Commentary | Why a gift card is not the best volunteer thank you

publication date: Aug 7, 2019
author/source: Ann Rosenfield

I volunteer. I volunteer a lot. And I do mean a lot. As one example, for the last 3 years, I have been doing a particularly challenging volunteer task as part of a group. The task was challenging because it involved a lot of logistics, lots of reminding other volunteers what to do, plus herding high school students who need community service hours. No one in the group wanted to do this task. Over the years, I have received many "thank yous" from other volunteers, volunteer leadership, and staff for this role. I have really appreciated these warm expressions of gratitude.

Recently, I gave notice that I would be taking a break from this role. I received a lovely thank you note in the mail with a $50 gift card. The thank you note made me feel great. The $50 gift card not so much.

Research by Volunteer Canada finds that the top way that volunteers wish to be thanked is through hearing about the impact of their effort. My own experience mirrors this finding. I loved getting a hand written thank you note from the President of the charity. I appreciated her heartfelt gratitude and how she talked about my work.

Interestingly, most charities cite a lack of budget as their biggest impediment to thanking volunteers. Volunteers, according to the research, are more interested in receiving regular and sincere thanks and learning about the difference their efforts make to the charity.

For me, one of the beauties of volunteering is that it operates outside of money. And don't get me wrong, I appreciate when I volunteer for the arts and get to see a performance, but that feels more like an exchange than a payment. And I am grateful when I volunteer a long shift and get a $5 coffee card with a note that says "thanks for your long hours, coffee is on us when you take your break today." Because that feels like a way of acknowledging a long shift and making that time a bit easier.

But a gift card sits wrong. Somehow, a larger cash amount doesn't work. A gift card feels too much like a transaction instead of a thank you. Maybe I am being too picky. But honestly, like the majority of volunteers, I don't want your money - I want your thanks.

Ann Rosenfield is the editor of Hilborn Charity eNews. She is an active volunteer with The Annex Singers, Not Far from the Tree, Imagine Canada, Endeavour Volunteer Consulting, and is Board Vice Chair for Rainbow Railroad.

Interested in learning more about how to recognize volunteers? Check out this handy tool from Imagine Canada and learn how to recognize different types of volunteers.

Interested in learning more about super-volunteers (people who volunteer more than 10 hours per week)? Check out this article from ARNOVA.

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