3 Ways Your Nonprofit Can Prevent Volunteer Burnout

6 min
prevent volunteer burnout
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Many people are attracted to the idea of changing the world for the better.  Some like to  make a positive change by donating their money to a cause that’s important to their lives while others choose to donate their time volunteering.

If you want to retain those who choose to  volunteer, you must  provide them with a positive volunteer experience both during, and after, their time working with you. In the same way that most people aren’t going to give their best at a job where they don’t feel appreciated, volunteers will likely be less willing to donate their time to a nonprofit that doesn’t make them feel valued  and appreciated. 

The most frequent causes of burnout are tied to how staff is managed: unfair treatment, a lack of clarity, and unmanageable workload and time pressure. Volunteers are, in many ways, members of your nonprofit’s staff and you should do everything in your power to prevent them from burning out. 

Providing a good volunteer experience and retaining your volunteers becomes even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic as people seek ways to help others. Volunteer opportunities are a perfect way to help this goal.

If there are opportunities for in-person volunteering, people need to feel safe and be provided with necessary equipment. In addition, it is helpful to provide virtual volunteer opportunities to allow people who don’t feel comfortable going outside a chance to share their skills. Below, we’ll walk you through three different tactics you can use to prevent volunteer burnout and provide a positive experience for your volunteers.

3 Tips to Prevent Volunteer Burnout

1. Optimize Volunteer Recruitment and Onboarding

Many volunteers quit because of a poor fit with the nonprofit or poor utilization of their skills. Volunteers are critical to the success of your nonprofit, and without their support you risk losing the necessary manpower to host events, appeal to donors, and ultimately fulfill your mission. 

For that reason, it’s important  you take a focused, comprehensive approach to volunteer recruitment and onboarding. Volunteers  should, through training and orientation, understand everything they need to about your nonprofit to do their job well. 

To start, take your initial volunteer recruitment message and think carefully  about how it relates to your nonprofit’s core values, mission, branding, voice, and tone.  Then, consider the type of volunteer you want to attract. Aside from someone who shares your mission and values, you should also screen for other qualities with questions like: 

  • Personality: Do you want charismatic volunteers? Are you looking for people who easily work as part of a team? Does your volunteer experience dictate that people get their hands dirty?
  • Prior history: How much volunteering experience do you want each person to have? What sort of job experience is important for this volunteer position?
  • Goals: What does the volunteer want to accomplish by working with you? What do you want to accomplish with the help of your volunteers?
  • Skills and talents: What sort of qualifications does your ideal volunteer have? What sort of interpersonal, technical, and professional skills do they possess?

With a solid idea of who you want to recruit and what you want to recruit them for, your next step is to draft your volunteer opportunity  description. Focus on why a volunteer might be interested in a particular position. 

Maybe the volunteer experience looks good on a resume, or maybe they can gain essential skills through their volunteer work. Make sure you also include as much information about the position as possible, including responsibilities, expectations, start and end dates, and location.

From there, determine how you’ll promote the volunteer opportunities. You could host a booth at a career festival, collaborate with other organizations and community groups, or take out web, print, or radio ads. Social media  is also an excellent resource for promoting your volunteer opportunities. 

With your recruitment process locked down, you should also examine how you onboard new volunteers. Focus on how they can fulfill the responsibilities outlined in the description, and provide them with the necessary training to accomplish the job.

A successful onboarding process should introduce new volunteers to your internal staff, other volunteers, and the leaders  in your organization. It should also incorporate them into your volunteer database, providing leadership with everything it needs to know about who they are. To that end, you may also consider having someone on your board personally welcome new volunteers through an orientation seminar of some kind.

Your goal here isn’t just to teach people how they can help your nonprofit. You want them to feel as though they’re part of a community. You want to give them the tools they need to represent your brand and evangelize your mission, and inspire them to do so. 

Create volunteer onboarding toolkits you can pass out to new arrivals. This kit should include the following information: 

  • An overview of your organization, including mission, vision, values, and core objective
  • Tips for speaking about your nonprofit in public
  • Brand guidelines for posting on social channels
  • Information and training materials for any tools and software solutions your nonprofit uses
  • Contact details for volunteer managers
  • General values, principles, and guidelines associated with your brand 
  • Information on your nonprofit’s internal processes and rules
  • Details on important locations such as your office, fundraising venues, etc. 

Use This Free Digital Marketing Checklist to Help

2. Maintain Clear Communications 

Just as poor communication and mismanagement frustrate paid employees, it’s also highly damaging to your nonprofit’s relationship with its volunteers. Without clear communications, your volunteers won’t know what they should be doing and they won’t have insight into the impact of their efforts. 

Ensure there are clear lines of contact for volunteers to reach key staff within your nonprofit, such as volunteer managers. Volunteers should be able to easily reach out to these individuals, while your internal staff should have clear channels to elevate questions and concerns to other members of your team if needed. . 

Start  by understanding the different volunteer committees within your organization,  such as marketing, communications, philanthropy, service, and strategic planning.  Remember, each group has different responsibilities and needs, and will be interested in different information. Beyond that, the most important thing is to keep in regular contact with all volunteers.

Email is likely the simplest avenue, allowing you to create highly-segmented, trackable mailing lists through a platform such as Mailchimp or ActiveCampaign. You may also want to consider establishing a Facebook group through which you can coordinate volunteer activities and enable your volunteers to provide direct feedback.

Don’t forget to showcase the effort your volunteers contribute to internal teams as well: write up a monthly volunteer newsletter to distribute to your co-workers. Include data points, photos, and other tangible evidence that shows your nonprofit is reaching its milestones, and emphasize that this is something you could not have done without your volunteers. For volunteers who are exceptionally hard-working, inspiring, or creative, include direct callouts as a special ‘thank you.’ 

This content might come in the  form of an interview or story in your newsletter, on your site, or on your blog. You may even go so far as to establish a volunteer award or recognition program that gives out a gift card to your most dedicated volunteers. 

No matter what you do,  the important thing is that you put the focus on how each volunteer’s contributions have helped you accomplish your mission. Include, with their consent, photos and video of your fundraisers. Demonstrate to them that they’re making an impact, and that the work they do matters. 

Free Download: 9 Email Templates for Nonprofit Annual Communication Plan

3. Treat Volunteers as People, Not Resources

For many leaders in the nonprofit space, their mission is their life. It’s everything to them. As a result, they hold their volunteers to a high standard of excellence.

Sometimes, not everyone is necessarily as passionate or engaged as you. Each volunteer will have a limit to how much effort they can put in, and how they can contribute to your organization. 

And that’s okay.  Expecting or demanding each volunteer to contribute in exactly the same way creates a level of pressure that’s both exhausting and unsustainable. Instead, a better route is to provide flexible volunteer opportunities.

Not every volunteer needs to be “boots on the ground” at your event. In fact, they may not need to put in more than a few hours a week with your organization. 

Micro-volunteering, for instance, consists of small tasks that do not require an application or recruitment process. They also require a minimal time commitment. These might include providing goods for a bake sale, tweeting about an event or cause, or participating in a survey.

In that light, you should also consider online volunteer positions. Your nonprofit needs people to monitor its social feeds graphic designers, webmasters, and marketing experts. These are all jobs that can be done remotely, allowing you to leverage digital volunteers across multiple locations.

Volunteer management software such as InitLive or Volgistics can streamline your recruitment process and also makes volunteer scheduling much simpler, allowing volunteers to work flexible hours, trade shifts as-needed, and schedule their own shifts. In addition to utilizing such a system, emphasize to your volunteers that there are no expectations.

Each person should only work as much as they’re able. Allowing people that level of flexibility can greatly reduce the chance that someone will feel stressed because they aren’t contributing enough or pressured to do more. And that, in turn, can help prevent volunteer burnout. 

There’s always going to be some degree of turnover amongst volunteers, but there doesn’t have to be burnout. By understanding how your actions influence and contribute to your volunteers’ work ethic, you can get back to what really matters: changing the world. 

Louis Louw is the owner of Elite Sport Socks. He is passionate about business, technology, and rock climbing. Elite Sports Socks sells personalized socks for sports teams and school fundraisers.


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