How to Avoid Volunteer Burnout

Your volunteers are the lifeblood of your organization. Without them, you would be unable to achieve your mission and goals. Most organizations have a small percentage of “super volunteers” that actually do the bulk of the total volunteer hours performed. One study found that 50% of volunteer hours are performed by the top 15% of an organization’s volunteers. These are your most valuable folks, and the ones most at risk of becoming burned out.

Just like with employees, keeping good, experienced volunteers is far less effort than recruiting and training new ones. Not to mention that when you do bring on new volunteers, the old ones are invaluable for training and assisting the newbies. It is in your best interests to keep the volunteers you have and make sure they remain excited and motivated about your organization and the work you do.

Tips for Heading Off Volunteer Burnout

  • Check in regularly. You may have too many volunteers to do a one-on-one check-in with each of them. But you know who your most dedicated volunteers are and they are the ones you should be touching base with on a regular basis to see how they are doing. Some volunteers may be afraid to let you know that they are feeling overwhelmed or that they are in over their head. Ask them straight out how they are doing. Do they have everything they need for a given project? Are they receiving enough support? Is there anything they need from you that they are not getting?
  • Be clear from the beginning. Much volunteer burnout could be avoiding be setting concrete parameters on what a particular role or project will entail. Put it down in writing and make sure your volunteer understands what they are agreeing to do and how many hours you expect them to put in. Then if the assignment begins to expand or differ considerably from what was agreed upon, it will be clear that the position will have to be renegotiated or some additional assistance will need to be offered to the volunteer.
  • Offer them some breaks. Even volunteers need a vacation once in a while. When was the last time your star volunteer took some time off? Suggest to them that if they’d ever like to take a sabbatical, you could find a substitute and they’d be welcomed back to their old position whenever they are ready. They may never have realized that this was an option.
  • Set time limits on positions. An alternative to the breaks idea above is to create set term limits for some of your more demanding positions. A volunteer can agree to hold a role for one year at a time for instance. This way, you can avoid a volunteer feeling as if they have to “quit” when they get burned out. Knowing there is an expiration date makes for a natural annual opportunity to review whether a volunteer wants to continue in this role or whether someone else might want to step up. This also heads off potential issues with one particular volunteer holding a role indefinitely that might benefit from some “new blood.”
  • Give appropriate praise and recognition. Some volunteers thrive on accolades and are motivated by “Volunteer of the Year” awards or mentions in the newsletter about the great work they are doing. More introverted types might respond better to a personal call or an offer to take them to lunch as thanks. But make sure that your best volunteers know how much you appreciate them.
  • Have volunteer appreciation parties and outings. Many volunteers enjoy the social aspect of volunteering and may have even joined partly as a way to meet people and make friends. This is especially true of organizations that have many younger volunteers. Make sure to give them opportunities to relax and socialize with each other once in a while. Plus, forming friendships among volunteers is a great way to get them connected to and more invested in the organization. This is also a great time to get everyone energized and re-inspired with success stories and good news about the work that they have done. Highlight your star volunteers, make sure they feel special and appreciated and get everyone excited about upcoming initiatives and events.
  • Send a survey. Especially if you have lots of volunteers, an online survey is an efficient way to discern whether there are any issues within your volunteer program that need to be addressed. Include volunteers who haven’t been active for a while. They may give you some insight into why they stopped being involved. Some questions you may want to ask include: Do you feel safe and welcome in our organization? Do you feel that you have been given the knowledge and resources needed to properly perform your volunteer activities? How do you feel about the organization’s communication? Is there anything you would change about the volunteer program?