meaningful volunteer gifts

How to Give Meaningful Volunteer Gifts that Volunteers Will Love

If you’re like most organizations that rely on volunteers, you naturally want to show your gratitude with small volunteer gifts or tokens of appreciation.

But, do the volunteers really use what you give them? Do they value these gifts, or do they just end up in the storage closet (or worse, the trash!) and easily forgotten?

When we give gifts, we want to them to be meaningful. We want the recipient to understand the care behind it.

Volunteer gifts should reflect that sentiment, but with one key difference.

When it comes to rewarding our supporters, we also want to do it strategically. As thoughtful managers, we need to consider what will have the most impact.

Leaders of volunteers are the “Chief Momentum Officers” of their organizations, and volunteer appreciation can be a key management tool for them.

Why Give? It’s Expected and Meaningful

There are two main management-based reasons to show gratitude to volunteers and board members.

One is to fulfill the social contract. As a human race, we have well-established social norms of reciprocity. In other words, if someone does something for you, then you feel obligated to return the favor. This give and take is deeply ingrained in our DNA and has helped us survive as a species.

Thanking others also has existential meaning. It is an affirmation of life’s goodness and triggers the expectation that good things will continue.

For organizations, giving thanks also indicates our humble dependence on others, in this case on community members that in many situations, organizations simply can’t do without.

Two Key Reasons for Volunteer Appreciation

volunteer gifts

Another justification for acknowledging volunteers is that volunteer appreciation helps managers meet the strategic goals for their organizations.

Volunteer recognition helps clearly acknowledge when volunteers have followed through on their commitments and offers clear social proof for others.

This kind of positive reinforcement feels good for everybody, and it promotes prosocial behavior in kind.

It is also a way to remind volunteers about the expectations and future gains to be achieved through healthy collaboration.

Volunteer appreciation can honor a volunteer’s tenure by offering tangible, extrinsic rewards. Rewards can also be directly aligned with ongoing program or agency-wide goals.

(To dig deeper into how you can better implement recognition strategies at your nonprofit, check out this in-depth Volunteer Appreciation guide.

The Limits of Extrinsic Motivation

Research shows that people are not really motivated by punitive measures or incentives. Instead, consider linking your volunteer appreciation to what really inspires.

Volunteer gifts are one way to express gratitude, but it’s important to consider — and work against — their limitations.

Rewards in the form of gifts are considered “extrinsic’ motivation. But, in terms of promoting long-term engagement and commitment, volunteer gifts may not have the intended impact if you don’t do them the right way (keep scrolling for more info).

Research has shown that extrinsic motivation works well for simple, mechanical tasks, but not for complex work. It has three serious drawbacks:

  • It is not Sustainable — As soon as you withdraw the rewards (or punishments), the motivation disappears.
  • There are Diminishing Returns — If the rewards (or punishments) stay at the same levels, motivation slowly drops off. To get the same motivation next time requires a bigger reward.
  • It Hurts Intrinsic Motivation — Rewarding (or punishing) people for doing something removes their own innate desire to do it on their own and, going forward, you must reward/punish every time to motivate.

In contrast, intrinsic motivators are much stronger than extrinsic ones. Factors that promote intrinsic motivation in a work environment include:

  • Challenge — Being able to challenge yourself and accomplish new tasks, or reflect on why something did or did not work
  • Control — Having choice over what you do
  • Cooperation — Being able to work with and help others
  • Recognition — Receiving meaningful, positive acknowledgment for your work

Four Powerful Human Motivations

volunteer gifts

In short, extrinsic rewards are experienced in the short-term and are transactional. Alternatively, intrinsic rewards are experienced long-term and can be transformational.

Meaningful Volunteer Motivation

Science also tells us that human motivations have changed over time.

In today’s world, these are four of the main things that experts believe motivate us in the workplace, regardless of age or generational affiliation. They can be translated to the volunteer environment as well.

volunteer gifts

Rather than using outdated ideas about what motivates people, strategic managers would do best to use what science has discovered.

By changing the volunteer recognition approach, organizations better tap into what really drives human motivations while, at the same time, helping volunteers feel truly acknowledged.

Here are a few ideas…

Encourage Mastery

  • Allow volunteers to create new work processes and tools using style guides
  • Invite guest speakers in for monthly “Teach-Ins”
  • Hold annual “Idea Mash Ups” for a day of problem-solving; vote on which should be implemented

Provide Autonomy

  • Allow volunteers to direct some of their own learning with a learning checklist, goals, and a self-serve online portal
  • Provide robust online resources and tools for personal growth
  • Set up team-based scheduling, led by volunteer schedule coordinators

Reinforce Purpose

  • Demonstrate how the world has improved because of volunteer efforts
  • Present an annual “State of the Community” report that details the organization’s impacts and challenges
  • Form a Volunteer Advisory Team to guide decision-making and audit program operations

Cultivate Relatedness

  • Quickly integrate newbies into the “in group”
  • Help volunteers & staff get to know one another through informal mixers
  • Use the “connection” technology your volunteers prefer

All of these activities promote a greater sense of camaraderie, while rewarding volunteers with more knowledge, power, inclusion, and deeper opportunities for engagement.

Volunteer Gifts with Deeper Meaning

So, we know intrinsic motivation has lasting impact, but that doesn’t mean extrinsic ones can’t be imbued with deeper meaning. Here are some ideas on how to give volunteer gifts that have real impact. (You’ll notice they go hand in hand when the ones we’ve covered already.)

Encourage Mastery

  • Give books that help them learn and master new skills related to their service
  • Reward volunteers with special access to in-service trainings that are generally reserved for paid staff only
  • Give volunteers tickets to local personal development events and conferences

Provide Autonomy

  • Give volunteers thumb drives loaded with key training and program materials
  • Offer bus passes for volunteers who need help getting to their service sites
  • Print special clip boards and lanyards for volunteer leaders that show they are in charge

Reinforce Purpose

  • Give a donation to another organization on behalf of a volunteer
  • Give a photo album full of pictures of volunteers and staff along with quotes form people they have served
  • Provide general gifts with inspirational messaging

Cultivate Relatedness

  • Award volunteers who have completed their orientation training and their first shift with a t-shirt that lets them know they’re an official “insider”
  • Reward volunteers with badges they can attach to their name tags that show what special project teams they belong to
  • Give boxed “kudos cards” they can give to fellow volunteers and paid staff to create a culture of gratitude

Make Someone’s Day with a Kudos Card

volunteer appreciation notecard

The premise of the kudos cards is simplicity and meaning. Keep a box of index cards and draw a smiley face (or thumbs up, or whatever you want) on it. When you’ve noticed a volunteer do something great, immediately write one quick sentence of your appreciation underneath the smiley face. Put it somewhere they will find it.

This quick reward system is small, yet meaningful enough, that it will insight a genuine smile from your volunteers AND you won’t have to keep building upon the idea in order for it to make a difference. It’s a quick win-win for everyone.

Where to Find Volunteer Gifts

Below are some of the vendors that specialize in volunteer gifts.

Once you find a vendor you like – that has reasonable prices, good quality, great customer service, and ships quickly – stick with them. They can keep your logos and artwork on file, and you may not have to pay setup charges the next time. You’ll also be able to keep your items consistent with each order.

Don’t forget to also check the local vendors in your area. They may be able to beat posted online prices. Plus, you’ll save time and money on shipping if you can pick your order up. This is particularly helpful when ordering t-shirts.

Here are some ideas for vendors:

There are many other options for meaningful volunteer gifts. Also search the internet using keywords like “advertising specialties” and “promotional products” to find additional vendors. Or search Pinterest for oodles of creative ideas.

FREE eBook: Volunteer Appreciation: 50 Simple Ideas to Show Your Love

In our free eBook, we share 50 ideas for recognizing volunteers.

Our tips are organized around the following five research-based motivations and provide ideas related to each theme:

  • Values – a way to express ones altruistic and humanitarian values.
  • Career – a way to improve career prospects.
  • Social – a way to develop and strengthen social ties.
  • Understanding – a way to gain knowledge, skills, and abilities.
  • Protective Motives – a way of protecting the ego from the difficulties of life.
  • Enhancement – a way to help the ego grow and develop.

As a bonus, there’s also a section on how to write a meaningful thank you note. Enjoy!


What’s Your Favorite Volunteer Gift?

What’s the most treasured volunteer gift you’ve ever received? What vendors do you recommend for volunteer gifts?

Post it in the comments!

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