Internet Inquiry: June 2021 Edition (Volunteer Appreciation Gifts)
This question came through the VoluneerPro Insiders Facebook group. To paraphrase, another leader of volunteers asked for "ideas on some type of budget-friendly token to give volunteers at an event this fall".
My initial answer: "Buy a bunch of squash or apples etc. from a local farmer, include a card that outlines the impact of their work. If you want volunteers to have something with your logo on it, stickers are a hit. Research shows that volunteers aren't looking for gifts, they want to learn the impact of their work."
My statement about research is true- just check out these articles and reports:
Volunteer Canada's 2013 Volunteer Recognition Study
Sterling Volunteers' 2021 Blog: "Methods for Tracking and Recognizing Volunteer Impact"
Tobi Johnson's Blog: "How to Give Volunteer Gifts that Actually Mean Something"
Tobi Johnson encourages us to think about the limits of extrinsic motivators like gifts. Thanking volunteers with things is not only unsustainable, it hurts long-term commitment!
Tobi's blog content reminds me of some informal volunteering I did as a preteen, helping my neighbour Cindy weed her garden. One particularly hot day, Cindy gave me an ice cream bar after I helped out. During the next few gardening sessions, I longed for that ice cream bar but never received another one. Eventually, I stopped going out to offer my help when I saw Cindy in her garden beds. Perhaps I would have helped Cindy with her garden for many more years if she gave me my own trowel instead of an ice cream bar. Perhaps I was just a flighty teen who lost interest.
My point is... if all volunteers receive a small gift at this fall event- will it set up an expectation for a gift every fall?
I recognize that sometimes giving volunteer gifts is a "must-do". Sometimes it's because volunteers have received gifts every fall for the last fifty years, and the organization hasn't had an opportunity to pause and re-strategize. Sometimes there is "use it or lose it" money that must be spent. Sometimes donors give funding specifically for volunteer recognition, and organizing an event isn't feasible. For those instances, I'd like to share some ideas.
Idea 1: Use your purchase power to support local businesses and community members
When I Google "volunteer gifts", results come up for mass-produced branded items like notepads, pens, key chains etc. While "feeling connected lies at the core of the volunteer experience" and possessing branded items strengthens affiliation, these items are often produced in faraway countries by low-wage workers and have a crushing environmental impact.
Does your organization serve clients who are or have become entrepreneurs? Spend your money there! You will have more unique gifts and the opportunity to bring new business to community members!
In Canada, entrepreneurs who identify as women, BIPOC, and immigrants are facing significant challenges to COVID recovery. If you invest purchase power in the community, volunteers will further appreciate the organization's values.
Idea 2: Give experiences
Many cultural organizations and museums do this already: free admission for volunteers! For environmental organizations, this could be an exclusive guided hike. For hospitals, this could be a layperson-friendly speech from a top doctor.
Let's extend Idea 1 a bit further and grasp the opportunity for non-profits to support one another and local businesses. For example, a housing non-profit could give volunteers admission to architectural landmarks. Another example is an education non-profit inviting volunteers to a drive-in movie screening of Mr. Holland's Opus.
Idea 3: Give gifts that are related to your mission
Work at an animal welfare organization? Dog and cat toys would be a big hit! Volunteers are likely animal-lovers. Even if they don't have their own furry friends at home, they'll likely be able to pass along the gift.
Work at an environmental organization? Consider gifts of seeds or seedlings of native pollinator plants. For organizations that work on bird conservation, consider birdseed! Then, invite volunteers to an exclusive chat with a naturalist in your network to learn about how the gifts will help them get closer to nature.
Work at a health-focused organization or hospital? Local produce would be a great choice. You can add a healthy recipe or information about the benefits of eating more vegetables and fruit.
Work at an education-focused organization? Give volunteers access to resources like LinkedIn Learning, Duolingo Plus, or Blinklist. This will help them pass on learning to the people you serve too!
To quote Tobi Johnson one last time, "By changing the volunteer recognition approach, organizations better tap into what really drives human motivations while, at the same time, helping volunteers feel truly acknowledged."
Please share your thoughts on volunteer gifts in the comments below! I'd love to hear the best volunteer gifts you've ever given or gotten.