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Best Practice: Recognizing Volunteer Attorneys for their Service

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

In order to maintain a continued interest in and commitment to pro bono participation, it is crucial to regularly acknowledge the value that volunteer attorneys and their services provide in achieving the organization’s mission and providing services to clients.

Effective recognition can take a number of forms, from public praise at large awards ceremonies to a quiet acknowledgement of value like offering a volunteer dedicated office space.

Benefits of Recognizing Volunteer Attorneys
  • Retain volunteers. Recognizing volunteers for their work makes it clear that the organization values the work that they do and provides them with an incentive to continue volunteering. 
  • Strengthen the community. Recognition events that highlight volunteer accomplishments can provide staff and volunteers with a shared point of pride. These events also provide volunteers with a networking opportunity, and offer legal aid organizations a forum to recruit new volunteers.
  • Publicize the program to the legal community and the community at large. Celebrating volunteers’ accomplishments is a way to celebrate the accomplishments of the organization as a whole. If volunteers invite their personal contacts to a recognition event to celebrate, those people will be exposed to the positive impact of the organization. 
Case Study: Illinois Legal Aid Online’s “Faces of Justice” Video Series

IllinoisProBono.org and IllinoisLegalAdvocate.org produce the “Faces of Justice” video series to highlight outstanding volunteers, advocates, judges, and law students working to expand access to justice. 

Volunteers are nominated through a publicly available form on IllinoisProBono.org. Illinois Legal Aid Online (ILAO) staff reviews nominations with a small committee, and selects one honoree a month to interview.

The videos are in a question-and-answer format, and focus on the volunteers’ motivations for volunteering as well as their major successes.

Sample Video

The interview with the honoree is typically an hour long, and relies on a standardized set of interview questions:

  1. Introduction:  Name, where you work, position/job title, expertise
  2. What barriers do you see people face when they can’t afford a lawyer?
  3. Do you have any stories from your work/client/case/project?
  4. What prompted you to do this work?
  5. What were your first impressions of ILAO?
  6. What are three words to describe ILAO?
  7. What does justice mean to you?
  8. What was your first example of fairness or justice?

The interview is edited to a three to four minute long video, which typically includes the answers to four or five questions.

The final videos are posted on the homepage of IllinoisProBono.org and IllinoisAdvocate.org. Each video typically receives 60-150 views.

Essential Components of Volunteer Recognition
Four essential components

Emphasize impact on the organization and the community

Sharing positive outcomes from pro bono work can help demonstrate its importance. This could mean sharing a story about a particular client, or explaining how planning an event helped the organization meet its goals.

Offer personalized recognition

Whenever possible, recognition should be personalized to a volunteer’s motivations. Socially motivated volunteers might like public recognition; others may find it embarrassing. In order to provide effective recognition, you need to get to know your volunteers and what they will respond to positively. 

Be genuine

Don’t give praise unless you mean it. If you praise substandard performance, the praise you give to others for good work will not be valued. Save recognition for exemplary work, and make sure it’s proportional to the task the volunteer completed. 

Be timely

Annual award ceremonies are great, but many volunteers need more immediate feedback on the value of their work. A simple “thank you” can be invaluable.  

 Potential Recognition Strategies

A strong recognition program provides both appreciation for all volunteers' participation and recognition of outstanding service. Using a combination of recognition methods is the most effective way to continually communicate the program's appreciation of its volunteers' efforts.

Formal Recognition Strategies:

  • Awards, like those offered by the Florida Bar 
  • Plaques and certificates
  • Luncheons and dinners
  • Publishing “honor rolls” of participating attorneys, like the State Bar of Georgia
  • Educational opportunities, like free courses for CLE credit
  • Internal communications, such as staff newsletters
  • External communications, including  social media or website posts

Informal Recognition Strategies:

  • Personal “thank you”
  • Providing office space
  • Staff presentation on volunteer accomplishments
  • Invitations to staff events unrelated to volunteer project, when appropriate