Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Volunteer Recognition – Donor Relations’ forlorn stepchild?

Another great post from friend and colleague Debbie Meyers:

Meet volunteer recognition – the Rodney Dangerfield of our profession, the afterthought of many advancement programs.

Time is every bit as valuable as money. Just ask someone dying how much they’d pay for one more week, one more day. So if time is truly such a precious commodity, why don’t we recognize volunteers, who give us their time and talent, as much or as well as we recognize our donors?

Well, for starters, it’s not as easy as it sounds to quantify and qualify non-monetary contributions. Say we start with the formula that T2 > $, where T2 equals time and talent, and $ equals treasure.

That is, what people do for or on behalf of your institution is just as valuable as their financial support.

But this isn’t algebra, it’s human beings who are innately difficult to objectively measure. Most software packages have little in the way of tracking volunteer activities, other than simple indications like club or advisory board affiliation, a random contact report or event attendance. How would we enter “she’s our best volunteer” into a database?

For argument’s sake, say we’re in a magical world where we know exactly which volunteers did what, and we came up with some flawless rating scale for quantity and quality of their activities. We wouldn’t need to ask questions like, how much effort did they expend? What is the actual value of their efforts? How sincere were they? Did someone twist their arms to help out, or did they step up on their own?

Assume all those answers were condensed, analyzed and then measured on a scientific scale, and, just for this exercise, make that a scale of one to ten. We’d be able to run reports that tell us the level of commitment and value of each of our volunteers. We’re set to create a first-class recognition program, running it by the numbers.

Even at that, we’d face lots of challenges. We would have to address consistency across your institution. Thanks and recognition should be relative and equitable. A volunteer ranked at, say, a 10 who serves on one advisory board should not be treated to a black tie dinner for his service yet only get listed in a publication for giving a testimonial speech at an event for another department.

In donor relations, we handle a similar situation through varying levels of perqs and recognition through our giving societies. The difference is, we know, with fair certainty – other than counting joint giving or matching gifts – who has given us $100,000 cumulatively. Case closed.

And, we know that most donors want – beyond recognition, thanks and accountability – are access and information. So what does that mean for a volunteer? Perhaps an annual recognition event? A letter from our leader? A window cling?

All that aside, volunteer recognition is simple. It’s all a matter of the Golden Rule. Have you ever volunteered? What made you feel special and appreciated? What left an unpleasant taste in your mouth? More often than not, it’s not what institution says or does to recognize its volunteers, it’s how that institution does it. Here’s a personal example.

As a volunteer in one organization for several years, I would receive a “thanks for all you do” card, which the leader signed but did not personalize. He also sent some small plastic pin that must have been bought in quantities of 500 or 1,000 as a token of thanks. It wasn’t clear that he even know what all I did.

Granted, I’m more sensitive to this type of thing than the average person because saying thank you is what I do for a living. But I found that action not only a waste of time but downright insulting. Why not take three minutes and write a personal message, or even just my name?! Why not recognize me and my fellow volunteers in our weekly meeting? IT’S FREE. It’s public. It’s meaningful.

On the other hand, for another organization, once a year I create the printed program for their annual fundraising event. This non-profit organization sent me an orchid, which I’m sure they received as a donation, and a handwritten, personalized note to thank me for my efforts. The orchid is on the table in my kitchen, and it’s a constant reminder of how much they appreciate me, and how appreciated I feel.

Just as bad as not thanking a volunteer properly is not using them, or not using them meaningfully. After meeting with the development director of another non-profit organization, I was honored when she asked if I would be willing to serve on their fundraising board. That was three months ago. Haven’t heard “boo” from them. My positive feelings toward that group now have gone from good, to neutral, to negative. And come on, it’s not like people readily volunteer to help organizations raise money!

If we all would simply remember how valuable our volunteers are, we’d have no difficulty recognizing them. They need to know that we view them as the lifeblood of our organizations, however you choose to tell them that. As J. Sargent Shriver said, “Serve your families. Serve your neighbors. Serve your cities. Serve the poor. Join others who serve. Serve, serve, serve! That’s the challenge. For in the end, it will be servants who save us all.”

1 comment:

  1. I particularly like how the writer accentuates that volunteer support is *just as valuable* as financial support. As I argued that same point in a class, a professor of mine (also an advancement professional) said that volunteer support is lessor to that of financial support. His claim was that with finances, you can hire an employee with the necessary specialized background and expectations. With volunteers, he said, no matter how responsible and hard working they are, they are volunteers and you have to take time from other projects to train and supervise.

    For many donors, volunteering is all that they can do (ie, cannot afford to give financially). And for others, volunteering is a step taken before becoming a financial partner in the org's mission. As such, cultivating positive long-term relationships with volunteers is just as important as stewarding major donors.

    Volunteers truly are the lifeblood of our organizations. Not only are they hard workers, but they are walking brand ambassadors representing our missions in the community. Viewing them as discount donors is a particularly poor attitude to walk into stewardship with, especially as many of our organizations are deeply indebted to them for their service.