Rob Jackson: Volunteers need more than an annual pat on the back

Volunteers' Week is great, but we should be giving people frequent recognition for what they do

Rob Jackson
Rob Jackson

The season for volunteer recognition weeks has kicked off for another year. National Volunteer Week in the US and Canada began on 7 April. Australia’s is due on 20 May (its 30th anniversary year), the UK’s on 1 June and New Zealand’s on 16 June (to name just a few). Each week will see the contribution of volunteers to organisations acknowledged and recognised. Awards will be handed out. Parties will be held. Pin badges and certificates will be issued. A warm glow of positivity will be felt before the bunting is packed away again for another year.

I’m a fan of Volunteers’ Week. We should mark and celebrate it every year, acknowledging the essential role volunteers play in society. However, just as we can rely on the bunting, banners, pins and parties happening again in 2019, so you can rely on me to utter words of caution about relying on annual volunteer recognition events and weeks.

Marking Volunteers’ Week can be beneficial because it provides a simple framework that ensures volunteer recognition isn’t forgotten.

But an annual pat on the back just doesn’t cut it any more, if it ever did. Long-service awards are increasingly irrelevant to our time-pressured lives. People want to see a genuine difference made through their gifts of time, not simply receive branded pin-badges in the first week of June each year. Certificates ring hollow in the absence of simple day-to-day acts such as remembering a volunteer’s name and thanking them each time they give you some of their precious time.

If Volunteers’ Week becomes a way that an organisation can tick the box of giving recognition to volunteers, rather than an opportunity to demonstrate a heartfelt and meaningful thank-you to the essential role volunteers play, we are in trouble.

So here are six quick rules for giving volunteer recognition that every organisation should follow, all year round and not just in Volunteers’ Week

1 Give it, or else! Volunteers might say they don’t want recognition, but what they mean is they don’t want a big fuss made of them. Make a smaller, more personalised fuss, but do something to make sure the volunteer feels appreciated.

2 Give it frequently Giving recognition to a volunteer once a year at a recognition event isn’t enough. Use every opportunity you get to say thank you.

3 Give it honestly Don’t give praise unless you mean it. Recognising poor performance will devalue what you do for those volunteers who’ve done good work.

4 Give it consistently If two volunteers are responsible for similar achievements, they ought to get similar recognition.

5 Give it on a timely basis Praise should come as soon as possible after the achievement. Don’t store it up until Volunteers’ Week.

6 Give it for what you want more of Don’t just recognise achievements, but also acknowledge the way people work, encouraging more of that behaviour in others.

However you will mark the occasion, have a great Volunteers’ Week 2019.

Rob Jackson is a volunteer consultant

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