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The Art of Thanking Volunteers Publicly

After a successful alumni tailgate or waffle breakfast, thanking the volunteers who made it a success is key. But a thank you note or email may be just the beginning of the volunteer recognition process, says a CASE faculty member.

"I don't think we can thank our volunteers enough," says Lishelle Blakemore, executive director of annual giving and regional programs at the University of California, Berkeley. At CASE's 2015 Summer Institute in Alumni Relations, Blakemore presented on volunteer management, reiterating that volunteers can feel disappointed if they lack a sense of their impact. Public recognition—from shout-outs in e-newsletters to volunteer awards banquets or special events—offers an opportunity to visibly celebrate volunteers. Plus, social media can make publicly recognizing volunteers and promoting volunteer recognition events simpler and faster.

Blakemore says that public thank yous, as part of a comprehensive volunteer recognition strategy, should be:

Visible. This can be as simple as tweeting at volunteers, mentioning them in an online publication or listing their names on a placard at events. Another inexpensive way is using colorful, highlighted name badges at events, says David Flinchbaugh, associate dean of development and alumni relations at the University of Maryland's School of Social Work, and Blakemore's fellow presenter on volunteer management.

"Make them stand out from the rest, so folks ask, ‘How did you get that badge?'" he says. Another visibility tip: offer volunteers special seating at events near the institution's president or leaders.

Exclusive. Offer volunteers exclusive admission to activities or special events just for volunteers. Flinchbaugh calls this access "behind the velvet rope," and it inspires future volunteers to ask how they can get involved.

"We should never hide our volunteer recognition. Anyone can volunteer. And volunteering leads to engagement which leads to philanthropy," he says.

Commensurate with service. This is the ultimate key to the public thank you: make sure it matches the level of service a volunteer has provided. Blakemore notes that several hours of service may warrant a gratitude note and an invitation to a special event—but not necessarily a lavish gift. She says that ultimately, levels of recognition should match an institution's culture and be consistent across campus programs.

Tied to the individual volunteer. While some volunteers may love being offered a special public spotlight, others may prefer quieter recognition. Professionals should adjust their strategy based on specific volunteers' needs, notes Blakemore.

"If we know a volunteer doesn't like public recognition, we'd change our strategy," she says. "We have a pretty good sense of that, based on our relationships with our volunteers."

For more on working with alumni volunteers, see CASE's sample collection on the topic.

This article is from the September 2015 BriefCASE issue of BriefCASE.