Spot The Signs Of Volunteer Burnout — Before It’s Too Late

 
 
Widespread burnout within your nonprofit can creep up on you if you aren’t clued into the signs to look out for. Sure, the daily work could still be getting done, volunteers could keep showing up day after day, and yet under the surface… something is brewing. 

Of course, you already know well enough that you need to be showing appreciation for volunteers’ efforts as often as possible. That much is a given, but how else can you spot (and alleviate) the signs of volunteer burnout? See if the situations below apply to your organization.

Volunteers Act Resentful, Impatient, & Critical

Have you noticed volunteers making small negative comments here and there — about clients, staff, or the way things are run? These subtle jabs may seem like a relatively minor issue as long as the work gets done, but don’t brush them under the rug. When small negativity is left unchecked and ignored, it can add up over time to create a stressful, unsatisfying workplace culture for everyone.

Your volunteers joined your organization because they believed your nonprofit’s values aligned with their own and they were excited about your "big picture” mission! But that initial spark can quickly burn out when volunteers become disillusioned with the day-to-day realities of their role.

Solution: Create Clearly Defined Volunteer Positions. Don’t promise prospective volunteers a "fun, positive work environment with exciting opportunities for career and personal growth” if you’re actually looking for someone to help with filing, phone calls and other, let's face it, boring adminstrative tasks. Poorly defined roles can only lead to disgruntled volunteers. 

When describing roles, the following criteria should be realistic and clearly defined:
  • Time commitments
  • Expectations and responsibilities of the role
  • Volunteers are matched with roles that best fit their skillset
  • Volunteers are allowed to say no if they feel overwhelmed or out of scope

Volunteers Are Regularly Given Work Outside Their Skillset

Your volunteers each bring their own set of specialized strengths (and weaknesses) to your nonprofit, and it’s likely that they hope to find a sense of personal fulfillment from supporting your cause. Nothing will ruin this sense of fulfillment faster than regularly giving them tasks that feel boring, confusing, or overly difficult. All of these are indicative of a task that has been poorly aligned with the volunteer’s skillset.

Solution: Develop A Solid Recruitment Process. Stagger recruitment throughout the year so there are volunteers available for various levels of commitment (emergency/on-call, short-term, and long-term). Seek out a diversity of volunteers each with specialized skillsets (try Catchafire.org) so no one person gets stuck with work they didn’t sign up for in the first place.

Besides being better prepared for the high turnover rate in the nonprofit sector, a solid recruitment process will make sure that your best volunteers don’t feel taken advantage of (and burn out) by taking on too much work outside their scope.

Volunteers Are Late Or Call In Sick Increasingly Often

This is a huge red flag for burnout that’s not to be glossed over. If you’ve noticed frequent absences from responsibilities, your volunteer has likely lost enthusiasm for your organization and no longer prioritizes the work they’ve been given.

At some level, a shift in life priorities is normal — after all, your volunteer might have new responsibilities at home or in their 9-5. But if your volunteers are making multiple excuses (often health-related) for not showing up anymore, they no longer find the volunteer work to be fulfilling or they don’t see your organization making meaningful progress toward the mission. In other words, they’ve concluded that their time is better spent elsewhere.

Solution: Communicate Better & More Often. In the nonprofit sector, we can spend hours strategizing on how to retain happy donors with every interaction we make (emails, phone calls, letters, social media posts). But how often is this same level of careful thought put into the ongoing communication to retain happy volunteers? Inform volunteers on a regular basis and in concrete detail of how their presence in your organization makes a legitimate impact, such as:
  • sharing relevant statistics and infographs
  • emotionally captivating photographs and videos of the mission in action
  • personal anecdotes from staff or the victims your nonprofit helps
The more personal of a relationship you can build with your volunteers, the better. They will feel more comfortable being honest with you about feeling burnt out in their work if they see you are approachable and invested in their well-being.
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