Volunteer Connection

By Tammy Rach

National Volunteer Week is April 17–23 this year, and April is Global Volunteer Month. It’s a great time to reflect upon how your organization is celebrating these often unsung heroes throughout your organization. Gifts, events, and experiences quickly come to mind as the best ways to share our appreciation for volunteers, and during that one week each year, it definitely helps to go the extra mile to “share the love” and help them feel extra-special. Yet, there are many important ways to think deeper and more globally about how we can ensure that volunteers are best supported and celebrated.

Volunteers contribute their time and talents willingly, so how can we best support them and set them up for success? What they want is to be a part of your team, to participate in your organization’s mission, and to feel genuinely appreciated. It’s a great time to reflect on how well your organization is taking care of each of these critically important pieces of a strong volunteer engagement foundation–especially now, as many volunteers are experiencing change fatigue. It takes a lot more than one appreciation event to ensure that volunteers feel valued.

Volunteers as Team Members

Every word counts, and luckily, kind and inclusive words cost nothing. Legally, it is important to distinguish “employees” (paid staff) from “volunteers” (unpaid staff). This is also often important in a union environment to create a clear delineation of appropriate tasks for each group. However, our unpaid team members should be included whenever possible–in events, discounts, participation, and communications, as they are often some of the most helpful individuals on grounds with our guests, as well as providing incredible support behind the scenes. They are well trained, and follow strict policies and procedures similar to staff members, but without the benefits of a paycheck–so, including them as team members is the least we can do to share our respect.

Per AZA’s Volunteer Management Committee’s Best Practices in Volunteer Recognition & Retention, Staff/Volunteer Relationships:

  • Staff and volunteers work together in an atmosphere of teamwork and support for the success of the organization and its mission.
  • Staff recognizes that volunteers are stakeholders in the organization, and seeks their input and perspective when making decisions that affect the volunteers and their work with and support of the organization.
  • The staff sees their volunteers as strategic assets, connecting the understanding of volunteers and their motivations for volunteers with the development and implementation of volunteer activities that meet both the needs of the organization and the volunteers who support it.

Is volunteer engagement part of your strategic plan? Do you have enough resources to fully support your volunteer team? Maybe. Maybe not. But something as simple as using a term like “team members” acknowledges that they are a highly valued part of our team. That feeling is what many volunteers are seeking when they apply to volunteer at your organization in the first place. Without it, your retention may suffer.

Leveraging your San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance Academy website, whether through My Academy or your volunteer site, can greatly help your volunteers feel they are a part of your organization’s team, when set up properly. Having access to the same or similar important resources and training as staff–24 hours a day, 7 days a week–is a huge perk that most appreciate greatly.

Do volunteers receive the same perks as staff, such as free admission, parking, discounts on food and merchandise, and education programs? Can they utilize the same break areas? Is information shared with them in a timely, thorough, and respectful manner? Is their impact on the organization acknowledged, recognized, and celebrated? Fully utilizing your volunteer page on the Academy platform can help you share with volunteers the answers to all of these questions, and more.

Mission-driven Participation

Community members engage in volunteer opportunities with our organizations mainly because they love wildlife and conservation, and want to be a part of the mission-driven work that we do. One day captain, Nancy, shared with us that mission-driven communication means a lot to her and keeps her connected, so she can share her passion with her fellow volunteers, friends, and family. Providing training and resources about the conservation work we do on the volunteer Academy site and highlighting when new materials are posted helps volunteers stay connected and well-informed. We use learning paths on the volunteer Academy site to train volunteers for new assignments, like enrichment.

One enrichment volunteer, Scott, shared that his absolute favorite volunteer opportunity is seeing animals using the enrichment items he made for them. As for the rest of the perks, he said “The little things add up. Every chance we get to meet an animal ambassador or spend time with the wildlife care specialists is incredibly rewarding, and being thanked every day takes the cake! Experiences that connect us to the wildlife we love so dearly are like winning the lottery. They broaden our horizons of opportunities, shift our perspective, increase our understanding, and help us feel directly connected to our conservation mission.”

Providing “lunch and learn” opportunities for volunteers costs nothing more than 30 minutes of staff’s time and helps volunteers stay engaged and informed about your mission-driven work, while also making them feel valued when you share your time and knowledge.

It’s even better when volunteers are asked to assist with mission-driven tasks. Enrichment volunteer Karl said “Ideas flow when we work together–extra brain cells are useful! When staff get to know me and ask for my help, I feel valued and respected. And when they share photos with me of animals utilizing what I’ve built in their habitats, it makes my day!” Resources like this can easily be shared on your volunteer Academy site for all volunteers to enjoy, and they instill pride in the entire team.

Volunteer Appreciation

When asking a room of volunteers what helps them feel appreciated, the overwhelming response was “Community is the best part!”

From AZA’s Best Practices in Volunteer Management for Retention Awareness site:

  • Volunteer contributions are regularly recognized by staff in the areas in which they volunteer, in a manner that enhances their self-esteem and emotional connection to the organization.
  • The organization ensures that the volunteers know they are doing significant work through regularly scheduled communication (newsletters, daily updates, etc.) as well as through interpersonal communications.
  • The organization openly and publicly supports and promotes the importance, relevance, and value of volunteers to its mission and purpose through its website, membership communications, newsletter, and other means, positively affecting recruitment and retention.

And in the Recognition Purpose section:

  • The organization understands that recognition of volunteers is essential to the success of the organization, and volunteer management develops a plan to regularly recognize volunteer contributions.
  • The organization acknowledges that recognition is the responsibility of everyone in the organization, and encourages staff members to participate in volunteer recognition practices.
  • The organization practices formal recognition that follows the pattern of regular, informed, day-to-day recognition of both the value of volunteers and their contributions to the organization.

Are you relying solely on your volunteer services staff to provide volunteers with recognition and share appreciation?

No matter your title, status, or level in your organization, volunteers truly appreciate acknowledgment and gratitude. One mentioned that having an executive team member walk through our office from time to time lets them know they are not forgotten.

Here in San Diego, we include information on all of our volunteer appreciation events and experiences–like tours, talks, and more–on our Volunteer Connection Academy site. Volunteers can visit the calendar, see what is coming up, and sign up to participate. We can limit the available spots, share details, add Zoom links and more, all on that one page. It is a “one-stop shop,” and by just looking at it, whether spots are still available or not, volunteers can see how much we appreciate them by the volume of opportunities we work so hard to craft.

Intent matters. Love and care matter. Supporting them matters.

We also post links in the Resources section to tribute videos and photo montages for volunteers to enjoy, with heartfelt messages from staff throughout our organization. A thank you card or a poster costs next to nothing, yet goes a long way in sharing our appreciation with our amazing team.

Hopefully, this article has provided some fun ideas and thoughtful reflection on ways you can celebrate your amazing volunteer team members throughout National Volunteer Week, Global Volunteer Month, and beyond!

Tammy Rach is the Senior Volunteer Manager at San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance