Three Ways to Make the Most of National Volunteer Week

Volunteers are often the unsung heroes of organizations, and now is a great time to remedy that by recognizing them during National Volunteer Week, reminding them what a difference they make, and encouraging them to return if they’ve been away.

National Volunteer Week runs April 17 to 23, and there may never be a better—or more critical time—to celebrate volunteers.

That’s because their numbers are dwindling. Volunteers in associations, nonprofits, and public-sector agencies have dropped precipitously from a pre-pandemic average of 100 to 250 volunteers per organization, to only one to 25 active volunteers as of the fall 2021, according to VolunteerPro’s 2022 annual report [registration required].

The pandemic obviously played a significant role in the decline. “Because of lockdowns, people couldn’t engage volunteers like they used to,” said Tobi Johnson, president and founder of VolunteerPro. “This is a huge impact on the capacity of the sector.”

Before the pandemic, there was a 33 percent surge in volunteers, Johnson noted. After all, volunteering is part of the fabric of America. “It’s what we do as a society, we give back,” she said, adding that it is not clear if the levels will bounce back.

That means it’s time for organizations to do the work to get people to come back, which is not going to be easy. “People are tired, they’re burned out, and they’re not willing to be part of the kinds of work environments they were prior to the pandemic,” Johnson said.

But here’s some good news: recognizing volunteers does not have to be expensive or difficult. However, it does need to be authentic. Here are three ideas for showing volunteers gratitude and enticing them back into the fold.

Get back to basics. Handwritten thank you notes go a long way in demonstrating genuine, personal gratitude. Taking the time to write handwritten notes to volunteers and calling out something specific that person has done is meaningful and it shows they’re being seen for their work, Johnson said. However, it’s not always easy to do at scale if you have a large number of volunteers, but software options do exist to create individual or group thank you videos for volunteers.

Ask the ‘’big why.” Why do you exist as an organization? It’s essential to get beyond the usual elevator pitch reasons and reach the core of the organization’s purpose. “If people can go through the process of figuring out the aspirational ‘why,’ that’s the communication that’s going to be effective with a volunteer win-back campaign,” Johnson said.

Members usually know what an organization does, but it’s important to remind them about the higher human aspiration the group is working toward so you can inspire people to return and help carry out the mission.

Make it easy. No one needs another hurdle at this point. “You’ve got to make volunteering easier, not harder. It has to be better than their current reality,” Johnson said. People are stressed, burned out, and anxious. “The pandemic has wreaked havoc on people’s mental health, which is why you need to make volunteering a better place than that other place,” she said. If it’s a place of respite, resilience, and restoration, that will be pivotal in attracting people back.  

Volunteering is a communal activity and human beings are social by nature. Even introverts need some level of socialization. “A great way to fight burnout is to be together,” Johnson said. Showing volunteers how much you appreciate them—in a meaningful way—and making it a part of the organization’s culture will do a lot to motivate them to return.

“People love to be acknowledged,” Johnson said. “It’s dopamine all over the place in our brains.”

(Marcotrapani/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Lisa Boylan

By Lisa Boylan

Lisa Boylan is a senior editor of Associations Now. MORE

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