How to reward and recognize employees on a budget? Most sectors face this question but it is particularly prevalent among non-profits. Traditionally, employee recognition programs focus on employee tenure and physical reward, rather than using these programs to build culture and retain and recognize high performers.

Corporate sector

I once worked for a large law firm that recognized staff by providing an annual bonus to each employee. There was always great excitement on that pay day, followed by a rash of resignations as everyone who had been holding out for the lump sum immediately left after receiving it.

In Tech, we implemented a peer-to-peer recognition program with a cash incentive that had specific criteria to ensure that only employees who were going above and beyond their normal responsibilities were nominated.  However, there were a number of issues with this:

  • It was dependent on the role – those that had higher profile positions, which involved interaction with a lot of people, were nominated regularly
  • Those with outgoing personalities, regardless of performance, were always put forward for consideration by staff
  • Peers recognized work that they perceived as creative, but managers did not approve because required tasks remained uncompleted as individuals chose to do personal pet projects
  • After the first six months, the nominations started to dry up and the effectiveness of the program was diluted as it became commonplace.

Non-profit sector

When every dollar donated should go directly to work and the small amount that you can allocate is so minimal that it almost feels insulting, how do you recognize staff?

At the David Suzuki Foundation, we are doing the following:

  • Asking staff how they want to be recognized as part of their performance review
  • Hosting tea-times to recognize teams – for example we had a cake saying “We love our Finance Team”, and gave them chocolate bars and coins in the shape of money
  • Providing opportunities for staff to present to the board to raise their profile
  • We recognize 10 years of service in a way that is unique to our culture. We create beautiful hard cover photo books filled with pictures of the individual during their time with the organization. In each book, there is a photo along with a personal message from our founders celebrating the employee’s contribution to the company
  • At DSF we have very creative, talented individuals who take a well-known song and change the lyrics to personalize them and then all the staff sing to celebrate key points in their colleague’s life


Feedback from our volunteers is that they don’t want a financial reward and that the time they spend supporting the cause is enough.  So we try and offer “experiences” instead, such as:

  • A day out at a baseball game with staff (including snacks)
  • Entry tickets to local parks – you can get substantial group discounts
  • Tea-times with all staff where they share stories about the volunteers
  • Invitation to our annual winter party which also includes alumni and current staff

What you can do

While some studies have shown that only 6% of employees choose tangible gifts as the primary way to be shown appreciation, employers still have to make more of an effort to recognize employees in the way the individual actually wants. Here are some things to keep in mind when coming up with a reward and recognition program:

  • One size does not fit all, so recognition will need to be personalized
  • Authentic appreciation is essential for this to be successful
  • Programs should be linked to organizational values
  • Creativity should be key as money is not the main motivator
  • Recognition for remote workers must be incorporated
  • Technology may be key – Guusto is a platform that we are currently looking at as it offers experiences rather than “things” and can be set up to recognize key milestones such as service anniversaries, birthdays, and more.
About Catherine Gordon
Catherine leads initiatives to ensure that our client, the David Suzuki Foundation, has the people and roles it needs to achieve its goals. Their employees are highly motivated, talented and professional individuals who deserve the organisation’s support to thrive. Catherine works to articulate that support through a talent-management strategy that is aligned with the organisation’s long-term direction.
Originally from Northern Ireland, Catherine moved to London, U.K., after graduation and then to Vancouver in 2005. She has worked in an HR capacity in numerous sectors and organisations throughout her career, which have included law firms, charity, technology and a regulatory body before joining the David Suzuki Foundation. She is a lifelong learner and currently holds the CHRP designation, a Strategic HR Practices certificate from Cornell University, a Certificate from Queens University on Leading a Mentally Healthy Workplace, is a Certified Prepare Training Instructor and has completed a Leadership and Inclusion Certificate through Centennial College.


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