The Individual Volunteer

In my seven months as an Americorps VISTA, I’ve worked on recruitment and retention projects that will build capacity within the Volunteer Services Department at Second Harvest Heartland.  There’s no question that our organization will increasingly rely on volunteers to fulfill our mission of ending hunger through community partnerships.  Instead, the question on our minds is how can we best recognize volunteers for the tremendous contributions they make to that mission?

Why is the answer to this question so elusive?  For me, it cuts straight to the sometimes contradictory, sometimes complimentary reasons that volunteerism is so important.

Volunteers are logistical magic: they help our organizations provide services and goods to our communities that would simply go missing without them. Their work is tangible, immediate and real. At Second Harvest Heartland, volunteers donated over 61,000 hours of time last year. That’s more than 7,500 workdays that volunteers spent delivering food to seniors, registering clients for nutritional programs and doing the essential work of simply sorting and packing the food that we send to our partner agencies.

It’s no wonder, then, that our department of Volunteer Services reports to our Chief Operations Officer. Our daily work revolves around our warehouse and its policies, procedures and processes, and the metrics we use to accurately report the volunteer impact to our partners, donors and, of course, the volunteers themselves.

Yet in another sense the real value that they bring to our organization is intangible.  As essential as volunteers are to our internal operations, they are also one of our most important ties to our community. They volunteer with us because our work resonates with their values, motivations and goals.They’re our heart and voice, not just a pair of hands.

No doubt that’s why the secret to volunteer appreciation is hard to pinpoint. We thank our volunteers every time they come in, recognize them in annual events and keep them informed about how their service uniquely impacts our work.  I’m thrilled that we’re working to design processes that make appreciation a priority and a fixture in our relationships with volunteers.

But I think the key to great appreciation is giving it when it isn’t necessarily practical or part of the plan.  The inconvenient and unexpected are par for the course for recognition that also acknowledges the enriching intangibles of lasting relationships. Whether we’re volunteers or volunteer administrators, at the end of the day it’s all about the relationship between people with unique values and motivations.

I’ve certainly found this to be true of appreciation at The Soap Factory (TSF), Minneapolis’ inspiring gallery for emerging artists, where I volunteer and am always looking to steal some ideas.  When I began my VISTA position, TSF Program Manager Lillian Egner met with me to show me the ropes of volunteer coordination even though I was no longer a current TSF volunteer. Later, Volunteer Coordinator Dani Hans shared her knowledge about gathering qualitative information on volunteer motivations and sentiments.  Their receptivity to my new goals was so generous that I’ve been back and volunteering since.

My organization’s need for volunteers is growing, as is the emphasis we put on volunteers’ needs, not least among them recognition.  Appreciation that’s sincere and timely will never miss the mark, but the best recognition gives volunteers to celebrate a deep relationship.

Kaia Arthur Volunteer Program Developer (Americorps)
Second Harvest Heartland

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