Enough Formal Banquets! Let's Transform Recognition Events

By Susan J. Ellis

To our friends in the UK, happy Volunteers Week which begins on June 1st. Here in North America, were finishing up the spring recognition season which broadly goes from April (when our National Volunteer Week occurs) through June. As many others, Ive been on the circuit of luncheon and dinner banquets, served up as the after dinner mint to thank the attending volunteers with an energetic speech.

Enough, please! A few years ago I reflected in a Hot Topic that directors of volunteer services spend part of every year planning, in essence, a big wedding. They obsess over the menu, decorations, invitations, and entertainment. In the end, while the event may be lovely, there is a stultifying sameness about it all. And, I believe, this tradition has nothing whatsoever to do with making volunteers feel thanked for their work.

Steve McCurley and I opened the recent Colorado State Conference on Volunteerism with a presentation on the assumptions of our field. One of these was: “Men do not volunteer.” We provoked conferees to look at hidden messages. For example, Steve asked, which gender is most likely to appreciate a sit-down banquet??? Ever notice who does not attend?

Many of you have discovered this for yourself, of course. In my travels I have heard all about some wonderfully innovative recognition events: safari-themed zoo picnics, outings to amusement centers, ice cream socials, staff-developed variety shows, special passes to behind-the-scenes tours, discount shopping sprees. Please continue to share your event ideas in our Recognition area

The point of this essay is not to trash banquets and praise field trips. It’s to question the fundamental rationale of what we are trying to do and see if we can come up with ways to make any recognition activity more worthwhile (even a banquet!). I am presuming that we want:

  • to make volunteers feel appreciated for their work--collectively and individually;
  • to help volunteers feel a part of the bigger picture and get to know one another;
  • to educate executives and the board about the impact of volunteers throughout the year;
  • to acknowledge that paid staff contributes to the success of volunteers (as well as vice versa); and
  • to re-commit everyone to further enthusiastic volunteer service.

So why is it that we:

  • Invite an outside speaker who doesn’t know anything first-hand about the organization to say “outstanding job”?
  • Allow top executives/the board to give a thank you speech that we wrote and they read (complete with mispronounced volunteer names)?
  • Seat people at big round tables where they can only hear the conversation of those on either side of them, and then remain fixed in place through speeches and award presentations? (Note: Buffet lines do not offer a “mingling” experience.)
  • Print names in a program without any other information?
  • Limit attendance because of the cost of the event per person?

Maybe we need to take a new approach and keep our goals in mind. How about:

  • Eliminate the speeches and ask various paid staff members to get up and say a few heartfelt--or funny--words.
  • If you want the executive to make a presentation, why not share things of interest to volunteers that they don’t ordinarily learn about such as any number of plans for future programs, purchases, staff, etc. Make sure the speech references the ways volunteers will play a role in this upcoming happenings.
  • When possible, involve clients in saying the thank you (they may actually welcome the chance). If you can’t do this on site during the event, go around in advance and audiotape the voices of clients, students, visitors, etc., telling what they like about volunteers. Use the tape as background for a slide show of volunteer activities throughout the past year.
  • Give nametags with some useful information on them: volunteer position, years of service, something special this volunteer has done. Then make a point of introducing people to one another in such a way as to encourage real conversations. Yes, icebreaker games do work!
  • Organize a moveable feast. During the course of the meal (or after each course), make people move around the room and take new seats to meet new people. Volunteers actually want to meet each other. After all, they share their volunteer interests and are genuinely curious about the other people in the room. There are lots of ways to move people around, from colored dots on nametags to musical chairs.
  • Re-focus your energies on everyone’s interaction instead of on the meal. Offer great desserts and invite every volunteer, even those who only came in once to repaint the playroom. Allow volunteers to bring a guest. Generate excitement.
  • Provide an opportunity for volunteers to speak, too! Have different units prepare a short recap of their year or perform a skit. Ask several key questions from the podium and allow any number of volunteers to give brief answers. Some ideas: What was the most surprising thing you learned as a volunteer this year? What was the funniest incident that occurred? What touched you the most?
  • Give volunteers some choice. Instead of one big, dress-up event, why not offer three less formal activities at three different times: a Sunday afternoon picnic, a guided tour of a special museum exhibit on Tuesday morning, and a make-you-own-salad light dinner on Thursday evening. The continuity among these events is something you give each volunteer, such as an annual report, a first aid kit to thank everyone for “coming to the rescue” this year, a set of photographs of themselves at their volunteer assignment, etc.
  • Offer something educational. Volunteering is a life-long learning opportunity. Give a seminar on the newest trends in your field. Teach Internet browsing skills. Bring in a corporate trainer who can teach good customer relations techniques.

I also believe that we do not have to plan recognition events “for” volunteers; we can plan them with volunteers. Now there’s some recognition!

Since we have the ongoing Recognition area on this site, please go there to post specific events, gifts and activities which have been successful for you for recognizing volunteers. For this Hot Topic, please comment on:

  • Pet peeves about what's wrong with the way recognition is done generally.
  • Ideas for doing things really differently.
  • Ways that you have gotten volunteers to interact at an event.

If it's hard for you to distinguish which area to post in. Don't worry, just post your response to the hot topic and we'll separate accordingly!!

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Comments from Readers

Submitted on
Ivy Ruark, Director of Volunteer Services, Pines of Sarasota Rehabilitation and Senior Care Community, Sarasota, FL, United States

Our volunteer appreciation "event" is the highlight of the year at Pines of Sarasota. Far from being stuffy, we bring in local entertainment and use in-house food created by our dietary staff. I select my theme almost a year in advance, allowing me to bargain shop for decorations at yard sales and clearance tables. Our large meeting hall has been transformed into a 50's diner, a Country Western town, an elegant tea party salon, and a winter wonderland, all on a very limited budget. Use PINTEREST to get your ideas flowing, and don't be afraid to check out the children's birthday party themes - after all, there's still a "little kid" in most of my volunteers, despite that the average age is over 70. They love getting back to their roots and hearing music that calls back memories of when they were younger. HAVE FUN WITH IT!

Submitted on
A. Holloway, Owner/Events Manager, Events Guru, Milwaukee, WI, US

This is an older article, however, I still found it to be quite useful. I'm the Events Manager for a global non-profit organization, as well, Owner of Events Guru. I was researching new ideas for our volunteer recognition program for the non-profit organization as most have chimed in and said, ours is pretty lackluster with very minimal attendance. This was my first year doing the event as I came on board with just a couple of weeks of planning left. The organization doesn't want this particular event to involve too much effort. However, I feel it'll have to be more engaging and interactive to keep the interest of our volunteers. Otherwise, like most have said, it becomes boring and uninteresting. Currently, it's a simple set up of buffet banquet, very brief slideshow, a quick thank you, a little mingling, and have a nice evening. I noticed the few volunteers that showed up were disengaged and felt "alone", not knowing any other volunteers. A more interactive event will have the volunteers engaging with one another, relaxing, and enjoying the event, rather than feeling like a stuffy event where they are constantly watching the time and waiting for the perfect exit. Definitely going to incorporate all of the tools and advice given.

Submitted on
A. Holloway, Owner/Events Manager, Events Guru, Milwaukee, WI, US

As a follow up question, can anyone share their methods of communication to volunteers to advertise the volunteer recognition event?

Submitted on
Susan J Ellis, Energize, Inc., Philadelphia, PA, USA

Thanks for posting to this older Hot Topic, which we welcome. I'm glad that you got some good ideas from it and I encourage you to also look at the section on Recognition in our A-Z Volunteer Management Library. 

Have you considered asking a few volunteers -- of different ages and in different volunteer positions -- to form a "think tank" to assist you with this question of what people might want and enjoy as a recognition event? You don't have to do this only FOR volunteers, but WITH them. There are no rules -- really! You can even have a "recognition week" during which you run a few different events and let everyone choose the one that appeals to them the most -- from an ice cream sundae social to a barbecue to passes to a movie. Yes, you will need to be at all of them to say thank you and make sure it's a nice event, but that is a small price to pay if you generate enthusiasm. Also involve paid staff, both to boost attendance and to thank them, too. (A paycheck is not a thank you.)

Submitted on
Bobbi Hynes, Volunteer manager, OSF St. Joseph Medical Center, Bloomington, IL, USA

We believe that you cannot overcommunicate information that you want your volunteers to have, so we send the information to the volunteers via email, we post it on our VIcMail they see when they check in, and we put the information in our monthly newsletter. We generally get 100 of our 200 volunteers to attend the breakfast. The volunteers have said that they really enjoy getting together and having the chance to get "dressed up". We get a mix of our college students, our older adults, and some high school youth as well. We hand out door prizes that everyone loves, we do a slideshow, and of course, a breakfast buffet. The staff attends to pour coffee, get plates filled, and sit with the volunteers. Having the President of the hospital and the Chief Medical Officer pour a cup of coffee goes a long way! Everyone loves to see themselves in the power point slides and it is a fun event.

Submitted on
Anamika, Field coordinator, Youth Friendly Centre, Bhutanese refugee camp, Beldangi-2, Nepal

This article was quite useful, I've been planning a volunteers appreciation event for our refugee volunteers & I came up with a blank state of mind. I need a creative do-able event, as we don't have much resources in the camp. Please can you help me with it?

Submitted on
Susan J Ellis, Energize, Inc., Philadelphia, PA, USA

Hi, Anamika -- a recognition event is about creating an opportunity for celebrating accomplishments. It's not about the food or entertainment or gifts. It can be a "pot luck" in which everyone (including each volunteer) contributes some of the food for everyone. Let each volunteer get up and say what she or he is proudest of this year -- or some funny incident that happened -- or what s/he learned unexpectedly.  Let people share and do a lot of applauding and laughing. You can ask refugees who've been helped by the volunteers to say thank you at the event, too (they will probably be happy to get the chance). Maybe get them to sign their names to a poster with a short sentence about how they were helped. You can then hang it somewhere for everyone to see.  Or find refugees who can sing and ask if they'll do a short performance, etc. 

You can also ASK volunteers if there is anything they'd like to do to celebrate the last year. It may be something you would not have expected.  It might be visiting a scenic spot they've heard about but have not had the chance to see. It might be watching videos for an evening. Give them what they want and they WILL feel thanked!

Hope this gets you started on new ideas.

- Susan

Submitted on
Laura Miller, Community Outreach Director, CASA for Kids of East Texas, Tyler, United States

We, too, have grown away from the banquet style recognition event. The last two years we have held a family picnic for our volunteers and their families. This year, rather than giving certificates, we are giving hand written notes by their direct supervisors. I am looking for some creative, interactive ways to recognize some people and engage the crowd. I want to get away from the typical awards presentation. I would love any ideas. Thanks!