Occassional thoughts about orienteering

Friday, October 16, 2009

Volunteer Burnout


Recent discussions on Attackpoint have brought up the idea of "burnout" of volunteers and have got me thinking about my own experiences.

A few observations/thoughts:

I don't think burnout is inherent in the amount of effort so much as it reflects how an effort gets managed.

Volunteers - even employees - are less likely to feel burned out when: their tasks are clearly defined; their work is appreciated and recognized; Their tasks match - or stretch a bit - their skills and abilities; managers and leaders guide but don't order; the task brings together people who generally get along; and people are expected to ask for help when they need it.

Good, competent, management minimizes burnout. In fact, completeing a task with good management and a reasnably good outcome creates the opposite of burnout. It creates inspiration.

You don't want to burnout volunteers. And if you don't expect to be able to manage the volunteers you probably shouldn't take on an ambitious project. But if you don't take on those ambitious projects now and then you don't grow. Just like you don't get faster without pushing yourself in training now and then.

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posted by Michael | 5:21 PM



Your thoughts on "burnout" are very interesting and taken from a different viewpoint then one would expect. In orienteering like in most volunteer activities, burnout can also be brought on by just not having the other volunteers and just getting on with it without help. This I agree is also unhealthy yet sometimes in orienteering if a very few do not "make it happen" it will not happen at all.
The key note message you give, however, still holds true when you have those volunteers. That is, to ensure you do have folks working withing their skill level and to recognize their contributions.

Sometimes its not so much burnout, but remaining committed to the cause. As volunteers see the direction of the organization deviate from their own personal view of the cause, it is easy to claim "burn out" and move on, directing personal resources to other causes which will garner more personal fulfillment, and advance another cause they believe in more than the new one. I think mgmt is missing this in this instance; that volunteers will not put out for a cause they no longer believe in.

I think the mgmt failure here is fairly easy to pinpoint. In general, USOF has a history of taking volunteer and financial contributions for granted, and I believe that was a specific mgmt error in this instance. For all the buzz about "marketing expertise" in mgmt, this material change simply wasn't marketed well, the evidence being 2 separate team fund admins being blindsided, very recent strategic planners being blindsided, and the community at large being blindsided, as evidenced by the uproar on AP. Six days on, effective marketing and communication to the volunteer and support base remains conspicuously absent. Again, mgmt seems to be taking for granted that it will blow over, and the base will be mollified by cliches and platitudes which basically translate to 'have faith, believe'. This is mgmt by hope, and I don't think it is effective.

Contrast this with the communication of a meaningless proposed change which occurred at more or less the same time -- the proposal to embargo the NOD date. mgmt clearly communicated the intent and civil discussion (more or less), ensued. Volunteers are not stupid, and this dichotomy is not lost on them.

Where mgmt needs to correct this error is to start marketing to the base, and not with cliches and platitudes. Those who care about the material change in question need to be spoken to, with something more concrete than "we hope it works". The program has been up and running for 7 months now. Start communicating some wins. If there aren't any wins yet, start communicating the pipeline of prospective wins. Seven months isn't enough time to judge the efficacy of an initiative; OTOH, the support base can only draw conclusions on the data that is communicated to them.

If this is done effectively, the burnout will be reversed, and the base may start to believe in the cause once more. But communication and marketing needs to include hard data, projections, assumptions, rational reassurances that the mission is on course and will work, and that there is likely to be a return on the investment of more volunteer sacrifice.

As it turned out, the appearance was that past volunteer sacrifice to the specific cause was for naught.
I think the anonymous comment is using the term management to refer to governance, which is really a different thing.

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