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National Volunteer Week:
A 3 Step Plan to Make it Special

by Merle Benny

Could your organization exist without volunteers? Consider the work of those who serve on your board, show up each day or raise money for you. Volunteers deserve our appreciation all year long but National Volunteer Week is an opportunity to acknowledge their essential work.

The week has been designated by the President of the United States each year since 1974, this year it is April 19-25, 2009. It's official and as good as week as any to show your volunteers how much you appreciate their work.

Deciding how to acknowledge volunteers is challenging. You are familiar with some of those challenges including: The desire to make the award special and appropriate. A limited budget. The difficulty of finding or creating something unique and the lack of time to do it. If you're bored with the same old certificates, let's explore some new ideas.

Research has been done on the reasons people volunteer and you will want to keep them in mind as you begin the 3 Step Plan to make this year the best yet:

Some people volunteers simply because they want to help.

  • Friends volunteer with/for friends.

  • Volunteers may want to meet others who share their interests and values.

  • Some people want to learn something new and different.

  • Students and adults alike might volunteer because it looks good on the resume.

  • Volunteers may be looking for the chance to do something they love.

  • And they may want to be part of something prestigious or important.

This information helps when you are recruiting but also when you are seeking recognition ideas. Understanding a volunteer's motivation will help you help them achieve what they set out to do. But you do not have time to understand each person's motivation (or at least not between now and April 19). This brings us to Step 1 of your plan to do something special for Volunteer Week this year.

Great Recognition Ideas

STEP 1: Profile your volunteers, by groups, to have a better sense of what would be appropriate. If you look at your Board of Directors as one group you may find that their primary motivation is to help the community or it may be to interact with others they find socially or politically powerful. Your Saturday teen volunteers may be there because they have to meet a service requirement or because they want to hang out with other teens.

STEP 2: One you have identified major groups of volunteers and have profiled their motivation, you are ready to explore the best recognition options for each group. Those social-climbers on the board would like a gathering in their honor where they can connect with the other Board members or special guests. Your mom volunteers would appreciate a special lunch (over before school gets out) or a little bag of chocolates. Surprise the teens with some music and snacks and give them a certificate that is cool enough to hang in their room.

STEP 3: Now you have a list of possibilities begin to work out a plan for each group. Work out the details. If you want your volunteers to be somewhere, plan on an appropriate invitation, make it special! Once you know what is right you can concentrate shortcuts and cost-saving to end up with something great.

Here's an example that may inspire some ideas:

Step 1: Profile your group

You are a performing arts center and your volunteers ushers are generally young adults, mostly single. They volunteer for two reasons: they love theatre and they want to meet and interact with others like them.

Step 2: You brainstorm for ideas

You decide that this group is not the certificate type nor would they comfortable with a "cocktail party." You explore the possibility of a special performance for them, ideally something they could participate in.

Step 3: Finalize plans

You speak with the program staff about possibilities for the ushers and discover that a local improv group is available at a reasonable fee. Your plans proceed.

Here's a totally different example:

Step 1: Profile your group

You provide temporary shelter for homeless families. Your volunteers are mostly women between the ages of 45 and 70 and have volunteered for several years. They volunteer because they feel the need to help and enjoy being with the families, especially the children.

Step 2: You brainstorm for ideas

You know your volunteers enjoy receiving a small gift or recognition but you have given them all the usual awards and certificates. You explore using the children's art for the recognition

Step 3: Finalize plans

Now you can concentrate on figuring out the easiest, least expensive way to use the children's art to make a memorable recognition. You consider lamination, dollar store picture frames, printing the art on a canvas bag or t-shirt, choose one and you're ready to go.

April 19 will be here soon. Get started on your volunteer recognition ideas now and make this an extra special occasion for those who do so much for your organization.

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About the Author:

Merle Benny is a consultant and trainer and the author of "The Winner's Circle," a practical, easy-to-use program for nonprofit success and growth covering 11 key Actions including planning, branding and raising more money. It can be found at

With over 25 years marketing and management experience, as well as being a lifelong volunteer, Merle's creative solutions for nonprofit organizations have included project management, strategic planning, events, websites, videos, branding, annual reports, brochures and development. She provides free ideas, tips and tools for nonprofit leaders at:

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