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A Culture of Volunteer Appreciation

Ensuring that your volunteers feel valued is the best way to keep them coming back. And it isn’t hard to do.

by Tim Sullivan


If you really want to grow volunteering at your school, then you have to celebrate volunteering all year long and in as many ways as possible.

You know that volunteers—experienced ones, new ones, and more of them—are the lifeblood of your group and that they basically determine whether you’ll struggle or get along OK or really thrive. But do your volunteer habits reflect that understanding? Do you spend as much time and energy making sure your volunteers feel valued as you do, say, worrying about your next fundraiser or keeping your principal happy? Do you only thank your volunteers during a once-per-year appreciation week?

I know you have tons to worry about: Teachers who complain about this effort or that. Or parents expecting you to move mountains. Or the late fundraising delivery. It’s easy to spend so much time on headaches that you wind up with no time for celebrating your volunteers.

What you have to remember, though, is that more engaged volunteers—ones who feel like their contributions are truly valued—are the best way to avoid the headaches and spread the work in the long run. In many ways, your most important job as a leader is to make your volunteers feel great so they can do really good work for your school. If your volunteers are dropping off or having a negative experience or feeling unappreciated, then your challenges will only grow more daunting.

Want fewer headaches and more help with the challenges you do have? Then start worrying less about the challenges and start spending more time thanking all of your volunteers.

The good news is that a culture of appreciation doesn’t mean crazy amounts of time or a big budget. Rather, it’s usually just habit changes—and simple ones, at that.

After a school event, does the chairperson of that event get a quick email from you (and hopefully from your principal) thanking her for sharing her time and talent? That email can be two words long (“You rock!”) and still do the trick.

At big school events, do you take 30 seconds and grab the microphone or get everyone’s attention for a public thank-you to the volunteers who made those events happen?

If you have a PTO newsletter, do you have a “thanks” section and use it to acknowledge every parent who could possibly have done anything that month that deserves thanks?

You’re probably getting the picture—you can never appreciate too much. But you can definitely appreciate too little. If in doubt, appreciate.

Parents don’t volunteer for personal gain. I really do believe that. But everyone likes to feel good and feel valued. And most parents won’t stop volunteering specifically because you didn’t thank them, but—if they aren’t feeling appreciated—they will very subtly adjust their time commitments to activities that do make them feel better, activities where their contributions are appreciated.

It’s funny; making a big deal out of your current volunteers, even celebrating small contributions, is just about the best way possible to recruit new volunteers. Your verbal thanks at events and your written thanks in the newsletter and your current volunteers mentioning the nice email they received are the building blocks of bringing new volunteers on board.

I have no problem at all with end-of-year appreciation events. They can be a nice piece of the thank-you matrix. But they aren’t at all sufficient. Giving a big thanks at the end of the year after volunteers have spent eight months feeling ignored is a great recipe for reducing your total volunteer support over the long term.

The best groups and the best leaders are selflessly thanking volunteers all year. How can you start that with your group today?

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