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Thanking volunteers

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How, how often, and to whom you demonstrate gratitude should be as integral to your volunteer management strategy as recruitment, training and retention.

On the surface, saying ‘thanks’ is easy – we all do it every day without thought. But saying thanks in an organisation context can be a very different prospect. Here are some practical ideas and considerations on that all important ‘thank you’.

It's not always easy

Firstly, saying thank you can often simply be forgotten. If, like many charities, your trustees and leadership team have an ambitious vision, then the pressure is on to always look forward, at the expense of reflection.

Or, your charity may be characterised by a rigid hierarchy that doesn’t always encourage positive feedback to be filtered down or across to volunteers in different sites and locations. Because volunteers don’t get paid, you might think that we should naturally be more inclined to thank them. But it might be just as easy to take their generosity for granted, especially if they have been with you for some time.

Perhaps worst of all, though, is the ill-judged thank you – too fleeting, insincere, or undeserved. At best it may fall flat; at worst it can anger and linger.

In January 2019, NCVO published a report on the volunteer experience Time Well Spent showing that the most popular form of volunteer recognition (42%) was verbal or written thanks from the organisation. There is a section on respondents’ perceptions of volunteer recognition in the report.

When to say thank you

You shouldn’t need an excuse to say thanks to your volunteers. Indeed, it is often the thanks that come out of the blue that have the most impact. Conversely, there are certain occasions when a thank you might be expected, and therefore its absence creates an issue. Here are just a few examples, which should be easy for most charities to incorporate:

  • If your charity published an annual report or promotional material, either in print or online, your volunteers might expect to be namechecked in that.
  • Where a project involving volunteers has generated positive media coverage, they may feel aggrieved if their contribution isn’t recognised. These pieces are usually the remit of your charity’s communications team or PR agency, so it’s a good idea to always keep them in the loop with good news stories from your volunteer ranks. To facilitate that, encourage your volunteers to provide you with those stories.
  • A personal thanks to each volunteer on the anniversary of their start date with you cannot only serve to express your gratitude, but also reinforce key messages, such as goals and development opportunities. If you have a large volunteer network, then email is a perfect format to create individually-tailored communications and automatically schedule these to send throughout the year.
  • You may choose to thank your volunteers on a day that has relevance to your charity’s mission. For example, if family welfare is important to you, occasions such as Mother’s/Father’s Day might be a good opportunity. Or, if your charity works with migrants, refugees or asylum seekers from a country, then their national holiday or patron’s day may work well. You can find a list of national holidays and days of observance on Wikipedia.
  • Making someone a ‘star volunteer’ at regular points throughout the year can provide an extra goal to sharpen motivation and incentive.
  • Volunteers’ Week (1-7 June) and International Volunteer Day (5 December) also provide a perfect occasion every year.

Top tip

Make sure you think carefully before deciding to single out an individual volunteer, or volunteer team, for special appreciation of a specific job well done. You should bear in mind that such an action may create an atmosphere of ‘winners and losers’, with all the emotions associated with that.

How to say thank you

How you decide to thank your volunteers can be as important as the decision to thank them at all. It will be informed by many factors:

  • On a general level, how many volunteers you have, their physical proximity to you and the culture your charity has decided for itself.
  • More specifically, you should always tailor your thanks to the individual volunteers.

A very public expression of thanks, be it in a report or at an event, may help to carry weight. Though, for people who are uncomfortable in the limelight, a quiet pat on the back, a private email or a telephone call may be better.

Acknowledgement through words, either delivered in public or private, should be the first port of call. On occasion, though, such as the departure of a long-serving volunteer or a significant accomplishment, you may feel the need to make a larger gesture in the form of a gift. As a general rule, the act of giving should always outshine the gift itself. Inexpensive merchandise, such as certificates, mugs, t-shirts and other fundraising items, often do the job. Volunteers committed to your cause are quite likely to be upset if they feel rewards were too generous or lavish. They want to see the resources put into the cause you’re all working for.

Charities should always be cautious that, in rewarding volunteers, they do nothing to compromise the legal and financial relationship they have with them. It is good practice to avoid anything of significant monetary value, and not to offer gifts on a regular basis. Doing so may lead to a culture where gifts are viewed as a ‘perk’, which can then suggest the creation of a contract with the volunteers, giving them employment status with the associated rights. For more information on the legal clarification of volunteering and employment, take a look at our Volunteers and the law section (for NCVO members only). Also, it is important not to give gifts that the volunteer can benefit from financially, such as money, vouchers, tokens and gifts of appreciable or sell-on value, as this can affect benefit claims, and may be regarded as income and therefore taxable.

Top tip

Be careful not to set precedents or exaggerate the notion of reward, at the expense of undermining your charity’s mission. It should be this mission that continues to drive your existing volunteers, and those you wish to recruit.

More information and advice

Page last edited Apr 04, 2019

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