For many leaders, their thoughts turn immediately to recognition and rewards as they ponder how to express care for others and their work.  Countless creative recognition and reward programs exist in organizations large and small.  An entire industry thrives on certificates, awards, plaques, ribbons, trophies, mementos and tchotchkes designed to acknowledge effort and results.  As budgets allow, prizes and items of value are made available to recipients to reinforce the outcomes they generated.  The carrot is alive and well as it dangles alongside the stick.    

As common as recognition and reward programs are, so is the misunderstanding of the foundational principles that inspire the heart.  Organizations and their leaders are often so entrenched in their formal, structured programs that they overlook the real meaning, value and significance of highlighting desired performance.  The nuts-and-bolts management of recognition and reward programs hinders the greater leadership purpose of touching the head, heart and hands of people.  Overused and outdated views of how to inspire others to do their best work still abound.  Misguided intentions cloud the simplicity of offering recognition that inspires.  For leaders of volunteers, there is a better way.    

Leaders are encouraged to rethink volunteer recognition.  Touching the heart must come from the heart.  Effective recognition is like engagement—it happens one person at a time.   

Clarity begins with defining the words associated with performance acknowledgement—appreciation, recognition, reward and incentive.  As leaders see the clear delineation between these concepts, their interchangeability will no longer exist.  Each word will be used on its own to describe a distinctive gesture intended to acknowledge volunteer work. 


Appreciation is defined as a general expression of gratitude for presence, demonstrated qualities and characteristics and overall contribution.  The key part of appreciation is that it is a general expression, not necessarily tied to a specific performance or accomplishment.  Appreciation is sharing basic words of kindness with an individual or group of people.  An example might sound like this:

“I’d like to thank everybody on the team for being so loyal to the foundation!  Your continued commitment to serving those in need really makes a difference in this community!”     

Leaders showing their appreciation is always a good thing.  Kind words and thank-you’s cannot be spoken enough by leaders.  The shortcoming of appreciation lies in these general expressions being the leader’s primary or only form of performance acknowledgement.  Broad statements that lay a blanket compliment over a group of volunteers for their desired traits will ring hollow over time.  “You are all so awesome!” and “Thanks so much for doing what you do!” may come from the leader’s heart, but the universal nature of these statements is less likely to reach a volunteer’s heart.  Leaders may appear out of touch with the real performance and impact volunteers deliver when they rely too heavily on general expressions of appreciation.       


Recognition is defined as a specific expression provided in acknowledgement of having met or exceeded performance expectations; recognition delivers intrinsic, emotional value to the recipient.  In contrast to appreciation, recognition is rooted in observable performance:  a volunteer did something specific that warranted being recognized.  Typically, what they accomplished reached or surpassed an established level for their volunteer performance. 

The guide for delivering verbal or written recognition has already been shared:  The R-B-I/B-I-F Feedback Model.  The word recognition appears in the definition for feedback:  a series of informal, on-the-spot interactions with others to acknowledge work performance for the purpose of recognition or improvement.   The word is present in the definition to remind leaders that feedback is recognition and recognition is feedback.  The desired outcome of recognition as feedback is to deliver emotional value and inspire a repeat performance.  The volunteer’s heart is touched by purposeful, descriptive words.  The desired behavior is reinforced.  As a result, the volunteer knows what they should continue to do.  Words are the lever in this form of operant conditioning. 

An example of recognition delivered following the R-B-I combination of the model sounds like this: 

“Troy, I noticed how amazing you were today handing out the water cups for runners during the 10K race!  Your smile and words of encouragement you were sharing with runners as they passed the seven-mile water station no doubt inspired a second wind for many in the race!  You made sure hundreds of runners stayed hydrated, which is so important for their safety on this humid morning!”             

The recognition (R) word of “amazing” gets Troy’s attention, the described behavior (B) of smiling, sharing words of encouragement and distributing water is detailed, and the impact (I) of a second wind for runners and hydration for safety is emphasized.  Troy’s efforts are recognized!  What gets recognized gets repeated. 


A reward is a tangible item provided in acknowledgement of having met or exceeded performance expectations; a reward delivers extrinsic, monetary value to the recipient.  Rewards are external efforts designed to serve as stimulus to increase the likelihood of the desired performance.  Rewards have tangible or monetary value, while recognition has emotional value.  Rewards can be touched; recognition can be felt. 

The terms recognition and reward often appear together in combination as though they are interchangeable.  In fact the two are very different.  Most notably, one can stand on its own and deliver a return on investment, while the other struggles to deliver a return as a lone factor.  This distinction is where some organizations and leaders have been led astray.  

Since recognition delivers emotional value, specific words that recognize volunteer performance can have a dramatic, positive impact on a person and their service.  Even in the absence of any tangible reward, recognition has great power to touch the heart and further inspire a volunteer.  On the converse, a reward given in the absence of words that specifically describe the desired performance worthy of recognition delivers little to no return on investment.  The recipient receives a token item and is left to their own intuition to connect what exactly they did that earned the reward.  Misunderstandings and missteps in program execution are the reasons so many reward programs bear less fruit than their design hopes to realize.  


An incentive is a factor that drives or enables meeting or exceeding performance expectations by providing predetermined recognition or reward; an incentive may have tangible or emotional value.  The difference between an incentive and a reward is that with incentive the recipient knows the deal in advance—they hit the target, they receive a reward or recognition after their performance.  The recipient knows what to expect as a result of their efforts.  In contrast, recognition and rewards are delivered without prior agreement on the terms.  Recognition and reward are delivered without the recipient’s expectation—they arrive as pleasant surprises.  The proverbial carrot is the classic incentive—the mule’s efforts moving forward are incented by the dangling carrot.        

Now that the similarities and differences of appreciation, recognition, reward and incentive have been defined, how is a leader to know the right strategies to use at the right time to acknowledge volunteer performance?  As with so many aspects of leading volunteers, there is no one size that fits all.  How a volunteer prefers to be acknowledged and what they desire to be acknowledged for is unique to each person.  This simple life truth is why every structured appreciation, recognition, reward and incentive program has its shortcomings.  There is no way a singular program design can meet every person’s needs, wants and desires for performance acknowledgement. 

What is a leader to do?  Go back to Discovery.  Chances are the most enriching ways to recognize a volunteer are in some way connected to the reason they chose to serve.  It is highly likely that the altruistic and selfish drivers that compelled their choice to volunteer will continue to be fueled by recognition that touches those same factors. 

What else can a leader do?  Rely upon the insights gained during Coaching.  Continually asking questions that uncover the root of a volunteer’s sustained passion is invaluable.  Leaders learn what keeps their volunteers coming back, then they tailor all recognition efforts to touch the passion levers of each individual. 

Leaders rely heavily on recognition to inspire exceptional volunteer performance.  They encourage repeat performance from volunteers with their words.  Effective leaders customize how recognition is shared in a forum and manner that suits the volunteer’s preferences.  They maximize the potential power meaningful recognition delivers by recognizing specific accomplishments that align directly with the intrinsic motivators of each individual volunteer. 

rethinking volunteer recognition

guiding leaders of volunteers to feed the passion of those who choose to serve