If you run a nonprofit organization, you know how important volunteers are. They’re the foundation of your work, making events and outreach programs the best they can be!

But you also likely know how difficult it can be to retain volunteers. You might have excellent volunteer outreach, getting new volunteers for every event and never lacking in volunteer numbers, but how do you keep the same people coming back to build a sense of community and shared experience?

Volunteer Burnout and Compassion Fatigue

First, we should define what these two phenomena are. Volunteer burnout is somewhat self-explanatory: it’s when volunteers reach a state of burnout—chronic fatigue towards an activity—concerning volunteering and attending events.

Compassion fatigue, on the other hand, is a different beast. Oxford Dictionary defines it as, “indifference to charitable appeals on behalf of those who are suffering, experienced as a result of the frequency or number of such appeals.” This phenomenon is not unique to volunteer work (it’s especially pernicious in the medical field) but it does happen and it can be devastating.

It can often be compassion fatigue that causes volunteer burnout, and burnout means volunteers stop volunteering. Thus, stopping compassion fatigue and working to slow down the effects of volunteer burnout should be high on your priorities, because stopping each will increase volunteer retention.

So, how can you, the organizer, prevent each of these phenomena?

1. Understand the Causes of Volunteer Burnout

To tackle these problems, we must first understand what causes them. Based on our data, the three most common causes of volunteer burnout are:

  • The demands and stressors of volunteering
  • Emotional/mental exhaustion
  • Compassion fatigue

Now, we’re going to break down the last one in-depth, but let’s touch on the other two first. 

The first one is as varied as the volunteer work your volunteers are doing. Volunteering is work, and work can be demanding and stressful. There’s no real way to avoid this, but there are ways to mitigate its severity.

Secondly, life can be exhausting. Sometimes, people just don’t want to volunteer anymore because they are tired. To work against this, try and make a volunteering culture that is welcoming and fun, which will make people feel rejuvenated when they volunteer, instead of exhausted.

2. Build a Supportive Volunteer Culture

If you want people to keep volunteering, you want to have a culture that welcomes them every time they come. You need to create a positive and inclusive volunteer environment where volunteers feel welcomed, appreciated, and connected.

To do this, encourage open communication and feedback. You may be the organizer, but the opinions of volunteers are integral so that you can know what they need/want. Along that same vein, make sure you’re recognizing and valuing volunteer contributions. Whether that’s giving out free shirts as thanks or proving food at events, make sure volunteers feel appreciated and recognized.

3. Provide Adequate Training and Resources

A key benefit of volunteer retention is having experienced volunteers who like helping your nonprofit. To further this benefit and help volunteers feel well-equipped, develop robust training programs and volunteer resources. 

Whether they’re online courses or handouts at events, having resources available for your volunteers not only helps them feel valued but also helps them help you to the best of their abilities. Make sure to invest in these resources!

4. Manage Workload and Time Management

When working with volunteers—especially if you have a high rate of success with volunteer recruitment—it can be tempting to overload them with events and programs. After all, volunteer work is technically free, so why not have them work a bunch of events?

Volunteers are people and they’re no different than regular employees—you have to respect their time and energy. A crucial aspect of preventing volunteer burnout is not pushing your volunteers too hard. You want to plan your events to be forgiving and manageable for volunteers.

Maybe you have a long event coming up, around eight hours long. You’d want to break it up into a minimum of two, four-hour long shifts. You could even go for three or four, and allow volunteers to sign up for multiple. 

Make sure there’s ample division of labor among volunteers, too. If you have a sign-in booth and stations along a charity run, make sure you offer enough positions to allow work to be equitably split across volunteers. 

5. Encourage Self-Care and Well-being

This one goes hand-in-hand with the volunteer culture strategy and the compassion fatigue strategy below, but it’s more than important enough to talk about on its own: encourage the self-care and well-being of your volunteers. Again, they are people, and they need time and space to take care of themselves.

This encouragement can take different forms depending on the type of nonprofit you’re in. For some that are more event-heavy, this can mean not spamming your volunteer groups and mailing lists with an overload of event opportunities. If you’re less event-focused, this can be the opposite: reach out during lulls between events and send words of encouragement or self-care resources to let volunteers know they are cared about.

It may feel meaningless if you’re just sending an encouraging email to a mailing list, but volunteers want to feel appreciated. Even the little tokens of gratitude—especially if accompanied by some more substantial strategies, like providing resources—can be game-changing for volunteer retention.

6. Recognize and Address Signs of Compassion Fatigue

Compassion fatigue is a serious driver of volunteer burnout, so knowing how to specifically combat it is important. First, you need to know what the warning signs look like. These can be hard to identify organization-side—which is another reason to focus on communication with volunteers, so they can report these symptoms as well—but you’re looking for people becoming detached, numb to their volunteer work, or feeling overwhelmed and exhausted.

This will most often occur in long-term volunteers, so you should know them well enough to recognize some of these changes in their behavior at events. They should also trust you enough to listen when you encourage them to seek help and support, be it in the form of taking a break from volunteering or taking breaks to reconcentrate and practice mindfulness.

Finally, you can implement protocols for compassion fatigue prevention. Maybe you have mandated breaks from volunteering for long-term volunteers, or you have check-ins with volunteers before/after shifts. You want to keep track of how your volunteers are feeling and have protocols for maintaining morale.

7. Develop a Sustainable Volunteer Program

This strategy is kind of a combination of the other six, but you want your volunteer program to be sustainable. Volunteer retention is the name of the game.

To this end, you want to keep your finger on the pulse of your volunteer program. Have periodic evaluations of volunteer workload and stress levels, and adjust program policies and procedures as needed. Your program should work for your volunteers. And, most of all: celebrate successes. But we wrote a whole article on that already.

If these strategies seem overwhelming, fear not! The best way to keep your volunteers is to just be genuine with and appreciative of them. Your job as a volunteer manager is just to make them feel happy and seen, and these strategies enable you to do those things even better.

About the Author:
Geng Wang

As CEO of Civic Champs, I lead our team of passionate change leaders to create technology solutions to create a seamless and rewarding volunteering experience for both volunteers and service organizations.