April 10-16, 2011 is National Volunteer Week in CanadaWhether they support your staff or literally keep your charity running, volunteers play an important role for nonprofit groups. It’s National Volunteer Week in Canada, a time to celebrate the millions of people who donate time and energy to help groups across the country.

But how do we treat volunteers the rest of the year?

Like the boyfriend who puts too much stock in Valentine’s Day, pinning your appreciation on one week – or worse, forgetting to recognize your volunteers altogether – can make a relationship pretty rocky.

Here are a few ideas based on things I’ve observed or mistakes I’ve made myself.

1. Be nice

This should go without saying – but it doesn’t. Smiling, offering a glass of water and saying Thank You are important pieces that are simple to remember and do, and easy to forget!


2. Understand what motivates your volunteers

There are two things that get volunteers through the door:

  • why they volunteer, and
  • why they volunteer for you.

I recently spoke to a woman who said she was mortified to receive a service award during a community event. She felt honoured, but also felt the award diminished the selfless spirit with which she supports a cause she believes in. People volunteer for many different reasons; understanding what those are will help you do something that has real meaning to them.


3. Be prepared

Taken literally, be organized when a volunteer shows up: Have a place for them to sit, have something for them to do. It also means making sure you have your project lined up, all your approvals – anything that might create a roadblock.

I once had a skilled technical volunteer at almost the exact moment when I needed him. Almost. We eventually got stuck because I still needed approval from someone who was too overwhelmed to consider the project, and after a few valiant attempts to keep in touch he eventually moved on.


4. Set your volunteers free

Per the previous example, sometimes things just don’t go as planned. If a volunteer is motivated to be there for reasons you can’t presently meet, be up-front and say so. I think this does much more to preserve a relationship – which may pick up again down the road – than clinging to a volunteer until they finally leave altogether. (Also refer to point 5.)

5. Stay in touch

About a year ago, I volunteered 20 hours or so to support an event. I wasn’t sure I would volunteer this year, and in the end it didn’t matter; I haven’t heard from them since.

In fact, as a volunteer, I’ve rarely heard from any of the organizations I’ve supported. I’ve heard the same complaint from others who’ve contributed time and resources – including those who’ve raised significant amounts of money to support a specific charity.

Whether they’ve given money or not, all your volunteers are donors, too, and the contribution they make has real and direct impact. At least make an effort to ask if they would like to stay in touch, and keep them in the loop with your other supporters.

There are lots of ways to recognize volunteers, what do you do?
Or, as a volunteer, what makes you feel loved?