She Said, He Said - Article #3 on Why Volunteer Recognition is Still Stuck in the 20th Century

Post Last Updated: 2 years ago

Linda Llewellyn of Celebrate Volunteers ( and Barry Altland of Head, Heart and Hands Engagement Collective( team together to address one of the biggest “misses” in the Volunteer Engagement profession today—Recognition.  Through a series of blog articles, Linda and Barry will tackle the what, why and how that has led the profession to this leadership shortfall, and what we can collectively do about it to get this Recognition train back on the tracks.  Read the series to support your own professional development as a Leader of Volunteer Engagement (LoVE)!  

Link to Blog Article #1 - What's this blog series all about anyway?   

Link to Blog Article #2 - What's holding you back from 21st century volunteer recognition strategy 


Blog Article #3 – “The Problem With Saying, ‘We’ve Always Done It This Way!’” 

One of the most common reasons cited for not trying a new Volunteer Recognition practice is, “We’ve always done it this way.”  Every time this excuse for not changing is given, the Leader surrenders to being stuck with the same old results.   As a result, Volunteers are not fully engaged, and their work is not wholly impactful.


That’s What She Said …  

Come on LoVEs! The “We’ve always done it this way” excuse is tired.  A Volunteer Recognition strategy that does not change or incorporate innovation becomes stagnant.  Stagnation results in a less-than-effective Volunteer base, and Volunteers who feel under-appreciated.  If you’ve “always done it this way,” truth is … your organization will never get a different result.  

If your Recognition habits remains the same over time, the impact of those Recognition efforts will yield mediocre results at best.  Volunteer satisfaction and retention will undoubtedly be lessened.  Volunteers will be less engaged, and not promoting the organization and its cause, or attracting others to serve, or possibly donating.  Mediocrity will never lead your Volunteers to their full potential, nor achieve your organization’s vision. 

Stagnant and mediocre, how blasé!  Where’s the inspiration?  Inspiration provides the required energy to lead a dynamic, engaged, and impactful group of Volunteers.  Without that energy, the impact on beneficiaries your Volunteers generate will suffer.  

So, what is it you are afraid of?  Fear of change?  Judgment?  Risk? Ability?  All of them?   

Fear of change is normal, yet change is a natural and inevitable part of life.  Change is about growth.  Change propels us toward something greater.  Accept change. Embrace it.  Choose HOW to change to minimize the negative, and maximize the positive outcome. 

Is the fear of judgment, or fear of the risk of changing your Volunteer Recognition strategy a real thing for you?  Again, get over it.  Get used to it.  Yes, there is a risk.  You will be judged.  Innovating how you recognize Volunteers to produce greater results and impact is a risk worth taking.  The judgment just might be positive and rewarded because of your courage.  Innovation’s result is positive and rewarding in itself.  

You may doubt your ability to make an innovative change.  Rest assured, we all have some degree of insecurity.  But, the many resources available online and in your community will help you build your confidence and your competence.  Your local circle of LoVEs is full of knowledge and experience to assist you.  Reach out.  Bounce ideas off each other.  Connect with your CVA peers.  Those in ALiVE and other geographic professional associations.  With a solid support structure, innovating how you recognize Volunteers can be a great learning experience for you too! 

It’s time!  Time to make a change!  After crafting a plan, you can go all in, Texas Hold’em style.  Stop your current practice and begin anew. Make a splash of it!  Market!  Communicate! Share!  Or, you can add a new practice every month so that by this time next year, your new strategy will be fully implemented.  It will have naturally evolved.  

Whether you decide to make changes quickly or gradually, you must begin by engaging your Volunteers and other stakeholders.  Ask Volunteers why they choose to serve alongside your organization, how they would prefer their accomplishments acknowledged, and what they find meaningful. Ask stakeholders what qualities are important to recognize, from their perspective.  Don’t forget to ask everyone who has a vested interest if they have ideas.  You will undoubtedly receive valuable information for designing an innovative Recognition strategy. 

Document what you learn about individual Volunteers in your database to preserve the insights, and make them work to enhance their engagement.  You now have the information you need to personalize Recognition and ensure it brings deeper meaning for your Volunteers and stakeholders.  Whether you implement a new strategy all at once or incrementally, just do something different.  The excuse “We’ve always done it this way” just won’t work anymore as a reason to not change how you recognize Volunteers. Stagnation, mediocrity, low energy and lack of impact will be the likely results unless you conquer your fears and embrace the future … and innovation.


That’s What He Said …  

Ever heard of Robert Greenleaf? That’s OK.  Most people haven’t.  Not even people in Leadership roles.   

Ever heard of labor unions? Chances are you have.  In some union-friendly states, they are an important part of the labor front.   

Ever ponder why the labor movement initiated in the late 19th century?  It really is a simple cause-effect.  Leaders treated their people like crap.  Those laborers felt so powerless they knew they must band together, organize, and stand up against the treatment that was considered the norm in most organizations.   

Imagine if those brave souls had not risen?  Might leaders have made the changes so badly needed between then and now?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  

Leaders were called upon to change. They simply could not keep doing what they did in the same way.  And as a result, work became more meaningful when the care shown to those who make the results come alive increased.     

And then there is Robert Greenleaf. Even though his name may not ring bells for you, I bet the concept he envisioned and the movement he had borne does: Servant Leadership.  You see, Robert was in a grind, middle-manager job with a major corporate entity in the mid-20th century, and was not impressed with the way he was treated by his “bosses.”  He knew deep in his heart there must be a better way.  So he set out to start a revolution.  One that would change the way Leaders led and engaged those on their team.  And his work made a difference.  Well, for some, anyway.   

Because although Servant Leadership is a term that is recognizable in for-profit and non-profit business in 2018, not every Leader drinks that Kool-Aid.  Old skool management styles still reign supreme in many organizations. Despite Mr. Greenleaf’s work, and the countless books that have flooded the marketplace enlightening Leaders to serve others (including mine), this style is still, sadly, not the norm.   

And it should be.  It must be.  You see, Leaders in the 21st century just don’t have the luxury to do what they have always done.  Change is the order of the day.  A veritable imperative.  A non-negotiable.  Leaders can just toss aside that phrase “We’ve always done it this way,” because the thought and the deed will not be an option to consider.       

Start now, Leaders.  And begin with your Recognition toolkit.  Rely less on the items and the events, while leaning more on your own ability to touch hearts with your timely, specific, descriptive words that catch your Volunteers in the act of doing amazing things.   

Your words will translate into repeat performance, and sustained engagement.  It is the emotional connection that occurs that delivers the ultimate value.  Changing your Volunteer Recognition practice will generate the emotional connection in your Volunteers in a more meaningful, low-cost, high-return way.

About the Writers …

Celebrate Volunteers, founded by Linda Llewellyn, provides a showcase for non-profits, schools, civic and religious organizations and corporate employee groups to thank, appreciate and recognize their volunteers by sharing the story of who they are and the impact of their service. We provide a spotlight of honor where volunteers shine.  To learn more, visit

Head, Heart and Hands Engagement Collective was inspired by a simple notion:  Leaders of Volunteer Engagement need help.  They benefit from guidance.  They deserve support.  They require resources.  They must be provided professional development to be prepared to create meaningful, fulfilling experiences for volunteers who serve alongside their organization.  And, Barry Altland applies his nearly thirty years of leadership development expertise to offer that, and more, to LoVEs.  See it all at


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