Show them you love them: how to thank your volunteers

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The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the good in Australians. When we become aware of people in our community who are lonely, vulnerable or needy, we spring into action to volunteer to help.

When Meals on Wheels put out the call for new volunteers to fill in for its regular workforce of mainly seventy-somethings who were self-isolating to protect themselves from COVID-19, it saw a surge of interest from younger people who’d been forced out of their regular work.

When 30-year-old Jon Amos, who has Down Syndome, was finding lockdown difficult to cope with in the tiny north-west Victorian town of Ouyen, he was hugely cheered to receive postal messages from people in his community and beyond.

And when a Port Macquarie pastor noticed that people in his town seemed down, he organised “dinner on the driveway” events to increase social connections and lift the mood.

There seem to be more stories of volunteers and kind strangers reaching out to lend a hand than there are positive COVID-19 test results.

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But the goodness of volunteers is not news.

In “normal” times, the running of the country would grind to a halt if not for the army of volunteers who collectively put in more than 743 million hours of work every year, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare – a contribution that would cost $17 billion if governments had to pay for it.

Think of almost any area of the running of our communities – schools, hospitals, churches, sporting groups, environmental groups, peak associations, self-help groups, progress associations, festival committees – and you will find Australia's unsung volunteers working away.

If your charity or not-for-profit group is one of countless organisations that relies on volunteers, take a moment to reflect on what you might be able to do – particularly when social distancing restrictions ease and people are able to take cautious steps back into civic life – to further improve the way you treat, train and thank volunteers.

For the thanking part, there’s no need to wait!

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14 ways to recognise and thank your volunteers

Here’s how you can ensure your volunteers remain healthy, happy and a walking advertisement for the good work your organisation performs. Some of them you can implement now, and some of them later when COVID-19 restrictions ease further.

  1. Most importantly, say thank you. Whether it's in person, or in a phone call, an email, a letter or a certificate, let people know their work is valued.
  2. Always involve your volunteers in your group's planning and seek their perspective. Most of the great ideas come from the people actually doing the work – not just those doing the planning.
  3. Speak to your volunteers regularly. Set up regular informal meetings (using tech connections where necessary) where they can express views, suggest ideas and provide feedback on the job.
  4. Recognise and reward effort. Let people know when they have done a good job - in fact let the group know when they have done a good job. Even better, let the community know!
  5. Set up a system where milestones – whether it's 10 years of volunteering, 20 seasons or 100 exhibitions – are acknowledged and applauded. Let your local newspaper know about the milestones.
  6. Hold an annual event – a function, morning tea, barbecue or simple gathering – devoted to your volunteers. (Obviously, this one might have to wait until you can meet up, but start planning!)
  7. Nominate your volunteers for awards, scholarships or other external programs.
  8. Nominate your best volunteers for Australian honours so that they get the national recognition they deserve.
  9. Don't just tell them. Tell the world how good they are and why they perform such a valuable service to your community and your group.
  10. Let their peers, family, employer, friends know how much their help is valued. If you are paying tribute to a volunteer invite all those people to make sure they know how much you appreciate their efforts.
  11. Feature your volunteers. Make sure your newsletters mention your volunteers and profile them.
  12. Build team spirit among your volunteers – for example, by providing them with “branded” T-shirts or hats to wear at events.
  13. Help your volunteers to get to know their fellow volunteers. Hold social gatherings a few times a year (virtually, if necessary) where the volunteers can relax together rather than work.
  14. If you don't already practice any of these initiatives, then now is the time to get started. Start making a plan today to put in place a system that gives your volunteers due recognition for their service.

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This article is just one of the ways the Our Community Group is working to support not-for-profits through the COVID-19 crisis, as part of our major campaign to help the not-for-profit sector to survive, re-invent and sustain.

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