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The Right and Wrong Way to Appreciate Volunteers

Your volunteers work hard! Well, most of them do. :) And like many program leaders, maybe YOU are a volunteer. And YOU work harder than anyone else! Can an organization say "thank you" to your volunteers (including yourself)?? Yes, and it should! But before you write them a check, hand them a stack of cash, or give them a gift card, take a minute to understand what is acceptable when it comes to appreciating volunteers.

This is a complex issue with a lot of nuances. This blog post is a summary on the topic and I have linked a number of more in-depth articles at the end for you to dig deeper if desired. Keep in mind...I'm not an attorney and this is not a substitute for legal advice.

Giving cash or gift cards to a volunteer--especially if it's tied to their service to the organization--looks a lot like employment and is almost always considered a "taxable event." Even if it's not tied to their service, a gift can still look like taxable income in many cases.

If you want to give a gift to a volunteer for their service, consider the following, better alternatives:

  1. You may appreciate the volunteer with small "in kind" gifts including flowers, food, catered meals, "swag," priority registration, etc. Consider sending them to a leadership training conference, paying for a (reasonable) board retreat, etc. Recognizing the volunteer(s) at public events or in publications is another meaningful way to say thank you.

  2. Cover their expenses. It is acceptable to cover a volunteer's expenses as long as they are directly related to their volunteer work for your organization. If a volunteer is printing materials at home, you can provide the paper and ink. You can also cover necessary equipment, travel expenses to/from volunteer location, etc... Be sure you receive proper documentation of each expense before reimbursement.

  3. You may consider giving board members fee discounts on membership/program fees. This amount would need to be fairly small in order to be considered "insignficant" to the IRS and if it applies to the entire board, then keep in mind that the board cannot vote themselves a discount. That would be a conflict of interest and is considered self-dealing. Board member discounts would need to be determined by a separate committee or perhaps by the program participants as a whole.

I hear from many of you who ARE these hard-working volunteers. I know you're happy to do the work and you're not looking to get paid very much, but it would sure be nice if it paid a little something! Well... this is one of many cases where there's unfortunately not a lot of grey area. You can't PAY someone for their service to your organization--not even a little bit, without it being considered employment. If you're looking for a loophole to this, then I strongly recommend you seek the detailed advice of an attorney. But, as you can tell, avoiding it altogether is by far the best approach.

In addition to the ideas listed above, I urge volunteer program leaders to do the following:

  1. Delgate...Train others to do as much of what you do as possible. It is possible to pass MOST of what you do off to individual volunteers and have your role simply be mostly an oversight role to ensure each volunteer is doing their delegated task(s) as desired.

  2. Rotate...Consider partnering with a co-leader to rotate responsibilities. Find a way to share the leadership role with at least one other person to allow you to take regular, rotational time off.

  3. Appreciate...Make a concerted effort to show your appreciation to the volunteers you have in acceptable ways in order to retain volunteers as much as possible.

  4. Acceptance...Similar to the last stage in the 7 stages of grief, I encourage you to accept the fact that leading a nonprofit is hard work with very little *tangible* reward. Unless you intend to grow your program to a place where it can pay employees (including you), then you really do have to accept that this is just part of nonprofit service. Remind yourself of the passion and vision you had when you started (or took over) the program. Why did you get into this? Was it to serve homeschool students? Underserved students? Support desperate families? Whatever it was, bring that purpose back to the forefront of your mind and try to see that, while the rewards may not be tangible, you are making an eternal difference in the lives of the students, parents, and families you are serving. And potentially impacting generations even beyond today! Is it worth it? Yes.

The End of a Season?

To everything there is a season and (especially) if you've been serving for a long time and you're struggling with these things, perhaps your season is coming to an end. Maybe it's time for leadership with fresh vision and new energy? Or maybe you need a sabbatical...a year off to rest and recover from serving. Things to consider...

A note to those of you that are not nonprofits:

If you are a NOT a nonprofit and are here looking to appreciate your volunteers, I'm sorry to to tell you that nonprofits are the ONLY organizational type that can use volunteer labor. With that in mind, you may have bigger issues than appreciating your volunteers (hint, hint: email me about becoming a nonprofit asap!)

If you're struggling with these complex issues, I offer private consultations and would be happy to discuss your unique situation with you! Visit to schedule a consult. Keep up the good work, Leaders! You are a hero in my book.


Articles that dive deeper into this topic:

What are “insignificant” benefits a homeschool group can offer to volunteers? |

Appreciating Volunteers: How Much is Too Much? | For Purpose Law Group (FPLG) (

Tempting But Confusing and Dangerous: Paying Volunteers Just a Little Something – Nonprofit Risk Management Center

Nonprofits Beware: Avoid Gift Cards When Recognizing Volunteers - LerchEarlyBrewer

Reimbursing Volunteers for their Expenses: Set Up An Accountable Plan | Nolo

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