20 Great Free (or almost free) Volunteer Incentives

In a perfect world, people would volunteer because giving back to their community provided them with an overwhelming sense of fulfillment and joy…

…and then we snap back into the real world, where volunteers are looking to obtain maximum value from their experience. With more than 1.7 million nonprofit organizations in this country, undervalued volunteers will simply move on to another organization. Volunteer incentives peak interest and introduce opportunities to new demographics while keeping current volunteers happy. Here are my top 20 ways to incentivize volunteering on a tight budget.

1. Give a Day, Get a Day.

This year Walt Disney Parks partnered with the Hands On Network to create the ultimate volunteer incentive: a free ticket to a Walt Disney World Resort or Disney Theme Park in exchange for a day of service. With the goal of inspiring 1 million people to volunteer in their local community, Hands on and Disney worked through 250 volunteer action centers and 70,000 nonprofit organizations.  Charities applied to be participating organizations, and once affiliated, volunteers could log their hours and apply for the free ticket.  The participating charities simply had to credential themselves and verify the volunteer hours through the HandsOn system. My personal experience running this campaign couldn’t have been better; this no-cost incentive program attracted entire families seeking to volunteer their way to a great vacation, and many enjoyed their experience and continued to volunteer for our organizaton. 

2. Presidential Awards of Service

The White House has recognized volunteer service for decades, but Barack Obama’s administration upped the ante with Champions of Service, Serve.Gov, and a revamped President’s Award for Volunteer Service, which serves as an amazing volunteer incentive.  In my experience, this incentive has primarily been utilized by high school aged youth looking to link this award into a potential college scholarship. The award structure is tiered, offering a Bronze, Silver, and Gold level honor as well as special recognition for Lifetime Achievement.  The minimum hours required to receive the award vary with each level, and the requirements for youth are lower than for adults. There is a minimal cost associated with this incentive to cover the shipment of certificates and award pins, but because the minimum hour requirements to attain these honors are so high, most volunteers will cover the cost of the pin tenfold.  The online verification process for the presidential awards is similar to the HandsOn/Disney program, and there is a great helpline for charities experiencing any administrative difficulties.

3. Governor’s Volunteer Awards

Most states recognize volunteer efforts by issuing certificates or awards from the Office of the Governor.  While the application process varies from state to state, it does seem to me that most states offer some certificate of recognition for exceptional volunteer efforts.  In some states (like Texas), the Office of the Governor collaborates with a selected Foundation (like the OneStar Foundation) to determine the best recipients, but other states opt to manage the applications and select candidates themselves. Here is a link to Iowa’s Governor’s Volunteer Award page, but I encourage you to see how your state selects these volunteer awards.

4. Thank-You Card.

Never underestimate the power of a simple thank you card.  I’ve hand-written thousands over my career as a volunteer manager, and they are usually unexpected and well received.  I’d like to think that a volunteer logging 12 hours each month is just as worthy of a token of appreciation as a volunteer who logs 40+ hours.  Taking the time to thank everyone is a great volunteer retention tool that couldn’t be simpler. 

5. Good Ol’ Fashioned Certificate

There is noting wrong with generating some in-house awards and recognition levels.  Giving volunteers something to work toward encourages reliability while praising them for their efforts.  Nowadays, digital tools like Photoshop, Illustrator, Pages, and preprinted foiled certificate paper all help to make homemade certificates gorgeous.

6. Jefferson Awards

The Jefferson Awards for Public Service recognize volunteer efforts on both a community and national level.  Nominations require approximately 150 words and submitted information is categorized by community impact, outstanding personal acts, and a simple summary sentence. It takes about 5-10 minutes to complete the application.  Each year 4 volunteers are recognized at the national level and several more locally.  There are additional Call to Action Programs through the Jefferson Awards, including a youth service initiative and a corporate volunteer program worth checking out. 

7. Giftcards and Coupons

In a shaky economy, in-kind donations have been easier to solicit than cash, especially if the business is aware that the gift certificates are donated directly to unpaid volunteers.  Both local businesses and national retail/restaurant chains participate in charitable giving, and asking for a few giftcards is a great way to honor a volunteer without incurring any hard cost.  It ends up being a win-win for the local business, because few people spend under $5 or $10 during a visit, so the business is raking in new customers and you’re recognizing volunteers.

8. Namesake Award

If your nonprofit organization already has an award/recognition process in place, a great way to encourage further participation from a long-time volunteer is to name a volunteer award after them.  For example: “The John Smith Award for Excellence in Technology Volunteering” might be named after a volunteer who has helped a charity with IT for several years.  Usually the first award goes to the namesake, but afterward it might be given to a volunteer who helps reset network logins or helps modify the charity’s website.  I’ve seen this work in the past, and it is great for that hard-to-recognize volunteer who turns down opportunities for thank-you lunches and public recognition.

9. Shameless Plug

Local news agencies love running short, happy bits to break up the doldrums from the rest of the news.  Contacting your local TV station and asking to run a volunteer of the month (or year) allows the volunteer to be recognized in a public way while simultaneously plugging your organization and its mission.  Humane societies and animal shelters often partner with news agencies to broadcast pet of the week programs, bumping up adoptions and raising awareness for particular breeds or shelter needs.  Transfer this winning method your volunteer program and you have a free way to plug your mission and a deserving volunteer.

10. Spirit of Community

Prudential Financial celebrates youth volunteerism with a recognition program designed specifically for middle and high school students.  There are specified participating organizations, with the largest being any affiliate of the Hands On Network.  Students apply through both their principals and the participating organizations and they could receive recognition ranging from medallions, trips to Washington, D.C., trophies, etc. while the participating charity could win up to $5,000.  A great deal of the administrative burden of this award rests with the volunteer, but encouraging youth volunteers to apply for such an honor is a great way to remind them that their work is worthy on a local, state, and national level.

11. Sporting Events

Most communities have local sports teams, and sell-outs don’t happen regularly in the minor leagues.  Having full arenas is great for team morale, and many teams already have donation programs in place.  Providing tickets to a sporting event is a great way to incentivize volunteering for men and sports fans while creating a family outing.  I’ve also seen teams donate large blocks of tickets for group outings for charity volunteers/staff to enjoy together.  All it takes is a phone call, and usually it is well worth it to nab some free tickets.

12. Lunch

From time to time, my coworkers or I will take volunteers out to lunch.  This is a great opportunity to have one-on-one interaction with the volunteer and reiterate that they are a vital part of the team.  Free food is an easy incentive to provide to the volunteer and its generally at a low-cost to the staff member picking up the tab.  I often use this opportunity as a chance to gauge the volunteer's happiness within the organization and to see if they are in the right niche within the nonprofit.

13. Employer-based Incentives

Many large corporations drive employee community involvement campaigns, offering incentives for both participating charities and employee volunteers.  From extra vacation days to prizes and the right to wear jeans in the office, the corporation drives the incentives and charities simply need to provide is a list of available opportunities. 

Double-Whammy: some corporations like Verizon offer cash grants to a charity after an employee reaches 50 volunteer hours.  Looking into corporate volunteer programs can open both volunteer and development doors.

14. Prize Drawings

In this economy, companies are considering a variety of advertising, and serving as the prize in a volunteer drawing allows a company to be represented on social media, websites, and around volunteers and staff of a local charity.  The public link between charitable work and the business has the potential to push business their way, and in an ideal scenario the prize will attract high levels of participation and involvement.  The Los Angeles chapter of the American Red Cross used a Toys R Us giftcard drawing as an incentive.  Several volunteers participated in hopes to receive the prize, and attaching a minimum qty. of volunteer hours to qualify for the drawing increased reliability.  Any incentive that soothes dependability issues is worth trying, particularly in a volunteer opportunity that requires training from a staff member.

15. Bye Bye Ticket, Hello Community Service

Thousands of people are ticketed in local communities for speeding and other small traffic violations each year.  With the continued economic downturn, some families can’t afford the hit a $200-300 ticket creates.  To ameliorate these types of delicate situations, local courts and magistrates have the option of allowing the recipient of a ticket to perform community service in lieu of paying a fine.  Typically, courts assign 20-50 hours and require a simple paper timesheet and verification on nonprofit letterhead.  Most volunteers who went through my court-ordered community service program were single moms who ran a yellow light or college students who were caught texting while driving.  Bringing in good-intentioned people to work a set number of hours can be comfortable because everyone knows what is required and the timeframe.  Everyone is saving money and the community reaps the reward.

16. Fly For Good

Fly For Good is a travel search engine that offers discounts of 10-25% for volunteers on airfare.  Each quarter, profits made by Fly For Good are donated to a humanitarian project, such as the Burmese Orphan Project, so volunteers in the Good Network are able to donate to a philanthropic project while saving money on airfare. Joining the Good Network is as easy as creating an online profile on their website.  Because the discounts are managed third party, this is an easily-accessible incentive with little overhead.

17. Daily Points of Light Award

Each Day, the Points of Light Institute awards an outstanding volunteer on their website.  The online registration form is fast and easy, and the daily volunteer award assesses nominees based on community needs, connections building, ongoing involvement, impact and innovation.  Started by President H.W. Bush during his administration, he continues to sign each award, creating a one-of-a-kind reward for a deserving volunteer.

18. Photo-Recognition

I know that a lot of charities operate out of a building that doesn’t perfectly suit their needs and may not be the most aesthetically pleasing place to work.  To honor volunteers and cheer-up a prison-like cinderblock wall, I’ve seen savvy volunteer managers create a Volunteer Wall of Honor.  Each month, a photo of the volunteer honoree is hung on the wall, usually decorated or framed.  By the end of the year, half of the wall is full and instead of seeing the paint chip or old outlet, passers by see a smiling volunteer.  Variations of this have been done with volunteers painting their name on the wall or singing an object.  Incorporating volunteers to the actual décor of the site literally makes them a part of the organization.

19. CEO for a Day

Of all of the incentives I experimented with during my tenure as a volunteer manager, I never anticipated the fervor and excitement that would surround being CEO for a day.  We simply advertised through our volunteer newsletter that any volunteer donating 5+ hours in a given month would be entered into a drawing to be CEO for a day.  We scheduled a board meeting whereby the volunteer could be recognized before the board of directors, printed a cheap nameplate and allowed them to use the CEO’s office for the day.  It was very inexpensive and well received.

20. The Gift that Keeps on Giving: Volunteer Garden/Tree

This is my favorite volunteer incentive, but I recognize that it isn’t for everyone.  Charities leasing property or renting in an urban setting may not have the opportunity to create a Volunteer Garden or Volunteer Tree Incentive, but this honor is one of the most permanent and worthwhile investments.  Not only do gardens and trees enhance the landscape, but it also provides a permanent dedication to the volunteer’s contribution.  During my first  volunteer tree project, we planted a butterfly bush in memoriam of a lifelong volunteer who passed.  Years later, her children still visit the site and view the nameplate we planted nearby.  This incentive leaves a lasting impression of valuable and beloved volunteers, and is my personal favorite.  For nonprofits on a budget, dedicate existing trees and flowers on the property.  Once the program is in place, see if a local nursery or garden warehouse will sponsor the program. Another low cost/no cost option is to place a plaque on the tree and modify the plaque with an additional name each year thereafter.



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