Tag Archives: burnout

For an effort to be sustainable, volunteers & activists need a break

Many national and state legislators in the USA are reporting record attendance at their public meetings, and their phone lines are constantly busy and voice mail accounts are constantly full, as constituents call in record numbers. The largest series of protest marches that have ever occurred in the USA in one day happened on January 21, 2017, the Women’s March, and there has been a range of protests, big and small, ever since. People are holding legislative and editorial letter-writing parties at their house, for attendees to pressure legislators and the media regarding various issues. VolunteerMatch is reporting a record number of people visiting its web site and signing up to volunteer – according to an article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy (it’s behind a paywall – can be seen by subscribers only), VolunteerMatch set a single-day record with more than 72,355 unique visitors on January 24, four days after the new president was inaugurated. VolunteerMatch’s second busiest day was November 10, two days after the election, with 69,318 visitors. January 25 and November 15 ranked third and fourth in web traffic.

The amount of civic participation in the USA right now is staggering. But it’s also unsustainable. People will need a break. They will also need to be re-inspired at some point. Those are critical points that those supporting and managing these activists and volunteers need to keep in mind.

I’ve been more politically active since November than I’ve been in more than 20 years, and I’m exhausted. So, a week ago, I wrote on Facebook “Sometimes, you have to cash in some privilege and go to the beach….”  and posted photos of me, my husband and our dog at a beach. One of my Facebook friends got upset, affirming that just because you can go to the beach, you aren’t privileged, that lots of people of various ethnicities go to the beach, etc.

In my computer’s dictionary, the word privilege is defined as a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people. And, therefore, being able to go to the beach amid green cards getting canceled, families and children living in terror for fear of some members being deported, millions of people realizing they won’t have health insurance after 2017, women’s health care choices being restricted, people’s water supplies threatened by pipelines and dangerous amounts of lead and an upswing in racially-charged language, is, indeed, a privilege.

wizardMy colleague and friend, Erin Barnhart, was one of the people organizing the Oregon members of the January 21 March for Women in Washington, DC.  I’ve no doubt her fellow organizers were so thankful for her extensive volunteer management knowledge and highly sensitive nature, especially her incredible sensitivity to difference. I also know that she’s exhausted and needs a break! She wrote the following on her Facebook page and, with her permission, I’m sharing it here:

There’s a concept in volunteer management that I and others like to call “stepping forward, stepping back.” Here’s how it works: volunteers collaborate as a team and, as life obligations interfere or energy is depleted, people are able to step back from the work for a time while others step forward to carry the load. When they return to the team, they then make it easier for others to temporarily step back from the circle. It’s a great way to keep projects going while also making appropriate space for people’s needs. This model is on my mind today.

Specifically, I’m aware of my privilege as I post photos of a sunny vacation while, around the country, people are still protesting, filing legal briefs, fighting for their and other’s civil rights with everything they’ve got. While I enjoyed a walk by the beach, camps were being cleared at Standing Rock. The fight continues and the work hasn’t stopped. Indeed, in many ways, it’s only just begun.

My goal this week is to enjoy time with my mom and to engage in some much needed self care. There’s a long battle ahead and I intend to be in it. That said, as I step back knowing that others have stepped forward, I will also do my best to stay aware and engaged, bearing witness and signal boosting where and when I can.

The takeaway from this self-aware post is, I hope, this: Step back as needed, folks. Take care of yourselves if and how you can. You are needed and valued and we will step forward to cover you. Thank you to everyone doing the hard work this week so that I can step back myself.

Remember that your volunteers and activists need to step back and take care of themselves sometimes. They may need a break. And you, the lead volunteer or lead manager of volunteers, may need to tell them that, explicitly. And you may need a break yourself! Don’t feel guilty; refresh, reboot, recharge.

You also need to help re-inspire your volunteers and activists. Don’t just focus in your messages to them on things they need to be doing to support a cause – give them reasons to celebrate sometimes. You might need volunteers who are focused specifically on identifying the impact of activists’ efforts.

See you out there – or at the beach.

Also see:

Facebook use to organize Women’s Marches: lessons learned

Being emotionally ready to volunteer – or to continue volunteering

latest moment of volunteer management madness

Many of my blogs and web pages are inspired by first-hand experience as a volunteer or as a volunteer manager. And, sadly, it’s often bad experiences, usually as a volunteer myself, that lead to new blogs and web pages.

Of course I don’t name the organizations that inspire these blogs, and I try to put a very positive spin on these, to help other nonprofits, NGOs, libraries, schools, public sector agencies and other mission-based organizations to not make the same mistakes I’ve experienced. I consider them learning experiences, and I want others to learn from them as well.

Here’s some of these blogs and web pages that were inspired by my own experiences as a volunteer:

Here’s the latest moment-of-volunteer-management-madness inspired by a real organization:

This particular multi-state organization has leadership volunteering roles, on the local level, to handle the organization’s project management, including the management of local volunteers, in individual communities. But often, some of these local leadership roles are not filled, because no one is interested or no one has the time to do all of the tasks a particular role requires. Therefore, the lead volunteer for all other leadership volunteers in that community gets saddled with all the roles that aren’t filled, in addition to all of his or her other volunteer responsibilities.

One group of leadership volunteers in one community had a brilliant, oh-so-logical idea for lessening the burden on the lead volunteer and getting necessary tasks done: allow volunteers to commit to completing individual tasks, rather than the entire, hard-to-fill, leadership roles. For instance, allow one volunteer to be in charge of the online community for local volunteers, another volunteer to be in charge of updating the web site, and another volunteer to help with designing paper fliers – which, altogether, are most of the duties of the communications manager volunteer.

There were people ready to assume these much less-intensive volunteer roles. That means all the tasks of that role get done, the local lead volunteer manager – a volunteer herself – wouldn’t be overburdened trying to do these tasks as well as her other responsibilities, and maybe, after a few months, one of these task-based volunteers would decide, hey, I think I could do the entire job myself – I’m ready to commit to the entire leadership role! It’s a fantastic opportunity to cultivate new leadership volunteers – people who might get a taste of the experience and decide they would love to take on a more substantial role.

So, great idea, right? Well, not according to the organization. An employee representative who attended the local meeting where this idea was introduced quashed the idea. She said that the entire role has to be filled by one person and absolutely cannot be divided among several volunteers. Since no one is going to take that role in its entirety, all those tasks are going to be assumed by the already over-burdened team leader.

What a mistake! What a missed opportunity to cultivate new volunteers and new leaders!

Well, at least I got a new blog out of it…