Creative ways to recognize volunteers who help your organization

Creative gifts for volunteers

It’s that time of year again.

Leaders of volunteers are thinking about the upcoming holidays and wondering what gifts to get their beloved volunteers. I wrote about this last year, but this time I wanted to suggest things that are a bit more unusual.

There’s nothing wrong with the old favourites, of course—branded swag, gift certificates or handwritten cards. Sometimes, though, you want something just a little bit different.

I’ve put together ideas for creative gifts for volunteers. Not all of these will work for everyone, and some may take more time than you have right now if you want them for this holiday season, but I can promise you that these gifts will be remembered.

Star naming certificate: Dedicate a star to each volunteer, complete with a certificate commemorating their stellar contributions to the organization.

Time capsule: Create a time capsule filled with photos, notes, and predictions for the future, to be opened by the volunteer on a significant date. This may not work if you have a lot of volunteers, but for smaller organizations, it’s perfect.

Personalized comic book: Work with a local artist to craft a comic book that tells the story of the organization with volunteers in the role of superheroes. This might take some time, but it’s easy to mail and something that you can send to every one of your volunteers.

Virtual escape room experience: Gift volunteers with a virtual escape room challenge, allowing them to enjoy a unique and collaborative adventure from the comfort of their homes. These can be set up for large groups, small groups or even individuals. Some of them are free.

Personalized puzzle: Craft a custom jigsaw puzzle featuring a photo illustrating the impact volunteers have made with the organization. A lot of places that do branded mugs and such will do jigsaw puzzles as well, and a lot of them will give discounts for bulk orders.

Skill-building workshops: Offer workshops or training sessions that align with the volunteers' interests or provide opportunities for personal and professional development. Are any of your staff experts in gourmet cooking, woodworking, or conflict resolution? Ask them if they would put on a workshop.

Exclusive volunteer experiences: Arrange exclusive experiences, like behind-the-scenes tours or special access to events. They don’t have to be major things; a behind-the-scenes tour of the local donut shop would likely be appreciated, especially if there were free samples at the end.

Photo collage or scrapbook: Compile photos and memories into a collage or scrapbook, capturing the volunteer's journey with the organization. Again, this one might not be possible for large organizations with dozens or hundreds of volunteers.

Impact reports: Share personalized impact reports illustrating the specific ways each volunteer has contributed to the organization's success. This one might be best for next year, so that you have time to gather the necessary information.

Plant a tree in their name: Thank volunteers and contribute to environmental sustainability by having a tree planted in honour of each volunteer, providing a lasting and eco-friendly tribute. Everybody loves trees.

As I said, not every one of these will work for all organizations. Remember, the key is not to just have creative gifts. It’s to make those gifts thoughtful and, if possible, aligned with the volunteer's contributions, creating a lasting and positive impression.

If you have any other ideas for creative gifts for volunteers, share them with me and I’ll share them with others. The more ideas the better.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.


Scaling impact through collaboration

Working together

I have always been a massive advocate for collaboration between organizations.

Working together has always been at the heart of making meaningful change and is, in my opinion, the key to scaling impact in our sector. Not everyone, though, truly understands the benefits, and fewer still really know how to put such a collaboration together.

Let’s start by highlighting those benefits:

Together we do more—When organizations join forces, their collective efforts can achieve far more than what they could accomplish individually. Collaborative initiatives enable pooling of resources, expertise, and networks, resulting in a more significant impact on the causes they serve.

Conserving resources—Collaboration allows organizations to optimize their resources, both human and financial. Let’s face it, most of us run our programs on a very limited (and in some cases almost non-existent) budget. By sharing responsibilities and leveraging each other's strengths, social impact organizations can accomplish more with those limited resources, making their efforts more sustainable in the long run.

Providing holistic services—During the wildfires we experienced in B.C. (and across Canada) this past summer, collaboration between emergency response organizations, animal shelters, mental health providers and other organizations was essential. By working together, pooling their resources, and sharing facilities, these organizations made it possible for affected households to have access to everything they might need. This collaborative approach maximized the impact of relief efforts during these challenging times.

Increased visibility and awareness—Every April, I have the honour to co-host a community volunteer fair. Up to 30 different organizations come together in a local mall to recruit volunteers and raise awareness of the different services that are available in our community. Individual open houses and recruitment drives are useful, but having so many organizations get together in one place at one time draws far more attention from both potential supporters and from the media.

Strengthened advocacy—Collaborative partnerships provide a solid front for advocating for change. As with raising community awareness, social impact organizations can more effectively influence governmental policies and regulations when they speak with a unified voice.

So, assuming I have convinced you of the importance of collaboration, how do you go about setting up such a beast?

First, identify other organizations that have complementary goals. For example, a therapeutic riding association whose mission is to heal through horses could team up with a group that helps women survive domestic abuse. Learning to control a 1,000-pound animal can help the women feel more control in their daily lives. If organizations can clearly define the purpose of their partnership and articulate the common objectives they aim to achieve together, this shared vision serves as the foundation for the collaboration.

Build trust.Trust is the cornerstone of any successful collaboration. Establishing open and honest communication among participating organizations is vital. Transparency about goals, strategies, and decision-making processes fosters trust and ensures everyone is on the same page.

Leverage each other’s strengths. Every organization brings unique strengths to the table. It's essential to identify these and use them effectively within the collaboration. By understanding each other's expertise, resources, and networks, organizations can maximize their collective impact.

Develop clear communication channels. Open, regular, and respectful communication is key to any successful collaboration. Establishing effective communication channels, such as regular meetings, shared online platforms, and collaborative tools, facilitates the exchange of ideas, updates, and feedback among participating organizations.

Constantly improve and celebrate. Learning from challenges and setbacks helps the organizations continuously improve. Reflecting on obstacles faced and finding solutions together strengthens each individual organization as well as the collaboration itself. Equally important is celebrating achievements, no matter how small. It boosts morale and reinforces the value of collaboration. Both improvement and celebrations prepare organizations for future endeavours and challenges.

Collaboration between social impact organizations holds immense potential to dramatically scale impact in our communities. By recognizing the benefits of collaboration and following these steps, organizations can harness their collective power, scale their impact, and create a better world for all.

Together, we can achieve more and make a lasting difference in the lives of those we serve.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

Navigating dementia in volunteers

Volunteer health issues

In the world of volunteering, we encounter a diverse range of people, each bringing their unique strengths and challenges.

Over the years, I've encountered various situations that require a delicate balance of empathy, understanding, and professionalism, none more so than when you start to see signs of dementia in volunteers.

As our population ages, it has become more common to see the development of dementia in volunteers. Dementia is a deeply complex and challenging condition. It impacts not only the individuals who are diagnosed with it but also everyone around them. When you see a volunteer beginning to exhibit signs of dementia – especially a volunteer who has been with you for years – it can be emotionally charged and difficult to handle.

“Peter” was a long-time volunteer at his local food bank. Over the almost 35 years of his service, he had done everything from running a forklift to advocating to his Member of Parliament. He was a favourite at the organization, and was often seen mentoring and training newer volunteers.

The first sign of something wrong was when the volunteer coordinator walked into the warehouse one day. The forklift was running, with a crate lifted halfway to a shelf and three more sitting on the floor. No one was around. She found Peter having coffee in the lunchroom, where he insisted he had finished putting everything away.

She started to notice other things. She told me she wasn’t sure if it was because the “forgetfulness” was getting worse, or just because she started watching for it. In any case, it got to the point where she assigned another volunteer to the warehouse, and no longer sent him on errands in the food bank’s vehicle. That was a good thing, as Peter’s granddaughter told her a short time later his driver’s licence was revoked. He hadn’t told her. That was when she called me.

My advice? First and foremost, educate yourself and your team about dementia. Understanding the symptoms, stages, and challenges associated with this condition can provide valuable insights into the experiences of those affected. I’m no expert, but there are resources out there, from workshops to informational pamphlets to a talk with your own health practitioner, which can enhance your knowledge and help you support both the volunteer and your team effectively.

The better you know the condition, the more comfortable you will be in dealing with it in volunteers.

Second, talk to their family. When you suspect a volunteer might be experiencing dementia-related challenges it's crucial to involve the volunteer's family or close friends. The volunteer’s support network can provide valuable insights into their behavioural changes. Collaborating with the volunteer's loved ones can help you make informed decisions while still respecting the individual's privacy and dignity. Once you have a clear understanding of what stage they are at, you will be much farther ahead in coming up with a strategy for dealing with it empathetically.

Third, I've found modifying the volunteer's role can help keep them involved longer. Consider what tasks would align with their current abilities. Focus on activities that promote a sense of purpose and accomplishment, but don’t put them or anyone else at risk. Simplify tasks, provide clear instructions and offer additional support. It also helps if you can assign another volunteer to work alongside them. Encourage the other volunteers to show empathy and understanding. Emphasize the importance of patience and flexibility when interacting with the volunteer. That way everyone involved is aware of the situation and equipped to handle it with grace.

Finally, know how to let them go with empathy. When it becomes clear the volunteer can no longer continue due to the progression of the dementia, it's important to handle the transition with the utmost care. Express your gratitude for their contributions sincerely, emphasizing the positive impact they've made on the organization. You may even want to have a small party or other event to honour them. Offer them the opportunity to come in and visit regularly so they don’t feel like they’re missing out on seeing friends or having social interactions. Keep in touch after they leave, and invite them to special events like fundraisers or appreciation dinners.

Peter’s volunteer coordinator slowly scaled back his involvement as his abilities declined. She assigned another experienced volunteer to help him out (under the guise of Peter showing the volunteer how to do things). When Peter’s dementia reached the point where he wasn’t able to do even the simpler tasks, she arranged a “retirement party” for him, inviting not only the food bank’s staff and volunteers, but also Peter’s children and grandchildren. For the next year or so, she stayed in touch with him and his family. Peter passed away in 2022.

Addressing the challenge of dementia in volunteers requires a compassionate and proactive approach. By educating yourself and others, assigning ability-appropriate roles, and collaborating with their personal network, you can navigate this delicate situation with grace and empathy.

If you’re dealing with this, or a similar situation, let me know.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.


The benefit of shaking things up and looking at your world differently

See volunteers differently

It's important to see volunteers differently.

I have a walk I take most days, along the North Thompson River near my home in Kamloops. I always go the same way. It allows my mind to focus on other things besides where I’m going. Recently though, I dropped something and had to retrace my steps for a short way to retrieve it. In the process, I saw a different view of the river than I had before.That got me thinking about perspective.

Our habits of mind can lead us to miss so many things.

The human brain is a pattern-seeking machine. It needs to be. So much of our daily energy goes to fuelling our brain that if we had to consciously think about everything that we do, we’d be exhausted all the time. Once our brain establishes a pattern, it goes on autopilot and lets the subconscious mind deal with the actions, freeing our conscious mind for other things.

Have you ever driven into the parking lot at work when you had actually set out to go to a nearby store? Once the first few actions are taken, our brains recognize the pattern and go on automatic.

Again, it’s necessary. But it also restricts our perspective. Do you ever wonder why kids are so creative? They have fewer patterns recorded.

Some people deliberately limit the number of patterns they form or, at least become conscious of them. They’re the people who come up with innovative ideas, creative solutions and who see opportunities in things the rest of us don’t even notice. They're the ones who notice the potential in the volunteers in their organization that others don't see.

So, how can you become that way?

Become aware of your patterns, and how they limit your perspective, not just in our physical actions, like the route we take to work, but also in how we look at things and people around us, like volunteers. How do you see and think about volunteers? Is there a way you could see them differently?

Notice your biases (we all have them) and think about how they were formed. Pay attention to things you’ve seen all your life but never looked at—cracks in sidewalks, expressions of passers-by, shapes of clouds. Study the way you do everyday actions, like getting dressed in the morning and think of different ways it could be done.Then break those patterns.

Experiment walking in someone else’s shoes. One morning I decided I would do my entire toothbrushing routine blindfolded. From the time I walked into the bathroom until I walked out again, I couldn’t see. You would be amazedhow difficult it was. It gave me a much clearer idea of what it might be like to be sight-impaired.

You could try something like that, or spend a night on the street to see what it would be like to be homeless, or one of thousands of other ways to help you see how other people live.

Change up your routine. Spend a week driving to work by different routes or switch up the order in which you get dressed.

Most of all, look at volunteers differently. Imagine how they could help you in new ways if they were a rock star or an astronaut or an accountant. Too often we consider volunteers are limited in their skills and abilities because we only see them doing limited things. Play a "what if" game in your mind and see what hidden potential comes out.

If you need a reminder to think differently, wear your watch on the opposite wrist (or carry your phone in the opposite back pocket). Whenever you go to use it, you will be reminded to look at things differently—to be aware of your patterns and what you may be missing by always following them.

Find ways to change your perspective, especially about people. If you’re more tired at the end of the day than usual, you’ll know that you’re succeeding

Me? I’m going to do my entire walk in the opposite direction.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

More Volunteer Matters articles

About the Author

Karen Knight has provided volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations for more than 25 years.

Her professional life has spanned many industries, working in both the private and public sectors in various leadership positions.

Through her passion for making a difference in the world, she has gained decades of experience in not-for-profits as a leader and a board member.

Karen served in Toastmasters International for more than 25 years, in various roles up to district director, where she was responsible for one of the largest Toastmasters districts in the world.

She oversaw a budget of $250,000 and 300 individual clubs with more than 5,000 members. She had 20 leaders reporting directly to her and another 80 reporting to them—all volunteers.

Karen currently serves as vice-president of the board of directors for the Kamloops Therapeutic Riding Association.

After many years working and volunteering with not-for-profits, she found many leaders in the sector have difficulty with aspects of volunteer programs, whether in recruiting the right people, assigning those people to roles that both support the organization’s mission and in keeping volunteers enthusiastic.

Using hands-on experience, combined with extensive study and research, she helps solve challenges such as volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations.

Karen Knight can be contacted at [email protected], or through her website at https://karenknight.ca/.

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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