How to Respond to Volunteer Burnout & Loss of Interest

It is fun and exciting when you have a lot of motivated volunteers who have fun and work well together. Over time, you might notice that some volunteers are losing interest and that your team is showing some changes.

Most volunteers get involved because they are passionate about your cause and want to make a difference in the world. With this in mind, what led to the volunteer losing interest or becoming burnt out? And, what can you do to stop this from happening or to get the volunteer reengaged? It is important to identify and address these signs before they become damaging and lead to losing a valued volunteer. In this article, we have identified some signs to look for and possible ways to address them.

Signs that a volunteer might be losing interest or getting burned out:
The volunteer is cynical or negative when they used to be positive.
The volunteer shows anger or frustration more easily.
The volunteer seems to have lost enjoyment in the act of volunteering.
The volunteer shows distinctive changes in personality.
The volunteer was outgoing and is now more standoffish.
The volunteer starts confiding that they are feeling overwhelmed by the work, especially if they previously found it manageable.
Changes in reliability or productivity of the volunteer.
Changes in responsiveness from the volunteer.

Possible reasons why a volunteer is losing interest or becoming burnt out:
The volunteer has feelings of ineffectiveness and/or lack of accomplishment.
The volunteer does not feel like their work is having an impact.
The volunteer has not been given a specific task or role.
The volunteer has not been asked to give their opinion.
The volunteer feels that their personal life is not being respected.
The volunteer was not thanked or acknowledged for their service or contribution.
The volunteer has too much on their plate.
The volunteer is having trouble dealing with difficult emotions and/or situations that they’re encountering while volunteering

Strategies to combat loss of interest and burn out:
The best strategy to keep volunteers interested and avoid burnout is by making sure volunteers and their managers have great working relationships and open communication. Paying attention to and looking out for the signs we listed above is a great place to start. Engaging with and getting to know your volunteers is an important step in being successful with not only volunteer retention, but also being able to identify any volunteer issues. By watching for uncharacteristic behaviors in your volunteers, you may be able to solve issues before they become a problem.

Starting with open communication right when volunteers first sign up is the easiest way to implement this strategy. You should be honest about what the work will entail. You should also be upfront if the work will be emotionally challenging or may involve difficult and/or challenging situations. It is also important to be honest if a volunteer’s expectations do not fit the reality of the role they want to fill. Not doing so could lead to frustration and disappointment for you and the volunteer.

Another component of communication that can help to avoid loss of interest is to schedule regular check-ins with volunteers to ask how they are feeling about the work and solve any issues that they might be experiencing. Listen carefully to what they have to say and make any changes that you are able to. If they express that they are feeling overwhelmed or burnt out, lighten their load or suggest that they try a different job.

Equally important is helping them realize their impact and the ways they are making a difference. Change is not always obvious and can take a long time. If you can share the story of their work, what it means to your organization, how it contributes to your mission and how it affects the community, they will feel like they are accomplishing their goal of making a difference. Otherwise, they may not get this information and may start to feel like they are ineffective or wasting their time.

Providing appropriate training sessions for your volunteers can also help avoid loss of interest. Making sure that the volunteers know exactly what to expect and giving them clear direction will help to make the volunteer feel valued and confident. Try to be flexible as possible regarding volunteer scheduling and respect their time. Try to be understanding if someone has to cancel or change their shift. We have all had last minute things come up. A good strategy is to provide some guidelines outlining what to do if a volunteer needs to cancel or reschedule a shift. This will make it clear that you are respecting that they are volunteering their free time.

Handling volunteers who have lost interest or are burned out:
Even if you have great communication and take preventative measures, loss of interest can still happen. If it does, and the volunteer lets you know, it is important to listen and be sensitive to what the volunteer is going through. This can go a long way in helping to keep them from feeling negative about their time volunteering or your organization. It may even lead them to come back when their circumstances have changed. If possible, ask what led them to become uninterested or burnt out. The information they provide could help you to improve your strategies and avoid loss of additional volunteers in the future.

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Engaging Volunteers Remotely

In these times where most people are at home and social distancing, it might feel difficult to keep volunteers engaged. It is more important than ever to keep volunteers engaged and ready to jump in when we are able to be together again. Keeping your volunteers engaged is also great for their health and wellness during this heavy time. Volunteer coordinators might find themselves reflecting on their volunteer programs and even wondering if their events will take place. You might be wondering how your volunteers are doing, given the current circumstances, and how things will fall into place in the future. 

We’ve put together some ideas that may help with reaching volunteers and providing ways that they can contribute from home to keep engaged.

Develop a virtual team.

Find volunteers/staff who make it a focus to meet virtually on a regular basis to discuss and implement initiatives. (As we are all learning, you can easily get started with this at no cost through virtual meeting platforms, like Zoom.)

Do you have volunteers that could help with writing copy, letters or grants?

It goes without saying that keeping your name out there and securing funding right now and for the future is imperative. 

Create short-term project teams to help volunteers get a feel for your organization and make an impact.

For example, do you have volunteers that could help with creating digital art, website design or video editing?

Do you have volunteers that would be good at public relations?

Even if your event is not occurring in 2020, these volunteers can communicate a positive spin and get the message out that you will be back stronger and better in 2021. 

You could also utilize this public relations talent for social media posts and outreach. Focusing this content around storytelling is an especially good way to connect. You could have volunteers share your culture, goals and missions. They can also share their stories and experiences with volunteering. 

Host a virtual event.

For example, you might host an event where everyone makes thank you cards to send to the essential workers in your community. This one would be especially great to involve families who have kids. 

Tweak, set-up or revise your volunteer training program.

Do you have volunteers that would be good at taking the lead on implementing or improving your training program? Now is a great time to dig into an area like this, and it is easily done remotely. 

Use the experience of your volunteers to revise your volunteer program. You might want to expand or change up the work/shifts available, revise checklists, revise volunteer applications or take a look at areas from past events that could be stronger and improve on them. You could also use experienced volunteers to design or update position descriptions. 

Check in with each other!

Have a volunteer, or team, create a phone tree to check in with other volunteers and keep in touch. Or set up a regular virtual “happy hour” or hang time. 

People are eager to help. Start recruiting!

It might not seem like it, but now is also a good time to recruit volunteers. Many people have unexpected extra time right now and are looking to contribute to a cause they care about or feel like they are making a positive difference.

Engaging volunteers remotely can be challenging, but with some creative thinking, you may be able to get through this with your volunteers engaged and even recruit some new volunteers. The creativity we have seen from people engaging around the world during these challenging times is so inspirational. We hope that these ideas are helpful in keeping volunteers engaged and ensuring that you have a strong volunteer base during and after this pandemic.

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Sparking Motivation in a Team That May Be Feeling Discouraged

Volunteers are the lifeblood of many organizations, who without the generous donation of time, would otherwise not be able to hold events or operate successfully. Keeping volunteers motivated can be challenging, even outside of a pandemic environment. Motivation differs from person to person, so applying different techniques may help you identify what works best for your group of volunteers.  We have put together a list of 8 tips that you can use to help motivate volunteers.

1.  Communication – goes both ways 

Motivating new volunteers or returning volunteers requires good communication. Great communication will help them feel like they are knowledgeable about your organization and how they are contributing. Repeatedly sharing information about the purpose of the support work the volunteers will be helping with is a great way to create motivation. Volunteers need a sense of direction, especially if they are a new volunteer.

Listening is an equally important part of communication. Make sure to provide opportunities for volunteers to speak up with thoughts and ideas and to provide them support. Being able to listen to volunteer concerns and support them is especially important right now while we are all making compromises and working through changes.

Socialization is also a big part of volunteering and is an important motivator. Social distancing is having a great impact on this area for all of us right now. Have a space (even virtually) where volunteers can meet, communicate, socialize and motivate each other. 

2. Respect – instruction and organization

Volunteers are giving up their free time to help, which should be recognized and respected. It goes without saying that respect builds trust, empathy and dedication. Communication also goes a long way to building respect. During this time, where many events are being cancelled or postponed, clearly and promptly communicating plans and details to your volunteers shows that you respect their time and feelings. 

When events do take place, making sure to set up stations where workers can provide their services easily, safely and without frustration is an important part of building respect. You can do this by making sure that they know where to go, they know their shift details and that they have the necessary tools, check-lists and supplies needed to complete their shift. Respect is also shown through pairing volunteers with jobs that use their skills well. Asking simple questions on the registration form can help to ensure that you pair the right person with the right job. 

3. Be available – show that you are motivated

Being accessible to your volunteers shows that you are motivated and passionate about your organization. Volunteers should have an easy time getting a hold of the right people and should feel comfortable reaching out. If they are not able to easily get questions answered, or concerns heard, they may lose interest and not show up or volunteer with your organization again.

One easy way to let volunteers know you are available is to check in with them from time to time. Right now, holding online video chats or happy hours is a fun way to keep in touch and provide a platform to keep everyone motivated.  

4. Recognition – acknowledge achievements

Volunteers do not usually volunteer their time to get recognition. That does not mean that recognition is not a huge part of creating motivation. Everyone likes to be acknowledged for contributions or a job well done.

In the workplace, positive feedback is the number one motivator.  This carries through for most areas of our lives. Some people do not like to be singled out and can be embarrassed by direct recognition in front of others. Praise can also be given with a team focus/team mindset. Individuals are often very responsive to team praise because they are aware of how they are affecting a whole team effort, and the part they have played in that success. 

Another way to provide recognition, is to personally thank volunteers. Thank you notes and emails are one way to do this. Personalizing the thank you message to each volunteer lets them know that you are specifically acknowledging them. This may seem like a daunting task, but think how great it feels when you receive a personalized thank you. Recognition can motivate volunteers to keep volunteering for your organization, to recruit others and to continue to produce great results. 

5. Rewards – extra perks!

While we know that volunteers are not volunteering their time to get a reward, rewards and perks can go a long way in attracting new volunteers and help to keep volunteers coming back. They can be a great motivator!

If you have a budget for it, sending long time volunteers or leaders to a conference or training can be a very motivating reward. Many conferences are at resorts or offer a vacation type get-away. Volunteers would get to attend interesting seminars, workshops, activities and have great networking opportunities. Attendees leave filled with motivation and ideas that will benefit your organization. Not everyone has the budget to send volunteers to conferences or to provide swag, but there are also some simple, low-cost or free things you could do. 

Some successful ideas we have heard:

  • Give volunteers certain hours or exclusive access to your event or vouchers for a VIP area. 
  • Certificates of achievement
  • Buttons, pins or plaques
  • Ribbons
  • Outstanding volunteer rewards for each job/area
  • Free food and beverage
  • T-shirts
  • Bandanas
  • Sweat bands
  • Hats
  • Custom wristbands
  • Reusable bags

6. Build team spirit – create a competition or challenge

Build a sense of motivation within your team by creating a space where they can get to know each other and feel more comfortable. The more team spirit created, the more comfortable the volunteers will feel. This will help them to motivate each other and look forward to future volunteer opportunities together. 

You could host a gathering allowing new and returning volunteers to get to know each other or organize a competition or challenge (these can also be done virtually). One example of a challenge could be to reward current volunteers who recruit the most new volunteers. You could have different prize levels, so that multiple volunteers have a chance to win. 

7. Training – motivate through knowledge

Hosting online initial and continual training opportunities can encourage development and motivation. Volunteers want to maximise the contribution they make but many receive limited training before or after they volunteer. Even a small amount of training can give volunteers a better understanding of their role, better direction within their role, help them to be more excited about their volunteering opportunity and motivate them to better themselves. We have a quick guide to training volunteers available, if you would like more detailed information.

8. Have fun – play is a great motivator

Volunteering can sometimes be stressful and cause a loss in motivation. People who feel like they are part of a group that they can have fun with will be motivated to return and spend more of their time with that group.

Important causes and goals that we are passionate about can sometimes become too serious and we forget the fun element. Before and between your events, try hosting some purely fun events. Of course, this is easier to do when we are not socially distancing, but there are some great virtual options. We have already mentioned online group chats or happy hours, but here are some additional ideas:

  • Online trivia night 
  • Online karaoke 
  • Online board or other types of games 
  • Host a watch party with live music or movies. 
  • Host a live “how to” with a guest who shows how to cook or craft something. 

Keeping connected is the most important step in keeping volunteers motivated. Be creative and have fun with it.

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