Volunteers Get Burnout Too—But You Can Help Prevent It

A mixture of offering value and emphasizing flexibility could help discourage burnout among those looking to lend a hand.

Volunteering can bring a lot of value to your association and its members. But when there’s a lot going on or the work requires more of your volunteers’ time and resources than expected, it can lead to concerns about burnout. That could be a problem, especially given broader cultural trends.

A recent Gallup poll found that volunteering has been in decline, with 56 percent of respondents saying they had volunteered in 2021. By comparison, that number was 65 percent in 2013 and 64 percent in 2017. (Also complicating matters: The people who are volunteering are having to devote more of their time to it, according to research from Independent Sector.)

For associations, helping to ease the potential for volunteer burnout could be key to alleviating or even reversing the trend. With that in mind, read on for some tips on how to rekindle the spark of volunteering:

Emphasize the Mission

Just as with your employees, orienting work around a mission can be an impactful way to keep volunteers engaged, as Mariama Boney, president and CEO of Achieve More LLC, noted last fall. “The work that we do is mission-driven, purpose-driven, serving certain industries and communities,” Boney said. “Recognizing the impact we make in the world is absolutely critical.” Your organization can do that by maintaining a direct line between volunteers’ work and the mission of the association served, and giving volunteers a voice in the discussion.

Work on Volunteer Appreciation

Making it clear to volunteers that their work is appreciated, no matter how they help, can authentically show that your organization takes their contributions seriously. A 2021 reader roundup highlights a few examples of what this could look like, including a public note on social media, a small gift, or an event in honor of volunteers. “Every year we select a unique item to send to all of our members who volunteer with us in any capacity,” said Mike Chamberlain, CEO of the Grant Professionals Association. Last year, the group gave its volunteers a mask with the association’s logo on it.

Focus on Volunteers’ Engagement Needs

If your association makes volunteering all about the benefits to the association, it could stifle interest from volunteers—and add to the stress of the ones who do stick around. The solution? Make it about what they can get out of it. Wesley Carr, who became a director of chapter relations for the American Inns of Court in 2021 after serving 15 years with the Regulatory Affairs Professionals Society, said in an interview last year that during his time with RAPS, the organization committed to changing its language so that tasks like auditing online courses weren’t just emphasizing the benefits to the association. “Now we position it much more as ‘because that will then ensure that we are training the profession,’” Carr noted.

Shrink the Volunteering Need Down to Size

If the time crunch is a factor behind volunteer burnout, maybe the way to discourage burnout is to make the work easier to digest. One such approach is microvolunteering, which is oriented around tasks that are small enough that people can do them on their own schedules. Some groups, such as AARP, take steps to make microvolunteering resources more approachable, so those interested in helping can do so.

Understand Volunteers’ Schedules and Limitations

If you offer only a couple of options for volunteering, that raises the barrier to entry. “Consider someone who wants to start volunteering, but they have an unconventional work schedule and can’t attend weekend events,” Latasha Doyle wrote on the Candid blog. “Or perhaps someone has a typical 9-to-5 workweek, but they don’t have enough free time to work a full volunteer shift.” Beyond the aforementioned microvolunteering, you should offer flexibility in volunteer activities—because if you don’t, the idea of volunteering could turn into a stressor of its own.

Do you have any strategies you like to use when you engage volunteers within your association? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

The Author:

Ernie Smith is a senior editor for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun.


This article originally appeared on AssociationsNow.com. Reprinted with permission. Copyright ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership (June 2022), Washington, DC.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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