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When is a volunteer 'burnt out'?

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How will you know when you are approaching volunteer burn-out, and what can you do about it?

You are approaching "volunteer burn-out" when some important aspect of your personality changes for the worse - and stays there!

If you were a mean s.o.b. when you began your volunteer activity, if you constantly criticized others who didn't reach your standards, if you had no sense of humour about yourself - and all of these characteristics have stayed with you while you have been doing your current volunteer work, you aren't necessarily burnt out. You're just a pain-in-the-behind (which, I quickly add, does not mean that you are not a highly productive pain-in-the-behind!).

However, if you have developed negative and anti-social characteristics since you started your current volunteer activity and they seem to be settling in as part of your permanent makeup, then you're on the way to burning yourself out. If a fire is left alone and not fed with any new fuel, it will eventually burn itself out. If the fire of your enthusiasm is not being refuelled by the satisfaction of your volunteer work, your enthusiasm - just like a fire - will die.

A lack of enthusiasm shows

And there is nothing worse for a group of volunteers than to have to put up with someone who has lost his or her enthusiasm. A lack of enthusiasm always shows; it can't be hidden. If you are a culprit in this area, exchange your present volunteer activity for another activity - one for which you will not only have enthusiasm, but one for which you will also be unable to help yourself radiating that enthusiasm to others.

If you are determined to hold on to every bit of authority and do the whole volunteer assignment yourself because you're the only one who in your opinion knows how to do it, ask yourself a key question, "If I dropped dead tomorrow, would the assignment or project be aborted?" If the answer is truly "yes", then make sure that you bring in someone to work on your project who could take over if in fact you did drop dead.

Many volunteers become so possessive about what they are doing, throwing out constant threats of impending resignations, that one wonders if they aren't sub-consciously competing with their organization and hoping that as soon as they leave, the organization will founder. Perhaps this doesn't sound too charitable, but I can think of two or three people with whom I have worked in volunteer organizations who, once they don't get re-elected to the Board of Directors, constantly bad mouth the organization (and then wonder why nobody asks them back!).

I worked for several years with a volunteer who exhibited the classic symptoms of burn-out. As each year passed, his complaints become stronger that coming to meetings wasn't fun any more - not like the good old days! This constant whining got so much on people's nerves that the Board of Directors finally rewarded his negative attitude by not re-electing him to the executive.

Are you the meeting type?

If you dread going to volunteer meetings and keep looking for excuses to miss them, have a hard look at your involvement. Perhaps you just aren't the meeting type. However, if you keep looking for excuses not only to miss meetings but also to avoid doing the work for which you've volunteered, you've become a negative factor in the organization. Get out before you ruin everyone's morale.

When you look upon criticism of the way you are performing a particular task as a criticism of yourself as a volunteer, take a rest. Just because others don't happen to share your enthusiasm for your pet project doesn't mean that they don't appreciate you as an individual. Some management guru somewhere once postulated the theory that if only fifty percent of the decisions made by an executive were good decisions, that executive would be considered topflight. The executive suites of the country would soon be barren if every executive looked upon a vote against his executive work as a vote against himself as a person. A lack of confidence in something you are proposing is not necessarily a lack of confidence in you as a volunteer. If you can't handle criticism, and you used to be able to, you are approaching burn-out.

In short, burn-out is the result of deteriorating enthusiasm with no attempt being made to regain that enthusiasm. Burn-out is the result of trying to do too much yourself and demanding a perfection of yourself that is unrealistic, and then flagellating yourself because you haven't achieved the results that were impossible in the first place.

Bruce Raymond has been active as a volunteer leader in the charitable sector, most recently serving as president and then chairman of the Variety Children's Charity. This article is based on material from his forthcoming book, "Seven Golden How-To Rules for Volunteers, or How to get the most out of doing for nothing what you wouldn't do for money". For more information, call (416) 485-3406, or fax (416) 487-3820.

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