Marcel Mauss, a French sociologist, wrote an essay in 1925 titled The Gift, which analyzed the role that exchange plays in building social relationships. Mauss found that despite the assumption that self-interest is the impetus behind trade, early forms of tribal society show that relationships are rather built on the bond of reciprocity: the obligations to give, to receive, and, most importantly, to reciprocate gifts. Mauss effectively showed how relationships built on reciprocity are a universal feature of humankind. As we approach the holidays, just think of the awkwardness that comes from receiving a gift from a friend and not having anything for them, or inviting someone to our birthday party who then doesn’t invite us back. The Gift is the foundation of all theories of reciprocity, and it provides an exceptionally useful framework when it comes to understanding any form social behavior.

If we look at volunteering through the lens of reciprocity theory, we see that a remarkable number of individuals around the world give their time, skills and labor with no financial compensation to make a difference in causes and people’s lives. Organizations receive and rely on the work of volunteers to deliver services, fulfill their missions and achieve goals. At this point, according to Mauss, organizations need to reciprocate the volunteers’ gift, so as to establish a fruitful and successful relationship: so how can organizations fulfill the exchange system described by Mauss and reciprocate what they get from volunteers?

Recognition of the work done by volunteers is the best way to reciprocate, and it is essential for keeping volunteers engaged in your organization. Motivation to volunteer is driven by many factors: volunteers can be motivated to make an impact because they want to belong to something meaningful, learn news skills, make new friends and socialize. In addition to these personal factors, providing the appropriate form of recognition is a major driving force to motivate volunteers to remain engaged in the long term. Volunteers are more prone to stay when sound recognition systems are in place because if affects directly their self-esteem and organization morale.

João Oberlaender
João Oberlaender

To make sure we provide proper recognition to our volunteers, understanding them and their experience is first step in the recognition equation. AFS is conducting the biggest research of its kind in the nonprofit world, surveying more than 50,000 volunteers in 59 countries to understand what their experience with AFS means to them–research that includes questions on recognition practices. Our preliminary results are showing that 70% of our volunteers are satisfied with the ways the organization reciprocates their contributions. This data tells us that we are on the right path, but also that there is still room for improvement and innovation. In the same way, several aspects of volunteer engagement and management are changing to meet volunteer’s needs and expectations, the way we say thank you to our volunteers also need to evolve. We cannot assume that what have worked in the past will continue to collaborate in the future.

Beyond “thank you” emails, volunteers who participated in our survey said that the greatest reward lies in the work they do. When asked to provide examples of recognition, they responded that:

  • Pursuing a task successfully is a great source of accomplishment. This tells us that organizations need to make sure to equip volunteers with the appropriate resources so they can achieve successes along their volunteering time with us.
  • Volunteers like to know they are useful and considered reliable. Anne from New Zealand says, “I appreciate when I know I can be useful, I can do something that will help other people and the organization. They can call me anytime.
  • Receiving positive feedback and encouragements from both the organization and their volunteer peers motivates them to pursue their volunteering goals.

Our research also shows that recognition practices need to feel special and genuine to the recipient – of course without making generic assumptions about the cultural context. In many cases, a LinkedIn recommendation or a blog post recapping a project can be much more meaningful than a generic certificate of recognition. “Some other ways than just an email,” said one of our volunteers. Indeed, emails have the potential of reaching many people very quickly, but they can also seem somewhat impersonal and careless, especially if addressed to generic “volunteers.” Instead, getting a personal phone call from the Director can make a difference to volunteers, and it is a careful and attentive way of showing real appreciation. Also, never overlook the power of a handwritten note: when was the last time you opened your mailbox and was excited by what was waiting for you?

As volunteers usually give so much to causes and organizations, we need to make sure we reciprocate in the same way. The Maori said it best,

“Ko maru kai atu ko maru kai mai ka ngohengohe,” or
“Give as well as take, and all is well.”

Without this necessary condition, no other practice is good enough to fill the recognition gap.


This article was written by Lucas Welter, Chief Organization Development Officer at AFS Intercultural Programs