, but just jot down three to five people each week and send a note to them.

You can use your smartphone to keep notes on what people are doing and who you want to recognize. You never know when that little idea of gratitude might strike. You can create a spreadsheet online and ask your coworkers to be on the lookout for contributions, big and small.

Lots of ways to do this. It’s not super complicated. So there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be doing this on a regular basis. And don’t be surprised when the warm fuzzies strike you as you sit down to do this! Gratitude helps boost your own mood, too. It’s powerful. I know it seems simple, but it really is powerful.

After the break, I’m gonna take you through a 4 Part Power Thank You Letter on how to write a power thank-you letter for volunteers, as well as how, giving an example of how to use this 4 Part Power Thank You face-to-face as well. So stay tuned. I’ll be right back with that formula.

If you enjoy this week’s episode of Volunteer Nation, we invite you to check out the VolunteerPro Premium Membership. This community is the most comprehensive resource for attracting, engaging and supporting dedicated, high-impact volunteer talent for your good cause.

VolunteerPro Premium Membership helps you build or renovate an effective, what’s-working-now volunteer program with less stress and more joy, so you can ditch the overwhelm and confidently carry your vision forward.

It is the only implementation program of its kind and helps your organization build maturity across five phases of our proprietary system, the Volunteer Strategy Success PathTM. If you’re interested in learning more, visit Volpro.net/join.

Welcome back. And before the break, we talked about how to cultivate a culture of gratitude at your organization, why it’s so important, and why it’s so simple really to do. It takes a little bit of time, but it’s so important for your organization to do on a regular basis, not only for volunteers, but for your employees as well.

So, I promised I would give you a 4 Part Power Thank You Letter for your volunteers. I’m going to do that right now. And again, you can use this in written form. You can also do it in verbal form as well.

What’s the formula look like? Well, Part One in this formula is you focus on excellence. You start with a sentence and again, this could be very short, four sentence note. Sentence one: thank them for something they’ve done that was valuable or beyond the call of duty. Be specific. Focus on excellence.

I will say one thing, you can also focus on effort. It doesn’t always have to be something super-human. You know, obviously we want to thank people for contributions, amazing contributions they’ve made, but also sometimes volunteers are trying to learn something, and they may be struggling with it. You want to acknowledge that as well. Effort as well as excellence.

Part Two: connect the dots. Describe how what they’ve done has helped your program or your organization achieve a goal or achieve its mission. Tell a story. So you want to connect what the volunteer is doing to your mission, your big why, why you exist.

I’m going to give you an example in a minute, but you want to make sure that people understand that what they’re doing has an impact. That every little thing we do together, when we’re rowing together in the same direction, has an impact on what you can get done in the world as an organization.

Part Three of the 4 Part Power Thank You: acknowledge the effort, recognize that volunteering takes a sacrifice of personal time. For the volunteer and their families, as I mentioned earlier.

So acknowledge the effort, acknowledge the effort. Volunteers make sacrifices in their lives. It may be that they’re choosing you over something else they could be doing in their lives. So we want to acknowledge that.

And then finally Part Four is to make it personal, make it personal. Share what the volunteer or board member’s contribution has meant personally to you. And I am saying board members as well.

No matter what a volunteer is doing, whether they’re a one-time volunteer or an ongoing governance volunteer, this 4 Part Power Thank You – it is a mouthful! – this 4 Part Power Thank You Letter can help.

We want to focus on excellence, connect the dots, acknowledge the effort, and make it personal.

Let me give you an example of how this plays out. “It was a pleasure to work alongside you to raise funds for our arts program. The way you interacted with our event guests at the welcome table really made them feel special. I believe it’s a big part of what made this event successful.” So that initial few sentences is focusing on excellence, what that volunteer did.

Connecting the dots: “Also your hard work helped us reach our goal. Because of your contribution to this event’s success, we can now offer even more classes and programs in 2016.” So we’re not talking about the money raised. We’re actually talking about what’s going to be done with the money, that ultimate mission, the big why.

Then acknowledging the effort and what it means to us: “I appreciate all the energy and passion you give our programs, and I thank you so much for setting aside precious time to serve.” So we’re acknowledging the effort, the effort, setting aside time to serve.

And then making it personal: “I’m looking forward to working with you again at next year’s event.” So what it means personally to you, the work they’re doing.

And that’s it! That’s a 4 Part Power Thank You. Now, I said you can express this in person as well. It is really helpful in the moment when someone is giving their time and talent. It’s also especially powerful when someone goes above and beyond and does something, steps in to help out where others usually don’t.

And I’m going to give you an example of a food pantry, where everybody loves to come and serve food, but nobody loves to stick around and do the dishes. Yeah, I’ve heard this complaint before from folks that run food pantries or congregate meals sites. They’ll say, “Yeah, it’s great. People want to come and serve, but nobody wants to stay and help clean up.” I’m giving an example of someone who is sticking around or has stuck around to clean up.

“Thank you for staying late to help clean up the kitchen tonight.” So that’s our focus on excellence.

Connecting the dots: “Although doing dishes is not the most glamorous of jobs, we take pride in offering a clean sanitary place for our guests to have a relaxing and nutritious meal. Your help made this possible today.” So we are connecting the dots between clean-up and offering a wonderful meal experience to our guests.

Acknowledging the effort: “I know that you probably had other things to do tonight, and I appreciate that you stayed a little later than planned.” So we’re acknowledging that extra effort that the volunteer made.

And then finally we’re making it personal: “It also really made a difference to me to have an extra pair of hands around to help. So thank you.”

So you see how simple this is. If you start to make this a habit, you learn this 4 Part Power Thank You formula, you can really start to create a culture of gratitude. It really is, if you’re leading volunteers and engaging volunteers, it really is one of your first responsibilities. Make a plan to express authentic gratitude early and often.

So remember there’s power in positive feedback. Show volunteers you believe in them in words and actions. Boost confidence and security with clear expectations, but also giving people positive feedback when they meet those expectations.

Always point to the connections between their work and your mission. That’s important to do. Catch them doing things approximately right. Now, gratitude doesn’t always have to be for perfection. We’re not waiting to say thank you to somebody because we’re waiting for perfection to happen. That’s not the way things should be.

I like to catch people doing things “approximately right,” because the more positive reinforcement we give people, the more they row in that direction. So people don’t have to be perfect to be given gratitude.

And then give personalized recognition for both accomplishment and effort, both accomplishment and effort. We don’t also, we’re not looking for perfection. We also want to look for people who are giving it their all, and their all maybe all they can give at the moment.

We’ve talked about today, about gratitude, our 4 Part Power Thank You. We can use it in writing. We can use it verbally. But it really can create and foster that idea of gratitude, creating a grateful workplace that in the end creates a more happy and productive workplace as well.

I want to thank you for joining us for this episode of Volunteer Nation. And just to remind you, if you really liked it, please share with a friend or colleague that might need a little extra inspiration too.

So I hope to see you on our next episode. Take care, everybody.

Volunteer Nation is produced by Thick Skin Media. Be sure to rate, review, and follow the show on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. For more tips and notes from the show, check us out at Tobijohnson.com. We hope to see you next week for another episode of Volunteer Nation.