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Employee Recognition

How To Create A Stellar Nonprofit Employee Recognition Program: 10 Appreciation Ideas

Rebecca Noori
Last Updated February 13, 2024

Working long hours, juggling multiple roles, and earning tight salaries, nonprofit workers don't have it easy. Many are passionate about the causes they serve, but work burnout and high turnover rates remain ongoing challenges in this sector, and some employees feel taken for granted.

A robust nonprofit employee recognition program can address these issues to keep everyone motivated, engaged, and committed to their organization's mission. Our guide showcases real-life examples of how nonprofit organizations honor their team members, the benefits of employee recognition, and some best practices to help you implement your own program.

What Does Employee Recognition Look Like In The Nonprofit Sector?

Employee recognition is crucial in creating an engaging and positive work environment in this sector. We can break the recognition process into three steps: recognizing positive behaviors, delivering praise, and tying rewards to recognition. In more detail, here's how each step works.

1. Recognizing Positive Behaviors

Recognition in the nonprofit sector may look different from other industries due to unique challenges such as limited resources and diverse job roles. In the nonprofit space, you might recognize an employee who: 

  • Comes up with creative and impactful program ideas that further the organization's mission
  • Successfully implements solutions to address social issues or challenges
  • Takes on a leadership role in organizing and managing initiatives
  • Demonstrates exceptional skills in recruiting, training, and retaining volunteers
  • Actively engages with the community, builds partnerships, and advocates for the organization's cause
  • Excels in grant writing, research, and relationship-building with funding organizations
  • Shows resilience and adaptability in the face of challenges or unexpected changes
  • Navigates uncertainties with a positive attitude and contributes to finding effective solutions

2. Delivering Praise And Recognition

Once you have identified the positive behaviors or actions, use an appropriate method to praise the employee for going above and beyond. Remember that your process shouldn't distract from your operations—you might not have time to host an impromptu celebration in the middle of the work day. But your praise should feel meaningful to the recipient and be consistent with your company values. Most types of recognition will fall into two main buckets:

  • Public recognition in front of team members, customers, or the general public 
  • Private recognition, such as handwritten thank-you notes or emails from a peer or superior

3. Tying Rewards To Your Message

Tangible rewards can incentivize employees to continue their positive behaviors. For example, after thanking an employee for demonstrating exceptional dedication to the organization's mission, you might offer them extra paid time off or a gift card. Remember to keep rewards fair and equitable for all employees and aligned with your organization's values.

Understanding what recognition looks like in the nonprofit sector.

What Are The Benefits Of A Nonprofit Employee Recognition Program?

Nonprofits have a lot on their plate; from grappling with the ever-evolving fundraising landscape to retaining donors, there's never a dull moment. Plunging time and energy into employee recognition might not be a top priority when you have bigger items on your plate. But there are some critical advantages for nonprofits that do commit to recognition, including:

Improving Employee Productivity

Praising your staff regularly is such an easy win. Small acts of recognition don’t need to be expensive—in fact, kind words are entirely free—but they result in increased output for your organization.

Nectar conducted a study of 800 full-time employees in the US to understand the impact of recognition on the workforce. Our survey confirmed that 77.9% of employees would be more productive if they were recognized more frequently.

Reducing Burnout

Nonprofit employees are notoriously busy, and many experience burnout, categorized by the World Health Organization as an “occupational phenomenon.”

The Givebutter charity donation platform recently surveyed more than 5,000 people in its community to understand how many people had experienced burnout in the past three years. 95% of nonprofit professionals have been affected themselves or witnessed a key staff member struggling.

While recognition alone won't conquer instances of burnout in your nonprofit, it can go a long way to improving employee morale and making people feel appreciated for their efforts.

Retaining Nonprofit Talent

The nonprofit sector is vast, comprising 1.8 million organizations that employ more than 10% of the US workforce. However, the average voluntary turnover rate of nonprofit organizations is 25%, according to SHRM. Losing key staff members can damage peer morale, your operations, and your organization. In the case of nonprofit volunteers, Kelly Kluger, Manager of Volunteer Services Habitat for Humanity MB, highlights that retention problems are the norm: 

“The latest trends show us that volunteers aren't necessarily looking for longevity. Many volunteers are now looking for one-time volunteering opportunities, either in person or virtually. This might include volunteering with their co-workers on a community project or even their family members or friends. Some will come and stay long term, but many are looking for a different type of volunteer experience.”

If declining employee retention rates are a problem in your nonprofit, give your personnel reason to stick around by creating a strong culture they feel part of. Recognize and reward their efforts with regular gratitude, and you'll be more likely to keep valuable staff members engaged and passionate about your cause.

Improve Nonprofit Employer Value Proposition

An effective nonprofit employer value proposition can be the answer to why an employee would choose to stay with a company long-term. This is backed by Nectar's research, which reveals that 93.5% of employees would stay at a company for five years if the culture was great.

An outstanding EVP ensures a mutually beneficial relationship where the organization values its employees as much as its mission. And that begins with recognizing the skilled, passionate individuals committed to the organization's cause. It's a tangible way of demonstrating that while the mission matters, so do the people who work tirelessly toward achieving it.

A employee recognition program improve the value proposition of working for a nonprofit.

10 Nonprofit Employee Recognition Ideas

Need some inspiration? Check out our list of employee recognition ideas you can try in your own nonprofit organization. Some aim to honor individual employees, while others recognize the collective dedication of the entire team.

Nonprofit Employee Of The Month

Employee of the Month is a classic award recognizing outstanding performance and organizational contribution. There are numerous ways to honor the award's winner, such as posting their photo in your lobby, posting about the employee on social media, or inviting them to participate in a celebratory dinner or event.

MacIntyre, a charity that empowers people with learning disabilities, hosts its MacInStars Employee of the Month award, which is determined by nomination. Peers, health professionals, volunteers, and families of the people the charity supports can all name an outstanding individual who has excelled in their role. Each winner receives reward vouchers and a certificate.

MacInStars Employee Of The Month Program

Social Media Praise

Highlighting exceptional work on your nonprofit's social accounts is a low-cost but highly impactful way to recognize employees (while showing your community what you do.) You can feature pictures, stories, or videos of team members going above and beyond in their roles. Tag the employee in the post for extra appreciation.

For example, SSAFA, an Armed Forces charity, honored Community Connection Champion Sarah Duviau with an award due to her commitment to alleviating loneliness and isolation in the Armed Forces.

Pass A Post-It Note

On-the-spot praise happens when a leader or peer notices a fantastic contribution and delivers positive feedback in the moment. Our Nectar survey reveals that 98% of employees who receive daily praise feel valued by their employer, and real-time feedback is an integral part of this informal recognition.

Of course, it won't always be possible to pause your operations to honor every employee doing an outstanding job in their workflow. But you can scribble a quick message of motivation on a Post-It and pass it to the person. It will brighten their day and encourage further positive behavior in the future.

Virtual High Five

Another way to call out team members for their work is to lean on technology to deliver messages of praise. For example, the Ulman Foundation allows peers to send virtual high fives to each other. A copy of each award goes directly to the recipient's manager to keep them in the loop about their performance. The organization also hosts a biweekly breakfast club where employees are recognized for personal milestones.

Wall Of Fame

A wall of fame is a physical space where employees can post their recognition of colleagues; it's the ultimate appreciation display. Print off your employee's headshot, write a sentence or two, and attach it to the wall. It's an excellent way for staff (and visitors) to see recognition in action and even inspire them to get involved with their own nominations.

Flexible Working

While nonprofits aren't always able to offer the hefty compensation packages associated with for-profit organizations, there are still many creative ways to reward your employees' hard work and dedication. Flexible schedules improve work-life balance for your team members, eliminating their commute and enabling them to spend more time with their friends and family.

FlexJobs reports that 23% of the nonprofit sector now offers hybrid opportunities, representing significant growth in the number of organizations committed to flexibility. However, there's still plenty of room for improvement. If you cannot switch to a hybrid model across the board, consider offering work-from-home days to your highest-performing employees each month to recognize their achievements.

Nonprofit Celebration Events

Regular charity events throughout the year align perfectly with a recognition program. Along with raising funds and awareness of your cause, this type of formal recognition provides the perfect occasion to thank employees and teams for their exceptional work.

An alternative is to attend an event dedicated to honoring excellence in the nonprofit sector. For example, the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network hosts the annual Nonprofit Excellence Awards. Six teams and individuals receive an award in the following categories:

  • Excellence in Advocacy
  • Excellence in Innovation 
  • Excellence in Leadership 
  • Excellence in Resilience 
  • Excellence by a Small Nonprofit 
  • Excellence by a Young Professional

Nonprofit Excellence Awards

Opportunities For Travel

Depending on your nonprofit's mission, you might reward your employees by allowing them to travel overseas to participate in a project or initiative related to your organization’s work. For example, GlobalGiving provides opportunities to travel and visit nonprofit partners. This can be life-changing for employees who embrace the chance to see first-hand what's happening on the ground.

Give your nonprofit employees opportunities for travel to see the work you do firsthand.


Where compensation falls short, paid time off is typically generous in the nonprofit sector and is always appreciated by hardworking employees.

The United States Tennis Association Mid-Atlantic Section (USTA-MAS) is an example of a nonprofit that rewards its employees with rest and relaxation. The organization offers unlimited paid time off but understands that not everyone can afford luxury vacations when they step away from their desk. USTA-MAS has a workaround for this by giving each employee a membership to, an online flight discount aggregator, and a subscription to a budgeting app to plan vacation expenses.

Of course, not every nonprofit organization can afford to match the example set by USTA-MAS. But, you may be able to offer a handful of extra PTO days per year to nonprofit employees who go above and beyond in their role.

Longevity Milestones

Loyalty to your cause is always worth celebrating. When long-term employees reach significant milestones, for example, five or ten years of service, it's a perfect opportunity to recognize their impact with tenure-based rewards. Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) rewards employees with paid sabbaticals of up to four weeks after completing eight years of service. This extends to five weeks after 15 years of service, and employees may continue taking this every five years after that. Two weeks are available as unpaid leave for those who want to extend their sabbatical.

10 nonprofit employee recognition ideas for employers

Implement Your Nonprofit Recognition Program With These 6 Best Practices

Now we've explored how to adopt employee recognition within the nonprofit sector, the next step is to achieve buy-in and engagement in your formal employee recognition program. Consider these best practices to ensure your appreciation gestures resonate with your team and foster a culture of gratitude that motivates them.

1. Personalize Your Recognition

Recognition is most effective when it’s personal to the individual employee. Generic, one-size-fits-all recognition programs can often feel impersonal and less meaningful. To make your recognition stand out, take the time to understand what motivates each employee and tailor your appreciation accordingly.

2. Create A Company Culture Of Recognition

Your entire organization must be committed to offering praise and recognition to support and re-energize each other. To ensure inclusivity, there also needs to be alignment across internal teams so all managers consistently acknowledge their team members.

Speaking on the Nonprofit Leadership Podcast: Making Your World Better, Dr. Rob Harter explains why a culture of recognition appeals to employees and job seekers. He said:

“People are not just looking at salary. More and more people are looking for the right kind of culture they want to be a part of. The American Workforce Index clearly shows that employees want a workplace that trusts them, recognizes their unique talents, respects their insights, and gives them the autonomy to make a difference through their work.”

Evan Feinberg, Executive Director of the Stand Together Foundation, explains why this culture should be easier to achieve in the nonprofit sector:

“What people really want in a job is to come in each and every day and know that they're making a difference, know that the work that they're doing is valuable, that they're contributing. We should have a huge competitive advantage in the nonprofit industry to offer meaningful and fulfilling jobs to the people that work in our organization.”

The message is loud and clear: Nonprofit organizations can build a thriving company culture, but only if they value and recognize the people who have chosen to work for them.

3. Demonstrate Trust In Your Employees

If we want to see nonprofit employees innovate and propel our organizations forward, we must give them space to do so. This boils down to establishing an environment of psychological trust where team members feel safe to voice their opinions and offer their ideas without fear of being belittled.

Charity coach Steve Allman unravels the types of rewards and recognition that can make a difference to the people who give their time and energy to nonprofit organizations: 

“Charities give volunteers things. Certificates, awards, flowers, chocolates. It's our way of saying thanks, acknowledging their contribution, and who doesn't like free chocolate? But most volunteers aren't in it for the things. They weren’t sat at home dreaming up new ways to get free flowers and chocolates. The things volunteers want often aren't things. Trust, responsibility, making an impact, sharing skills, using experience, learning, a sense of community; these things are often the real rewards.
And the things volunteers don't want aren't things either. Paperwork. Bureaucracy. Pointless meetings. Complicated recruitment processes. Waiting around. Poor communication. Unclear roles. Some of this is necessary; some volunteer roles are complex or risky. But, most of the time we do it because we always have, or we need to tick the right boxes, or we're trying to mitigate against every possible outcome. So, keep giving volunteers certificates, awards, flowers, and chocolates, because who doesn't like free chocolate? But let's give them the everyday things that show we trust and value them and, where we can, let's take away the things which make them feel like we don't."

4. Be Mindful Of Your Budget

Nonprofit staff deserve recognition and rewards for their hard work in the same way that for-profit employees do. However, there are often financial limitations and restrictions due to the organization's budget and the use of public funds or government grants.

Meaningful recognition is still within reach, even on a budget. Nonprofits must be creative and thoughtful in how they show appreciation.

Instead of offering monetary rewards, consider cost-effective alternatives with a high intrinsic value, such as public recognition in a staff meeting, a personalized note of thanks, lunch with a leader, or an opportunity for professional development. Also, remember that flexibility and a good work-life balance are rewards that don't necessarily require an exchange of cash.

5. Establish Strong Communication

Effective communication should be at the heart of your recognition culture. Employees must understand how your program works and what they must do to earn praise from those around them. Circling back to the importance of trust, communication can also include inviting your nonprofit employees into key discussions about how their work impacts the company's mission. The bottom line is to share how they're making a difference.

Vanessa Holmes, Associate Director of the Milton Keynes Hospital Charity says:

Sometimes our hands are tied with the bureaucracy/process (I speak from experience), but that's where relationship building and honesty comes in—and if it continues throughout the relationship, you'll be having those conversations about impact and community too, which make such a difference."

6. Link Core Values To Your Program

As nonprofit organizations are value-driven, incorporating core values into the recognition program is crucial. This aligns with the organization's mission and reaffirms its dedication to those values. When employees see recognition linked to core values, they feel a more profound sense of purpose and fulfillment in their work.

For example, imagine that one of your nonprofit's core values is to positively impact the community. When Emma decides to run a company-wide initiative to collect spare bedding and deliver it to a local homeless charity, her employer recognizes her efforts and links the activity back to the value of community impact. This reinforces the value and encourages other employees to take similar actions in line with that core value.

Best practices nonprofits should follow for employee recognition

Recognize Your Nonprofit Workers With Nectar

Nonprofit employees and volunteers deserve as much recognition as workers from other sectors. Establishing a culture of trust, being mindful of budget limitations, and linking core values to recognition can skyrocket employee engagement in your organization. With Nectar, you can easily implement a recognition program that meets all these criteria and more.

We offer the following customizable features that allow organizations to recognize employees in meaningful ways without breaking the bank:

  • Recognition: Enable a culture of peer recognition by encouraging employees to give Nectar points to each other, accompanied by a message of praise and a core company value hashtag. Each message is displayed in the Nectar feed for colleagues to see. 
  • Rewards: Extend recognition to an employee rewards program by inviting people to exchange accumulated Nectar points for tangible rewards such as Amazon products, gift cards, charity donations, company swag, and custom rewards. 
  • Challenges: Incentivize your employees to work toward a particular goal and offer a small reward for completing it. For example, you might set up a fundraising challenge, and give Nectar points to the person who raises the most money for your nonprofit. 
  • Milestones: Reward your nonprofit employees for their loyalty by celebrating work anniversaries on autopilot. Nectar will automatically schedule each anniversary and birthday to ensure every eligible employee receives rewards on the right day. 

Ready to learn more about how Nectar can support your nonprofit? Request a free demo today, and feel free to check out our transparent pricing page for a clear understanding of our costs.

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