What incentivizes a volunteer to stay or do more? Does it matter if volunteer incentives differ from employee incentives? Do we want them to be the same?

We want volunteers treated as an integral part of the nonprofit workforce (oftentimes the biggest portion), but the reality is they are treated as separate in most ways, including incentives. And the more volunteers are separated from staff, the less they are respected for their value. Can we do something about that?

Plenty of Incentives for Staff

How many of these employee incentives, listed by Indeed, are applicable to volunteers?

  • Monetary
  • Recognition
  • Rewards
  • Experiences
  • Professional development

Um, let’s see:

  • Monetary-NOPE
  • Recognition-maybe, but it is a separate (and not equal) recognition as in organizational newsletters which clearly differentiates between staff and volunteers, or separate award ceremonies
  • Rewards-sort of, if you count luncheons and gift cards and other stuff, but not when it comes to meaty stuff like promotions or vacation time
  • Experiences-YES and often volunteers have better experiences than staff, so we’re smart enough to capitalize on great experiences as incentives and recruitment strategies
  • Professional development-NOPE, at least not as a standard practice

Volunteer Incentives Are The FREE Stuff

When you search for volunteer incentives, the word “Free” likes to tag along. Awards, thank you cards, pats on the back, blah blah blahhhhhhh. So, while staff get days off, raises, promotions, and vacations, volunteers stack up the thank you cards in a shoebox in the back of their closet; you know, the closet where they used to keep their volunteer luncheon outfit.

When Expectations Kill Incentives

Can expectations strangle incentives? Why do we expect volunteers to show up every day of the year? Where are their vacations? Sure, we assure volunteers (actually we gush) they are not obligated to show up by saying, “Look, you’re not staff. Just tell me when you need to be off and your job will be waiting when you get back. This is a no judgement zone.” Now, all this is lovely because we don’t want to judge volunteers for taking time off. They are with us because they want to be, right?

But wait, what about all that grousing in the background that volunteers are unreliable? What about the jealous look a volunteer gets when they’ve returned from vacation and they want to talk about the cruise to Italy? What about that subtle, “well, volunteers just come and go as they please,” perception floating about? That mentality is not lost on volunteers.

Here’s the dichotomy: We tell volunteers how valuable they are. So, how can we be so “understanding” when they need time off? The two don’t jibe, therefore one is false. Which one? (If I’m as valuable as you tell me, then my absence should cause you distress, right?) or (If you are so understanding about my absences, then I’m not as valuable as you say I am). Which one is true, because they cannot both be true?

Sure, when a volunteer tells us, “hey, I’m going out of town because my mother had an accident,” we are all sympathetic and concerned and bend over backwards to make sure the volunteer knows we get it, but if they believe they are a valuable member of the team, then it follows they will feel like they are letting us down regardless of how much we say it’s ok.

If We Don’t Formally Give Them Something, They Have to Take It

Semantics, I know. But if you had no formal days off, how would you feel about taking days off? Guilty? Resentful? Stressed? For the love of all that is holy, let’s give them days off. Formally. As in, when they are onboarded, we say, “You have formal days off. We expect you and encourage you to take them.” Encourage them to take leave days. “Hey, you haven’t taken any leave days. Just wanted to make sure you’re taking care of yourself.” We talk about volunteer well-being, burnout, and mental health. But do we give them mental health days? Days to take care of their pets? Are days off given in a formal way, or does the volunteer have to take them?

And we don’t have to use the word, “expect,” as in “We expect you to be here. We expect you to commit to a weekly schedule” or “we expect you to give us six months.” Instead, the message is clear when we say, “Your contributions are valuable. Your position is needed. Your impact is important.”

Do Volunteers Have Formal Vacation Days?

Here’s what used to get under my skin. When holidays loomed, staff understandably wanted off, so naturally they looked to shore up with volunteers. No one but me said, “you know, the volunteers have families, and need a day off too.” Make holidays days off for volunteers. And for those volunteers who come in on holidays, there had better be a gift card or something for their efforts. (because they are not expected to be there on a holiday,)

Let’s make volunteer appreciation weeks a holiday by proxy and give volunteers those days off. Ask them to attend the party or whatever event you may schedule, but tell them to take some time off because the organization appreciates them and cares about their well-being.

In reality, volunteers get unlimited sick days. But, unless we formally acknowledge they have a right to sick days, we put the burden on the volunteer. I’m sick, I’m letting my organization down. Refer to sick days as just that: a sick day. I used to say something like, “oh volunteer Ethel is sick right now,” or “yeah, volunteer Azra is under going surgery, would you like to sign this card?” I should have said, “volunteer Azra is on sick leave.” Subtle but formal, meaning Azra has a right to sick leave, just like any staff member here and no, he’s not being unreliable or not taking his position seriously.

Incentives or Punitive?

Days off comes down to numbers, right? How many sick or leave days? And, do we go punitive when a volunteer uses up their time-off? Well, yes we kinda already do. In your experience, when a volunteer has a long term absence you have to replace them if that position is valuable, right? That’s not punitive, it’s reality. If a volunteer ghosts you, you remove them after multiple attempts to contact them, yes? Those stipulations can be part of the onboarding conversation/contract.

“We expect you to be absent from your volunteering for personal reasons. You have a right to be absent and we support you. You are valuable. If you need to be off for an extended period of time, we will have to replace you because your position impacts our work. When you return, we will welcome you back and brainstorm your return.” It’s formal, and the formality implies the importance, and the value.

See, subtle differences add up. Volunteers are not exactly like staff, so they’re treated and viewed differently. But if we want to see real change in respect for volunteer value, we must do away with the subtle differences that make volunteers “fluffy” or “ancillary.”

Volunteer Professional Development?

There is a shift in volunteers wanting professional development. What can we give them? Can we promote volunteers in a formal way? Maybe, maybe not. We can certainly put them in charge of a project if they are willing, or on a volunteer think tank, or task force. We can add badges to their name tags indicating levels of training achieved, or years of service if you think that’s appropriate. We can invite them to educational events, or to board meetings. And we can track these promotions and professional developments with formal certificates, and titles they can add to their personal bios,

Incentives can be the indirect things that show volunteers their work matters, such as:

  • Make sure equipment, and supplies are on par with staff
  • Give them workspaces on par with staff
  • Invite them to use the staff breakroom
  • A sit down with senior management
  • Pick a day to come in late
  • T-shirts
  • Designated parking spot for volunteer of the month
  • Initiate a moving trophy that travels from volunteer to volunteer
  • Recognize volunteers’ pet charities or clubs
  • Speakers on wellness, financial management, travel, etc.

Incentives are Never the Same for Everyone

How do we know what incentives volunteers are looking for? We don’t until we get to know that volunteer, so asking is one way. In the onboarding or interview process, you can directly ask, “what motivates you?” “Which of your skills will be valuable to your volunteering?” The answers can give some insight into what incentives are appreciated. If a volunteer points to their extensive IT skills, then an incentive might be telling that volunteer how their work on the organizational website created a more seamless experience for people looking to avail themselves of services. For example, “Hey, Torrence, after you made those improvements to our website, we saw a 30% increase in people applying for our services.” Put it on a certificate so Torrence can add it to his resume. It’s a formal way to professionalize incentives.

Ask on a survey, “what is meaningful recognition” with choices. Not everyone wants public recognition so to be safe, balance public and private recognition. A rule of thumb can be: Publicly recognize a team or a project, and privately recognize the individual.

The more we can give tangible, formalized volunteer incentives, the more volunteers will feel an integral part of the team and the more they will be seen that way.

In this chaotic era, even subtle shifts can influence the changes we wish to see. Let’s not make volunteers feel undervalued by a glib understanding that “you don’t have to be here.”

If volunteers are not just fluff, but impact the mission, then we should treat them that way.