Over the years I have had the privilege of teaching the Board Orientation and Committee Success class for the Institute program. At every site, there is a theme that rears its head. Volunteer burnout. Whether it is referring to a board member or a committee volunteer someone always asks me, “how do we keep the good ones?” For those of us that have been in association management, we know that the best volunteers are often involved in many organizations, not just our own, so that means they could be on volunteer overload and heading straight towards the burnout wall.
Signs that a volunteer could be headed that way might include losing enthusiasm for the mission of the organization. It might show up in a sudden onset of absenteeism when they were typically present at all functions. It may present itself in low performance by not completing tasks assigned to them or missing deadlines. Unfortunately, the best volunteers are usually the ones most likely to be prone to burnout. Typically because they are the most dedicated ones and we tend to give them even more to do which can make the situation even worse. Sound familiar? If so, I’d like to offer four simple suggestions on ways to help prevent burnout for your volunteers.
- Tell the Truth – When bringing volunteers on, be very upfront with what time commitments and responsibilities are expected of them. Don’t sugar coat it by saying “we only meet once a month” if you know that there are often task force meetings, special events and sub-committee meetings involved. Don’t be too conservative when outlining the commitments. Being less than honest, for the sake of getting them to say yes to something, is setting them up to fail from the beginning.
- Keep it Real – You don’t have to be best friends with your volunteers but you do need to get to know them and find out what is motivating them to volunteer in the first place. Don’t be afraid to ask them questions about their family, friends or hobbies outside of work. Being authentic with your volunteers allows them to trust you more which may mean that they are more comfortable in letting you know when they are beginning to take on too much and may need to scale back.
- Be Strategic – not having enough volunteers for an event or task can lead to burnout when you ask too much from too few. The same is true if you have too many volunteers working on a project and there are people standing around feeling as if they are not needed. Put some effort into deciding exactly how many volunteers are needed, what skill sets are required and when and where do you need them. A volunteer that feels that they are in the midst of the work will always feel valuable. If they feel like an “extra,” they won’t feel like their time was well spent.
- Say Please and Thank You – When is the last time you sent a handwritten thank you note to a volunteer? With today’s technology we may tweet someone during an event or we may give them a shout out on Facebook or in our e-newsletter but if you really want to make an impression, pick up the phone and call them just to say thanks for a job well done or write that note to them. The thank you recognition doesn’t have to break the bank; it just has to be heart-felt. Trust me, this one goes a long way towards keeping volunteers dedicated.
Volunteers have other jobs and they have a life outside of your organization just like you do or just like you should. Speaking of that, how are you taking care of yourself and avoiding your own burnout? Years ago one of my chamber mentors said this to me when I called him with the exciting news that I had accepted my first chamber CEO position: “Just remember, you don’t do yourself, your community or your organization any good if you are sick or dead from being stressed. You can love it and do it well but still have a life. It does not have to be, nor should it be a 24/7 job.” Just think about that and go get some rest.