21st Anniversary Page
Archives Search
Ask Connie
Boards & Committees
Internet Resources
Management & Supervision
Recruiting & Retention
Tech Tips
Volunteer Program Evaluation Series
Who We Are
Email Us

VolunteerToday.com ~~ The Electronic Gazette for Volunteerism


Find tips to oversee the work of volunteers and practical suggestions to supervise them. Everything from ideas to help you work more efficiently to the latest in research on keeping volunteers happy and productive.

~June 2003~ Topics

Better Safe Book

NEW at our online bookstore: BETTER SAFE... RISK MANAGEMENT IN VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS & COMMUNITY SERVICE by Linda L. Graff. This risk management manual is packed with practical, directly applicable tips, tools, checklists, and worksheets, all accompanied by a step-by-step narrative that leads you through the risk management process.Better Safe... book Image

Burnout: Stages To Note and What to Do

In the May issue of Volunteer Today, we listed the “symptoms” to note for a volunteer who might be approaching burnout. In this month’s issue, we describe the stages of burnout. Understanding the stages means a skilled volunteer leader or professional manager can intervene before the volunteer is “toast.” There are studies which show that volunteers who burn out rarely return to volunteering, of any kind.

What To Do:

One - Exhaustion:
The person suffers from physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion. They flop down in chairs, go home exhausted. At the work site they go for the quick fix, take short cuts to get things done, have a brain-strain when faced with new problems.


Check the system: Are you asking more of this volunteer than is fair? Should the job be redesigned to divide tasks and responsibilities?
Too many hats: One individual committed to the “cause” of the organization or the people can wear too many hats. What do your policies say about volunteers holding more than one or two positions? Can you relieve the person of one of their tasks?
Is it still fun? When volunteer tasks stop being fun and enjoyable, burnout cannot be far behind. What did you observe with this volunteer recently that let you know the tasks and jobs were enjoyable?
Plan fun activities. Rent a movie and show it in a room at the organization for all volunteers. Be sure your potential burnout candidates have tasks that require them to be there. The funnier the movie the better.
Check out whether volunteers are being asked to do more than they should. Review tasks and duties. Maybe more hands are needed to accomplish tasks. Maybe a position needs to be reorganized.

Two - Doubt:
The second stage brings fear and trepidation. A formerly confident and self-assured volunteer is tentative and questioning of their ability to do things. Past accomplishments are ignored and pushed aside in the fear that you cannot do it today. Shame and doubt are regular visitors.

Strongest takes a break-People prone to burnout are those on whom others depend. Rarely do folks notice how burned out someone is until it is too late. The leaders in an organization need regular and enforced breaks. Rewrite committee guidelines or by-laws that requires everyone to take a complete break every four to six years.
Call it what it is. Acknowledge that everyone is leaning on this volunteer and it is time to give him/her a break. And talk to the volunteer about this. Sweeping it under the rug or avoiding the topic can only lead someone to move to Stage 3.
Give the volunteer a measure of control. Burnout can be short-circuited if people feel like they have control over the assigned tasks. Whenever possible provide the volunteer with daily choices, instead of dictums!
Encourage non-task related visiting among volunteers. Be sure to ask about family members or work duties that are pressing on the individual. That behavior gives the person permission to chat with others about the challenges in life.

Three – Cynicism and Skepticism:
A prolonged feeling of vulnerabilitity and unsteadiness can lead a person to take drastic measure. The individual goes for the “big” guns. They put on armor of protection. They are negative and disbelieving and become abrasive and obnoxious. This stage is a heavy burden.

Help people who take on too much to prioritize tasks and eliminate some so a new position or responsibility can be assumed. For example, a mother of three volunteered in many of her children’s activities. She was the group leader extraordinaire. One of the groups wanted her to take on an organization-wide program development project. She would have likely simply added it to her other duties. The Board president and the executive said the new and exciting job was only available if she relinquished her group leadership duties. They assured her they would find reliable and suitable replacement, but it was a non-negotiable item. Some people need to be helped to avoid burnout.
Help people see the long-term consequences of burnout. That initial feeling of being overwhelmed hardens into cynicism, and can harden the arteries, too. The long-term impact of smoldering anger leads to high blood pressure, ulcers, and worse. Do not be quiet about this. Help volunteers understand that, while the service they give is important, so is their health.

Four – Crisis and Failure:
All previous coping mechanisms fail during this stage of burnout. The slightest emotional “bump” and over reaction looks like the eruption of Mt. St. Helen’s. There is a strong temptation to walk away forever.

Help the volunteer grieve for tasks not completed or projects failed. Help them focus guilt and anxiety into a new type of energy. Do not ignore this step. Many volunteers who suffer from burnout are those on whom everyone depends, including family and friends. It is important to acknowledge that there are some things that did not happen, but the world has gone on and so will they to fight another day.
Get support for drained volunteers. Enlist the help of volunteers who have been there and successfully weathered the storm. This needs to be a sensitive person who can help them over the hump.
Offer to provide the resources or time for the person to take a “time-out” for a pre-arranged period of time, so they can catch up! Recruit an experienced and trusted volunteer to step into the individual’s shoes to give them time to rebuild energy and enthusiasm.
Explore ways things can be accomplished through new actions. Enlist technology wizards to help, offer an opportunity for skill training, and suggest options that produce positive attitudes and actions.

Return to the Menu

Keeping the “Star” Volunteers

Some volunteers are “stars.” They are more capable and skilled and sometimes hard to hang onto. Here are some tips to keep those “stars.”

Get them involved. Star volunteers are not content to sit quietly while others plot what they will be doing. They shine best in the limelight. Create the positions and opportunities for them to shine. Get their opinions and involve them throughout the organization.

Encourage reflection. Stars like results, make no mistake, but often it is the reflective nature of thinking that can aid you. Encourage them to slow up for a minute, have a tea or coffee and help you think through something. Genuine dialogue connects on a personal level and you become partners.

Acknowledge differences. Star volunteers are not the same as everyone else. They need different types of motivation, often with you fueling the fires of their passion. Do not let the difference put you off. Learn to fuel it and you will keep that winner.

Interested in assessing volunteer and staff relations in your program?

Looking for help from an expert?

Get help with one of the Volunteer Program Evaluation Series.


Washington State University offers a Volunteer Management Certification Program through the Internet. Individuals around the world can earn a certificate in managing or coordinating volunteers, without leaving home.
For more information, visit Volunteer Today's Portal site, Internet Resources. Look for the Washington State University listing. There is a hot link to their Web site.


The National Association of Volunteer Programs in Local Government (NAVPLG) is an association of administrators, coordinators and directors of volunteer programs in local government. Its purpose is to strengthen volunteer programs in local government through leadership, advocacy, networking and information exchange. NAAVPLG is an affiliate of the National Association of Counties and is seeking affiliate status with the National League of Cities.
Cost is $20 for individuals and $75 for group local government membership. An affiliate membership is $25 and is intended for those who are not local government members but may have an interest in the group. There is a quarterly newsletter, national network, and access to NACo's Volunteerism Project.
For more information contact
Robin Popik, who is a Volunteer Resource Supervisor. She can be reached by phone at 972-941-7114. Be sure to mention you read about this in Volunteer Today.

Return to Top
A Service of MBA Publishing All materials copyright protected ©2003
925 "E" Street Walla Walla, WA 99362 (509) 529-0244 FAX: (509) 529-8865 EMAIL: editor@volunteertoday.com
The content of all linked sites are beyond the control Volunteer Today and the newsletter assumes no responsibility for their content.

Better Safe Book