The Giving of Thanks

By Susan J. Ellis

November in the United States brings the holiday of Thanksgiving. Rooted in the tradition of harvest festivals everywhere, the American holiday commemorates a heritage of community spirit, specifically the legend of Native Americans bringing gifts of food to needy European settlers. So the Thanksgiving story is, at its core, a story of gratitude for volunteering as well as for the abundance of a deity.

So it’s in November that I tend to think about the way we approach volunteer recognition.   First, it’s my opinion that most of what we call volunteer recognition widely misses the mark and that the search for good ways to say thank you is still a challenge.   As you know, we have an entire area of this Web site dedicated to volunteer recognition and appreciate how many of you have posted some excellent ideas, quotes, and stories to share with everyone.    But it is still true that too many recognition events miss the mark.

Here are some of the thoughts I’ve been mulling about for some time:

1. There is a big difference between expressions of appreciation and true "recognition." Saying thank you is vital--both informally at the time something is done well and more formally at least once a year. But without the other elements of recognition, a thank you can be meaningless or even insulting. Some examples: not acknowledging volunteer contributions to a project or report (such as not including volunteer names on the document or leaving out a description of their work); executives reading speeches clearly written for them by someone else and then mispronouncing volunteer names; publicly applauding or awarding a volunteer after a year of privately stonewalling suggestions and general lack of respect for the talents and commitment of the person. This last is of personal interest to me. If an organization can’t treat me well while I’m trying to do my work for them without fanfare, I tend to resent them putting on a happy face in public and pretending they value me.

2. It’s amazing to watch coordinators of volunteers transform themselves into caterers and impresarios as they plan what is the equivalent of an annual royal wedding! How did we end up spending so much time on giving a party? And why do they all look alike? Why do YOU have to plan the event? How did we get to the point of treating volunteers as the invited guests, rarely asked to participate in making the event what they might actually enjoy attending?  Too often all the energy is focused on preparing a splendid banquet or event and not enough focus is placed on the interaction at the event. Recognition and thanks come from having the opportunity to gather with other volunteers and paid staff, kick back and relax, and celebrate what was accomplished in the past year.

3. The last sentence above is key. The important part of recognition is celebrating accomplishments! Not the meal, the speaker, the certificates, or the mugs. As someone who is often asked to speak at volunteer recognition affairs, I am perplexed at how often I leave the site with no clear idea of what these fine people have actually done during the year that deserves this praise. So, if your recognition event doesn’t talk about what volunteers DID--specifically, with photos, with data, with comments from clients, etc.--you are wasting a great opportunity.

This is why awards based solely on hours served are so ridiculous. They mean nothing in terms of accomplishment. In fact, consider that hours-based recognition ironically rewards the slowest workers! If Jim takes three hours to do what Lateesha can do in one hour, he racks up three times the "points" towards that pin--for less work! By all means honor longevity or even the few with the highest hour totals, but please connect most of your recognition to how important the work of volunteers has been this year. That’s what you’re celebrating!

Let’s use Thanksgiving as a time to reconsider how--and why--we give thanks to volunteers. Remember that International Volunteer Day is December 5, the week after the holiday. Maybe your organization uses the Christmas/Chanukah/Kwanzaa period for party-giving and you can plan now to add some true recognition into the festivities. Or you can think ahead to National Volunteer Week, whenever your country sponsors it.

What are your gripes about traditional volunteer recognition? What have you done (or received) that you felt truly acknowledged volunteers?

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Comments from Readers

Submitted on
Marty ODell, CVA, Volunteer Program Manager, Goodwill Easter Seals Miami Valley, Dayton, OH, USA

I usually shy away from banquets and dinners too much work for too few people. But last year I allowed myself to be talked into another one. We decided to mix things up, tables were small 4 people to a table, volunteers could bring a significant other or prospective volunteer to the dinner and we asked the supervisors to think of some wild and wacky awards. Here is a sample:
Vicki - Thanks for the commit-mint - bag of spearmint life savers
Matt – Thanks for being a BIG help - beach ball
Cassandra – We are lucky to have you - box of lucky charms cereal
Karen – Thanks for the helping hand - a stuffed glove
Ubonwan – Your talents sparkle! Thanks for sharing them with us. - a bottle of glittery nail polish

The volunteers loved it! This year we are including a Super Supervisor Award, the supervisors have been nominated by the volunteers and judges outside the agency doing the judging. 3 winners will receive recognition and a gift card. All supervisors and their significant others are invited as well.

The CEO of the agency participates in the event. I believe because we are making it fun and not stuffy it is gathering a following, and allowing the volunteers to meet and know each other.

Submitted on
Barbara Storch, Technical Services Manager, Mandel Public Library of West Palm Beach, West Palm Beach, United States

For the last few years we have been holding a volunteer recognition luncheon. We recognize each volunteer personally by having the volunteer's supervisor do a short presentation in which they talk about what they do to volunteer at the library. It is friendly and informal. Each volunteer also receives a token gift. We used to present certificates but came to the conclusion that the volunteers don't really want these. Every year I receive positive feedback from attendees about how much they enjoy the luncheon. It is very casual, although we do have the Mayor, representatives from the City Commission and representatives from City Administration attend. I, as the volunteer manager, present a speech. The Mayor also looks forward to speaking each year. It is very meaningful as she was once a member of the Library Advisory Board and is totally committed to supporting the Library and having a vital volunteer program citywide. From what I have been reading on your website and others, we will probably continue the annual volunteer recognition luncheon.