Volunteer Burnout: How to Avoid the Burn this Summer

It’s about 30 degress outside, but something else is zapping your energy. Too much of anything can be, well, too much. Even something as good as volunteering.

Have you ever volunteered in your community or with a local non-profit, only to end up feeling like you have suddenly found yourself locked into what feels like several full-time jobs?

That’s when the stress and guilt set in and your enthusiasm and passion for giving back starts to fade. Sometimes this cycle continues until you eventually quit your volunteer role and even give up on the whole idea of volunteering – deciding ‘it might be the kind of thing for the people with more time’.

Volunteer fatigue?

If you feel like you are on this path, take comfort in knowing you are not alone. Volunteer fatigue or burnout is a very real thing and something experienced by many well-intentioned volunteers. If you take a look at the latest Canadian volunteer stats, you might even be tempted to say burnout is inevitable, given that a very small portion (25%) of all volunteers inCanada contribute over 77% of all volunteer hours.

Many non-profit organizations and charitable groups recognize that volunteer fatigue is an important factor in volunteer recruitment and retention; as a result, they have taken steps to create volunteer programs that are more flexible and accommodating for volunteers as a means to prevent or reduce volunteer fatigue. Volunteer Canadahas even created a specialized factsheet for non-profit organizations to help them reduce the impact of volunteer burnout.   

As a volunteer, there are also steps that you can take to ensure that you don’t become a burnout statistic. Here are a few ideas that you can easily put into place to help you take on a more active role in managing your own volunteering to ensure that you don’t get stuck in a volunteer role that starts to feel more like a burden rather than a blessing.

Choose wisely at the start: Before you even begin volunteering, take a good hard look at your calendar and your time commitments to both work and family. Remember, when push comes to shove nothing is more important than time with your family. When selecting volunteer opportunities, avoid any that require you to work or attend meetings on a day or time that will conflict with your family obligations. If your volunteering is taking away from time you should be spending with your family, and once you start feeling guilty for missing important family time or events, your volunteering quickly starts to feel like a burden, draining your enthusiasm and excitement for doing good.

Volunteering should reflect your passion: Yes, volunteering is a wonderful way to discover and develop new skills and experience the world around you through a different lens; however, volunteering for organizations or roles that you feel strongly about is a great way to keep your motivation and enthusiasm high and avoid volunteer burnout. You can still look for volunteer opportunities that will challenge you, just make sure that you feel a connection to either the cause or the organization.

Two Birds – One Stone: We have already determined that family comes first, so why not look for volunteer opportunities that allow you to bring your family along and get them involved in volunteering? Not only is this a great way to spend time together but it is also a wonderful opportunity for parents to teach by example and show children the importance of community involvement and volunteering. Volunteering also instills in children a sense of compassion and caring that will stay with them always and can influence the adults they will become in a positive way.

Choose Short-Term or Episodic Volunteering: If you really cannot find enough free time in your schedule for a long-term commitment, or if you want to volunteer for more organizations or take on a variety of tasks, then short-term or episodic volunteering is a great way to enjoy diversity without over extending yourself. Clear start and end dates and specifically defined goals and timelines will help you schedule your time and prevent you from feeling like you are on an ‘all or nothing’ volunteer cycle.

It is okay to say NO: You have carefully chosen one or two volunteer roles that match with your time, motivation or goals – now stick with them. Don’t be tempted to take on extra roles in an effort “to help out” or “just until they find another volunteer”.  Remember you picked your volunteering positions because they worked with your schedule and adding more could quickly leave feeling over extended or frustrated. It is definitely ok to say “no, thank you,” as much as you may feel the charity or organization needs you to do more work in the end they will appreciate your honesty and they would definitely rather keep you engaged and committed to their organization for the long term then burn you out in the short term!


About Propellus

Propellus is a non-profit organization that has been empowering organizations since 1955. Through a dynamic range of consulting, training and member services, it helps organizations envision and realize new paths, practices and possibilities. Propellus guides, mentors and educates clients, arming them with tools and resources to help boost organizational effectiveness. Propellus strengthens organizations; in doing so, it leads the way toward building thriving communities.
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