Building Resilient Volunteers

If you google “resilient volunteers”, you will get thousands of articles, blogs, videos, etc on how volunteering can help build resilience in individuals and communities. It won’t give you much at all on how to build resilience in volunteers.

Many roles that we ask volunteers to perform are emotionally draining or outright traumatic. Helping dying patients in a hospice or talking to people on a suicide hotline are just two of thousands of examples. And that’s in addition to the regular stressors of life.

Volunteers are at risk of breaking down or burning out. It’s our responsibility as leaders to build resilience in the volunteers who help us so that that doesn’t happen.

Here are a few ways you can do that.

Keep the volunteer team connected.

Being connected to a community with similar interests and goals keeps us strong. Even if volunteers are working remotely, create opportunities for them to share time together, in person or online. Virtual coffee get-togethers or in-person training are good ways to allow volunteers to interact with each other. This way they can build a community of friends that can support them when things are tough.

Focus on progress.

When, every shift, a volunteer deals with abused children or other distressing situations, it may start to seem like nothing will ever change. Make a point of showing the good that they do. Point to children who have come through your program that are now leading happy, healthy lives because of them. They may not be able to stop all abuse, but show that their volunteering does make a difference.

Communicate.

Knowledge and understanding are key to having resilient volunteers. Warn volunteers of upcoming changes and explain why those changes are happening. Educate them on the signs of burnout and how to care for themselves and each other if they see those signs appearing. Explain that feelings of frustration and despair are to be expected in your sector, and that they are not alone. The more you communicate, the more resilient they will become.

Create a support group.

Especially in sectors where volunteers are working in highly-traumatic situations, having people to talk with who are going through the same thing can be vital. Set up an in-person or virtual meeting on a regular basis where volunteers can share the distressing scenarios of their shifts and get support and comfort from those who have been there. Longer term volunteers may have suggestions for self-care tools or routines that helped them.

Educate yourself.

To effectively assist your team, you need to be aware of the warning signs of burnout and compassion fatigue, methods of prevention, and different ways to handle it when it appears. Study the resources out there. Train yourself in spotting the symptoms. Determine which prevention methods, like the ones above, would work to create resilient volunteers in your program.

Finally, advocate.

Educate your Executive Director and Board members on the risks, and encourage them to support – financially and otherwise – your plans to mitigate those risks. There is much that you can do on your own, but more that can be done with the backing of senior staff and the Board.

Resilient volunteers should be a goal of every not-for-profit leader.

Resilient volunteers are the core of a strong volunteer program. A strong volunteer program equals steady progress toward your organization’s vision. Taking the time to build resilience in volunteers, therefore, will make your entire mission more successful. Not to mention making everyone happier!

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