Everyone Should Have “A Day in the Sun”

Acknowledging and recognizing volunteer leaders and staff members in the Jewish community are not difficult tasks. However, there are so many stories of lost opportunities to tell people that their involvement is appreciated, and too often we only thank some staff and lay people for their efforts and not others. For example, we applaud efforts that bring in donations, grants, and – through the use of political clout – government funding. CEOs in particular receive praise for their accomplishments and their commitment to the nonprofit organization, although board presidents are acknowledged for such efforts as well.

At the same time chairpersons of program, personnel, and other non-income-producing committees often are only summarily thanked for their efforts. For example, after a program committee has reviewed the Jewish family services’ operations and community needs and reordered its priorities or added new services, its chair and members receive the commendation of the agency’s leadership; yet this pat on the back never seems to equal the enthusiasm expressed for an increase in the capital campaign for a new building or in the annual campaign. The chair of a successful fundraising campaign will be showered with compliments and accolades.

The message that this difference in recognition gives to many volunteer leaders is that the agency values money over involvement and commitment. We often hear that boards are only for those with financial means or at least for those who know people with financial means. Indeed the ability to give or secure donations is very important, and if it were not for those generous supporters of our organizations, many nonprofits would not exist today.

At the same time, the strength of the nonprofit is often found among the efforts of untold committed people who donate hours of their volunteer time. These are the people who serve on committees, who participate in processes such as long-range planning, creating a public relations campaign, strengthening the organization’s involvement in public issues, and reviewing its by-laws. These are critical functions that require our volunteer leaders to study issues and to think creatively about ways to strengthen the inner workings of the organization.

It is thus very important to recognize the efforts of the organization’s committees and of those who serve on them. Many organizations hold annual luncheons to recognize those volunteers who provide direct service to clients. At these luncheons volunteers who have worked a specified number of hours that year or who have been involved consistently for a certain length of time are awarded certificates of appreciation. We should extend that model to include an annual appreciation luncheon for volunteer leaders who deal with policy and planning issues.

Just as with some volunteers, the efforts of some staff members in the nonprofit sector are not sufficiently recognized. Too often when agencies provide creative and innovative responses to challenges facing society as a whole or to smaller groups, the recognition goes only to the CEO and the top volunteer leaders. The professional and support staff members who work “in the trenches” find themselves working also in the shadows.

More than a few times I have heard a staff member say, “I do all the work and my boss receives all the credit.” The staff members who are thinking out of the box, thereby enabling the agency to develop and implement creative programs, are not always credited for their accomplishments. And even when their colleagues are aware of their contributions, they may not note them publicly or only cursorily mention their efforts at a board or committee meeting. At the same time, when the resource development director has been successful in securing a new contribution from a donor or a grant from a foundation, the word will spread throughout the board and staff so they can compliment the responsible professional.

Of course, everyone whose efforts strengthen the nonprofit should be recognized for their accomplishments. At the same time, we need to take particular care to acknowledge the efforts of those who work hard to build the agency in behind-the-scene ways.

There are many ways to acknowledge the volunteers who are working hard to strengthen the organization. The volunteer leaders can be invited to an annual luncheon for board and committee members, and its focus should be on those who are completing their term in office. They can be presented with certificates of appreciation that acknowledge their devoted service; with today’s computer programs it is very easy to create personalized certificates that acknowledge each individual’s specific contributions. Awards, such as “Lifetime Achievement for Outstanding Service,” can also be given.

Another possibility is to use the nonprofit’s annual meeting as an opportunity to recognize the service of board members. Awards can be granted to those board members who have contributed their time generously to the development of the agency. These processes build a culture of recognizing and thanking those volunteer leaders who have devoted their efforts to the agency and to the community.

Turning to the staff, there are several ways to acknowledge their investment of energy and time and their professional service. For example, when a staff member’s innovation and creative thinking has had a significant impact on the organization, then his or her accomplishments should be publicly recognized – either at a board member, an annual meeting of the agency, and/or at a staff meeting. When as a result of a staff member’s efforts the agency launches a new program, it should be attributed to the specific person who developed the idea and not just to the nondescript “they” referring to the “staff.” This recognition can be given both publicly – in a report to the board of directors or an article about the program in the local Jewish newspaper – and privately, in a letter from the CEO praising the individual to be placed in his or her personnel file.

Everyone wants “a day in the sun,” a time to shine as a result of his or her accomplishments. People want not only to be valued for their efforts but also to be praised publicly for them at board and staff meetings. Agencies that have incorporated this recognition into their day-to-day operations find they have a stable and committed staff.

Who have you let shine in your Jewish community organization today?

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening nonprofit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.