volunteer appreciationGenuine volunteer appreciation goes beyond plaques, pins, certificates, and giveaways. It involves deep listening and honoring the true needs of volunteers. But many volunteer expectations are never verbally expressed. How do we understand them if they aren’t communicated? Psychological Contract theory can help.

Psychological Contracts: The Basics

Much of our expectations in the work (and volunteer) world are based on promises we think others have made to us. These are known as psychological contracts (PC), and they represent the mutual beliefs, perceptions, and informal obligations between an employer and an employee (or volunteer). They set the dynamics for the relationship and can include both the implicit “unwritten” and explicit “clearly expressed” promises. They rest on the notion of reciprocity.

For example…

  • An explicit promise might be that an organization will provide five hours of expert training to volunteers.  
  • An implicit promise by a volunteer might be that they will be loyal to the organization and not speak poorly about them in public.

Unfortunately, psychological contracts are created in the mind and never expressed. This can cause friction between volunteers and paid staff as expected “promises” go unfulfilled. This is known as a breach and has consequences.

When unchecked or rectified, breaches can mean perceived promises aren’t kept, which leads to negative emotions, which in turn leads to a perceived violation or slight, which can then result in decreased job satisfaction, commitment, and ultimate performance. A breach can be experienced by both volunteers and paid staff, creating a vicious cycle of discontent.

That’s why it’s imperative to understand and surface what expectations both volunteers and employees bring to the table.

Mapping Psychological Contracts

Mapping expectations is one way to begin to understand the hidden dynamics at play. This will also help leaders of volunteers better understand how to recognize and reward volunteers by meeting their needs directly, all the while keeping the needs of their co-workers in mind.

Use the template below to brainstorm the explicit and implicit promises that you believe make up the psychological contracts of your volunteers and co-workers. Refer to the examples to get you started.

volunteer appreciation

Truly recognizing volunteers for their invaluable contributions of time and talent should go far beyond offering tokens of appreciation.  If you take the time to understand their true needs, motivations, and expectations, you can proactively meet them where they’re at and work to create an environment that works for everyone.