National Volunteer Week is just around the corner (April 23-28 in the US and Canada), a wonderful time to focus on board member and volunteer appreciation.

Unfortunately, executive leaders sometimes don’t readily see the value of investing resources (time + money) into anything beyond trinkets that have little meaning.

There are two main reasons to show gratitude to our volunteers and board members.

Reason #1: To Fulfill the Social Contract

When we receive, we expect to repay.  This is deeply ingrained into our instincts as humans and also an important part of our social fabric.  Volunteer appreciation aligns with existing social norms of reciprocity, affirms life’s goodness through the example of service, and communicates the organization’s humble dependence on others.

Fulfilling the social contract can also serve other aims, as well:

  • To be clear and remind volunteers about their expectations
  • To honor volunteers tenure or commitment to the cause
  • To present specific, legacy awards related to time or tenure of service
  • To meet quick or large-scale goals by offering quick, “transactional” incentives

Beyond simply that i’s “the right thing to do,” volunteer appreciation can directly impact your organization’s bottom line.

Reason #2: To Support Specific Ongoing Program Goals

Simple expressions of gratitude have been shown to directly affect team morale and thus productivity.  So much so that a manager’s simple expression of thanks increased the number of calls made by university fundraiser.

Volunteer appreciation can fulfill strategic goals and increase:

  • Motivation
  • Productivity
  • Morale
  • Retention
  • and, Results

Gratitude also helps employees (and volunteers) to see beyond a disaster or failure and recognize their gains. This is good news for nonprofits who must address a complex set of challenges every day.

Robert Emmons, an expert on gratitude and professor at UC Berkeley, argues that gratitude gives teams a tool “to transform an obstacle into an opportunity,” and reframe a loss as a potential gain.  Volunteer appreciation can actually help us become more resilient even in tough times.

“Gratitude builds up a sort of psychological immune system that can cushion us when we fall….There is scientific evidence that grateful people are more resilient to stress, whether minor everyday hassles or major personal upheavals,” he notes.

In addition, researchers have found that giving thanks lowers daily aggression, hurt feelings, and overall sensitivity. In fact, an activity as basic as writing a letter or mentally counting your blessings once a week has been shown to decrease aggression. Gratitude also increases the effectiveness of decision making by increasing levels of patience.

So, the next time you get push back your proposal to recognize volunteers and board members, share the evidence.  Then, link it back to your agency’s goals.

Is volunteer appreciation worth the investment?  You be the judge.

Want to Read the Evidence?

Check out the following research studies:

  • DeWall, Nathan, et al., “A Grateful Heart is a Nonviolent Heart: Cross-Sectional, Experience Sampling, Longitudinal, and Experimental Evidence,” Social Psychological and Personality Science, vol. 3, No. 2 (March 2012 )
  • DeSteno, David, et al., “Gratitude: A Tool for Reducing Economic Impatience,” Psychological Science, 25: 1262-1267 (June 2014)
  • Grant, Adam M. and Francesca Gino, “A Little Thanks Goes a Long Way: Explaining Why Gratitude Expressions Motivate Prosocial Behavior,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 98, No. 6, (June, 2010)