Episode #024: The Best Volunteer Recognition is a Well-Run Program

Welcome to the Volunteer Nation Podcast, bringing you practical tips and big ideas 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, membership, or movement, I made this podcast just for you. 

Welcome to another episode of the Volunteer Nation podcast. I’m Tobi Johnson and I am thrilled to be here to talk about volunteer recognition. You know, I get asked all the time about how volunteer recognition and appreciation strategy can be improved, asked for tips, tricks, et cetera. People wanna know how they can better acknowledge the work of volunteers. 

And while I can share how to write a better thank you letter – if you want, you can check out our free volunteer thank you letter sample cheat sheet. I will post a link to that in the show notes. Or create a recognition strategy – if you’re a volunteer pro member, check out our annual volunteer recognition plan and budget worksheet inside the resource library in the ProTalk forum and go grab that if you’re a volunteer pro member. But I maintain that the best volunteer recognition is a well-run program. 

So it’s not about tips and tricks. I mean that obviously volunteer appreciation activities are helpful. It’s the right thing to do, to appreciate and acknowledge and recognize the work and contributions of our volunteers. But I really believe the best recognition is a well-run program. You know, volunteer recognition is not rocket science. 

You know, it’s about writing a really good thank you note individually. A volunteer who’s done something fantastic or not so fantastic just coming in day after day. It’s about acknowledging teams that have achieved something big together. It’s about just acknowledging people as humans. These are all the ways that we say thank you. 

But really I wanna say the best volunteer recognition is a well-run program. So, what does that mean? And I’m talking about a well-run program in the eyes of the volunteer, not in the eyes of you or your institution or organization. In the eyes of a volunteer. So what does that mean when we think about recognizing volunteers? What does that mean from the eyes of the volunteer? 

What’s a well-run program? Look. So how do we create programs that are productive and meaningful in the eyes of the volunteer and how can programming be upgraded to respond to their current pandemic realities? Because we can’t forget that either; we’re not out of the pandemic yet. So let’s start with the fundamental keys to human motivation. 

I always think our three core needs can help drive many of our programmatic decisions. So human beings have three basic needs, core needs. Doesn’t matter where you live, what country, what language you speak, what neighborhood you live in, what place in the world. We all have these very core essential needs. 

The first one is safety, so emotional and physical safety. So when we think about a well-run program in the eyes, you know, through the lens of our core needs as humans, what are the ways we can help make our volunteers feel both physically safe, but also emotionally safe? So how can people feel like they are safe to speak their mind, for example, or in terms of emotional safety or be vulnerable or make a mistake. 

And with physical safety, you know, when it comes to COVID, what are the safety precautions for our volunteers? The second core need for volunteers and for humans in general is satisfaction. So we always want to be making progress. We want to have achieved something. It, it might be something small like, “Hey, I finished this week’s crossword or this today’s Wordle.” 

It could just be that there’s satisfaction in that in completing something successfully. And so with volunteers, a well-run program through the lens of our core needs might be, am I helping this organization get traction with this issue or cause area? So are we making progress as a team? 

Are we getting things done? Now in some organizations, this is rough. For example. It’s challenging if you work in an advocacy organization where success is measured in years, not necessarily days or weeks. And so you’ve got to find the small wins to communicate to those volunteers so that that core need of satisfaction can be met. 

Right? Third area core need of our volunteers is belonging. A sense of belonging, that they belong as a necessary part of the whole, that they feel connected and accepted. Now, this is more important than ever in today’s world. You know, we have become very clan-like and divided. That doesn’t need to be the way it is. 

And there are plenty of organizations that have volunteers from all different sides of the aisle and different walks of life, and they can still work together to get good works done. And so how do we make sure in the eyes of the volunteer, that this is a program that welcomes people from all walks of life? 

So how are they feeling belonging? So if you can make sure that these three core basic needs are met, you are halfway there in terms of creating a well-run volunteer program because you’re meeting our basic human needs. It’s the foundation of everything. So whenever you’re thinking about making improvements, you wanna think, you know, how are we improving our volunteer recognition? 

Well, first off are we meeting the three core needs of safety, satisfaction, and belonging for our volunteers. I love that. It’s simple. It’s also research-based, and it works because we all have these needs. So I’m gonna take a quick pause and after I’m gonna share what goes into a quality program in terms of volunteers in more detail, so don’t go away, I’ll be right back and we’ll get back to it. 

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All right, we’re back. Before the break, I covered what motivates humans in our core needs. All across the world, in every community, in every walk of life, in every language, whatever, wherever and what kind of person we are in the world. All our core needs are the same: safety, satisfaction and belonging. Now let’s talk about how we might apply some additional research to creating volunteer recognition in the form of a well-run program in the eyes of volunteers. 

Right. We’re talking about the volunteer experience, not a well-run program in the eyes of our organization. We’re talking about the volunteers right now. So NCVO in the UK is a research organization. And I will link to this study in the show notes. This is fantastic. The Time Well Spent study, it was released in 2019, right before the pandemic, but they interviewed and surveyed thousands.  

I think it was about 10,000 volunteers across the UK, and they found there were key elements that contributed to an exceptional volunteer experience. And I’m gonna go down these in quick detail, and I want you to think about how you might incorporate these into creating a well-run volunteer program in the eyes of volunteers. 

And then after this, I’m gonna talk about these key elements, but I’m also gonna talk a little bit later about what they found recently in 2022, about how the pandemic has impacted the volunteer experience. I wanna share that as well. So let’s talk about these key elements.  

So they found that volunteering that was inclusive was something that would create a better volunteer experience in the eyes of volunteers. So offering inclusive volunteering opportunities and experiences. So, you know, one of the things you could do is to encourage volunteers to bring their lived experiences to their role, and value that lived experience as a true asset, as a true asset. That doesn’t always happen with volunteers, but I think we could do better at that. 

All right. Here’s another key element that might contribute to better, a more well-run program in the eyes of volunteers, but also better volunteer recognition and that is creating or adding flexibility. So creating volunteer journeys that can adapt to a variety of volunteers in their life circumstances. 

So maybe just adding varieties of levels of commitment might be something you might do. Impactful was another area. So maximizing the impact volunteering has on volunteers on those they help. So, you know, you really wanna make sure your roles are designed to have volunteers experience the greatest impact for their investment of time and talent. 

Yeah. So another area: connected. Strengthening the connections that are the heart of volunteering. This is really about the relational side of volunteerism. So one way to recognize volunteers is to create more opportunities for them to be social and interact with one another. So how can we make sure we’re creating a sense of community? That can feel like volunteer recognition to volunteers, right? 

Another area: balanced. There is a sense in volunteers lately, there’s a general sense that organizations are becoming too formalized in terms of their volunteer programs. So how can you rethink your application and onboarding requirements so that they feel more welcoming, less rigid, et cetera. 

Another area is enjoyable. Making the experience enjoyable for volunteers. So can we convert how we’re promoting our volunteer opportunities and the way we’re describing them? Can we describe them in a more, in a way that sounds more fun and approachable? I know we can, you know, we’ve been way too bureaucratic for way too long. 

Nobody wants to hear that kind of talk when they’re thinking about how to spend their leisure time. This isn’t a paid job. So how can we describe things in a way that’s more fun? Voluntary. This is another area voluntary, ensuring voluntary feels truly voluntary at all times. So we need to respect volunteer boundaries for time and task. 

If people don’t have time or can’t come in or don’t wanna go beyond a certain role, then we need to respect those boundaries. And then finally, meaningful. Supporting volunteers to give times in ways that are meaningful to them. So this is all about getting to know volunteers, individual values and needs on a deeper level so that we can match them with a role that really, you know, toots their horn. Really gets them inspired and really aligns with what they wanna achieve in the world. 

So, those are sort of the early study, the 2019 Time Well Spent study and some of the things, elements that in their mind, based on the study results and what the volunteers said in their surveys are areas that are elemental to an exceptional volunteer experience. So they equate to a well-run program. 

So when you think about volunteer recognition, as a well-run program, if you can tick off all of those areas, you are assured to create something that volunteers will love. Now I do wanna address COVID for a minute and NCVO in July of this year, 2022 in their Time Well Spent study, they released a report called the Impact of COVID 19 on the Volunteer Experience. 

And it offers some additional clues about what’s impacting volunteers right now, and what we might need to do to pivot a little bit, to create that well run program in the volunteer’s eyes. The question is, you know, for these areas, how can we evolve our volunteer recognition efforts by addressing these in our program designs or program updates or program evolutions. 

So there’s basically three different areas that are tensions in volunteering right now according to the report that I think are very interesting. Number one is levels of burnout. Levels of burnout. So we’re thinking about evidence from this research consistently showed elevated levels of anxiety and fatigue amongst pandemic volunteers, and a strong sense of guilt, guilt for not being able to do more or do enough. 

Okay. So our solution might be a wellness program for volunteers. You know, back in 2021, I posted a blog post called Why You Need to Create a Wellness Program for Volunteers. And I gave ideas around burnout prevention. I’ll post those in the show notes as well. So I have been thinking for a couple years now about wellness programs.  

And I think given these levels of burnout that are in volunteers, we need to think more carefully about the ways we help them take care when they’re giving. Yeah. Second area is lack of digital connectivity. So volunteers during the pandemic have struggled to feel connected through virtual volunteering.  

Though they appreciated the ease and the convenience of it, they’ve also noticed and noted a kind of digital volunteering divide where some volunteers who didn’t have access to tech had access to limited volunteer opportunities. And so, you know, I think the part of the solution here is returning to in-person volunteering, but also a more adept use of technology tools to foster connections. 

So creating online communities, well facilitated digital events, et cetera. I think part of the reason people don’t feel connected using tech is because the tech is not used in a sophisticated enough way, because I know some of the communities I’ve been involved in online, some of the tools I’ve used to connect with people, I feel very connected to other people, but it takes some sophistication and skill to be able to pull that off.  

It’s not just “you build it and they will come.” You don’t just build an online community and expect volunteers to use it and feel connected. There needs to be someone facilitating who is adept at that. So I think there is, you know, obviously we like to return to in-person volunteering, but I also think we would do better to get better with the use of the tools we have at hand or bring on new tools. 

So that’s that area of digital connectivity. And then the third area is a lack of digital appetite for volunteerism. So research has shown a reduction in levels of formal volunteering and increases in informal volunteering during the pandemic. Volunteers are reevaluating priorities in their life, and volunteering just simply may not be making the cut.  

So it’s not necessarily a digital appetite for volunteerism. It’s a lack of appetite for volunteerism. So there’s a lack of appetite for volunteerism. You know, there was a study in the UK that they noted in the Time Well Spent study, the most recent study, that found that people were looking forward to returning to the simple pleasures of life, spending time with friends more than donating goods or services to local organizations or volunteering. 

And so we have to start to think about how are we going to rebuilt the spirit of volunteering, the spirit of philanthropy in our communities. And we’re going to have to start working together on this. I think in our communities, it can’t be individual organizations asking for volunteers. I think we need to come together in coalition in our local communities and create a stronger voice for volunteerism. 

Secondly, though, I think we need to incorporate some of these simple pleasures into our volunteer opportunities. Social time, making it fun. So we’re creating a space where people can return to simple pleasures through volunteering. It’s absolutely possible. It takes purpose. It takes a little bit of facilitation, a little bit of creative design. 

But, you know, if people want to return to the simple pleasures of life. Is there anything more simple than giving back to your community? I think that’s pretty basic, really. We have a compassion gene. We know that we have been giving to one another over millennia as a human race. So we’ve got to remind people that that is part and parcel of being human. 

I think also, you know, many organizations have been focused on more traditional recruitment and recognition tactics. You know, it may be time to step back and take a look at the entire picture and find ways to improve the volunteer experience overall and thus improve our volunteer recognition. 

So, again, the best volunteer recognition is a well-run program. And we know what a well-run program is because the data and the research tells us what volunteers want, right? Tells us about the human experience and what motivates us and what our core needs are as humans. So if we use that research and those data as a lens to see how to create a better program for our volunteers in the eyes of our volunteers, then that’s all the recognition people really need. 

Let me know what you think about this. Post in the show comments, post in social. Tag us at VolPro.net. We’d love to hear from you. 

And that’s what I’ve got for this week. Thank you for joining us for this episode of Volunteer Nation. And if you liked it, please share it with a friend and make sure to rate and review and share. That will help us reach more people out there in the world who want to learn more about building growing and scaling their volunteer efforts.  

So once again, thanks for joining me today and join us next week. Same time, same place for another episode of the Volunteer Nation. 

Thanks for listening to this episode of the Volunteer Nation podcast. If you enjoyed it, please be sure to subscribe, rate and review so we can reach people like you who wanna improve the impact of their good cause. For more tips and notes from the show, check us at TobiJohnson.com. We’ll see you next week for another installment of Volunteer Nation.