4 Ways to Tell You’re Asking Too Much of Volunteers

Volunteer Burnout

Guest post by Kayla Matthews

Volunteers are vital; the life spark of many nonprofits and charities. These organizations typically rely on the motivation of volunteers to keep helping those in need. As the leader of a nonprofit, watching the bottom line is critical. But you shouldn’t do so at the expense of your volunteers. Volunteers risk burnout when organizations ask too much of them.

While you may have struggled to find and engage volunteers in the past, recognizing and respecting when a volunteer is at their personal limit can mean retaining their help into the future. Perhaps that volunteer needs a break, new project, or schedule shift. Check-ins are important between staff and volunteers, but symptoms of burnout often go unmentioned or unnoticed.

Keeping your organization going involves juggling several full plates of tasks, and it’s hard to keep up with every detail. If your volunteers are also carrying the weight of your nonprofit’s concerns, overworking themselves and eventually burning out, it may be time to create a new job role instead of accepting the risks.

When It’s Time to Hire New Staff

Organizations should think carefully before stretching their budgets to create a new staff position. If the workload is too much for existing staff and volunteers, more time, resources, and money can ultimately be saved by creating a new position. When you consider hiring more staff, keep in mind the workload of your volunteers. To help you assess how your volunteers feel, learn the signs that indicate volunteers are feeling burned-out:

  1. The Volunteer Is Cranky, Cynical, and Complains Often

No one likes working with someone who is constantly in a bad mood. Chances are volunteers who behave poorly didn’t have this disposition when they started volunteering, or your organization wouldn’t have assigned them to a particular project.

Ask yourself, “how long has the volunteer felt this way?”

When a volunteer consistently and increasingly reacts to minor issues with crankiness and complaints, they likely feel stressed, unappreciated, and overworked. When you notice such behavior, plan a meeting to discuss the issue with them and open up lines of healthy and honest communication. Consider offering them a solo project or simply lessening their workload.

If worse comes to worst, you might have to ask him or her to stop volunteering. These communication measures and proactive actions could help a volunteer re-find their passion and feel appreciated for all they do.

  1. The Volunteer Looks and Acts Exhausted

When  a volunteer who is usually smiling and chatty is quieter and slips up often on simple, routine tasks, they may be experiencing burnout. Your volunteers need help when they’re too frequently experiencing these symptoms of mental and physical exhaustion:

  • Emotional overreaction
  • Seems disconnected
  • Sensitivity to criticism
  • Not as well-groomed as usual
  • Mental fog and loss of focus
  • Makes minor mistakes
  • Excessive tardiness
  • Dark circles under eyes
  • Increased illness

If you start to notice some of these burnout symptoms in your volunteers, there are steps you can take to not only offer better support to your volunteers, but also retain them longer.

Encourage a seemingly burnt out volunteer to take a day off, or at least take a short break. Be supportive and encouraging. Saying something like, “Hey, you’ve been working really hard here each weekend this month. Why don’t you take tomorrow off and rest up?” This means a lot more than saying something like, “You keep messing that up. Go take a break.”

Be sure to let them know that the work they’re doing is appreciated and, if possible, share some of the results they’ve helped to drive for your organization. Do you run an animal rescue? Tell your volunteers how many animals have been adopted this month thanks to their hard work. Being able to connect your volunteers’ efforts to meaningful results is a great way to make them feel good and encourage them to keep volunteering.

  1. The Volunteer Has Lost Interest

Even the most passionate of volunteers lose interest when overworked. Passion and enthusiasm connect volunteers to your cause, and you may need to help them sustain their enthusiasm. Volunteers have varied reactions when disconnected. Some quit, while others suffer through because they want to keep their word.

Volunteers who stick it out may look like they don’t care at all. Others will express feelings of shame and inadequacy because they aren’t presenting their best selves while volunteering.

The volunteer may go through the motions of his or her routine tasks, but interacting with this person may feel like trying to ask for help at the DMV. Volunteers in the midst of a burnout may appear disconnected, ashamed, or doubtful of their personal contributions.

  1. The Volunteer Fails to Show Up

Emergencies happen. Some volunteers have more heart than time and energy — they want to make it work, but they can’t. When an otherwise good and dedicated volunteer fails to show up, not once, but regularly, it may indicate that they’ve had enough.

Some volunteers speak up about their workload being too much, while others do their best to cope with their assigned duties until it’s too late. Many understand nonprofits are short on resources, finances, and volunteers, and so they suffer in silence until they burnout.

Engage Volunteers While Recognizing Burnout

A lot of people want to make a difference in our world. This is true especially of millennials who are more a part of the labor force and volunteer landscape. In fact, 25 percent of millennials want to have a positive impact on the organizations they’re involved with, and being an enthusiastic generation, they put in the time and effort at the expense of their work-life balance.

Your organization can prevent burnouts before they happen and increase productivity by 12 percent by keeping volunteer staff happy and engaged. Try conducting random acts of kindness, increasing breaks, varying tasks, and planning activities to get to know your volunteers more personally.

Develop fun programs and treats solely for volunteers and staff, which are healthy for their well-being and prevent burnout. Cater a surprise healthy lunch or dinner or have a yoga instructor surprise everyone with a free class.

Avoid Overworking Volunteers to Reduce Turnover

Help your volunteers out by recognizing early signs of burnout, opening lines of communication, and doing your best to make roles and responsibilities engaging and fun. Good volunteers leave when they are overworked or take on too much work. Eventually, there comes a breaking point. When they break, both your nonprofit and volunteers suffer.

Don’t risk the future of your organization to save budget and lose the good volunteers you have to burnout. The stress will only add to your plate of responsibilities. When volunteers are overworked, look toward hiring staff who can help streamline office processes and help everyone stay happy.