I’ve been thinking a lot about volunteer recognition and what that means. I have always found the area of volunteer recognition to be problematic, with its focus so much on awards and certificates, gifts and pins of years of service. I have never connected with any of this, both as a volunteer and as a manager of volunteers, and not only do I not connect, but something about it makes me cringe. Just yesterday, I attended the AGM of the community health centre where I am a volunteer Board member, and I (as well as the other board members) was presented with a thank-you gift of flowers and a certificate. I cringed, and to be completely honest, as soon as I got home, the certificate went into my recycling bin. Otherwise, it would get lost in the pile of papers in my house.
I used to think the reason was because of the money – I don’t want precious resources going to pins and gifts, when this could go towards helping someone in need. This is definitely one of my concerns, but I don’t think this is the whole reason. I have been thinking about this more this week after I just completed the Gallop StrengthsFinder test. After you take the test, it tells you your top 5 strengths. One of my top 5 strengths is called “Significance” and when I spoke with my colleague about my results (who is a bit of Strengthfinder expert), she said jokingly “oh, I guess we need to give you lots of certificates so you feel happy”. I had a visceral reaction to her comment, because I don’t want a certificate! I thought about this more and I read the description of the “Significance” strength again. The significance strength is all about my personality, where I am driven to find meaning and value in everything that I do, whether it is work, volunteering, spending time with my family or socializing with friends. I want to feel significant in my actions, not in an ego-centred ‘wanting to be recognized’ way, but in a way that I can say that I am making a difference. I realized that I don’t want a certificate, because it feels like it is superficial. I do not work for the paycheck or volunteer for the certificate. The reason why I work (and volunteer) is to live out my values, make a difference in the lives of others, and hopefully make a mark (as small as that mark might be) on improving society.
I think I am not alone in my feelings about this. I think that many volunteers probably have Significance as one of their top 5 strengths, and therefore find the time to volunteer to make a difference in society. I think this means that we need to rethink volunteer recognition. For me, effective recognition happens when I understand how my contributions make a difference in society. Therefore, it is important for me to see the bigger picture and understand how my little part is contributing to the bigger picture. For me, my number one effective recognition (for work or volunteering) is when the leaders of the organization ask for my contribution, my feedback, and seek me out to work on a project. They see my significance, they recognize it and they want to use my strengths. Let’s stop making certificates and instead, but lets engage volunteers in bigger, more meaningful projects where they can make a difference instead.