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Preventing Volunteer Burnout

Volunteers leave for all sorts of reasons. They want to move on to new projects. Their schedules get tighter. They move. They have new responsibilities in another part of their lives.

If a volunteer leaves because he (or she) has burned out, it’s more than a retention problem. The toll on the volunteer can be as great as on-the-job burnout as he deals with guilt, self-doubt, and disillusionment. Most people find it harder to blame a charity for their emotional exhaustion while they might readily blame their company or boss. Volunteers simply don’t get tired of doing good, right?

Sometimes the burnout arises from poor self-management by the volunteer. He has unrealistic expectations for himself and what he can accomplish. He may have overestimated the amount of time he had to offer. He may have been pressured to volunteer and is not there for his own reasons. He may not feel free to make his personal needs or concerns known.

On the other hand, you and your organization may have set him up to fail with your own unrealistic expectations or lack of support, or by manipulating him or ignoring his needs. If this is the case, then the volunteer who leaves because of burnout will be followed by others.

In either case, there are steps you can take to help him avoid burning out, leaving and feeling terrible about it.

  1. Know your volunteers. Make sure you understand today’s volunteers and are not operating with 19th century precepts. Volunteers in 2002 are not into self-sacrifice, even if they think they are. They volunteer for reasons of their own, the foremost of which is wanting to be “part of the solution” to a community problem.
  2. Make it real. Design volunteer positions that contribute directly to your organization’s mission. Steer staff away from creating “grunt work” volunteer positions. These may motivate paid staff to support your program, but it will ultimately lose you the support of volunteers.
  3. Make success achievable. Everyone wants to succeed. Design projects that have clear benchmarks. Give them the tools and training they need.
  4. Keep communication lines open. This means more than simply being available. It means listening. It means caring about your volunteers’ ideas and feelings and not manipulating them or blowing them off.
  5. Make sure they know you will take “no” for an answer. Then, they will feel more comfortable continuing to volunteer, knowing they can speak up if they are feeling overextended or overwhelmed.
  6. Make sure the work environment isn’t taxing. Provide enough space to work. Keep chaos and stress to a minimum, if at all possible. Keep it organized and clean. Use color to keep it interesting. Make it accessible. Supply their physical needs: chairs, food, coffee, comfortable temperatures, restrooms, etc.
  7. Provide services to help with emotional overload. Many programs address very difficult social issues. It’s not hard to become discouraged or depressed. Arrange counseling for volunteers who experience emotional burnout or grief.
  8. Acknowledge their work. A once-a-year banquet ain’t gonna do it. Each individual volunteer needs to hear from you regarding what impact their donation of time and talent is accomplishing.
  9. Be prepared to make changes. The Arnot Medical Services Self-care web site recommends, “Changes in both you and your environment can help prevent burnout. Analyze the situation. You may have more ability to change your environment than you think. Then take positive action if possible. For example, if lack of appreciation on the job is damaging morale, coworkers can make a group effort to compliment one another on their accomplishments.”

 

Nan Hawthorne

About the Contributor: Nan Hawthorne

Nan Hawthorne is a professional journalist and content developer living in the Seattle area and has been a practitioner, trainer, consultant, and writer in the profession of volunteer resource management for many years. She came to international attention as founder and coordinator of the CyberVPM online forum, a pioneering effort in using the Internet for professional networking in the field of volunteer resource management. She is the founder of International Volunteer Managers Appreciation Day, held every November 1.
Hawthorne is the author of three training kits, “Recognizing Volunteers Right from the Start,” “Building Better Relationships with Volunteers,” and “Managing Volunteers in Record Time.” She has written over 150 articles on volunteer management. In addition, she has written articles for eSight Careers Network, specifically regarding competitive careers for those who are, like herself, blind or partially sighted.
Hawthorne has received recognition for her work through a Dufort Award for Excellence in Volunteer Management, as Nonprofit Nuts and Bolts “Favorite Internet Resource [provider] on Volunteer Management,” the Victim-Assistance Online Award for Excellence, LA Times Pick of the Day, as well as having a biography included in “Who’s Who in America.”
Hawthorne is best known for her “what works?” approach to developing and managing volunteer programs.

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