The Ultimate Volunteer Appreciation Guide

Volunteerism September 25, 2020

Tatiana Morand

By Tatiana Morand

Most nonprofits and small membership organizations would simply be unable to function without volunteers

Just take a look at the numbers: over 77 million Americans volunteered a total of 6.9 billion hours in 2018 – a stunning 30% of the population and a record high for the country. 

And nearly 13 million Canadians, or 41% of the population, volunteer nearly two billion hours every year.

From serving as board members to delivering critical services in the community, volunteers keep our nonprofit world spinning ‘round. 

And that’s particularly true during the COVID-19 pandemic. As nonprofits face unprecedented financial and logistical challenges, volunteers are continuing to provide essential support to vulnerable groups impacted by the crisis – delivering food, helping the homeless, offering help to isolated seniors and so much more. 

So, how can you make sure your volunteers feel appreciated for everything they do? 

No matter how volunteers play a role in your organization, finding regular and creative ways to say “thank you” can go a long way toward building loyalty, retaining a dedicated volunteer base and helping those who support your mission feel great about doing it. 

How to get started, you ask? Look no further! 

This comprehensive volunteer appreciation guide shares everything you need to know about why, when and how to recognize the incredible community members who make it all possible.

  Volunteer Recruitment Checklist  

First, Ask Yourself: What Does Volunteer Appreciation Mean to You and Your Organization?

"Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it." 

Recognizing your volunteers is important on so many levels.

After all, we all want volunteers to enjoy their experience and feel their efforts are appreciated. 

At the same time, saying thanks and formally recognizing volunteers is important to keep these individuals motivated and happy so they’ll keep coming back. 

Volunteer recruitment and training are time-consuming, so it’s in your and the volunteer’s best interests to ensure they have a fulfilling experience. 

But your volunteers are also ambassadors – representing your organization through program delivery, at events, etc. – and their volunteer experience will directly impact the ways in which they represent your organization and its mission.

So, developing an ongoing process to thank and recognize your volunteers can have an impact on your organization’s success. 

But before you rush into volunteer recognition planning, it might be helpful to think about:

  • Why people volunteer; 
  • How your volunteers might want to be recognized; and 
  • How recognition can become part of your organization’s culture.

Why Do We Volunteer?

To understand what might motivate your volunteers, it's helpful to consider why we volunteer in the first place. Check out this infographic from Happify:


In addition to these benefits, people also volunteer to:

  • Use their skills and experiences

  • Explore their strengths

  • Network with or meet people

  • Support their friends’ or family members’ interests

  • Make a difference for a cause that’s personally affected them

  • Fulfill religious obligations or beliefs

To read more about what motivates volunteers, check out our post Successful Volunteer Teams Have These Four Types of People.

How Would You Want to Be Recognized?

An organization’s culture can have a huge impact on a volunteer’s experience. 

If your team isn’t yet focused on demonstrating gratitude for all those who support your mission – from donors to volunteers to service providers and beyond – you may struggle to keep your community happy. 

And that can have significant consequences for your organization’s success. 

Think about it: if your volunteers don’t feel appreciated or valued, why would they continue to spend their limited time contributing to your cause?

If you’re realizing your team has some work to do around building a culture of gratitude, it can help to think about the last time you volunteered for an organization. 

Did you feel valued and appreciated for your efforts? After your experience, would you: 

  • Volunteer again?

  • Recommend this organization to others?

  • Continue to support the cause?

Now step back and think about the environment that volunteers experience at your organization. 

Is it a positive, welcoming atmosphere? Does your team take the time to make volunteers feel valued? 

Once you’ve thought through some of these questions, be sure to use our tips below to develop your volunteer recognition strategy. 

(And if you're planning on recruiting volunteers, we can make things a little easier for you with our free Volunteer Recruitment Checklist for Associations and a guide on How to Recruit Volunteers from Start to Finish.) 

9 Volunteer Recognition Best Practices for Every Organization 

While each organization needs to develop its own volunteer recognition standards and practices, the following are some volunteer recognition best practices developed by Volunteer Canada that you can use as a starting point:

  • Make it a priority. Recognizing the work of volunteers is crucial for any organization that wants to retain its volunteers and attract new ones. Designate someone in your organization to be responsible for ensuring that ongoing recognition of volunteers takes place (and if you’re reading this, that person is probably you!). 

  • Do it often. Recognition of volunteers should happen on a year-round, frequent basis. Begin by saying “thank you” often with the help of our volunteer thank-you letter template.

  • Do it in different ways. Vary your recognition efforts, from the informal thank you and spontaneous treats to more formal events. Take a look at our ideas for formal and informal recognition later on in this guide

  • Be sincere. Make each occasion to recognize volunteers meaningful and an opportunity to reflect on the value volunteers bring to your organization.

  • Recognize the person, not the work. It’s best to phrase recognition to emphasize the contribution of the individual and not the end result. “You did a great job!” as opposed to “This is a great job!”

  • Make it appropriate to the achievement. For example, a paper certificate accompanied by a private thank you may be appropriate for a few months of service, but a public dinner and engraved plaque may better suit 10 years of volunteerism.

  • Be consistent. Make sure that whatever standards of recognition you establish can be consistently maintained by your organization for years to come. Holding a volunteer recognition dinner one year sets up expectations for future volunteers.

  • Be timely. Try to arrange recognition soon after an achievement has been reached. Delaying until weeks or months later diminishes the value of your gratitude.

  • Customize it. Getting to know each of your volunteers and their interests will help you learn how best to recognize each individual and make them feel special.


Volunteer Recognition Planning

To get started with volunteer recognition planning, answer the following questions: 

  1. Who are your volunteers? 

Think about the characteristics of your typical volunteer or volunteer groups. Do they tend to be older or younger? Students or seniors? Male or female? The more you know about your volunteers, the more you’ll be able to customize your recognition strategy to meet their unique needs and preferences. 

  1. What’s the purpose and desired result of your volunteer recognition plan? 


Make a list of your objectives to clarify for yourself and your team what you’re trying to achieve. For example, your objectives may include:

  • Ensure volunteers feel appreciated and thanked for their contributions.

  • Deepen volunteer engagement with the organization to build a loyal volunteer base.

  • Attract new volunteers by offering a positive and rewarding experience.

  • Ensure staff feel inspired and motivated to recognize and celebrate volunteers throughout the year. 

Under each objective, list out your proposed activities and the staff member(s) responsible for leading the charge. This will help keep the entire team focused and on track. 

  1. What's your budget? 

It’s possible to deliver an effective volunteer recognition strategy without a budget, but you’ll want to be clear on how much money, if any, is available to you in order to plan effectively. 

Check out this post for inexpensive but meaningful volunteer recognition ideas. 

  1. When, where and how can you engage your volunteers effectively?

You’ll want to develop specific recognition plans for National Volunteer Month and National Volunteer Week, but don’t just leave it at that. 

Think about how your team can leverage key opportunities and platforms to recognize volunteers throughout the year, such as through your existing events or on your social media platforms. 

(And again, check out the next section in this guide on formal and informal recognition to get those creative juices flowing!) 

  1. What does success look like? 

Measuring success is a great way to keep track of your progress and make adjustments when things aren’t working out the way you’d hoped. 

Before launching your new volunteer recognition strategy, try establishing a baseline by sending out a quick, free survey to your volunteer community to get a sense of what’s already working and what’s not.

Consider asking questions like:

  • Do you feel valued and appreciated for your volunteer efforts?

  • Do you feel that you understand the impact your volunteerism is creating?

  • Would you recommend volunteering with our organization to a friend or family member?

  • What could we be doing better or differently to better recognize volunteers?

Then, six months or a year after implementing your new strategy, send out another survey or collect informal feedback to determine if your plans are making a difference for your volunteers. If you find your strategy isn’t making a difference, you’ll need to rethink your plans.

Formal vs. Informal Recognition

Now for the fun part – coming up with ideas for volunteer recognition! 

There are so many ways to recognize volunteers. As you develop your plan, consider whether you want to focus on formal or informal recognition – or a combination of the two approaches. 

What do we mean by formal and informal recognition, you ask?

In his e-book Informal Volunteer Recognition, John L. Lipp looks at the differences between formal and informal recognition.

According to Lipp, formal recognition can be defined as “planned, institutionalized actions that happen on a repeating schedule, usually on an annual basis.”

On the other hand, informal recognition is “all about the small, everyday gestures one does to express gratitude for other people.” 

Regardless of how you choose to recognize your volunteers, always keep in mind the following key principles: 

  • Remember to say thanks. Sometimes a heartfelt, personal “thank you” is all that your volunteers need to feel appreciated. 

  • Acknowledge and support your volunteers and treat them right. Here are some of the 101 Top Tips to Recognize Volunteers suggested by Volunteering Australia.

  • Demonstrate the impact of their workVolunteer Canada suggests that "Volunteers want to be thanked and shown how they have made a difference – they want to know the impact of their contributions." This could mean anything from providing a formal report on the impact they’ve helped create to a quick email letting them know they’ve made a difference. 

But don’t stop there! We’ve got lots of ideas for both formal and informal volunteer recognition opportunities below.

Ideas for Formal Recognition

Here are a few ideas for building formal volunteer recognition into your regular annual activities. 

  • Send cards on their birthdays and holidays. Always include your volunteers in your regular holiday card mailings. Use your volunteer management software to keep track of their birthdays so you can acknowledge their special day.  CASA of Camden County acknowledges its volunteers by sending  birthday, anniversary, holiday, and thinking-of-you cards at intervals through the year — not just once. 

  • Organize regular volunteer appreciation events. It’s great to recognize volunteers at the events they’re supporting throughout the year, but why not throw them their own party? This doesn’t have to cost big bucks. A potluck, a pub gathering or even a COVID-19-friendly virtual get-together will help your volunteers feel appreciated and connected. 

  • Offer volunteer recognition awards. Your volunteer appreciation event would be a great time to present special recognition awards! Acknowledge and celebrate long-time volunteers with certificates, plaques or other tokens of appreciation. 

  • Send impact reports. Just like you would for any donor, prepare a special volunteer impact report (or even just a detailed email!) for your volunteers highlighting how the event or program they supported is making a difference. 

  • Go the extra mile. Make life a little easier for your volunteers by adding special touches that help them stay engaged and hit the ground running. For example, the Flint River Conservation Association lays out snacks and arranges canoe rentals to turn each of its river clean-up events into a fun family day on the river.

  • Organize a “thank you” phone-a-thon. Get everyone involved! Give staff a list of phone numbers to call and ask them to set aside a couple of hours in their week to connect directly with volunteers, with the sole purpose of saying “thank you.” 

  • Offer discounts and other perks. Try asking local shops and services if they’d be willing to offer discounts for your volunteers. 

  • Recognize them on social media. Shine the spotlight on your volunteers! Make them feel special by featuring their hard work and impact on your social media channels for all the world to see. To see how other charities are recognizing their volunteers on social media, check out the #volunteerappreciation hashtag.  

  • Celebrate them on your website. Take it a step further by linking to an article or photo gallery on your website entirely dedicated to showcasing your volunteers and how they contribute to your mission. Check out this great article from Women’s College Hospital Foundation highlighting a whole range of volunteers – from both the past and present.  

  • Share a special thank-you video. Get your staff together or recruit your executive director to create a special video message just for your volunteers, letting them know how much you value and appreciate them. The holiday season is a great time of year for a special touch like this.

  • Hold a Freeze Mob.  To kick off National Volunteer Week, Volunteer Ottawa staged a "freeze mob". This entailed having  “volunteer freezers" stand still and hold signs explaining their reasons for volunteering at a local shopping center.  
  • Have a "Volunteer of the Month" and post his or her personal story on your web page to inspire others.

Ideas for Informal Recognition

Having a mix of both formal and informal recognition throughout the year will really help your volunteers feel appreciated and valued. 

Here are a few ideas for easy, informal recognition opportunities you can deliver on the fly. 

  • Check in regularly with your volunteers to make sure they have everything they need and to ask if there’s anything you can do to make their experience better. 

  • Take photos of your volunteers in action, create an online photo album and send them a link to help them relive their volunteer experience. 

  • Take a break with your volunteers! When it’s time for lunch or a quick coffee break, ask if you can sit with volunteers and use the opportunity to say thank you for everything they do. 

  • Create name badges for your office volunteers to help them feel like part of the team. 

  • Offer gift cards as a way of saying thank you. This doesn’t have to blow your budget: a $5 gift card to a local coffee shop will help make their day. 

And, as always, a simple “thank you” is often all a volunteer needs to hear.

  Volunteer Appreciation Software  

Volunteer Gift Ideas 

Meaningful gifts are another great way to show your volunteers you care about them and value their contributions. 


But no one needs more stuff for the junk drawer, so make sure your gifts will create an impact for your volunteers (and aren’t just another pen with your logo).

This article provides great insight into the importance of giving gifts that will actually mean something to your volunteers and offers a few ideas, such as:

  • Books that help volunteers learn new skills.

  • Creating special access to training opportunities typically reserved for staff.

  • Tickets to local events and conferences.

  • Transportation passes (or gas cards) to help volunteers get to their service sites.

  • Special clip boards and lanyards just for volunteers.

  • Photo albums (digital or physical).

  • Badges that volunteers can attach to their nametags (for example, to showcase years of service or to identify themselves as part of specific project teams).

And here are a few more fun gift ideas from Sign Up Genius:

  • Spa day in a bag: Give your volunteers a mini spa getaway with a bag filled with bath salts, candles, tea, chocolates and more.

  • Staycation in a bag: Help your volunteers relax at home with cozy socks, an aromatherapy candle and a special note of gratitude.

  • Book bag: Have a book bag custom made (or iron on a patch yourself) and include a favourite book or gift card to a local bookstore.

  • Seasonal items: Make sure your volunteers are prepared for the weather by providing them with handwarmers, sunscreen, scarves, etc. 

These are also all great options for COVID-19 times, to help volunteers feel appreciated even when you’re not meeting up in person.


The Impact of Showing Appreciation

Volunteers are the heart of so many nonprofit organizations. 

By taking these steps to develop a strong, year-round volunteer recognition plan, you can be sure that those who give their time to your cause feel appreciated in return. 

The impact? Happier volunteers, a stronger organization and a successful mission. 

So what are you waiting for? Get started today!

  Volunteer Recruitment Checklist

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