How Volunteer Burnout Works

Preventing Volunteer Burnout

The best volunteers are usually the ones most prone to burnout. That's because they're so dedicated, they often fail to take mental health breaks or ask for help. And because they're so dedicated, organizations often pile more and more responsibility on them.

Organizations that depend on volunteers have an inherent interest in making sure this doesn't happen. Good volunteers are hard to come by so it's important to make sure they take care of themselves -- even when they say they don't need to.

The first step in preventing burnout is to thank your volunteers regularly for their involvement and point out their contributions -- especially if they do a lot of administrative tasks. It can also help to set milestones for honoring volunteers, like sending a hand-written thank-you note or a small floral arrangement for service milestones (such as completing 100 work hours) or having a luncheon for volunteers who have completed a big project [source: Robbins].

The second thing to keep in mind is that many volunteers are dealing with heavy issues that can be emotionally draining. They may be answering calls on a suicide hotline, counseling battered women or helping the homeless. It's important to hold regular debriefing sessions or take volunteers aside after particularly difficult situations. They need help processing their feelings and getting support so strong emotions don't build up [source: Robbins].

It's also important to encourage volunteers to take time off. Just like regular paid employees, everybody needs a break. You can make it easier for your volunteers by instituting policies like requiring them to take a month off after every four-month commitment or setting concrete end dates to certain projects so they don't drag out indefinitely [source: Robbins].

Other things you can do include providing job descriptions with an estimated time commitment so volunteers know what they're getting into, delegating tasks so no one's plate gets too full and having contingency plans so volunteers don't have to worry if they miss some time because of an emergency or illness [source: Fundraiser IP].

Also, respect the fact that volunteers have other work and family commitments and keep the door open so they feel comfortable coming to you when there's a problem.

For more on volunteering, see the links below.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • Berger, Teresa. "Volunteer Burnout, Keep It from Plaguing You." Ezine Articles. (Accessed 4/28/09)
  • Fundraiser IP. "Preventing Volunteer Burnout." (Accessed 4/28/09)
  • Gorkin, Mark. "The Four Stages of Burnout." The Stress Doc. (Accessed 4/28/09)
  • Robbins, James. "Five Steps for Preventing Volunteer Burnout." Fundsraiser Cyberzine. (Accessed 4/28/09)
  • Volunteer "Volunteer Burnout." (Accessed 4/28/09)