Volunteer recognition is important, but is it negatively impacting our ability to attract new volunteers?

Volunteer recognition season is drawing to an end. Whilst New Zealand’s National Volunteer Week kicks off on Sunday (16th June 2019), we’ve already had similar weeks in the USA, Canada, Ireland, Australia and the UK (to name just a few).

Volunteers have been showered in praise and thanked for their work. Awards have been handed out as parties, lunches and receptions have been held. New pin badges are being worn and new certificates displayed with pride.

Such recognition efforts are to be encouraged, but are they working against us when it comes to other aspects of volunteer management, especially recruitment?

A few years ago my good friend Martin J Cowling told me that he had a habit of reading the local newspapers in places he visited around the world. If those newspapers featured any stories about volunteers they were usually recognition of deeply committed, often older people, selflessly giving huge amounts of time over a considerable number of years to good causes in their community.

Today I see Martin’s experience reflected in the daily Google Alerts I receive. These highlight mentions of the words volunteering, volunteer and volunteerism in the news. Here are just three examples:

All of these people have done wonderful volunteering and are rightly being celebrated. But just think for a minute about the message such stories may send to people outside of the volunteering bubble, including those who have never volunteered before:

  • Volunteering is mostly something done in retirement
  • Volunteering requires a long-term time commitment (20 years plus)
  • Volunteering requires me to give lots of time on a regular basis
  • People with a disability can’t volunteer (the Southend Hospital volunteer stopped because of sight loss)
  • Volunteer work isn’t very exciting (putting labels on files and running errands for paid staff)
  • Volunteers are mainly old people

Would these news stories attract young people? Or people who feel the pressure of time on their busy lives? Or those balancing work with family commitments or caring responsibilities?

What about people with disabilities? Or those for whom volunteering is seen as a route into work? Or students who need to fit volunteering around studies?

My fear is that in acknowledging and celebrating the super-volunteers1 we are turning off the very diversity of people we want – no need – if volunteer engagement is going to be sustainable when the likes of those people mentioned in these stories stop their volunteering.

What we need to do is balance the stories of long-term, deeply committed volunteers with more public recognition of volunteers who give a short amount of time, perhaps a one off commitment, and make a difference as a consequence.

As hypothetical example, let’s show how Finn, aged 16, used his social media skills on a short term project that developed a new recruitment campaign which has subsequently helped us engage twelve new young people from BAME backgrounds in our advocacy work.

If you have such stories already then put them forward to your communications teams and / or local media. Explain why the traditional stories don’t always help and give some new material for the media people to use.

If you don’t have these stories (perhaps because you don’t have those roles) then my advice is to start developing them! Jayne Cravens has some excellent examples and advice on these three pages of her website (which should be an essential resource for all Volunteer Managers!):

Perhaps if we get the message out that volunteering doesn’t require the next thirty years of your life, that it’s flexible, inclusive, impactful, fulfilling, tech-loving and doesn’t require you to sign away all your free time…perhaps if we do that, we’ll start to transform volunteer engagement for the better?

Maybe we can all commit to this changed approach for the volunteer recognition season 2020 – are you on board?

  1. See Einolf, Christopher J & Yung, Cheryl (2018). Super-volunteers: Who Are They and How Do We Get One? Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 47(4), 789-812
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6 thoughts on “When recognition hurts recruitment (and what we might do about it)

  1. Rob you have it the nail on the head. I really agonize over recognition events and service awards. Heaven forbid if you miss someone out of service awards. You will never hear the end of it. I liaise with members of staff in an effort to try to find new ways where volunteers can assist in meaningful ways which help staff and patients in the hospital by value adding to the service which staff provide. I strive to have volunteers and staff working as a team, helping each other to provide the best service possible. It is beginning to work, staff appreciating the additional assistance of volunteers and volunteers working in with staff to provide patients with additional service and support, all working as a team for the benefit of the patients. This only works when there is a common goal and staff and volunteers work hand in hand to achieve that goal.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This definitely resonates. This has inspired me to challenge the usual approach more next year! I think we got it off to a good start this time round – our online community team published a news blog highlighting the commitment our Online Support Professionals give. It’s flexible, it’s done from home, and… the volunteers, really, have to be of working age, as they’re still in work as practising healthcare professionals! And one of our Volunteer Team Leaders pulled together a piece that showcased some of our own staff working on the helpline and how this has helped them in they day jobs. As I say, it’s a start!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes! I had to ask our media team not to focus on the length of volunteers’ commitments and instead focus on the human impact for both the volunteer and the person being supported.
    I was amused by ‘recognition season’! Hopefully we’re expressing our gratitude to our volunteers all year round!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You mean I don’t have to start volunteering when I retire? Phew!

    You raise good points… I think most of us know it’s important to recognize the impact a volunteer makes… yes, that impact may be substantial when someone gives 30 years of their time (a huge and meaningful commitment to be sure), but what about other volunteers who bring their passion, skills and commitment to our organizations to drive mission in other ways?

    Perhaps we (as volunteer engagement leaders/professionals) need to remember volunteer motivations/trends and recognize volunteers in ways that reflect the reasons why/how people join our teams? Short term, project based volunteers, newcomers looking to get involved in their new communities, persons who have a disability who are trying to build skills, etc…

    As we engage our colleagues to put forward volunteers to be nominated for awards or featured in articles, share with them the motivations of volunteers and encourage them to recognize volunteers who may not be our 30+ year volunteer but make a huge impact during their time with us.

    Thanks for sharing another interesting and though provoking article. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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