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Rethinking Recognition

Rethinking Recognition

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One of the most recognizable basics of Volunteer Engagement practice is the “3 Rs:” Recruit, Retain and Recognize. These are in most Volunteer Engagement job descriptions and Volunteer Management 101 texts and blogs, and remain a constant and ongoing topic of conversation amongst Leaders of Volunteer Engagement.

With April being Global Volunteer Month, and with many countries holding their National Volunteer Week in the next three months, we thought it was a good time to take a closer look at the third R of the trio: recognition. 

Despite massive disruptions to the world over the past few years – all of which have some kind of impact on people’s willingness to volunteer – the sad fact is that we’ve seen little to no real innovation or changes to volunteer recognition practices. Recognition ceremonies and get togethers may have moved online, but we haven’t seen an evolution in how volunteers are being recognized. With lives so fundamentally changed since the pandemic, and people approaching volunteering in different ways, we have to believe that recognition preferences are in need of a refresh to reflect these changes.

The Recognition Research Landscape

While there’s been little new research that shows how or if recognition preferences have evolved alongside the many other changes happening, we did find two recent recognition studies we definitely want to mention. 

First, NCVO’s Time Well Spent: Volunteering Among Global Majority study, published in November 2023, found that:

  • A culture of trust and respect, recognition, and a sense of belonging are particularly important to people from the global majority. These factors influence overall satisfaction with volunteering.
  • Global majority volunteers are more likely to say recognition is important but are less likely to say they feel recognised compared to volunteers overall.
  • Volunteers aged 18‒34 are less likely to say they are recognised enough, compared with volunteers aged 55 and over (66 percent vs. 91 percent). However, there are no significant differences in the importance they give to recognition.
  • Recognition of the help volunteers give is most likely to influence satisfaction. A culture of respect and trust is the second strongest factor.
  • Recognition is an important factor that could help improve volunteering experiences among the global majority.

This study illustrates that recognition is important for diverse volunteer communities but doesn’t explore actual recognition practice and how it changes.

Second, Volunteer Canada’s 2013 Volunteer Recognition Study showed a disconnect between how volunteers want to be recognized and how organizations were actually recognizing volunteers. Among the key findings:

  • Top two ways volunteers want to be recognized
    • 80 percent stated that they would like to be recognized or thanked by the organization they volunteer for by hearing about how their work has made a difference.
    • Close to 70 percent stated they would like to be recognized by being thanked in person on an ongoing, informal basis.
  • Least preferred ways volunteers want to be recognized
    • Volunteers indicated that their least preferred forms of recognition include banquets, formal gatherings, and public acknowledgment in newspapers, radio or television. Interestingly, these methods are common methods for many organizations, with 60% citing banquets and formal gatherings, and 50 percent using public acknowledgement as their recognition strategies.
  • Perceived barriers to volunteer recognition
    • Over 80 percent of organizations indicated that the most common barrier they encounter around volunteer recognition is that they do not have enough money in the budget to do what they want to do. Yet 80 percent of volunteers would like to be recognized by hearing the impact of their contributions.
  • Expanding the concept of volunteer recognition
    • Volunteers and organizations alike have identified a need to redefine perceptions of volunteer recognition – away from a once a year banquet and towards a holistic, year round practice that acknowledges volunteers for their individual contributions of supporting the communities around them.
    • Organizations can expand the concept of volunteer recognition by taking time to learn about volunteers’ motivations and preferences. This can be achieved by building in questionnaires to accompany the documentation organizations are already requesting for screening and administration. This information can be referenced for ongoing recognition throughout the year.
    • Recognition practices can be expanded by learning about the kind of skills volunteers’ would like to apply or develop and by ensuring that this is being fulfilled in their volunteer roles. Organizations can create an event that embeds training or networking opportunities with celebrations around volunteer recognition.

Without More Research, Recognition Remains Flawed

While these two studies definitely help start the conversation, the lack of additional research – not only around volunteerism but on the practices relating to Volunteer Engagement – is an impediment to our ability to act in informed ways as we build Volunteer Engagement strategies.

We know, anecdotally, that many organizations still deliver the same recognition programming they’ve always used. This involves mostly formal awards ceremonies and certificates based on length of service – or as Rob likes to call them, “Congratulations, You’ve Survived Another Year of Volunteering” awards. Whilst these may now be done online, we know from the research that they are the least meaningful ways that volunteers want to be recognized.

Furthermore, recognition based on length of service rewards how long people stay with an organisation, not what they achieve. Consider this scenario: Gertrude, 90, can get a certificate for volunteering for 40 years, even if she doesn’t really do much now due to declining health; but Declan, 16, gets nothing for revolutionising the Volunteer Department’s social media strategy because Declan did it all in one afternoon.

Recognition: Not a Silver Bullet, Still Important

No matter how we approach recognition, it is not a silver bullet to retention or engagement, despite an ongoing myth that this is true. In fact, the research Erin did to quantify the concept of Volunteer Engagement (see Part 1 and Part 2 of these Engage articles for more details) demonstrate that there’s absolutely no relation between intention to quit and engagement. Even engaged volunteers will leave a volunteer role.

But we’d like to argue that even if recognition doesn’t directly lead to retaining volunteers, it is still an important part of creating an engaging experience. Let’s face it: Volunteer Engagement Leaders grapple daily with struggles to recruit volunteers, and we all know what it’s like to recruit in an era of perceived “time poverty” when more appealing uses of free time like binge-watching a television series provide serious distractions. If we figure out what we can do to make people feel recognized and appreciated, the field of Volunteer Engagement will gain an important tactic in retaining remaining volunteers and cultivating new ones.

Given that people can begin volunteering at a young age and continue their entire lives if they so choose, it’s important that we curate meaningful experiences to know how best to personalize recognition and appreciation for an ever-changing cohort of people. Towards this goal, we need answers to the following:

  • Do we know if there’s any consistency in the recognition practices of age groups over time, just as there is with volunteer involvement? In other words, do young people tend to prefer more letters of reference and more formal awards as they get older?
  • Are there significant differences from generation to generation that means we need to add new options to our practices to cater to changing desires?

Finally, we believe we still see too much emphasis on award-focused recognition and not enough on the less traditional and more informal approaches to recognition. Instead of offering volunteers an award, let’s do the following:

  • Offer professional development opportunities;
  • Remember the names of volunteers;
  • Provide flexible ways to be involved;
  • Give feedback on the difference volunteers are making to missions; and
  • Acknowledging volunteers as a vital part of the team.

All are legitimate and important forms of recognition.


At a time in the Volunteer Management calendar where recognition takes centre stage, we need to rethink our traditional — and perhaps now outdated? — approaches to the third R of volunteer engagement. Recognizing the need to change is an important first step in more effectively recognizing the contribution of volunteers to our organisation’s community and wider society.

So please provide your insights into this recognition conundrum. How have you re-thought volunteer recognition? What reflections do you have on this topic?

Leave a comment below – we’d love to read your views on this issue.

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Sat, 06/15/2024

Such an insightful article! It has definitely aided me in rethinking how we can recognise our volunteers…because yes, we are an organisation that does the traditional ceremony and certificates etc.