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5 Steps For Preventing Volunteer Burnout

by James Robbins

Over the years I have worked with hundreds and hundreds of volunteers. They are awesome. Can you imagine a world where volunteers did not exist? That would be a dark place. As much as volunteers are amazing, finding them has never been more challenging. People are busier now then they have ever been in history (thanks technology for making our life simpler!) This shortage has meant that many volunteers are taking on more than they can handle, resulting in volunteer burnout. Burnout at the volunteer level is a very serious problem and in fact, when a volunteer overextends themselves for too long, the consequences can be huge.

People volunteer for a variety of reasons; they want to make a difference, they want to give back, it feels good and there's nothing quite like tapping into that intrinsic motivation. Volunteering is actually an antidote for burnout. When someone gets a case of burnout on the job, one of the cures is to get their intrinsic motivation working for them. A burnt out executive can find solace and inspiration by volunteering their time for the common good. In such a case, volunteering has medicinal properties, healing both weary minds and hearts. So if you are feeling a little spent these days, try and find a way you can volunteer your time for a good cause. It will help you more than a day at the beech.

But what happens when volunteers burnout volunteering? Ah, now we have a problem. The challenge when volunteers get burnt out is that they have become allergic to the very medicine that will help restore their hearts. In fact when volunteers quit because of burnout, it takes a long time to get them back. So when you think of the volunteers that you lead, remember, if you do not take care of them and help manage their load, you might end up losing them for a very long time, if not for good.

Here are some things you can do to help prevent volunteer burnout:

  1. Repeatedly Reconnect to Purpose

    I am always telling managers to connect purpose to pay. Sometimes we erroneously assume that because someone is volunteering they must automatically have these good feelings inside them. We think, surely they must know what a difference they are making. This is not always true. You have to continually remind people of how their contribution is making a difference to people. Especially when a volunteer is heavily saddled with administrative type tasks. We all have trouble at times connecting the dots from our contribution to the difference our efforts are making. Make sure you regularly remind and show your volunteers how their efforts mattered.

  2. Beware of Emotionally Draining Roles

    Some volunteers are involved in very heavy issues. Maybe they help out answering calls on a crises line, or they are involved in helping troubled families. These types of roles can have tremendous payback in terms of making a difference but they are also mentally and emotionally draining. You have to monitor closely any volunteer who is involved in an emotionally draining environment. When firefighters return from a bad auto accident they will have a debriefing session with trained professionals to help them deal with what they just witnessed. We all need help sometimes with perspective, even if it is just a reminder of our boundaries or an acknowledgment of the difficulty.

  3. Give Your Volunteers Holidays

    I wish I had learned this lesson years ago. Volunteers need breaks from their role to get refreshed. I am not talking about their regular two-week family vacation. In addition to that, you may want to require that your volunteers take significant time off from volunteering. One way to do this is to organize different shifts or time periods of commitment. You may have people sign up for a role for 4 months and when it is over, they take a month off. You can play around with different options but creating a kind of "tour of duty" can really help pace your volunteers for the long haul.

  4. Lots of Praise and Appreciation

    They don't do it for the praise and appreciation, but let's not honor the 100 hours they have put in this year with some coffee and donuts over lunch. Go out of your way to make your volunteers feel special. It is easy to forget about their efforts when we are so wrapped up in the cause. Find ways other than just once a year, to honor those who serve.

  5. Create Milestones For Service

    People love to hit milestones. Blood banks count units, 12-Step groups count months, What do you count? It is a nice thing to have different types of rewards for hours served.

The main thing is to keep your volunteers feeling great about what they are doing. Think for the long-term. I know your cause is great, and you desperately want to do even more than you are, but remember without the volunteers you will actually have less of an impact in the long run. They are the key to your future.

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About the Author:

James Robbins is a leadership trainer helping organizations build workplaces of full engagement and low turnover. His keynotes and workshops inspire and equip managers to face today's leadership demands. To find out more go to

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