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Equity-informed volunteer recognition: Three shifts in practice

By Marisa A. Coyne

Large boquet of flowers
Volunteer recognition is a proven volunteer retention strategy for nonprofit organizations. However, many formal recognition approaches are designed to celebrate volunteers with long tenures and leadership roles, meaning volunteers with fewer years of service or more informal roles go overlooked. As youth development organizations prioritize diversity, equity, and justice in volunteer engagement, volunteer diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, and age is on the rise.  Focusing on tenure and status-based volunteer recognition practices risks leaving out those new volunteers whose social identities may not be reflected in the current volunteer population.

This presents an equity issue which can be mitigated by three shifts in practice inspired by Tema Okun’s work on dismantling racism in institutions. Okun encourages readers to be mindful of how the norms of quantity over quality, power hoarding, and one-right-way can show up in organizational practices. By focusing on volunteer impact over tenure, celebrating many volunteers rather than few, and exploring online recognition in addition to in-person events, youth-serving organizations can shift toward equity in volunteer recognition practices.

Focus on impact

Volunteers can positively impact youth, programs, and communities whether they affiliate with our organizations for one year or 35 years. When we begin recognition at year 5 or 10, we communicate that new volunteers are not valued. As my colleague Kathryn Sharpe noted, “When those new volunteers don't get recognized for years, it can feel like a loud silence, especially as other (often white, middle class or affluent, able-bodied, etc.) volunteers get recognized.”  By focusing on the impact of volunteer contributions, we honor the consequences of volunteer service rather than the hours contributed alone. This strategy also lends itself well to appreciation of skill-based volunteerism, which the Minnesota Alliance for Volunteer Advancement (MAVA) reports is especially attractive to recent immigrant volunteers.

Make the shift:
  • Consider de-coupling volunteer appreciation and formal program leadership roles, many of which require a minimum number of years with the organization. Eliminate volunteer award categories tied to specific, often tenured, roles within the volunteer organization.
  • Structure formal volunteer recognition programs around strategic goals, initiatives.
  • Solicit nominations from those most impacted by a volunteers’ service including youth program participants, fellow volunteers and community partners. 

Celebrate many

Volunteer appreciation need not be used sparingly. In fact, celebrating the contributions of many volunteers rather than one or two each year can create a culture of gratitude and affirmation within your volunteer organization.  

Make the shift:
  • Experiment celebrating groups of volunteers. This is especially meaningful for Millennial and Gen Z volunteers who prefer to volunteer with friends and family members. This strategy also resonates with folks from collectivist cultures who recognize the success of their volunteer service as a group achievement, rather than an individual one. 
  • No nomination should be made in vain! Are you limited by an inflexible volunteer award process that involves nominations of many volunteers and selection of one volunteer for an ultimate award? No problem! Use photos, stories and quotes from all nomination packets in newsletters, emails, and on social media year-round.
  • Steer away from superlatives for new awards or recognition programs. Rather than ‘volunteer of the year,’ consider categories like ‘community stewards’ or ‘digital superstars’.

Incorporate social, digital media

Formal volunteer recognition activities, like awards banquets and other in-person events are not as desirable for an organization’s younger and more diverse volunteers as it is for those in older and more homogenous volunteer cohorts. Gen Z volunteers, the most diverse age cohort in terms of race, ethnicity, and gender, prefer using social media to learn about causes and volunteer opportunities. Social media based appreciation can help center the volunteers, rather than the organization, a key recommendation from Black, Indigenous, and People of Color volunteers who participated in MAVA’s 2021 focus groups on Co-creating Racial Equity in Volunteer Engagement

Make the shift:
  • Make a social media campaign plan to celebrate volunteers during times of the year that are meaningful to your volunteers and organization. Mark your calendar for National Volunteer Week, National Pollinator Week, Earth Day or National Voter Registration Day. 
  • Ensure that best practices in communications are incorporated into your social media messaging. Consider accessibility standards (like alt text and image descriptions for visually impaired readers) and be sure to tag relevant channels to boost the visibility of your content.
  • If you hold an in-person event, invite the whole family or provide child care, provide food, be mindful of religious practices and holidays when planning the menu, and consider venue accessibility.
Do you use volunteers and community members to achieve your program's mission? How do you approach volunteer recognition with equity in mind?

-- Marisa A. Coyne, Extension educator and volunteer systems director

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  1. Thanks for this excellent article and ideas to "make the shift" to equity-informed volunteer recognition, something we are working towards at my organization. I am excited to counter "Volunteer of the Year" with celebrating many volunteers throughout the year, and also recognizing impact rather than hours.

    1. Janelle,
      Thanks for your comment. I'm so glad you found the post useful. Urban Boat Builders has no shortage of impact - on youth, community, and the volunteers themselves. I'm sure you'll have no trouble identifying stories of positive, volunteer-driven, mission-focused change! Thanks again for joiniing the conversation.

  2. Thanks for the post, Marisa! I love all the thoughtful and practical ideas you share. They are another indication that focusing on equity benefits all those in the program, not just a few. For instance, a shift to focus on impact rather than, say, years of service, just makes sense because it emphasizes what we want our own impact to be.

    1. Jess,
      Thank you so much for your comment. I was inspired by your Feb. 2020 post on the Youth Development Insight blog titled, "Traditions in youth programming—a blessing or a curse?" As you point out in that post, volunteer youth workers can sometimes enforce and entrench program traditions. If we, as leaders of volunteers, can intentionally expand our volunteer engagement activities and practices (incluing our volunteer recognition practices), we just might be able to create a volunteer culture centered around equity and belonging. Thanks again.


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