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Hot Take: Volunteer Burnout Burns Out Volunteer Engagement Professionals

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Hot Take: Volunteer Burnout Burns Out Volunteer Engagement Professionals

We talk a lot about burnout in the nonprofit sector, and burnout is especially common among volunteer engagement professionals. According to a 2017 Job Equity Study, volunteer engagement professionals, even more so than their coworkers in other departments, are overworked, underpaid, and unfortunately undervalued by their organizations.

However, many organizations also fail to recognize burnout among their volunteers. Even though they are helping voluntarily and can theoretically say no to any task and walk away at any time, volunteers can and do get burnt out. It is important to not think of volunteers as inanimate renewable resources and to consider the root cause of volunteer burnout as volunteer turnover may have significant implications for an organization.

Volunteer Burnout Cycle

How and why do volunteers become burnt out and what are the implications when they do? This question can be explained by the Volunteer Burnout Cycle.

This cycle illustrates the relationship between volunteer burnout and staff burnout and can be used as a tool to assess burnout in your organization.

Volunteer Burnout Cycle

Unreasonable Volunteer Activity

The volunteer burnout cycle starts when organizations ask volunteers to help with activities that are unreasonable.

What is an unreasonable volunteer activity, you may ask?

Reasonability depends largely on the organization and its volunteer base – a volunteer activity that is commonplace at one organization may be unreasonable at another. What is important is to determine what is reasonable or unreasonable to ask volunteers to do within your organization.

If you have a volunteer task that is repeatedly going unfilled or it feels like you must beg volunteers to sign up for, it is a sign that something about the activity (maybe the time commitment, maybe the activity itself) is unreasonable in the eyes of your volunteers.

Volunteer Burnout

Whether volunteers are signing up for unreasonable activities or shifts go unfilled, it leads to volunteer burnout. Volunteers can get burnt out for various reasons: they could be taking on more volunteer work than they’re comfortable with because they feel there aren’t enough other volunteers stepping up, they could be giving in to the organization begging for help, or they could be “fed up” with the unreasonable workloads.

We’ve heard a lot in the news lately about “quiet quitting” in workplaces – this applies to volunteers as well! We sometimes hear from volunteer engagement professionals who say formerly active volunteers have stopped coming in, but they never hear from them as to why. This could be a sign that they were burnt out and didn’t want to rustle feathers, so they just silently walked away!

Shifting Staff Priorities

When an organization has unreasonable expectations and the volunteers are burnt out and not filling the roles, it often falls back on the volunteer engagement professional to get the work done themself. Often, this leads to the volunteer engagement professional spending their time doing unreasonable activities that are not part of their job description.

While occasionally picking up an extra assignment could be lauded as “taking one for the team”, if it is happening regularly the additional work becomes problematic. When the volunteer engagement professional regularly covers tasks that the organization initially intended as volunteer work, it takes away from the time they should be spending on activities that support the management and advancement of the volunteer department, and ultimately the organization as a whole. This practice also devalues the position of the volunteer engagement professional - if they are being seen as a last-resort volunteer they are not taken as seriously as their coworkers in other departments.

Staff Burnout

When the volunteer engagement professional’s priorities are taken away from the work they were initially supposed to be doing and they start feeling undervalued, they get burnt out. MAVA’s Job Equity Report also found that volunteer engagement staff often experience higher levels of turnover than their coworkers in other departments. This brings us back to the beginning of the Volunteer Burnout Cycle – while the organization is trying to hire a replacement volunteer engagement professional, they are likely to mismanage the volunteer department, and as a result, try to have volunteers help with more unreasonable activities.

With due diligence and proper action, the Volunteer Burnout Cycle can be escaped - or even prevented completely. Consider setting aside time on a regular basis to assess your volunteer program for signs of burnout and execute the following recommendations if necessary.

Recommendations to Escape the Volunteer Burnout Cycle:

  • Support and articulate the value of volunteers and volunteer engagement professionals to the organization.
  • Be intentional about the language you use to describe volunteerism.
  • Advocate for volunteer engagement to have more responsibility and strategic involvement in your organization.
  • Involve volunteers at all levels of the organization.
  • Invest more time, money, and resources to volunteerism.

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