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VOADs and Recognition

Started by James Shaw, April 21, 2024, 05:49:02 PM

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James Shaw

I have been asked to co-write an article on Volunteer Rewards and Recognition. The focus is supposed to be on the impacts and influence of "Recognition" on volunteers in VOADs and the pitfalls and benefits vs time invested. I have been presenting on VOADs at both universities for the last year for the Civil Air Patrol, Coast Guard Auxiliary, and State Guard Association of the United States. I have a format for approaching, but I am curious about those in my network and their opinions.

This is not about what you have or have not received but more about recognizing volunteers.

Jim Shaw
USN: 1987-1992
GANG: 1996-1998
CAP:2000 - SER-SO
USCGA:2019 - BC-TDI/National Safety Team
SGAUS: 2017 - MEMS Academy State Director (Iowa)

Holding Pattern

Did you know that as volunteers, we get paid?

It sounds a bit counter-intuitive, but there is a currency other than money that flows around volunteer organizations.

That currency is recognition.

When people put in effort and it is recognized, they are likely to continue putting in that effort. They may even go above and beyond that level of effort.

When recognition is removed, that effort may stay the same, or even stall.

When things get tough and there is no recognition, you can expect your membership of volunteers to fade away.

Most of us do not expect, nor do we require awards. An analysis I once did of my squadron indicated that 70% of the members, cadets and SMs, qualified for awards that were never issued (badges, ribbons, etc.) because no one put in the paperwork for them.

As an experiment, track attendance of your intermediate term members in a squadron (anyone over 3 years but under 10 years.) Analyze each of them for which awards they can complete sooner rather than later, which they might already qualify for, and recognize them at your annual banquet.

I bet you'll see more engagement the next year from that cohort.

CAP recognized all of its members with the Crisis Service Ribbon during the COVID crisis. Did CAP need to do this? No. Did it help with morale and membership retention? Probably. Is that a fully tangible thing we can track? Well, not with our current databases. But it would be interesting to track attrition of members that received the ribbon vs a 10 year lookback for a similar attrition track.


Recognition is clearly key to attracting and retaining high-quality high-performing volunteers. I've read through many studies in recent years which have focused on identifying best practices throughout the non-profit sector for recruiting and retaining quality volunteers, and invariably recognition programs figure extremely prominently in that equation.

Each time I've examined it myself (in several Region Staff College and Level V seminars), I'm struck by the gap between policy/program and execution. On paper, CAP ticks nearly every box for "Best Practices" when it comes to recognition and rewards. But, to Holding Pattern's point, my sense is we aren't really good at executing the "Best Practices" we've adopted.

The scholarly research emphasizes the incredible importance of recognition and to the extent we're doing it badly or skipping it we're doing ourselves a real disservice.

In a 2004 study (Volunteer Management Practices and Retention of Volunteers) researchers Mark Hager and Jeffrey Brudney of the Urban Institute identified practices aligned under three broad themes -- screening, training, and continuous management and support. Recognition, broadly construed, falls under the "support" theme.

I found other work that reinforces Hager and Brudney, which I shared links for below.

Of nine common best practices for nonprofit volunteer management highlighted in the Hager/Brudney study, CAP can be fairly described to have adopted all of them to some degree:

•    Regular supervision and communication with volunteers
•    Liability coverage or insurance protection for volunteers
•    Regular collection of information on volunteer numbers and hours
•    Screening procedures to identify suitable volunteers
•    Written policies and job descriptions for volunteer involvement
•    Recognition activities, such as award ceremonies, for volunteers
•    Annual measurement of the impacts of volunteers
•    Training and professional development opportunities for volunteers
•    Training for paid staff in working with volunteers

Three practices in particular were found to have a high degree of correlation to member retention, and these practices already figure prominently in CAP management and activities. They are 1) hosting recognition activities for volunteers, 2) offering training and professional development opportunities for volunteers, and 3) screening for suitable volunteers and using that screening to match volunteers to appropriate opportunities.

"These volunteer management practices all center on making the experience worthwhile for the volunteer," the authors wrote. "Retention appears to be very much a product of what charities do directly for their volunteers."

If recognition, training, professional development and upfront screening/matching and continuous management and professional support really are crucial – and the studies show those practices correlate strongly with retention for large-scale nonprofits – CAP should not ask whether it is or is not doing these things but instead should critically and candidly examine whether it is doing them well.

Does CAP do a good job of recognizing volunteers consistently through awards, decorations and advancement, or are we still inconsistent in executing the details of processes for awards, decorations, ratings and recognition?

How diligently do Squadron CCs pursue writing Form 120s?

How often do Group, Wing and Region staffs use the process to recognize subordinate commanders, or high performers whose work they know personally?

How regularly, and sincerely, do commanders, staffs, or project leaders offer regular feedback on individual members' performances on projects, the kinds of ordinary, everyday back-pats that don't rise to the level of a decoration, an award, a certificate, or even a coin?

Thanking members for their work in front of their peers during a unit meeting or an assembly or even during a mission briefing all sits under the broad heading of "recognition." Do we do that often? Do we do that well?

Hager, M. and Brudney, J. "Volunteer Management Practices and Retention of Volunteers." The Urban Institute (2004).

Furano, K. and Grossman, J. "Making The Most Of Volunteers." Public/Private Ventures (P/PV). IssueLab (2002)

Chen, PeiYao, et al "Unlocking the Mystery of Volunteer Retention."
Stanford Social Innovation Review. (2013).
Jim Mathews, Lt. Col., CAP
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