Volunteer burnout is extraordinarily common. And completely preventable.
It happens so easily. Picture that one amazing volunteer that you have that you depend on for everything; let’s call him “Paul”. Paul’s reliable, capable, and willing to do anything you ask. So, you ask. And ask and ask and ask. Then one day he’s gone, and you’re left with no one that you can rely on.
Hate to say it, guys, but volunteer burnout is caused by that person looking at you in the mirror.
I get it; it’s hard! When you have a Paul, who’s proactive, fun and trustworthy, and a bunch of other volunteers who don’t seem to know what they’re doing, or who sometimes don’t show up for their shifts, it’s easy to start relying more and more on that one good one.
The trouble is that when we start to count on that one volunteer, we tend to see the recruiting and training of others as less urgent. We see that Paul always says “yes” to requests and, because we’re busy, we start to turn a blind eye to the fact that he doesn’t seem as enthusiastic as he used to. That the “yeses” are given more grudgingly or more irritably than before. We tell ourselves that he must just be having a bad day.
Then Paul tells you that he won’t be coming back. He’s tired, and he’s doing way more than what he signed up for. He loves your organization and believes in your mission – in fact he feels really guilty – but he’s just burned out.
Actually, you’ll be lucky if your volunteer bothers to tell you. Usually, they just stop showing up.
The best strategy to deal with volunteer burnout is prevention.
First, review your recruitment process. Are your volunteer roles well balanced, or are some of them more labour- (or emotionally-) intensive than others? Are you getting enough volunteers, or enough skilled or reliable volunteers? Is your volunteer application and interview process effective at screening applicants for work-ethic and values? What can you change to increase the number of good volunteers that you have?
Next, look at your training and on-boarding procedures. If you can’t rely on your volunteers to do a job properly, it may have a lot to do with how fully they’ve been trained. Have they been shown all aspects of the task, even those that seem self-evident to you? Do you introduce complicated tasks to them to a bit at a time, or do you tend to “firehose” them with information? If you give too much information at a time, they’ll only be able to take in a small portion of it, and may miss something vital. Train large, complicated tasks in chunks over time. At least then you’ll know what they don’t know!
Finally, if you have a “Paul”, have newer volunteers job shadow him. Assigning a mentor is the fastest and easiest way to get someone up to speed in a task. The new person has someone they can ask questions of and watch while tasks are being done. It gives your newbies a much higher level of confidence, and it makes your superstars feel important.
By following these three steps consistently, you will grow a volunteer team with several individuals that you can count on to do whatever task you need done. You will instill a culture of commitment, trust and reliability throughout your volunteer program.
But what if it’s too late for that?
You’ve seen the telltale signs of burnout in your star volunteer – irritability, apathy, frustration. What do you do now? Simple. Back off! Reassign some tasks; cut back on their shifts; give them breaks.
Sit down and have a chat with them; let them know that you’re worried that they might be burning out, and ask how you can help. Let them talk about how they’re feeling, discuss with them any frustrations they may be having. Ask if they have any suggestions to improve things. Show that you care, and that you appreciate everything they do.
DON’T make them feel guilty if they want a break!
If you show understanding now, they will come back. If you tell them how much you’ll miss them, and that you won’t know what to do without them, they’ll feel guilty – and they’ll resent you for making them feel that way. It won’t stop them from leaving (or only for a very short time) but it will stop them from coming back after they’ve left. No one wants to feel manipulated.
None of us want to burn out our volunteers. We love and appreciate them, and we want what’s best for them. It is easy, though, to overlook the signs of burnout, or to attribute them to something else. We need to ensure our processes and procedures allow us to build a robust volunteer team so that we don’t come to depend on one or two people. We also need to be vigilant in watching for the danger signs, and knowledgeable about how to step in when we see them.
Caring for the mental health of our volunteers is vital. It is up to us to prevent volunteer burnout.