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Recognizing Volunteers During COVID

Jackie Maas  | Published on 3/4/2021

During this global pandemic, volunteer managers have been challenged to recognize individuals in ways that match their reason for volunteering

When sheltering at home began, my main concern was how to keep our volunteers feeling connected to the City of Plymouth when they couldn’t assist with special events or interact regularly with staff. Their identity as city volunteers is important to them, helping to define who they are and fulfill their need for affiliation.

For the first time since I began this position 15 years ago, I created a volunteer newsletter. I wrote a simple letter that was meant to be reassuring - a warm, folksy hug with nuggets of useful information. When I began, there wasn’t much information to provide, so I shared photos of painted rocks, wildflowers or other things I saw on my walks along city trails. As the lockdown continued, the letters began to include volunteer opportunities to help in the community. I shared requests to make masks for our public safety staff and vulnerable residents, appeals for gardeners to help in city parks, even a call for egg cartons for children’s summer playground activities. During this challenging year, I think some volunteers have felt invisible, untethered from their previous routines and activities – particularly seniors who may have limited contact with others. My hope was that by sending a newsletter, I would reinforce their continued status as part of a larger group, a team that is committed to improving the community. The weekly Wednesday letter became the “Midweek Message” and a reminder that: “We are in this together. You are still important. People care about you.” 

In a typical year, the city’s formal volunteer recognition event would be a themed banquet attended by the mayor, City Council members, volunteers and their guests. This year, we practiced safe social distancing with an outdoor grab-and-go ice cream social. City employees handed out ice cream cups and “Thank You” cookies decorated in Plymouth colors – both of which were purchased from local businesses. Volunteers also received gift bags that included City of Plymouth-branded volunteer face masks and hand sanitizer procured with Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) funding. Volunteers coordinated arrival times with friends, so they had time to gather safely and chat, reveling in the socialization that they had missed during the year. 

Other formal recognition occurred during National Volunteer Week when Mayor Jeffry Wosje prepared a message of thanks for our volunteers, and city communications staff shared volunteer highlights on the city’s Facebook page from profiles previously included in the city newsletter.

CARES dollars also helped to purchase city-branded high visibility safety vests, which were given to volunteers who adopted parks and gardens. The vests became an unexpected recruitment strategy. Many residents saw volunteers wearing them in parks and applied to volunteer so they could receive one, too. Who knew a bright yellow vest would be such a status item? 

To describe how volunteers were making a difference in their community during these difficult times, I worked with the communications team to share their stories. When it was considered safe for volunteers to participate in outdoor events, I took photos of them planting woodland and prairie plants, helping at the Farmers Market, pulling buckthorn, and handing takeout breakfasts to veterans. Our communications team is happy to share such positive content on social media because posts about volunteer contributions to the city consistently get big numbers of likes. Volunteers were delighted to see themselves on the city’s Facebook page and get positive feedback from their friends and neighbors. These posts also generated new volunteers.  

A very effective way to recognize a volunteer motivated by achievement is to give them more challenging work. We are fortunate to have volunteers eager to share their professional expertise with the city. When City Hall closed to the public, volunteer Leanne Loren’s project with the economic development manager ended. A retired Ameriprise Financial project manager and two-decade city volunteer, Leanne was a skilled resource who needed an ambitious project. She was placed with the Parks and Recreation Department, working outdoors to inventory park assets. When she finished, Leanne contributed over 500 hours, traveling 1,326 miles across 1,716 acres of city property to inventory 10,080 park assets. Leanne posed outside my window when she finished the project (photo below).

Of all the formal and informal methods we used to recognize volunteers this year, the one that made the most impact was a simple newsletter that let them know they mattered. I’m sorry it took a pandemic to realize how much people enjoyed a regular newsletter. I continue to write them.