The Cincinnati Zoo Tries a New Tactic to Woo Volunteers: Free Experiences


Most volunteers have more altruistic motives than the free swag they might get for donating their time to a nonprofit organization. But that doesn't mean those perks don't make a difference. These gestures of recognition can go a long way toward strengthening volunteers' connection to an organization and its mission. When the perks include educational and social components, they can even help volunteers become more effective members of the team.

The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden is one nonprofit that gets the importance of finding creative and meaningful ways to acknowledge its unpaid volunteers. For every 15 hours of service, each volunteer receives a free ticket to one of the zoo's popular behind-the-scenes experiences. They might get a pass to the VIPenguin Experience or Moe'mentous Sloth Encounter — each of which normally costs $250 for two guests or $500 for up to five guests. Those who score tickets to the Elephant Extravaganza or Endangered Excursion — where they can view rare animals like the Bactrian camel, the red panda and the world's largest rodent, the capybara — are getting bonuses worth $500 to $1,000 per group.

We know how valuable our volunteer base is,” says Mollie O'Neil, manager of volunteer and intern programs at the zoo. “A nice alternate form of currency is to pay them in experiences.”

Tokens of Appreciation

The Cincinnati Zoo offers a free continuing education program during its offseason, which runs from late October through March. Volunteers can attend lectures given by the zookeeping staff or outside nature and wildlife experts.

“It helps them stay sharp on their knowledge, as well as come to the zoo at a time when it's normally slow and they can socialize,” O'Neil says.

At the annual volunteer appreciation picnic, the zoo caters the main meal while staffers bring desserts. There's an added bonus this year, too. For the first time, volunteers will receive five free raffle tickets for a chance to win several prizes, including artwork made by animals and jackets emblazoned with the zoo's logo.

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“Typically our volunteers have to pay for their own clothing, so to be given a jacket is kind of a nice little perk,” O'Neil says.

A Perk for Every Personality

When it comes to choosing the right token of appreciation for volunteers, it helps to understand that their preferences will differ, according to nonprofit Action Without Borders.

“Some like tokens of thanks like key chains or mugs; others wish the organization had instead spent those resources on programs and services,” according to a post about volunteer engagement on the organization's site. “The best solution to this conundrum is simply to ask volunteers how they would like to be recognized; that way, everyone is thanked in a way that is meaningful to them.”

Small, personalized items can mean a lot to volunteers. At the Cincinnati Zoo, every person who works 25 hours or more receives a handwritten birthday card. This shows that the zoo recognizes them individually and truly appreciates their hard work.

“We get a lot of calls and emails from folks who appreciate those small touches,” O'Neil says. “It's about acknowledging that what they do is not always easy. They're out there in the heat, the cold and the wet. It's saying, 'Thank you. It means a lot to us that you're here.'”

Sonya Stinson is a professional writer based in New Orleans. Her business content writing and reporting has appeared in,, Entrepreneur and a host of custom, trade and association publications. She is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism.

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