Beyond Plaques & Pins: Volunteer Reward & Recognition from a New Perspective

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I’m often asked for recommendations on how to reward and recognize volunteers.  Naturally, leaders of volunteers want to express their gratitude for the contributions of their volunteers and want to encourage them to continue their efforts.  Unfortunately, more often than not, they don’t have the budget or can’t convince senior management, or the fiscal department, to approve the expense. 

As I work on a volunteer recognition and retention plan for one of my consulting clients, I’ve taken a step back to reconsider — What really motivates us?  How can that be integrated into how we reward and recognize volunteers?  Does recognition really require a big budget and lots of bling, or are we missing the point entirely?

For author Daniel Pink, most business (of which I assume nonprofits are a part) miss the point when they design their employee reward systems.  In his TED talk “The Puzzle of Motivation” he explains what science has only recently discovered — contingent motivators don’t work.  When we attempt to inspire using a transactional approach — “if you do X, we’ll give you X” — performance actually gets worse.

Unfortunately, extrinsic motivators are still what most of the world relies on to reward employees (through pay for performance, for example) — as well as volunteers (through gifts and awards).

“There’s a mismatch between what science knows and what business does,” explains Pink.  Extrinsic rewards or incentives don’t increase productivity or motivate, he argues, because they actually make us focus on a limited action and consequence and thus restrict possibility.  This is especially true when it comes to jobs that require cognitive skills over merely mechanical ones. 

Consider motivating the elusive skilled or leader volunteer.  How do we limit their potential by the way we recognize them?

During countless interviews and conversations with volunteers I’ve heard similar themes expressed.  They really don’t need to see the plaque, trophy, or fancy dinner to feel appreciated.  They want to see and experience the change in the world they work so hard to bring about.  And yet, our recognition planning continues as before.

But if the old paradigm doesn’t work, what does?  In his book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” Pink identifies three basic human drives:

  • Mastery – The need to create and learn new things
  • Autonomy – The need to direct our own lives
  • Purpose – The need to be part of something that improves our world and ourselves

In fact, Pink’s arguments point to the very premise of volunteering itself — volunteers are driven to help organizations and communities, without pay, because they can bring about improvements in society and because they matter.

So, rather than using outdated ideas about what motivates people, how can leaders of volunteers use what science has discovered to improve their recognition practices?  Here are some ideas:

Encourage Mastery

  • Give volunteers leeway to create new work processes and tools for your program and agency; develop style guides so that they know the minimum expectations and can work within agency guidelines.
  • Help volunteers learn new things; invite guest speakers in for monthly “Teach Ins” (or webinars) that relate to your cause or their work for your organization.
  • Hold annual “Idea Mash Ups” where volunteers and staff come together for a day of problem solving around the organization or program’s biggest challenges; then, have them pitch their ideas and vote on which should be considered for implementation.

Provide Autonomy 

  • If extensive training is required, allow volunteers to direct at least some of their own learning; offer them a Learning Checklist and goals with which they can track their own progress.
  • Provide robust online resources and tools for learning, personal exploration, and growth; set up a volunteer team to develop a wiki where volunteers can connect and share resources (www.wikispaces.com).
  • Set up a process and technology (i.e., Google Calendar) for team-based scheduling; appoint one or two volunteer schedule coordinators, but allow the team to work together to plan shift coverage (and offer back up in case issues arise).

Reinforce Purpose

  • Take every opportunity to demonstrate how the world has improved because of volunteer efforts — from both the individual level, by sharing thank you notes from service beneficiaries, and the program level, by reporting program outcomes and achievements.
  • Present an annual “State of the Community” report to volunteers that details the impacts the organization has had in furthering its mission or cause (both measurable and anecdotal), what challenges it has encountered, and what still needs to be done.
  • Form a Volunteer Advisory Team to not only guide your program decision making, but to also evaluate or audit your program operations to find ways to improve.

By changing the way you approach volunteer recognition activities, you may be able to better tap into what really drives human motivations and, along the way, help volunteers feel truly acknowledged and appreciated. 

What ideas do you have on whats to engage, reward, and motivate volunteers? 

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  • We completely agree at Kudos. A simple thank you can make a world of difference and strategic recognition can help drive desired outcomes. We developed a system called Kudos to empower people to show their appreciation for others that are instrumental to their success. Better yet we offer Kudos for free to Not for Profits 501 [c] 3 organizations. Please feel free to check it out. http://www.kudosnow.com.