Kin Blog

Tips for Recognizing Volunteers

April 19, 2018
By Krista Nicol

You make a difference

Looking for ways to say thank you to your volunteers but think you don’t have enough time or money to do it right? Think again. Many ways to recognize volunteers in a way that resonates with them can actually be inexpensive or free.

According to Volunteer Canada’s Recognition Study, 80% of volunteers just want to know that their work has made a difference and 70% want to be thanked personally. Only 20% of volunteers like formal banquets, yet 60% of organizations still host them (and spend big bucks on them).

Based on research regarding volunteer recognition, here are five tips for showing volunteers that they make a difference.

Share the impact

The number one thing volunteers want is to know that their efforts make a difference in someone else’s life. To share the impact with your volunteers, show/send them stories regularly about how their contribution helped an organization/program, family, or individual in need. Include statistics and photos/videos that show the impact (if you have permission to use them).

If your volunteers work with children, see if the kids are interested in making thank you cards/crafts for the volunteers who make a difference when they visit.

Thank them personally

Research shows that one of the top ways to make volunteers feel appreciated is to thank them personally. It seems so simple but it goes a long way. What knowlege/skills/character traits does the volunteer bring that adds to the experience of other volunteers and the people they serve? Are they always really positive or the first one to step up to help? Are they a whiz at building things or solving technical issues? Are they a great leader/ mentor or always making everyone laugh? Tell them!   

Get to know them

The most common reason people volunteer is to give back to their community. The second most common reason is to utilize and develop their knowledge and skills. Get to know them and listen to what they want out of the experience and what knowledge and skills they bring to your initiative. Involving them in tasks/projects that utilize or develop their skills significantly increases satisfaction in their role. 

Getting to know your volunteers also helps you develop recognition plans that are catered to your group. Build genuine relationships with your volunteers and get to know their preferences when it comes to recognition. When in doubt, have a mix of formal and informal ways to show your appreciation.

Skip the banquet

The Volunteer Canada Recognition Study found that only 20% of volunteers like formal recognition banquets. Many noted that they would rather see the money that is spent on a formal event go back to the cause instead.

Many people enjoy the social aspect of volunteering and are more willing to attend an event that is relaxed and fun. Need ideas? Host a “make your own ice cream sundae” event or a BBQ/picnic where staff each bring a potluck dish. Invite the volunteers to bring their children and partner along for the celebration.

If you plan to give out certificates or awards and know that some volunteers don’t find them to be worthwhile, find the balance. Give out more formal certificates and add in some silly “Most Likely To…” awards. The awards can shine light on the positive attributes of your volunteers or make people chuckle over funny things that happened throughout the year. Just be sure to know your audience and be careful not to give any “funny” awards that may end up being hurtful. Use your judgement.

Write a reference

Volunteers who are working on their professional development and gaining skills through volunteering tend to appreciate more formal recognition. LinkedIn has a feature where you can endorse someone’s skills and leave a recommendation on their public profile. Your endorsement and recommendation can be viewed by potential employers and may help the volunteer advance their career. If they aren’t on LinkedIn, offer to be listed as a reference or provide a letter they can use in the future.

Take it one step further. If you have a contact in your personal or professional life who would be a good connection for the volunteer to have, make the introduction!


Recognition is not a once a year banquet anymore. It’s about consistently offering opportunities for volunteers to learn, grow, make friends, and have fun while supporting a cause that matters to them. It’s about getting to know your volunteers and showing them all year round that their efforts make a difference.

Research shows that most volunteers care less about gifts, formal dinners, and public recognition and more about knowing they had a positive impact on someone’s life. So before you go spend a bunch of money and time on caterers and finding/making the perfect gift, remember that the feeling of doing something good in their community and a genuine "thank you" is often all the thanks that many volunteers need.     

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