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  • Writer's pictureJessica

Internet Inquiry: December 2020 Edition (Celebrating Volunteers' Birthdays)

Updated: Feb 14, 2021

It's been a few months since my last blog and I'm going to try a new type of article: the advice column. Reminiscent of my time at the Heart & Stroke Foundation where I published a regular column for colleagues called "Ask Jessica", I'll address questions from message boards from across the internet on volunteer engagement.

Readers: I look forward to hearing your opinions- whether you agree, disagree, or would like me to consider a different angle, reach out! Discussion is the best part of learning!


Volunteer birthdays- do you celebrate them? How? Our team has started taking note of volunteers' birthdays to acknowledge and celebrate them. One volunteer who we've asked to support this data collection has indicated that they would be very upset due to data privacy.

*Text edited for brevity

A summary of answers and comments from other leaders of volunteers:

- Some volunteer engagement teams collect this data and send out birthday greetings (e-cards, text messages, physical cards) to volunteers without issues arising

- Volunteer engagement software like Better Impact can store volunteer birthday data

- If a volunteer objects to sharing their birthday, ask if it is okay just to note the month

- From Tracey O'Neill: "recognition should be personal...ask everyone upon recruitment what their preferred recognition is"

- If screening for the role requires it (e.g. volunteers must be 14+), the information can and should be stored

My answer and advice:

1) Start with EDI

It is important to start by taking the lens of equity, diversity, and inclusion. Not everyone celebrates birthdays. Some religions frown upon birthday celebrations (most notably the Jehovah's Witnesses denomination of Christianity). Many people around the world don't celebrate their birthdays in a "Western" style: cake, cards, the birthday song, etc.

Simply assuming that a birthday greeting would be meaningful to all volunteers on your organization's team is short-sighted and perpetuates the dominance of mainstream Western culture. We can all do better and as Volunteer Canada suggests, appreciate that "every individual has a unique style and preference for how they want to be recognized".

2) Consider the role and its "bona fide" requirements

In Ontario, Canada, where I live and spent most of my career in volunteer engagement, the Human Rights Commission has indicated that job requirements must be "reasonable and made in good faith". One of my mentors, Adriane Beaudry, encouraged me to apply this employment screening requirement when approaching volunteer screening.

There should be no need to ask a volunteer for their age, gender, marital status, or any other question you might find on "standardized" forms if the role they are applying to does not have a "bona fide" requirement for specific qualities. For example, if identifying as a woman is critical to serving as a girls' group mentor, then it is okay to ask about a volunteer applicant's gender. But, it would not be okay to ask for a volunteer applicant's gender if they were applying for a role where gender does not preclude eligibility (e.g. food sorter or a park cleanup crew).

So, if you are thinking about asking for date of birth in your team's volunteer application or information forms, think twice about whether birthday/ age is a "bona fide" requirement. Maybe you could make it a non-required question and tell volunteers that you are collecting the information to recognize their birthday. Or maybe, just leave out the birthday question, and consider my next tidbit of advice.

3) Celebrate the volunteer and their achievements in ways that connect to the organization's mission

Beyond asking volunteers how they want to be recognized and making the celebrations personal, it is so important to connect each volunteer's action to the impact they have.

Yes, instead of celebrating a volunteer's birthday, you can celebrate their anniversary with your organization instead. You should also include volunteers in team celebrations where they've made an impact, for example, fundraising campaign success, organizational milestones (e.g. 10,000 dogs adopted!), wrapping up operational projects. If they were part of the team in achieving specific goals, consider a big gesture like an award.

Whatever recognition tactics you choose, big or small, make sure they aren't empty (e.g. simply a recognition of time or being a "warm body"). When you connect volunteer actions to the mission and you are sure to improve engagement and steward the relationship even further.

From my experience, what makes a volunteer feel most recognized is the continual acknowledgement of their contributions in an informal way. Some of the tactics I've used are:

- Setting aside time to share news about the organization's latest successes.

- Making sure to explain how even the most mundane task connects back to the organization's mission. Earlier in my career, I assigned volunteers to shred confidential documents a few times each year. I explained how they were contributing to maintaining the organization's reputation and donor privacy and this was critical work that truly made a difference.

- Thanking volunteers for their time and work after each engagement. Even a quick email or text acknowledging how they made a difference reinforces their importance on the team.

Whether you send a "happy birthday" message to volunteers or not, I hope you have some new ideas and insights to take back to your practice. Leave a comment below if you'd like to continue the conversation!

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