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Section 2. Providing Incentives for Staff and Volunteers

Learn how a uniform system of positive incentives can be used to the advantage of recipients and of your organization as a whole.


  • Why should you develop a plan for providing incentives?

  • When should you provide incentives?

  • Examples of incentives

  • How do you design and implement an incentive plan?

  • Sustaining the incentive program

Why do we do what we do? What causes us to help someone out, or work at a particular place, or even get out of bed on a rainy Monday morning?

A lot of things work together to help us form the choices we make - even those that are so ingrained that they no longer feel like choices. We roll out of bed without seriously considering the alternative of staying there. We skip breakfast because we're not hungry, or because the clock tells us that we are already running late. We buy a different brand of dishwashing detergent because we have a "buy one, get one free" coupon. We take a different route to work because the radio announcer tells us it will be faster.

We make these choices in an effort to be rewarded (free detergent!), avoid negative consequences (getting yelled at for being late), or both. These decisions are made in all aspects of our daily lives, but nowhere are the consequences of our choices as clear as they are in the professional world. If you don't show up, you don't get paid - and you might even get fired. If you do a particularly good job, you might get a promotion or some other type of recognition.

Likewise, the people who work for your organization, whether paid employees or volunteers, choose to work for you. And, obviously, it's in the best interest of your organization that you hang on to them. But, holding on to staff and volunteers can be difficult. How can you make them want to stay?

This section is based on the belief that a uniform system of positive incentives can be used to the advantage of recipients and of your organization as a whole. Incentives can be used to motivate volunteers and paid employees alike, and can help you retain your workers - and even draw in new ones. Read on to find out how an organized incentive system can benefit your whole organization!

Why should you develop a plan for providing incentives?

How can a plan for providing incentives help you, your employees, and your organization as a whole?

  • Incentives increase morale. A simple "thank you" or "good job" from a supervisor can go a long way in making a person feel confident and proud in his or her job, as can more sophisticated incentives. That confidence and pride can help make an even better volunteer or employee.
  • Incentives enable you to keep good help and attract more. It's pretty simple - incentives give the best people in the organization reasons to stay. And good news travels fast - as others in the community are looking for paid jobs or volunteer opportunities, they will naturally turn towards your organization as a place they want to work.
  • Incentives increase the productivity (or safety, or anything else you wish to promote) of members of your organization. If it is understood that increased productivity, or a decrease in accidents, or longevity as a member of the organization gets fairly (or even handsomely) rewarded, then people will do their best to be productive and safe, or to remain with the organization. Bottom line? Things that are rewarded get done.
  • An incentive program can decrease real and perceived favoritism by rewarding employees equally for actions or longevity. Jealousy or envy can deeply harm an organization, and are sure to spring up when employees are rewarded unequally. By having a program, you can be sure that one employee isn't taken for a hamburger lunch to celebrate five years of service, and the other to the Tour d'Argent.

When should you provide incentives?

So if you have decided to provide incentives for your staff and volunteers, when should you do so? This will depend greatly on your organization, but two general rules apply:

  • Reward staff, paid and volunteer, at certain clearly defined milestones. For example, your organization might reward people after a certain amount of time with the organization (after 3, 5, 10, 15, 20, 25 years); at the end of a difficult project; when a challenging goal has been met; or after the successful completion of a training session. These milestones should be decided on before they occur, as much as possible - you don't always know when or how hard work will pay off. They will also vary greatly depending on the organization.

For example, a local symphony might wish to celebrate the end of the concert season, winning a prestigious award, or a particularly generous donation. An advocacy group for children's rights might offer rewards to those who helped ensure the passage of an important piece of legislation, or to staff members who worked overtime to publish the annual report. Both might wish to celebrate the contributions of people who have been with their organizations for several years.

  • Reward regularly and promptly. Whatever events you have decided to celebrate, don't wait six months after a goal has been met to congratulate someone. Rewards and incentives should be given as soon as possible upon reaching a goal. If you wait until six months after the grant has been won to have the party, you will have lost much of the momentum and excitement.

Examples of incentives

So, what makes a good incentive? A good incentive could be almost anything! Consider how much the term incentive includes - almost anything that human beings value, from simple praise to an elaborate gift.

To get you started thinking about the best incentives for your organization, here is a list of incentives that you might use or modify for your organization. They have been broken down into material and nonmaterial (or less material) incentives. Don't believe that your organization must have a lot of money to provide proper rewards and incentives to its staff and volunteers - there's a lot that can be done on a very small budget.

Primarily material incentives


  • Straight pay
  • Promotions (with higher pay)
  • Raises (with or without promotion)
  • Merit pay
  • Bonus pay (for performance, attendance, or other action)
  • Incentive pay
  • Profit sharing (including stock options)
  • Indirect pay (e.g., gift certificates)
  • Contests (one-time pay)
  • Randomly determined pay (e.g., drawings, lotteries)


  • Standard benefits packages, such as vacation time, health insurance, et cetera
  • Hiring into a paid staff position (for volunteers)
  • Extra vacation days
  • Perks (better office locations or parking spaces; coffee, juice, and doughnuts at the Monday morning meeting)
  • Sick leave buybacks
  • Tuition, training, or other educational reimbursements
  • Flex time - Allowing employees to choose their hours (to the extent possible) can be a huge incentive to busy people, such as those with young children or those working two or more jobs.
  • Release time for various functions, possibly including service work - It's becoming more and more common for employers to give their employees time (on the clock) to take part in other community volunteer opportunities (such as mentoring, coaching, working at the local homeless shelter, et cetera).

Less material or nonmaterial incentives

  • Praise - this can take place in person, both verbally and nonverbally (for example, a thumbs up at the end of a presentation), or in the form of an e-mail congratulating someone on their outstanding work
  • Honors, such as naming someone employee or volunteer of the month/year, or nominating them for honors outside of the organization
  • Awards and prizes, such as plaques, pins, certificates, clothing with the organization's name, mugs, etc.
  • Banquets, potlucks, and picnics
  • Training - this can be a very powerful incentive for people who hope to gain useful skills or certification from their work with your organization
  • Public recognition, in the form of a feature article about the person and her work in the organization's newsletter or in the local press
  • Staff outings/retreats - these can serve as an excellent opportunity for people to reflect together on the work they are doing, and reaffirm their commitment to the work and to each other
  • Social events - from planned celebrations to casual drinks after work, these can do a lot to make coworkers more comfortable where they work. As a result, productivity may increase (as coworkers are more comfortable working together on projects and suggesting their ideas), and a comfortable working atmosphere may convince people to keep their jobs longer as well. Remember: people may work on ideas and projects, but they work with other people.
  • Increased autonomy - allowing people to be self-directed and free from constant scrutiny shows confidence in an employee or volunteer and his/her abilities to do a job well
  • Networking opportunities - give people the opportunity to meet others and thus grow professionally. This can happen through conferences or by introducing people to others who can be helpful to them personally or professionally.

How do you design and implement an incentive plan?

So far, we have given only a partial list of possible incentives. Clearly, there are many alternatives from which your organization can choose. How can you decide among them and implement them in the best manner possible?

  • Decide if you need and want an incentive plan.
    • Although such a plan has many advantages, you may decide that it is unnecessary at this point. This is especially true if your organization is still fairly small and informal. For example, if your group is an informal neighborhood organization that meets mainly over iced tea while watching the kids play, a formal "incentive plan" is probably not needed - or even desirable - at this point. Members of slightly larger groups might consult at this stage, and throughout this process, with representatives of comparable agencies or groups. They can let you know how they have addressed this issue, and what their experience has been.
  • Consult with possible recipients of incentives
    • How do you know what people want most? By asking, of course. You may have ideas about what people in your organization will want, only to find that the truth is very different.

For example, leaders of a small environmental advocacy organization in the Northwest thought that its staff members would really appreciate more public recognition, so they suggested to a small group of staff and volunteers the possibility of having an "employee of the month," and asking the local newspaper to do a short article on that person. However, the employees said that while it wasn't a bad idea, it wasn't that much of an incentive for them, personally. They suggested that, as many people in the agency were parents of school-age children, more flexible hours would be a bigger incentive. Further, they thought that allowing paid staff to spend some of their time at other local nonprofit organizations would allow them to fulfill their desires to help the community as a whole, and would also increase the visibility of the organization.

If you have a lot of ideas for possible incentives, you might draft a list of possibilities, and then ask some staff members and volunteers to critique it and suggest which ones they would particularly appreciate. Alternatively, you might ask staff and volunteers to come up with a list from which you or other organizational leaders can choose the incentives that make most sense for your organization.

  • Write a draft of your incentive program, including:
    • Your goals: What do you want the plan to accomplish? Do you hope to decrease the attrition rate of volunteers? Make employees happier in their work? More productive? This is an important step that many people forget. But you won't be able to tell if the program is working if you haven't decided what "working" means. You may want to decide on some baseline measures - that is, measures that tell you how things are now, so you will be better able to measure your progress later on.
    • The behaviors to reward - and how to reward them consistently. This sounds simple enough, yet day-to-day practices and unwritten codes of behavior sometimes unintentionally reward the very behaviors you are trying to avoid. For example, an official goal might be organizational loyalty, but new recruits are given higher salaries than people who have been with the organization for years.
    • The right incentives. Set criteria for the incentives you will choose (for example, the incentives send a clear message to the recipient and should be affordable, fair, and easy to follow through upon), and choose incentives that meet those criteria. Picking the right incentive can be very difficult, so it is especially important to get employee/volunteer feedback on this point. Whatever incentives you choose, be sure to keep the plan relatively simple - the less work it is to carry out, the more of an incentive you will have to keep it going!
  • Consult again with recipients
    • After you have developed this draft, ask a small group of people - possibly the same group who originally gave you feedback on the incentives - to comment on the plan.
  • Revise the plan as needed, incorporating as much of the feedback as possible.
  • Implement the plan.
  • Review the program after a predetermined period of time.
    • This might take place six months after it has been implemented. You should pay particular attention to its effect on the goals you articulated in your plan.
  • Continue to revise the plan as needed.

Sustaining the incentive program

Even the best of plans will eventually fall apart or trickle down to nothing if it's not well sustained. How can you ensure your program will continue, even when the person (or people) who developed it moves on?

Four things can help keep it going:

  • Consistency: People should be rewarded in the same way for the same thing. A program that clearly states what should happen in what circumstances diminishes the possibility of favoritism, and helps ensure that all employees are honored for what they have contributed. For example, the plan might state that all employees are given a note of appreciation and gift certificates for a "night on the town" after five years; after ten, they receive a commemorative plaque and a weekend at an area bed and breakfast; and so on. But by giving these same incentives to everyone from the executive director to the volunteer cook, a sense of fairness can be fostered in the organization.
  • Follow-through. If plans that have been made for celebrations or other incentives are not carried through, paid staff and volunteers alike will quickly become disenchanted and skeptical.
  • Involvement. By involving many members of the organization, you ensure two things: first, that the program will not fall apart if a key person leaves; and second, that your program will be more representative of what members of the organization want.
  • Review. By undergoing periodic review, the incentive program will stay relevant and effective. A given incentive may become stale or wear out its welcome; a new one might become available.

For example, when a small theater company began, funding was a constant battle for the organization. Therefore, their original incentive plan was almost entirely free for the organization. It included two free passes to each show for every staff member and volunteer; a yearly awards potluck, with handmade awards specially tailored to each personality; and constant parties for everyone who could fit into the director's apartment. However, the company was well run, and now has an annual budget of almost half a million dollars. As their assets changed, so did the incentives they were able to give to staff and volunteers. Volunteers still get two free tickets, but as demand has soared, those tickets are now for the dress rehearsal. Volunteer and staff appreciation dinners are now held after each show at a favorite Italian restaurant, and the theater picks up the cost, with the restaurant owner giving a hefty discount. Awards are still handmade - although the money is certainly there now to have them made professionally, people appreciate the effort too much to change it. Finally, everyone who has worked at the theater during the year has her name entered in a yearly raffle for two package tickets (entry, airfare, and hotel) for an independent film festival in the Southwest.

In Summary

A well-run incentive program can help make your organization more effective and attractive by encouraging and rewarding your organization's most important resource - the people who run and support it. By providing incentives that are meaningful and appropriate, you are supporting these people in return, and showing them that the organization recognizes just how valuable they are.

Jenette Nagy

Print Resources

Klubnick, J. (1995). Rewarding and recognizing employees: Ideas for individuals, teams, and managers. Chicago, IL: Irwin.

LeBoeuf, M. (1985). The greatest management principle in the world. New York, NY: Putnam's.

Nelson, R. (1994). 1001 ways to reward employees. New York, NY: Workman.

Vineyard, S. (1981). Beyond banquets, plaques and pins: Creative ways to recognize volunteers and staff.