The importance of recognising volunteers - RSA

The importance of recognising volunteers

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  • Picture of Martin Matthews FRSA
    Martin Matthews FRSA
  • Public services
  • Social productivity
  • Fellowship

Volunteers are increasingly important in modern society, often however they get little recognition for their vital work. In this piece Lord Martin Matthews encourages us to give more recognition to volunteers, and breaks down some of the barriers that prevent people from nominating them for awards.

The stereotype volunteer is a sherry drinking retired person with too much time on their hands. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Many organisations rely on volunteers and couldn’t function without them. For example, 300,000 school governors are accountable for the education of all children in the state sector and a budget of 40 billion pounds a year.

In many respects volunteers exemplify the number one Nolan principle – selflessness. People volunteer for the benefit of our society and local communities. That’s what motivates us. Everyone appreciates being valued even if it’s a “thank you”. Most volunteers do not expect recognition for their work but I believe very strongly that they should be considered.

What spurred me on to do more about recognition for volunteers is my friend Robin. I knew him for twenty of the thirty-eight years he had been a governor at our school. He was a well-informed, diligent and successful chair of governors in an inner-city school. I nominated him for national recognition which was supported by our school, community and politicians. To my sadness, he died before the honours system could assess his nomination. It made me realise I knew many others like Robin and time was too short to let things bumble along.

As society increasingly draws on voluntary service to fill gaps where the state used to be, how volunteers are recognised needs to be clear within each group. Some organisations have always done volunteer recognition very well. The Guides and RNLI are excellent.  They value and recognise their volunteers with long service and for above and beyond contributions. Others need to learn from that expertise to retain and grow their volunteer community.

While reviewing the recognition of volunteers, I looked at local education awards, national awards and the honours system. I only found one area that has a governance award category - Cornwall. The National Teaching Awards phased out a governors’ category ten years ago and have no plans to revive it. The honours system has recognised a small number of governors but I think that’s because they had so few nominations.

To try and support more and better quality governor nominations I analysed school governors in the honours lists for the last ten years. I found that for every ten head teachers honoured one governor was recognised. Given there are at least ten governors for every head teacher that was a comparative one percent recognition rate. The level of recognition is also significantly different, with head teachers receiving much greater awards. A 2008 University of Bath study found governors were “overlooked, overworked and (their remit was) over complicated”, nothing has changed. My fear is that a similar pattern applies to other voluntary organisations.

We volunteers are a resourceful lot and where we find a problem we work on a solution. That’s why I’ve written a “How to” guide with some colleagues to support nominating people for national recognition. I know the biggest barrier to nomination is that people think the process is complicated. It isn’t. I hope others can use our guide and more volunteers are honoured. Knowing you are valued as a person and volunteer goes a long way.

Myths about national honours nomination

  • Nominations have to come from official groups like a council – NO
  • You can email both the citation and letters of support – YES
  • There is a deadline for nominations – NO
  • You can nominate yourself – NO
  • There are companies out there that for a fee will nominate you – YES
  • You have to still be in post when the nomination is made – YES

The nomination has two main elements: the citation and letters of support. Our guide explains how to write the nomination, even including words and phrases from government advice. We can work with you to shape the best nomination from the evidence you have. We can advise how to draft letters of support and who it would be best to approach.


You can contact your county Lord Lieutenants office for advice how to nominate someone to attend a Buckingham Palace garden party if you feel the national honours system is inappropriate for the person you have in mind.

As a society, we will increasingly rely on helping each other as volunteers. It’s important we collectively value and recognise these contributions. Organisations should build on the best recognition patterns. Individuals shouldn’t wait; if you know a great volunteer, nominate them.


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  • "Some organisations have always done volunteer recognition very well. The Guides and RNLI are excellent.  They value and recognise their volunteers with long service and for above and beyond contributions. Others need to learn from that expertise to retain and grow their volunteer community."

    Yes and no.

    Long service awards are OK and there are some extremely deserving recipients. However, they also indicate that recognition won't be forthcoming until a certain amount of time has passed, often years. Given people are giving less and less time to volunteering (at least initially - see such a requirement can be very offputting, causing people to drop out or not even start volunteering.

    Long service awards often fail to acknowledge what people actually achieve in their volunteering. They risk heaping praise upon volunteers who have been there for ages but achieved little whilst ignoring those who haven't been around very long but have achieved much. A bit like National Citizens Service which celebrates eight million hours of volunteering without telling us anything about what that volunteering has actually achieved, whether for the volunteer, the community, wider society or an individual beneficiary.

    As to recognition for those who go 'above and beyond', again there are some very deserving recipients. However, when we mainly see recognition like this going to older people who give huge amounts of time and have done for decades, we risk creating an unrealistic expectation of what volunteering is and implying a commitment is required that goes beyond what most people can give.

    Finally, we need to recognise that retention isn't about hanging on to people for as long as possible. That is off-putting to volunteers and is an outdated approach that doesn't fit with modern life. See a previous blog post of mine on this subject at

    Recognition is important. Too often it is done so an organisation can tick the box for saying 'thank you' rather than because a genuine thank you was warranted. Too often it fails to recognise volunteers as a valuable part of society or of an organisation. Too often it is formal without the essential day-to-day recognition of a simple thank you to validate it.

    What I'm saying is that volunteer recognition isn't as simple as it first appears.

    Finally, (sorry, I'm going on a bit), thank you for doing a guide to the national honours system. What we also need is a campaign to scrap the British Empire Medal, an honour created just for volunteers but below the accepted awards in the honour system ( That decision was a slap in the face to all volunteers and needs correcting.

    • I can't argue with the points you make and I hope people see nomination as more than a long service award.

      A fly in the ointment for some time has been the "empire" part of the system. This actively discourages inclusivity which is a shame. As a country we need to move on; possibly with the a similar structure but a new name?