The road to volunteer burnout: How to avoid it and how to manage it

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As the saying goes, "if you want something done, ask a busy person." This holds very true for volunteers and the dedicated work that they do. People are busier now then they have ever been and balancing your life has become more and more complicated. Based on the Canada Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating (CSGVP 2007), 12.5 million volunteers provided 2.1 billion hours of volunteerism in Canada. Interestingly, a small minority of volunteers accounted for the bulk of the hours. The top 25% of volunteers accounted for 78% of total hours of volunteer support. So what does this mean?

People volunteer for a variety of reasons, they want to make a difference and give back to their community but they also want balance in their volunteer efforts. If they do not get the balance they will get burnt out. This is called "volunteer burnout" and it is more common than you think.

The problem is that we do not notice the burnout coming until it is too late and what you are left with is either a very unhappy volunteer or a great volunteer who quits.

Sometimes you cannot avoid volunteer burnout, this is just the path the volunteer has chosen. There are several steps that you can take to help volunteers to avoid burning out, leaving and feeling terrible about it. Some of the causes of burnout can be the volunteers' choice of taking on too much which can lead to poor self management, unrealistic expectations and lack of support and guidance from the supervisor.

How do you know that your volunteer is heading for a burnout? There are some signs that you can look to help you before it goes too far. Examples of this are lack of enthusiasm for the mission of your organization or the work itself, negativity or complaining, not attending to responsibilities or cancelling shifts, overreacting to simple problems and performance slipping. Good volunteers are key to reaching your goals and objectives and they are hard to come by so it is important to make sure that they take care of themselves. The following tips will help you to avoid volunteer burnout.

Connect to purpose

Make sure the volunteer knows why they are doing what they do. They should understand the impact of their work. If they are doing a huge mailing...connect them to the end result. Let them know that by mailing 1000 donation letters we receive 20% of our funding that allows us to provide 100 hours of support to our consumer group. If they understand the impact of their work, then they feel like they are part of the solution.

Create an achievable position description

When you create a position description, you need to assess it for risk of burnout. If there is too much to do, then the volunteer will become overwhelmed. Make success achievable. They will not tell you this, because they think they can do it all. You may want to break down the position into manageable tasks and have one volunteer do each task. Also you need to check in on a regular basis. Tasks tend to grow without us realizing it. Take time to step back after a reasonable period of time and ask the volunteer what their thoughts are about the task. They will be the best judge of what is happening. For example, after an event you should not only do a debrief with your staff but also include the volunteers input in the process.

Give volunteers holidays

Volunteers need breaks from their roles too. They need to step back and refresh just like staff. We tend to expect that volunteers will always be there come rain or shine. This may go beyond just taking a vacation. You may want a volunteer to take a longer break with the assurance that they can always come back. Volunteers need to feel that they have a home to come to. They feel vested in your work and take it personally when they feel that they are no longer needed. You need to assure them that this is for the best interest for all parties. If the volunteer is rejuvenated then everyone wins. One way you can do this is have volunteers sign up for different events so that they are not always expected to do every event or activity. You can also set up a structure that after so many hours of volunteering or length of time that they need to take a certain amount of time off. You can still keep them engaged in other ways, such as newsletter, check ins, education and recognition opportunities.

Set guidelines at the start

Many organizations do not have limits to their volunteer work. For example, many board of directors set limitations to the length of time they can sit on any one position but do not set limits to terms on the board. Volunteers could be sitting on a board for many years. This is not a good practice for either the volunteer or the organization. If you do this, then there is not a lot of opportunity to bring in new ideas, new volunteers and new practices. You will start to get the "we did that before" approach.

This holds true for any position. Everything has a cycle, and volunteer positions follow suit. If a volunteer has been in the same position for a long time, they have seen many staff and volunteers come and go...this breeds negativity. If you set perimeters from the start and put it in your position description under length of volunteering and talk about it at the interview or orientation stage then it will make sense to the volunteer and they will not take it a criticism on their work.

Create an environment that is welcoming

People want to feel safe and part of a team. They need to feel comfortable to say what they feel and give feedback on the work. Make sure that they have access to basic needs-a place to hang their coat, a work station, refreshments, support, opportunity to evaluate their work.

Thank volunteers

There are many ways to thank volunteers but there are a few rules you should follow. It should be timely, genuine, connected to the goals, and ongoing.

If you are having an event, you need to follow up with an opportunity to recognize your volunteers within 30 days of the event. You want it to related back to the event.

Annual recognition events are an opportunity to get all your volunteers together to meet and socialize. It is also a great time to give out certificates, recognize individual achievements and connect back to your mission. You can also create opportunities for milestones. For example, after 100 hours of service they receive a special award or after 5 years of service they get a pin. You can also include milestones in newsletters, annual reports etc. It is easy to forget about the volunteers efforts when you are so focused on the end result. You should find ways to honour your volunteers on a regular basis.

Finally, keep lines of communication open. Volunteers need to feel comfortable to give feedback. They may need to provide input, make suggestions and comments. Volunteers need to learn regularly.

At the end of the day, you need to remember that you may have to put in some time interviewing, screening and training volunteers but what you get back is so much more. You will have happy, dedicated volunteers who make a difference and who will always be your advocate, cheerleader and ambassador. Just by understanding that your job does not end at placing a volunteer but taking a little time to nurture your relationship and understand your individual volunteers you will have a happy and healthy volunteer.

Lori Gotlieb is currently the Manager of Community Engagement for The Arthritis Society, Toronto Region as well as founder and president of Lori Gotlieb Consulting. She is a community and corporate resource expert in volunteerism who has worked in the field of volunteer administration for over 15 years. Lori is the past president of the Toronto Association of Volunteer Administration, an editor for the International Journal of Volunteer Management and member and Past Chair of the Advisory Committee at Humber College, Fundamentals of Volunteer Management and the Enriched courses. Lori can be reached at lori.gotlieb@rogers.com.

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