A few months back I found myself in several conversations
about volunteer appreciation with other children's leaders. Deciding to skim through several books written about it, the approach generally seems to be, "Do things, O Leader, to show your appreciation to your volunteers." Verbal
praise, gifts, high fives and hugs, free food, etc... gestures of appreciation. Show appreciation, and volunteers will feel welcomed and happy, which will make them want to stay (the books argued). One line stands out to me from a popular book on the topic, "An appreciated volunteer is a happy volunteer."
This discussion is now firmly ingrained into the atmosphere of children's leadership - a totally random person on the street could go up to a children's ministry leader and ask, "What have you done to show appreciation to your volunteers?" and you'd undoubtedly have a conversation on your hands. It's assumed that that's what happens: children's leaders show appreciation to volunteers. It's what we do... after all, we're children's leaders!
Well, apparently I missed the memo on this. Thinking back to my teenage and young adult volunteering, I'd felt the happiest when several things were at play:
- Ideas were being taken seriously. A culture of teamwork made all the difference here. Some of the most disappointing times for volunteers, then and now, are when the opposite is true. I'm thankful for patient leaders who listened to my ideas, even when they were probably way off target. It showed they at least were interested
in me, even if my idea was a flop.
- I was excited about the initial reason for volunteering. A compelling purpose is just that: compelling. It's what makes getting up at 7a every Sunday, to do an hour of tedious setup, worthwhile.
- My presence added value to the endeavor. I can't prove it, but I'm pretty confident I've rolled more sound cables than any person alive. Why on Earth a team of people would opt to wake up at the bootiecrack of dawn, set up a sound stage from scratch, and tear the entire thing down at the end of the day, EVERY Sunday for years, is completely mysterious. It makes more sense, though, when they feel they're adding some serious worth to the venue!
One of the most fun parts of my job is getting to connect with lots of enthusiastic volunteers. Seriously, there are people on the team here who have been here for 10+ years, and are passionate about what they do! It's a great energy to be around. Like, I'm at a place where there are volunteers who outlast the children's pastors! Their enthusiasm is contagious, and it piqued my interest. I asked each of them at different times, "What keeps you going over the long run like that?" Without missing a beat, each of them responded in the same way, "I feel called to do it." Each has stories of times they've felt appreciated, as well as neglected.
As much as tokens of appreciation are nice, the thing that seems to drive people over the long haul is some personal conviction that what they're doing matters. I have a hunch that "volunteer appreciation" boils down to this alone. How appreciated people feel is a function of how valuable (they perceive) the organization is, and how valuable they are in it.
How do you feel most appreciated?