December 5 is International Volunteer Day. If you’re not sure how to thank your volunteers, you’re not alone. Many volunteer managers worry about the right way to express gratitude to their volunteers on this and every day.
Lisa Sciorilli at Roadrunner Food Bank of New Mexico says it’s something she struggled with. “Each year, I spend countless hours trying to come up with the exact, right words or gift or event that will convey exactly how much their service has meant, how it already has and will continue to change lives. And each year, I fear that I fall short of my own expectations and that we will not be able to convey to our volunteers the impact of their service.”
You may never be able to fully thank your volunteers for all they do to help you help others. But there’s plenty you can do to help them feel just a bit more appreciated.
Here are a few good ideas.
Use Social Media Outreach
Social media is the quickest and easiest way to reach out to volunteers. Block out your social media calendar for December 5, and craft some meaningful posts that tell your volunteers (and community) how thankful you are for their service.
The School District of Philadelphia recommends pairing volunteers and staff in social posts. Have the staff member explain how volunteers make their jobs easier, and post the note with an image of the two together.
You could also look for a direct beneficiary of a volunteer’s time. For example, the Girl Scouts of the USA recommends asking the community to share special notes about their volunteers. A parent of a scout could write up notes about how the experience changed their child’s life, and how the troop leader, a volunteer, made that possible. Tag the volunteer, so they can share your post and expand your reach. The Girl Scouts make e-cards available to families, so sharing is easy. But even a heartfelt post and photo could have the same impact.
If you have the capability, you could take your social media strategy live. This can have at least two benefits. It can increase social reach and inspire engagement. And it allows you to be spontaneous and responsive in the moment.
Children’s pastor and ministry consultant Nina Durning describes the approach this way. “On Sunday, have a thank you card with a small gift in it, such as a Starbucks gift card, ready to give to a volunteer. Have your social media team livestream you surprising that volunteer in their classroom as they are serving, and present them with the card and gift, thanking them for all they do. Posting live on your children’s ministry social media, or church social media, can make everyone aware of all the volunteers do.”
Hold a Special Event
Events are often used by organizations to thank their volunteers. “Without our volunteers, many of our programs and services would not be possible. The volunteer appreciation dinner is a small token of our appreciation for their hard work and dedication,” says Steve Gergick, recreation director at the Town of Mount Pleasant in South Carolina.
Take time during your event to recognize your star volunteers. The city of Highland, California, held an event like this to recognize key volunteers. Each was called by name at the event, and they all received special gifts. They also were given raffle tickets and received unique prizes. “It’s a small token, definitely not as much as you deserve, but it’s given as a thank you from our hearts,” Highland’s mayor Larry McCallon told the volunteers.
While these events are made to express gratitude to volunteers, you can also use your time to discuss future volunteer opportunities. That’s exactly what happened when the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service and the Colorado Mountain Club got together to recognize their volunteers.
They invited the public to attend the free event, and also made sure the reason for all the hard work was recognized. As Keith Berger, Royal Gorge field manager with the Bureau of Land Management said: “The efforts of over 700 volunteers have furthered our goals in providing high-quality recreational opportunities on public lands.”
When you need to add more names to your list of helpers, combining a volunteer drive with a recognition event could be a good place to start. Similarly, you should also include fundraising at every event. “We’re fundraising at all times because we’re a nonprofit, so we do have raffles and different other events to try to raise some additional funds for the animals. We always have a few items for sale,” says Sandra Rapp, fundraiser chair of the Hornell Area Humane Society.
Honor Them With an Award
Ask your volunteers why they help, and they might say how much they support your vision and the work your nonprofit accomplishes. While few admit they want public recognition for the sacrifices they make, it’s always nice to be appreciated.
The Dearborn Community Foundation in Indiana handles this in an interesting way. During the organization’s volunteer recognition dinner, five exceptional individuals are chosen for Heart of Gold Awards. They then become part of a committee that directs $2,500 in proactive community grants that serve the county.
“These honorees deserve this recognition for making a difference in our community in their own unique ways,” says Fred McCarter, executive director of the foundation.
There are plenty of local and national organizations that recognize outstanding volunteers too, says the team at the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation. Nominate your best volunteers, and if they win, present the award on December 5. A few nominations you can put your best volunteers in for include:
Give Your Volunteers Special Perks
Your volunteers are an elite group. Recognize them on International Volunteer Day with privileges that set them apart.
To recognize the volunteers of the Pacific Science Center, officials set aside a corner of the organization’s café. Christina Smith, social and digital marketing professional, explains that treats and a special table are open only to volunteers during recognition periods.
You could also print up shirts that highlight your volunteers. Karen Maldonado, program coordinator at Keep Texas Beautiful, says, “Everyone loves a free t-shirt, and it’s also a great way to thank sponsors by placing their logos on the back.” Make sure you have plenty of shirt sizes available, so no one feels left out. If you’re worried about your budget, leave the date off your shirts. That way, you’ll be ready when next year’s International Volunteer Appreciation Day rolls around.
Make it Personal
No matter how you choose to highlight your volunteers, remember to focus on them as individuals, not as a group. If you have a large team, seek out opportunities to talk to them personally.
“Thank you letters, emails, and social posts are wonderful expressions of appreciation—good manners, if you will—but in this digital world, it is more important than ever to find ways to express our gratitude in ways that are personal and impactful,” writes Steven Moore, CEO of the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust.
Give your volunteers a call on International Volunteers Day to thank them for their work. If you have too many calls to make in one day, get help from others in your organization. “Acknowledge your volunteers by holding a Thank-a-thon. Ask each board member to call a certain number of volunteers to say thank you,” suggests Barry Mael of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
And never forget that you can thank your volunteers for their work every day, even if it’s not a day dedicated to volunteerism.
Community engagement consultant Jayne Cravens recommends thanking your volunteers as soon as they complete a critical task for you. Tell them how their service helps your organization do more, and remind them how much they mean to you. Don’t save these opportunities to express gratitude for one designated day. Celebrate International Volunteer Day but let them know you’re grateful every day.
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