Going beyond a ball cap when it comes to recognizing volunteers' efforts

Gifts for volunteers

I often see posts on social media about what to give as gifts for volunteers.

Whether the gifts are for reaching a milestone, to celebrate Volunteer Week, or just to say thank you, leaders are often stumped about what to give. They usually default to ball caps, mugs or other organizationally-branded items.

Gifts for volunteers, though, can go so much further – and without a great deal of cost.

Gift certificates

These are one of my favourite gifts for volunteers. There is a ton of flexibility to match the certificate to both the volunteer and the occasion.

If you have a lot of volunteers to thank – say, for Volunteer Week – getting a $5 coffee card from Tim Horton’s or Starbucks is a good option. Many of these larger coffee chains are happy to give you a bunch of them for nothing because they want the traffic. People who come in for a free drink will also purchase a donut or other pastry while they’re there.

Maybe you want to celebrate a volunteer’s 25th year with you but they’re one of those people who “don’t need anything”. Consider getting a gift certificate for a local chain pharmacy or grocery store. It may seem boring but in these times of high inflation and higher prices, it can be one of the most appreciated gifts for volunteers, especially if the volunteer is on a limited budget!. Talk with the manager of the store when you get it. Tell him or her what it’s going to used for. I’ve found a store will often give you a discount.

And everything in between.

Job references

This, obviously, isn’t for everyone. If, however, you have a volunteer who is looking for paid work, having a reference from someone who’s seen their work and their work ethic, can be super helpful for them. Not everyone is comfortable asking for a reference, so be willing to offer if you feel you can give a good one. It’s a great way to say thank you.

Be aware, though, some organizations have rules against this. If yours is one of them, find out what those rules are exactly and why they’re in place. If there isn’t a valid reason for them, advocate to the board to have them changed. If you are struggling with what to say to convince them, let me know and I’ll help.


A number of years ago, I arranged a conference. The keynote speaker, who was from out of town, was very well-known in our sector. One of the “go-to” volunteers working on the conference, Joe, was a massive fan of the speaker. As a thank you for all the time and effort Joe put into the conference, I sent him to the airport to pick up the speaker. I would normally have done that myself. He got two hours of one-on-one time with his hero. Joe still talks about that every time I see him.

Think about experiences you can offer your volunteers. Can you offer them a chance to replace an absent staff member on a training course? Or a ticket to attend a special event. Or the opportunity, like Joe, to meet a famous person?

Experiences provide your volunteers with memories they will cherish far more than they would with a branded tee-shirt.

Gifts for volunteers don’t have to be challenging. Picking thoughtful, useful and welcome gifts for volunteers isn’t hard.

If you have an understanding of the volunteer’s interests, and are willing to think outside the box, you can offer gifts that they will appreciate for years to come.

Have fun.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.


It's smart to invest in volunteers and volunteer programs

Investing in volunteers

We haven’t invested in volunteers—and it shows.

Volunteer programs are like the foundations of a house. They are put in place and then hidden away, ignored, neglected. Until they start to crumble. Then the lovely house they support (read: our community) starts to break up. Cracks appear in the walls. The floors start to slope. The windows break and the cold weather starts coming in. That's when people start scrambling.

First they try to patch the walls and replace the windows, but obviously that doesn't last long. Then they try to “Band-Aid” the foundations and shore them up a bit. They don't want to do a proper rehabilitation job as that's time-consuming and expensive.

They'd rather spend money on the things everyone sees, like carpets and appliances. Besides, most people don't know how to fix a foundation properly and professionals are expensive. It’s easier to just try and patch things up themselves. That, of course, just delays the inevitable. Finally, they shrug their shoulders and say “it’s a complex issue”.

But investing in volunteers makes a huge difference. People, even those in the social impact sector, forget that investing the time and money to maintain and improve our volunteer programs will keep everything else in our communities strong and stable.

Think about some of the serious social issues that we're facing right now. Many may have been a lot less serious if effort was put into our volunteer programs right from the beginning.

And yet, we still see organizations pulling money and staff from the volunteer programs to give to other program areas. It’s like taking money from maintaining that house foundation and putting it into new drywall because the walls are cracked.

OK. Enough complaining. What can we do about it?

I think the key to getting people to start investing in volunteers is education. Organizations, governments and the general public need to be constantly reminded of the vital role volunteers play in the safety, well-being and smooth running of our communities. The better they understand, the more likely it is that they will give more than just lip service to our volunteer programs.

We need to find ways to start measuring volunteers’ impact, not just their hours.

According to Peter Drucker, “that which gets measured gets managed”. And invested in.

How many formerly homeless people are off the streets? How many salmon streams are now rehabilitated? Tie those results directly to the volunteer program.

What would the organization’s or the project’s success rate be if volunteers weren't involved? We need to convince everyone to start investing in volunteers. Investing money, investing time and investing thought. To do that, we need to regularly show people the difference our programs make.

I'd like to put a challenge out there.

Pick one or more (or all) of the following items and act. We’ve talked enough.

• Form a group and lobby governments and funding sources for more money to be invested in volunteer programs.

• Think of and share ways to measure impact, and keep track of the impact volunteers are making in your organization.

• Speak to your board and executives at least once a year about the difference volunteers make and what they need to make an even bigger difference.

• Explain to everyone who will listen that volunteers aren’t free, and investing in volunteers equals investing in their community. Do it often enough that people know what you’re going to say before you open your mouth.

We, as leaders of volunteers, have a long way to go. But it’s not hopeless. We are an articulate, passionate and dedicated group of leaders.

If we start acting, we can change the world—one investor at a time.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

Treat people like they want to be treated

A new Golden Rule

Have you heard? There’s a new golden rule.

There are many versions of the “golden rule”, from many different religions and tenets, dating back at least to Confucius. The basic premise is we should treat others the way we would like to be treated.

However, that’s starting to change. People are starting to realize that, to really include and offer safety to others, we need to start treating people the way they want to be treated.

When you think about it, it makes a lot more sense.

Most of us know people who have habits or hobbies that make us shake our heads. I know people who love horror movies. Aren’t there enough terrible things going on in the world that someone needs to make up more?

If my sister-in-law treated me the way she would like to be treated, she would sit me down for a marathon of blood and gore. That’s not for me.

The fact is, no matter how often we try to “walk in someone else’s shoes,” we tend to be really bad at understanding how we’d actually feel in someone else’s shoes. That’s why the change to treating people the way they want to be treated.

The new golden rule is a lot harder to do, though. It involves taking the time to reach out and learn about the volunteer. Rather than make assumptions based on your preferences, or on those other volunteers have, talk to them and find out what works best for them.

What way do they like to be acknowledged? Publicly? Privately? In person? Over social media?

What pronouns do they want used?

Do they want roles that are out in public, or behind the scenes?

Do they want to use the skills they use for their paid employment, or do they prefer to do something completely different? And so on.

I recently had someone enquire about the best way to contact volunteers. My answer? Whichever way works best for them. There is no one right way. Some people prefer text, others email, many want a phone call.

Many leaders of volunteers prefer to have just one avenue, because having multiple communication channels can be labour-intensive. But by limiting those channels, you may exclude people from volunteering.

So, what do you do if you’re in a situation where you lead a large number of volunteers, and they each prefer a different communication method? First, find a way to keep track of what each individual volunteer prefers. Then, look at ways of automating or streamlining the process while still staying within their preferences.

If you have a number who prefer phone, set up a phone tree. If many prefer text, find ways of texting to the entire group or segments of it. It’s the same with email. Yes, it is more work, but not too much more after it’s been set up.

And the benefits outweigh the downside. Social impact organizations are dealing with diversity and inclusion issues more and more often, and there is less and less acceptance of the status quo. One size just doesn’t fit all.

By working to the “new golden rule”, we all move a lot closer to providing the psychological safety that is missing in many organizations.

No matter how hard we try to build diversity, if we keep making the assumption that others want to be treated the same as us, we are going to struggle because that assumes they think and feel the way we do. And that just isn’t always the case.

By learning what volunteers want and providing that, not only will we make the volunteers we lead happier, but we will open the doors to new volunteers with different world views and different ideas to bring to the table.

And that can only make us stronger.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.


How to become a volunteer magnet

Attracting volunteers

The other day, I was asked what’s the best way to attract volunteers.

The short answer? Give them what they want.

Actually, that’s the long answer, too. People volunteer for a number of different reasons—because they want to help a cause, because they want to give back to their community, because they want to be part of a group, because they want to learn new skills, because it improves their resume, etc.

If you want to attract volunteers, you need to know why they want to volunteer. Keep that in mind when you create a posting for a volunteer position. Think about what the position offers the volunteer, not just what it offers you or the organization.

Is it a position where the volunteer can meet a lot of new people? Does it entail learning useful skills? Will the volunteer be making a crucial difference to the mission?

Ensure the post is written in such a way that it’s clear about what the position offers. Will they be working with others? Specifically, how does it help your cause? What hours do you require them to serve? What can the volunteer learn?

Don’t hide any downsides to the position. If you whitewash the position, you may get more people to volunteer initially but they won’t stay and you’ll be seen as untrustworthy. The last thing you want is to have ex-volunteers bad-mouthing your transparency.

If the position requires extensive training, for example, say so. By being honest about it, you may attract fewer volunteers but they’ll be the ones who are willing to do the training. They may even see it as a bonus if they’re after skill-building opportunities. They will be the ones who stick around for the long term.

Find out what they want.

If a person volunteers, ask them right out what they would like to get out of the position. Show them you want them to get as much out of the role as the organization is getting from them. Most people will be happy to tell you if you make it understood that the reason you are asking is so that you can fit them into the best position.

When people understand right from the beginning what the position requires from them, the less likely it is they will become disillusioned and leave. The more they know about what it provides for them, the easier it will be for them to make the decision to volunteer with you.

Let’s face it, they are giving you their most precious and limited resource, their time. Make a point of giving them what they need in return. That’s how you attract volunteers, and keep them.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Karen Knight has provided volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations for more than 25 years.

Her professional life has spanned many industries, working in both the private and public sectors in various leadership positions.

Through her passion for making a difference in the world, she has gained decades of experience in not-for-profits as a leader and a board member.

Karen served in Toastmasters International for more than 25 years, in various roles up to district director, where she was responsible for one of the largest Toastmasters districts in the world.

She oversaw a budget of $250,000 and 300 individual clubs with more than 5,000 members. She had 20 leaders reporting directly to her and another 80 reporting to them—all volunteers.

Karen currently serves as vice-president of the board of directors for the Kamloops Therapeutic Riding Association.

After many years working and volunteering with not-for-profits, she found many leaders in the sector have difficulty with aspects of volunteer programs, whether in recruiting the right people, assigning those people to roles that both support the organization’s mission and in keeping volunteers enthusiastic.

Using hands-on experience, combined with extensive study and research, she helps solve challenges such as volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations.

Karen Knight can be contacted at [email protected], or through her website at https://karenknight.ca/.

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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