Volunteer Fatigue: What impact on the future of volunteerism?

 By Donna Lockhart
 May 14, 2007
(as it appeared on Charity Village)

I recently returned from the annual PAVR-O Conference (Professional Administrators of Volunteer Resources Ontario). I had this idea of "volunteer fatigue" simmering before I left and it was reinforced while I was there. Colleagues presented a range of ideas about the future of volunteerism - ideas of doom and gloom and others more optimistic. At the foundation of everyone's comments was a real concern for the future of volunteerism, not just from a management perspective (having enough human resources to fulfill the missions of nonprofit organizations) but from a personal perspective (that caring for others in our society as a Canadian value is the heart of volunteerism and it is shrinking). We are witnessing a decline in the number of volunteers that translates into a decreasing concern for the caring for others.

Fundraising professionals coined the term 'donor fatigue' several years ago. This term captured the growing concern that donors (those who contribute money) were being asked to contribute more often by the organizations they contributed to, as well as from others who had entered the fundraising arena. This increase in asking many times during the year as well as the increased numbers of those asking would lead to donor fatigue... a sense of burnout that would ultimately lead to fewer donations, and in many cases, a withdrawal of donations altogether.

In my volunteer management work, I see and hear about volunteer burnout. Volunteer 'burnout' was the term coined years ago to mean asking those faithful volunteers to do more and more to the extent that they actually burned out, left the organization, and likely stopped volunteering altogether. This was likely the beginning of serious recruitment issues: instead of recruiting new volunteers, those who could be depended on were asked for more 'time'.

A new phenomenon is surfacing as I do strategic planning work with nonprofit organizations. It is more than just 'burnout', as it involves another dimension. I have called this "volunteer fatigue" and it keeps showing up during SWOT information gathering (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats). Comments that show up under the Weaknesses and Threats components include the following:

  • "Volunteering is not fun anymore."
  • "Volunteers who are committed continue to be asked to give more time. We are also expected to give more money to the causes we volunteer for. We are also expected to sell more, promote more, and show up at fundraisers."
  • "People are getting tired of being asked for money everywhere they go... they are asking us for more time as well."

When fundraisers coined the term 'donor fatigue' they were referring to burnout from being asked for money more often and from more organizations.

I am using the term 'volunteer fatigue' to refer to burnout from both volunteering and from the associated ask for money. Volunteers are getting hit from both angles. Research indicates that those who volunteer are more likely to also give money to the same cause. But perhaps we have created an animal that is just starting to bite us!

We know recruitment and retention of volunteers is the number one issue facing many voluntary organizations. And for the 53% of organizations that are totally volunteer-driven, this must come as a nightmare. At the conference, Michael Hall from Imagine Canada presented information that should not be new to many: "67% of the volunteer work being done is being done by 5% of the volunteers." A smaller number of committed volunteers are contributing rising amounts of time.

We have known for some time that volunteering was being done by a small group of people. Organizations know this. The phrase "ask a busy person and they will get the job done" is one that perhaps too many have implemented. Have we unknowingly contributed to the problem? Has this influenced the concentration of a small number of very committed people into a large section of work? We compound this by then asking them for money and time to support fundraising initiatives.

Have we ignored the other individuals who have never volunteered, volunteer occasionally, or are currently not volunteering? We have gathered a lot of information about who volunteers; now we need information about this large segment that does not volunteer in order to tap into a new resource. I would suggest that it is time to develop strategies that get at the remaining large percentage of our population who do not understand the benefits and contribution of volunteering and the connection to building a caring society.

Is it time to consider shifting focus and attention to other sectors of our community? I've selected just three: youth, the baby boom generation and "non-volunteers".

Youth

Ministries of education and the voluntary sector need a stronger connection based on partnership. The Ministry of Education in Ontario implemented community involvement as a "mandated" civic engagement opportunity tied to graduation. Although the underlying concept is a great one, the way it is being implemented is not. The Ministry released the implementation to local school boards and these in turn vary in effectiveness. Many youth are having negative experiences (there is no exact data to date) that will turn them off "real volunteering" for the future. The voluntary sector has tried to respond with opportunities, many less than ideal and definitely not designed to really instill the true meaning of volunteering in youth. There are also success stories.

We've had eight years of this program in Ontario and I wonder how many future volunteers we have lost when youth complete their 'mandated service' under threat of not graduating? If those in the education business are not educated in volunteerism, then the voluntary sector had better pick up the slack... it's time we went into the local schools and asked to teach about volunteering/civic engagement and take along those organizations who can guarantee a valuable, meaningful, learning experience for youth, who will come away with pride and connection to the true meaning of volunteering. You have an opportunity to connect youth to your cause and the bigger picture of helping in a caring society. We all have an opportunity to build present and future volunteers.

I often wonder how many of the thousands of youth who have graduated since 1999 have been turned off from contributing to society because of poor engagement, bad experiences and lack of understanding?

What would have happened if the voluntary sector had been so well organized that we could have said NO to the Ministry... until a partnership had been formed, the terminology had been changed (mandatory community involvement and the 'volunteer' connection) and we had worked out strategies to implement civic engagement learning and volunteering in a positive environment? Created a win-win for all the parties involved!

Baby Boomers

Here is another very large segment of our population where a lot of speculation is occurring. Research indicates a large drop in volunteering after age 65. For those who continue to volunteer after age 65, they contribute a greater number of hours than average. In the past, it has been this group that shouldered the bulk of the volunteer tasks. Will the baby boomers who are currently approaching this age continue to do so? Here are some things to think about:

  • Baby boomers have been a large volunteer force in their 40-50s. This is also the group hearing about and witnessing volunteer fatigue. Will they continue to volunteer after retirement? We have few conclusive studies that provide any trends or ideas about their future in volunteering. I hear many comments like: I have done my volunteering... it is time now to travel; I have an aging parent to look after; my kids are moving home; I want to spend more time with grandchildren.
  • With the change in mandatory retirement will boomers continue to work longer or work differently? I also hear boomers say: "In order to keep my brain active I am going to work a couple of days a week! I'm slowing down and want to work less and play more." Or, "I can't afford to retire and will continue to work as long as I can." This means that many will not have the discretionary time we consider so valuable in retirement.
  • The boomer group is a large one, and even though less people volunteer after age 65, those who do give greater amounts of time. Since the boomer group is bigger than normal, we might expect then that a larger proportion will continue to volunteer and continue to give greater amounts of time. This might more than compensate for the normal decrease at this age.
  • Will threats like Alzheimer's disease/other dementias actually influence boomers to keep their brains active? If yes, your volunteer opportunities better be stimulating and shorter in duration!
  • Will the tremendous benefits of volunteering (like better health, living longer, emotional support, less social isolation) have any impact on increasing volunteerism? We better use the data we have and learn to package volunteering in a new way!

Non-Volunteers

The majority of our population never volunteer (three out of every four people do not volunteer). What do we know about this group? Who are they? Where are they? Can they be converted? What will reach them? What are the barriers that inhibit them from volunteering? What could we do to lift these barriers? What if they are past volunteers who had terrible experiences? What would it take to win them back?

What would it take to move someone from never having volunteered (no family history or value base to volunteer) to becoming a volunteer? (I read The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell with this in mind but haven't yet put my finger on the key factor!) We know some of this group will be immigrants with different ideas about volunteering; some are underage (although I heard a great story about a baby volunteering to cheer up the elderly and it has altered my perception of age connected to volunteering); some are whole families for whom volunteering is not a tradition; and some, perhaps, have not made any connection between volunteering, personal benefits and civic engagement because they haven't thought about it and we have not educated them.

I believe that there is tremendous opportunity in this country to tap into all those "potentials" out there and give them the experience of a lifetime. What can our fundraising colleagues teach us about how to approach a non-volunteer - is it similar to asking for money from a first-time donor? Would 'building a case' be helpful? We have some great ideas and experience of the "ask" to recruit volunteers, but this is on an individual, personal level. There lies the challenge. We need to reach a large sector of the community. A national marketing and education strategy might be considered.

Summary

The voluntary sector is a quiet and humble one. Acts of goodness and kindness are often done behind the scenes. We don't blow our own horns. Our society seems to value those things that have a price tag. Is volunteerism undervalued because it is not paid for? The saying: "You get what you pay for!" is just not true in volunteering.

We have to learn how to "sell volunteering" if we are going to be successful at gaining the human resources necessary to fulfill the programs, services, and the mandates of the thousands of voluntary organizations across our country. We need to protect those volunteers we currently have by marketing and recruiting outside our comfort zone. Every organization that engages volunteers has a responsibility to protect their volunteers from burnout and fatigue. We have to find new ways to separate the gift of time from the gift of money or offer carefully planned options that don't offend either group.

Time is the precious commodity; if we loose it (many people prefer to give money over time) the impact on our caring society will be deeply felt. It's time to consider the impact of volunteer fatigue (asking for more time and for money from the same core of volunteers).

Standing still is not an option anymore. We need to address these issues or we may not have the caring society we have come to value, nor the volunteers to make it happen.

 

Donna Lockhart is a trainer and consultant with The RETHINK Group. Her focus is on "developing volunteer capacity." Donna designed the CharityVillage Building a Great Volunteer Program campus course. She facilitates a wide range of workshops and training sessions in volunteer engagement. For more information visit: www.rethinkgroup.ca.
 

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