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Volunteer recognition during COVID-19: top ideas and tips

By Allen Kramer
September 17, 2020

Close-up of paper in a typewriter with DANKE! THANK YOU! MERCI! GRAZIE! GRACIAS! DANK JE WEL! typed on it
Photo by Wilhelm Gunkel on Unsplash

Amid this year’s many disruptions, your organization has almost certainly seen its fair share of new challenges—but hopefully a surge in support, as well. The nonprofit sector as a whole has seen increases in individual donations, funding, and grassroots activity. In fact:

  • During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, funders awarded more than $11.9 billion for relief work globally, with corporations providing nearly two-thirds of the total support and community foundations awarding 47 percent of all individual grants issued.
  • On the Mobilize platform, we facilitate volunteer opportunities for mission-based organizations, and we’ve seen a massive surge in virtual volunteering. With more than 1.3 million volunteer shifts scheduled between March and June, our weekly shift volume was higher than at any week in the entirety of 2019.

At both the institutional and grassroots levels, there have been unprecedented opportunities for nonprofits to tap into increased support. However, just as your nonprofit needs a concrete strategy in place for making the most of grant funding and major gifts over the long run, new grassroots donations and volunteer support must be actively stewarded and cultivated, too.

Otherwise, a surge in support during the fraught early months of the pandemic won’t provide the long-term benefits you need to stabilize your mission going forward.

With continuing pandemic challenges and an uncertain economy, your organization should do everything possible to ensure new grassroots supporters feel connected to your work and encouraged to stay involved. For us, that means volunteer recognition and stewardship.

We want to share a number of volunteer recognition ideas that Mobilize users have found valuable over the past months. Then, we’ll walk through volunteer recognition best practices that can help ensure your relationships with new supporters continue to actively grow.

Heading into the year-end giving season, a major election cycle, and whatever else 2020 throws our way, shoring up your support at the grassroots level and keeping volunteers engaged will be more critical than ever.

Our favorite volunteer recognition ideas

We’ve picked these volunteer recognition ideas for a few key reasons. Each of these ideas is:

  • Highly flexible for all types of missions and audiences.
  • Affordable (or in many cases, completely free) for nonprofits of all sizes.
  • Effective at reinforcing volunteers’ emotional connections with your organization.

This makes these recognition ideas sustainable through any periods of disruption. Plus, they’re valuable for stewarding volunteers’ support over the long run, boosting engagement and retention to help you build a solid foundation of grassroots energy.

Personal thank-you messages 

Thanking volunteers and donors is a standard best practice for nonprofits, but today’s circumstances mean your thank-yous should go a bit further than normal.

For many volunteers, this means personalizing your automated follow-up messages with volunteers’ names and the things they did for yo. Specifically highlight the concrete impact that their efforts will have on your mission.

Additionally, after any campaign or volunteer event (virtual or in person), take the time to identify the individuals who went above and beyond to support your work. Then, personally reach out with a letter, phone call, or email to express your gratitude and explain what their support means for your organization. A personal touch can go a long way to boost volunteer retention.

To foster a stronger internal culture of recognition and appreciation, be sure to recruit team members at all levels, including your director and board members, to help write your personal thank-you messages.

Unique virtual opportunities

The 2020 nonprofit buzzword has undoubtedly been “virtual,” and for good reason. Remote engagement with supporters quickly became a new necessity amid social-distancing guidelines.

By this point, your own organization has certainly shifted one or more of its engagement strategies to the digital sphere, likely through social media and virtual events. Use those same platforms to recognize your volunteers by hosting unique virtual events that celebrate their contributions and encourage further engagement.

For instance, a virtual happy hour or Q&A session with your program director or board members is an extremely easy way to give volunteers a more personal look at your organization. Use these events to thank volunteers, discuss their impact, and explain the work that still needs to be done.

If you’ve already hosted virtual events, opportunities like these should be fairly simple to set up. If you’ve not yet ventured into virtual events, the smaller audiences of volunteer-recognition opportunities are a great starting point.

Letters from the community

If your organization’s virtual or in-person volunteer opportunities directly impact your constituents, organize a letter-writing campaign for your broader community to express its gratitude.

Shelters, food banks, and missions relating to children are always great fits for this recognition idea. For example, if your volunteers have worked tirelessly to collect donated books or educational resources for kids, ask the families you serve to create thank-you cards and send them to your organization’s main office. Then, redistribute the cards to volunteers or compile them into a more virtual-friendly slideshow on your website.

Highlighting the concrete impact that supporters have on your mission is always an extremely effective way to reinforce their connections with your work and encourage continued engagement.

Free nonprofit merchandise

Branded merchandise is the classic volunteer recognition idea. This tactic works because it provides a tangible reward to volunteers that continually reminds them of your organization and how they’ve helped further your mission. Hats, T-shirts, tote bags, water bottles, and more are all great ideas for branded merchandise that rewards volunteers and keeps you on their minds.

While in-person events have historically been the best place to distribute merchandise, this idea can be easily adapted to the virtual sphere.

Nonprofit merchandising platforms such as Bonfire use a more modern approach that doesn’t require in-person interaction for volunteers to receive their swag. You can easily set up an online shop for volunteers to order their items and have them shipped directly to them, or you can place a bulk order of any size to then reship to volunteers yourself.

Weekly volunteer shout-outs

This recognition idea is perfect for organizations with active social media followings. Take some time each week to recognize one of your standout volunteers for their support (with their permission, of course).

Post an image of your volunteer and a message highlighting the impact that their efforts have had on your mission. Alternately, you might ask your volunteer to write their own personal message explaining why they care about your mission to then post on your organization’s social media feeds. Either way, you’re taking an extremely personal approach to recognizing and celebrating the supporters who drive your mission forward.

During times of virtual-only engagement, volunteer recognition is something that can easily fall by the wayside if not actively pursued. Even small gestures like weekly shout-outs and the other ideas in this list will help to keep up your recognition efforts. Building a culture of engagement and recognition is one of the most effective ways to retain long-term support and ultimately make it easier to recruit more volunteers in the future.

Volunteer recognition best practices

Once you’ve identified the right recognition ideas for your community of supporters, you’ll need to make sure your organization takes a strategic approach that maximizes long-term impact.

After all, while hiring new staff may or may not be in the cards for your organization right now, focusing on engaging, retaining, and growing your base of passionate volunteers will always be a smart investment of your time. Effective recognition and stewardship of volunteers lay the foundation for this growth in the long run. We recommend these best practices:

  • Thank volunteers often. Most nonprofits already have this best practice under their belts, but it bears repeating. Simply thanking your volunteers for their support is the essential first step for building a more effective program over time. Automated post-event messages and personal follow-ups set a strong baseline of recognition.
  • Use dedicated management software to track engagement history. You probably already track your donor relationships in a database or CRM, so make sure you’re taking the same approach for volunteers. Having a clear picture of how each volunteer has engaged with your organization and for how long is essential for building a strategic, volunteer management strategy that won’t become a logistical nightmare for your staff. Check out our guide to learn more about the volunteer lifecycle, from recruitment to retention, and how to strengthen your strategies with technology.
  • Tailor your recognition ideas to your supporters. Ultimately, your volunteer recognition ideas will only have significant long-term impact if your volunteers find them valuable and meaningful. The ideas in the list above are effective for any audience, but if you adopt more specific or tangible recognition ideas, make sure they’re the right fit for your unique volunteers. As a very general example, older volunteers might appreciate (but not actually want or use) free tickets to an upcoming pop concert.
  • Look for ways to deepen volunteers’ impact. Stay on the lookout for new ways that you can grow your volunteers’ impact without asking them for donations or additional shifts. With corporate social responsibility and the value of nonprofit-business partnerships on the rise, volunteer grant programs are an ideal solution. Suggest that your most dedicated volunteers check if their employers have corporate giving programs, such as donation matching or grants to organizations where their employees volunteer. These can be an effortless way for your supporters to double their impact on your mission, encouraging them to stay engaged over the long run.

Support all your volunteer recognition ideas with these strategic best practices. This approach will ensure that any surge in grassroots activity you’ve experienced in recent months won’t go to waste or fizzle out beyond today’s current challenges. A stronger, more engaged base of support will be more valuable than ever when new challenges invariably crop up.

As we look toward the upcoming year-end giving season, your organization needs to take time to reflect on the changes and challenges it’s experienced over the course of 2020. We hope that every organization has enjoyed a level of growth in grassroots donations and volunteering from their communities.

Now, it’s your job to effectively steward and grow any surge in support that you’ve experienced. With virtual volunteering and peer-to-peer engagement tactics more important than ever for many nonprofits, recognizing the individuals who drive your mission forward is essential for retaining and growing their invaluable support over time. Best of luck!

Tags: Novel coronavirus (COVID-19); Volunteers