Appreciating Volunteers: A Skill Some Nonprofits Have Not Developed


Many nonprofit organizations rely on volunteers for a variety of functions, and the tasks they perform are not only meaningful to the volunteers themselves but also make a valuable contribution to the organization. In some cases volunteers save their nonprofits hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, each year. It is essential that nonprofits express their appreciation in appropriate ways for the services provided by volunteers.

There are many fitting ways to recognize the contributions made by volunteers. For example, many nonprofits sponsor one or more events for the volunteers so they can socialize with each other and the staff members. Other agencies provide an annual gift around the holidays celebrated in the country where they work. Some sponsor an outing or trip for volunteers. In each of these cases the organization finds a way to give thanks to the people who are providing service without financial remuneration.

Membership organizations often waive the annual payment for volunteers and provide them some perks received by their staff; for example, a discount at a cafeteria or snack bar that is located in the agency. Agencies that provide services to the public may allow volunteers to receive those services at a substantial reduction in cost. Some organizations waive the fee entirely.

Recently I had the interesting experience of volunteering for an agency that did not demonstrate its appreciation to its volunteers at the same time that I was teaching a graduate course in an MA program in Nonprofit Management and Leadership on “Management of Volunteers.”

It is not very often that we have the opportunity to teach a course and to simultaneously experience what we have been teaching. It provided me with insight into the widely divergent perceptions of volunteers and the organization with which I volunteered. The agency staff evidently felt they were showing appreciation for the volunteers, but the volunteers felt the exact opposite. In order not to embarrass the organization or the staff, I do not mention any names here, but show how the agency is missing the boat when it comes to letting the volunteers know that their efforts are not only valued but also appreciated.

To qualify to be a volunteer for this agency, I and my fellow potential volunteers had to submit an application for an intensive course and then be interviewed by the coordinator of the training program and several current volunteers. After being accepted we had to make a significant tuition payment for the 10-month course that met twice a week for four hours each session. During the course we had to take and pass four written and oral examinations to qualify for volunteering.

After successfully completing the course we had to pay membership dues to the organization, sign an agreement that we would attend 90% of the ongoing educational programs, and volunteer a minimum number of hours per month. In addition to having to pay membership dues, volunteers had to pay, at the reduced members’ rate for training courses offered to the community and to attend special events. What particularly galled me was having to pay at all for these elective courses and events.

So why do I continue to volunteer under these conditions? The knowledge and training that I have gained through my years with the organization outweigh my frustration with how the administration of the agency relates, or actually does not relate, to the volunteers. My close relationship to other volunteers and to the people we serve balances out the negative feelings I have toward the organization.

However, the benefits I receive from volunteering do not justify the agency’s lack of appreciation of its volunteers’ efforts. Many of my fellow volunteers share my feelings. At some point I am sure that when the volunteers become sufficiently frustrated they will demonstrate their frustration or at least make a statement to the administration by leaving the organization or at least calling for a volunteer strike.

I am sure this nonprofit is not the only one that has lost a sense of the way it should value the volunteers who are often the public face of the organization. All of us involved in organizations, whether we are volunteers or those who work with volunteers, should ask ourselves if our policies demonstrate our appreciation for volunteers’ valuable contributions.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program. Stephen was Director of the Israel office of the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), 1986-94, and Director of the Israel office of UJA Federation of New York, 1994-2008.