Recognizing the Importance of Gratitude

The Saturday after Thanksgiving is one of my favorite days each year.

Two days after gathering with family and celebrating all I have to be thankful for, I get together with members of a nonprofit that provides leadership development for high school students. The day is always productive as we spend time reviewing the work we’ve done and gearing up for the next few months. The highlight of the day is the evening when we host a recognition banquet. We put on our fancy clothes, have a nice meal and honor lots of deserving individuals.

This night is just one of many things we’ve done in the organization to help create an attitude of gratitude. Because we are entirely volunteer-based, finding ways to recognize our volunteers and make sure that the organization is grateful for their contributions is one of our most important tasks, only secondary to our direct work on the mission. Through my work as Executive Director, I learned a few lessons that have helped engrain the value of thanking our volunteers for their contributions.

Create Awards to Recognize Your Staff

The most direct way we recognize our volunteers is with traditional awards. We give our highest honor at our largest service of the year, but almost every other formal award is handed at our recognition banquet. We honor the best first-year volunteer, the outstanding young volunteer (in their second to fifth year) as well as our contributions to individual programs. These awards are well-established and carry a good deal of prestige.

Another important aspect of this is to always evaluate your awards program. A few years ago, we noticed that we didn’t have any awards for recognizing the overall outstanding contributions that didn’t depend upon experience level on Staff. As a result we created two new awards—one for outstanding contribution (cleverly named the Annual Award for Outstanding Contribution), and another that recognizes innovation.

Sometimes just sticking around is also a big achievement. Over the years, people drift in and out of our organization as life happens. Again, we noticed a deficiency in our awards program. As a result we added a small award (a lapel pin) for those who have been members of our organization for 10 years, and a larger personalized award (a paper weight) for those who have been involved for 25 years.

Little Things Matter

As a volunteer-run organization, recognition is an important undertaking. Recognition doesn’t just happen at banquets in our organization. Every meeting ends with a little recognition time for people who made important contributions to make the day happen, and also for tasks that happen between our all-staff meetings. Because we call these “kudos” we typically hand out Kudos granola bars, or a different sweet snack.

We’ve also upped this recognition at our largest service, a five-day summer leadership workshop. Each day we recognize a ‘Staffer of the Day’ for their contributions and give them a creative trophy that fits the theme for that year’s workshop. For example: at a spy-themed Workshop, each winner received a plastic martini glass that was shaken, and not stirred. We recognize non-traditional work. To promote professional attire, special “I Look Good.” buttons are awarded to modestly-dressed Staffers. (Trust me it sounds more serious than it is.)

We are a fun-loving, hard-working group and our awards also reflect the culture of our organization. Some of our awards are a fake wheel of cheese, a framed, oversized senior photo, a jar of jam preservatives and a handheld award. All awards don’t have to be plaques—be creative and make sure it fits your NPO’s culture.

Live the Attitude Every Day

Handing out awards is a simple way to start saying thanks to the people who play an important part in your organization. However, if you want to start living a life of gratitude, then the efforts need to go deeper. And it starts up top. If the leadership team lives a life of gratitude, then it will filter down to the rest of the organization.

One way this happens is through mentoring and welcoming new members into the organization. This doesn’t have to be done in a public manner, but if you can show that the experienced members are invested in the development and careers of younger ones, everyone can help develop beneficial relationships. People who are invested in one another appreciate the effort put in and care more.

This attitude doesn’t just happen with our volunteers, but we also try to pass it on to the students at our services. We encourage students (and staff) to send each other personalized notes with positive messages and encouragement. In our leadership development, a key component is learning how to say thanks as well as take compliments.


Developing an attitude of gratitude isn’t something that happens overnight or something that you can turn off and on. It is established in an organization’s culture and takes years to develop. However, once you reach the point of true appreciation, the members feel more connected to the mission and can help your organization achieve more.


Lincoln Arneal

Lincoln Arneal was a Senior Editor at Nonprofit Hub who brought loads of real-world nonprofit experience to the team. He was the past executive director of a nonprofit that provided leadership development to junior high and high school students. He looked to bring the insights from his time forming, developing, and running a nonprofit to help others in their quest to do good. Lincoln also had a legal background and had written for various newspapers (covering high school sports) for the past 15 years. He could be followed on Twitter at @NPLNK.

November 23, 2014

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