Avoid Volunteer Burnout

Escape from Volunteer Hell

This is one of my favorite posts from late last year that I’m re-posting while I’m on vacation. I hope you enjoy it.

You are asked to chair your son’s school library fundraiser for the third year in a row. The school librarian tells you that no other mother is as organized or has raised as much money as you have and begs you to take the position. Your company’s fiscal year is ending and you’ve been putting in long hours at the office to get plans done for next year.  Do you:

a) grudgingly accept the assignment, gnash your teeth and vow that this year is absolutely the last time you will chair this committee.

b) turn down the committee chair position but because you feel guilty, offer to take a role with less responsibility.

c) explain that you really don’t have the bandwidth to take the chair position on this year, wish her luck and write a check instead.

A few weeks ago this New York Times article caught my eye. It was about mothers fed up with the amount of volunteer time schools were asking from parents. Even more interesting than the article was the firestorm of reader comments that followed it. Let’s just say there are a lot of ticked off mothers out there who are tired of being squeezed by their children’s schools.

D2 isn’t in school yet so I haven’t had to deal with the school volunteering issue, but I’ve been around the volunteering block a time or two.  I’ve chaired the marketing committee for two different non-profit organizations and volunteered for many others. The work I got involved in was incredibly rewarding and it was a lot of work. Oftentimes, I felt like I had two jobs – the job I got paid for and my committee chair role. But I also got a lot back in return. My volunteer work allowed me to expand my network, meet a wonderful group of friends and make a difference for two organizations I really cared about. The reality is that public schools and most non-profit organizations rely heavily upon volunteer labor. As a volunteer, it’s easy to get burned out on the work even if you are passionate about the cause.  Women are particularly susceptible to over-committing because we hate to say no and we feel guilty when we do. So what do we do? We agree to chair committees, plan galas and organize fundraisers. We smile on the outside and seethe on the inside when these commitments encroach upon our family and work and require more time than we planned. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m a huge advocate for volunteerism, especially now when the economy is so bad and many worthy organizations are struggling to fulfill their mission. And I believe in putting good back into the Universe to pay it forward.  But most busy women could benefit from being more strategic in their volunteer commitments. As a busy professional, you’ve probably put a lot of care and thought into your career and what you need to do to be successful at work. Why not put that same level of thought into your volunteer commitments? It may not be very PC to say so, but I think as a volunteer you should be able to expect something back for your time – in the form of a new skill, industry experience, an expanded network, or whatever is important to you.  Here’s my short list of things you can do to make sure you don’t end up with volunteer malaise:

  1. Think about what skill sets or relationships you would like to build personally or professionally. When you agree to volunteer, ask yourself if you will be able to build up the skills sets you’ve identified as needs. Make sure every volunteer commitment addresses at least one of these needs.
  2. Manage your volunteer time ruthlessly. As a working mom, your time is valuable.  Before you commit, decide on how many hours a week you really have to devote to a volunteer job. Be honest. If you really only have an hour or two a week, chairing a board or an event committee is probably not for you. And don’t over commit. If you are sitting on eight boards, how effective are you really? Pick one or two causes and excel at those. You’ll feel better and your volunteer coordinator will appreciate your focus and dedication.
  3. Be passionate about the cause. Yes, you need to be strategic and manage your time boundaries, but volunteering is about giving back to humanity. So only volunteer if you are truly passionate about the cause. Ask yourself, “Am I willing to ask perfect strangers for money to fund this?” Whether it’s for a school fundraiser or a local animal shelter, we are at our best when we can give of our time and our money with an open heart.
  4. Learn how to say “No” and mean it.  There are no brownie points in the Game of Life for being a volunteer martyr. It’s hard to say no to a worthy volunteer cause and not beat yourself up. But you’ll be a better volunteer if you can truly feel good about the time you are giving.
  5. Have fun—or at least be around people you enjoy. This means if your fellow volunteers are Type A control-freaks and that drives you crazy, DON’T DO IT! Life is short, so choose to be around people who bring positive energy to what they do, can challenge you to be better and enrich your life.

What’s your volunteer philosophy?

  • marie

    Hey, my girls aren’t even in elementary yet, but already I’m feeling regret at the number of volunteer requests I’m getting through their preschool. It all adds up in precious time! Thank you for providing real guidelines that will help me say “No” when necessary, and choose my volunteer activities wisely. A valuable article for prioritizing your time. Thanks!

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