Burnout Busters — Eight tips to prevent volunteer burnout

volunteer burnoutThe 90/10% principle of volunteer involvement: 10% of the membership are burning themselves out to keep the organization on mission while 90% enjoy the benefits and do next to nothing.

When I think of that 90/10% principle, I picture a professional football game where 22 players on the field are in desperate need of rest while 100,000 spectators in the stands need some exercise.

Let’s face it, many of us have a tendency to burnout volunteers– especially our committed volunteers who serve weekly at hospitals, food closets, firehouses, or church Sunday school classes. It’s these key volunteers who grow weary… not our volunteers who show up once in a great while to help on a single event.

How can we do a better job valuing and keeping our key volunteers?

In order to prevent burnout, create a healthy volunteer culture by using the following burnout busters.

  1. Recruit teams rather than individuals:  Sharing the volunteer load with a team lightens the load.  But wait, that means recruiting twice as many people. And since we have a hard time getting individuals, how are we going to recruit a whole team?  Your team members are your best recruiters. Encourage them to recruit members to join them on the team to share the load.  The New Breed very busy, professional, high capacity volunteer is much more likely to join a team than take on the sole responsibility for a role.
  2. Create holidays:  Students and teachers get holiday breaks.  Workers get paid vacation. Why not volunteers?  They need breaks from their role to get refreshed. One way to do this is to organize different shifts or time periods of commitment. Look at how you are organized.  Many years ago—too many to count—I led a volunteer choir for my church.  We  often took a January break after a heavy Christmas season and a summer break.
  3. Organize tactically:  Tactics are short term tasks. Not having enough volunteers for an event can lead to burnout when you ask too much from too few. Tactical planning is essential to make sure you have just enough volunteers, but not so many that people stand around with nothing to do.
  4. Reconnect to purpose—think strategically: In my former life as a corporate trainer I was always telling managers to connect purpose to pay. It’s no different for non-paid staff as they need to feel that what they are doing is essential to the cause. This is especially true when volunteers are doing administrative work. The volunteer will wonder at times, “What difference am I making by getting this newsletter out?”
  5. Provide a volunteer break room:  A volunteer break room with food is a place for volunteers to retreat, relax and share together. Create a special place for your volunteers that they can call their own and stock it with snacks.
  6. Debrief emotionally draining roles: One of the leaders I met last month while working with volunteers in Cape Town, South Africa, was a volunteer on a very elite mountain climbing rescue team. He told me about a rescue attempt where the person their team was trying to rescue died on the mountain. To deal with this kind of stress, volunteer teams have debriefing sessions with trained professionals to help them deal with what they just witnessed.  In the past month I have met many volunteers who are spending their free time with abused children, battered women, the homeless, refugee immigrants, and patients who are dying.  Make sure you understand and provide the resources to deal with these kind of emotional draining roles.
  7. Recognize stamina diversity:  Every volunteer is unique. Some are able to handle large amounts of work while others cannot carry such a heavy load.  Be very aware of the tolerance levels of your volunteers and divide up the work assignments accordingly.
  8. Resist the OBTW’s:   “Oh, By the Ways”  are one of the “seven deadly sins of recruiting” we talk about in our book, The New Breed.  Too many times we are so desperate for volunteers that we don’t tell the whole story until after the person says “yes.”  Then we add a whole list of “Oh, by the ways.”  Often the volunteer is excited to start, but before long all the “OBTW’s” overwhelm them and they burnout in a matter of months.

And a final note:  Remember that volunteers have other jobs, and they have a life outside of your organization. Our best volunteers are often involved in many organizations in addition to ours, so that means they could be on volunteer overload and heading straight towards the burnout wall. The main thing is to keep your volunteers feeling great about what they are doing. Volunteering on a regular basis will take everything volunteers are willing to give and often even more. We need to take these steps to make sure that we don’t lose the best volunteers.New-Breed-WEB-SM


IF YOU ENJOYED THIS ARTICLE, YOU’LL LOVE TOM’S BOOK THE NEW BREED, HELPING YOU NOT ONLY RECRUIT, BUT MANAGE AND LEAD TODAY’S VOLUNTEER

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4 Responses to Burnout Busters — Eight tips to prevent volunteer burnout

  1. Tom, I ordered 3 of your books last fall. My volunteer department read it together and discussed each chapter. We loved it, and continue to refer to it in conversation and literally get it out and look things up.
    I love these Burnout Buster Tips, it is like have cliff notes for your book! Thank you.

  2. Pingback: The Check Engine Light of Volunteer Stress | Volunteer Power Newsletter

  3. Indusuno says:

    These Eight tips to prevent volunteer burnout is great and every volunteer organization should adopt these strategies but I think these tips will also help to other organizations. We at indusuno.com is adopting these tips to boost the up the efficiency of our organization. Thanks from the heart for this great tips.

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