<iframe src="https://www.googletagmanager.com/ns.html?id=GTM-KVC3WS8" height="0" width="0" style="display:none;visibility:hidden">
4 min read

How to Cope With Volunteer Burnout

March 13, 2020

Volunteer working with children

Burnout may be even more challenging during uncertain times like the COIVID-19 outbreak or natural disasters when people are feeling more compelled to do more to help the most vulnerable, or they feel like they need to do more to fill-in when less people are volunteering. In these situations, volunteer work feels more immediate and could lead to volunteers overextending themselves. We are sharing this guest post as these tips may helpful to you during this time.

Note: This is a Guest Post by Louis Louw, the owner of Elite Sport Socks. He is passionate about business, technology, and rock climbing. Elite Sports Socks sells personalized socks for sports teams and school fundraisers.

“I’ve been powering through ‘burnout’ with full awareness for my entire career,” writes Anne Sophie-Morisette. “But at the age of 35, something snapped. I literally found I couldn’t work anymore - physical symptoms compounded by stress forced me to take medical leave.”

Morisette is no stranger to the world of nonprofits. She spent almost the entirety of her high school and college years volunteering with various charitable organizations and has worked in the nonprofit space for nearly twenty years. If someone with her level of experience and expertise can fall victim to burnout, then anyone can.

And where volunteer work is concerned, it’s a distressingly common affliction. That should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the field. Volunteer work has a tendency to be stressful if done without moderation.

Unlike traditional positions, a volunteer suffering from burnout can’t simply fall back on the notion that they’re doing it for a paycheck. It’s easy to wonder if one should even bother giving their time, especially if it’s contributing to their stress rather than reaping the rewards of volunteering.

Volunteering is a relationship between the nonprofit and the individual volunteer. So as a nonprofit, how do you set the stage to ensure that you are making it a meaningful experience? It starts with knowing some of the commonly stated causes of volunteer burnout:

  • A poor onboarding process which leaves volunteers lost and confused as to their role within the overall organization
  • A perceived lack of appreciation for the time and effort put in by volunteer staff
  • Inflexible scheduling
  • Poor communication from leadership, including but not limited to providing little insight into the progress the nonprofit’s making towards its milestones

Now that you know some of the reasons for volunteer burnout, what can you do to avoid it? Let’s take a deeper dive into each of the issues starting with a poor onboarding process. How do you begin? Evaluate your process. One way is to survey your volunteers about the onboarding process and incorporate their feedback. It’s helpful to continually get feedback to have a strong understanding of their needs. In addition to their feedback, do you see other areas that could be improved? Is there anything that is causing confusion? The goal is to make this process fun and easy for the volunteers.

Beyond the onboarding process, recognizing volunteers for their work will make them feel more appreciated and less likely to be burned out. What are ways that you can do this? One possibility is your executive director could write a personal thank you note to volunteers thanking them and communicating how their work contributed to your mission. For skills-based roles such as pro bono work, doing something that helps them with advancing their career like writing a LinkedIn recommendation or being a reference would be invaluable. Another option is creating an event where you could celebrate their work and show how it directly tied to achieving your organization’s goals. Are there other ways that you could show impact such as inviting people who are being helped by your services? That way, the volunteers will also feel rewarded that they are contributing to your organization’s mission.

Inflexible scheduling can cause challenges with burnout as well as limiting the number of volunteers you have. How can you add more flexibility to your schedules? You could create virtual opportunities. Just think about it: there are so many tasks that could be done virtually. Beyond that if you are limited by operating hours, is it possible to incorporate some flexible work hours, where some of your team could be available when volunteers are free? One way to test this out is by scheduling one or two volunteering opportunities a month that aren’t during normal business hours.

Poor leadership communication especially when it comes to your progress around goals could lead to volunteers being disengaged. Volunteers want to see that their work is making a difference. What are your goals for the year? How does their work contribute to them? How does your leadership team communicate those goals to volunteers? It may also be helpful to survey volunteers to gauge how strong your leadership communication is. 

Creating meaningful experiences centers around building strong relationships with your volunteers. Ultimately it is about learning from each other and evolving to make an even bigger impact and continuing to find ways to come together to drive real change. 

Erin Halley

Written by Erin Halley

Erin Halley is passionate about making a positive impact and contributing to a better world. She has extensive experience in marketing from digital to events to tradeshows. Her background includes marketing for an international consumer electronics company, a leading national health advocacy nonprofit, a well-known healthcare institution and an arts non-profit.