Serial Volunteers Need to Avoid Burnout

Parents step up and fill various volunteer roles within the community. Finding a balance between volunteer work and other responsibilities is key.

Americans volunteer their time and talents generously. According to the Corporation for National and Community Service’s Volunteering in America report, 63.4 million Americans volunteered to help their communities in 2009. When added up, those volunteers contributed an estimated 8.1 billion hours of service, totaling an estimated monetary value of nearly $169 billion.

With an economic crisis and its effects looming, communities rely on unpaid helpers more than ever. And volunteers stepped up last year, registering the highest one-year increase in the number of volunteers, according to the report. Many of those volunteers have additional responsibilities, including parenting and careers. While the need for volunteers continues to grow, so do the chances of volunteer burnout.

Recognizing Volunteer Burnout

Amanda Storn wanted to do her part to give back to the community where she and her husband raise their two young children. Saying no wasn’t the norm for this stay-at-home mom from Kansas. But saying yes created major volunteer burnout. It began gradually, she said, but eventually piled up to a load of stress that affected her entire household.

“I was a Girl Scouts troop leader, volunteering at two schools, a board member, and an aerobics instructor,” Mrs. Storn said during an interview with Suite 101. “It was too much. I was so stressed and crabby. I kept telling myself, ‘If I can just get through this week, next week will be better.’ It didn’t seem to do that – ever.”

The solution came for this busy mom at the end of the school year when her volunteer commitments wound down. She focused on her children during the summer and begin a new school year with a concerted effort to avoid sign-up sheets – at least for a while. In the meantime, she still serves as a troop leader and helps out at church and the kids’ school, but she’s trying to limit herself to one volunteer job at a time at each place.

Reasons Stay-at-Home Moms Volunteer

Their reasons for volunteering vary. Some see it as a way to “give back to society” in exchange for their economic situation allowing them the “privilege” of staying home with their children, write Karine Moe and Dianna Shandy in their book Glass Ceilings & 100-Hour Couples (University of Georgia Press, 2010).

Others look toward the future. Some view volunteering “as a way to grow and prepare for future paid work,” according to Drs. Moe and Shandy. Volunteering allows them the opportunity to learn new skills and sharpen current abilities. “These skills can then be parlayed into bullet points on a future résumé,” write Drs. Moe and Shandy. And because some don’t view stay-at-home parent status as a job title, some 24/7 moms and dads volunteer in order to maintain a particular identity.

After having two children, Amanda wanted to do her part to give back. Saying no didn’t come easy for this stay-at-home mom from Kansas. But eventually, saying yes led to volunteer burnout. “It started for me gradually,” Mrs. Storn said in an interview with “I always thought when I worked, I would volunteer because I’d have time to give back to the community.”

The schools her children attended needed help. So did her church. “I was a Girl Scouts troop leader, volunteering at two schools, a board member, and an aerobics instructor,” Mrs. Storn said. “It was too much. I was so stressed and crabby. I kept telling myself, ‘If I can just get through this week, next week will be better.’ It didn’t seem to do that – ever.”

Effects of Volunteer Burnout

Volunteer burnout spells trouble for nonprofit organizations that rely on free help to meet their missions. Some volunteers who suffer burn out never return. Many parents don’t see a way out of some volunteer roles though. Because parents often volunteer at school and for causes related to their children, the pressure to say yes and take on unwanted tasks increases.

A mother of four, Kim Simpson hasn’t hit burnout mode yet, but she knows what it means to give her time to the community. And she’s found a balance. This part-time social worker from Kansas recently scaled back her time at the nonprofit agency where she’s a supervisor from more than 50 hours a week to about 25 in order to have more time for her family and her volunteering.

A self-professed workaholic, Mrs. Simpson works one day a week at her church helping with administrative and counseling services. Her volunteer hours add up to more than 20 a week after she also logs time at the local library and her kids’ schools. She knows it’s a lot, but she’s happy doing it. “I feel this is a service to God and the community,” Mrs. Simpson said in an interview.

How to Say No to Volunteering

Mrs. Storn already realized she had hit burnout mode when her husband suggested she reconsider her volunteer commitments. He urged her to remember why she became a stay-at-home mom. In the end, she decided to curtail her volunteer commitments a bit. She’s still serving as a troop leader and helping out at church and school, but she’s trying to limit herself to one volunteer commitment at a time at each place.

And sometimes, Mrs. Storn says, you just have to say no. “When you’re known as the person who does things, everyone comes to you. And if as a person, you’re the type of person who goes all out, you tend to do that in volunteer work,” she said. Looking back, she can see how stay-at-home parents grow overcommitted: Volunteering fills a void for some SAHMs because of the tendency for society to invalidate their full contributions.

Mrs. Storn’s new way of approaching volunteer work quickly paid off. She’s able to prepare dinner while her children learn at school, and the dinner hour isn’t as hectic. There are more time and patience to help with homework too. “That’s helped make my family healthier,” Mrs. Storn said. “It’s more important if my husband and kids think I’m contributing to their lives instead of what some Joe Schmo thinks I’m contributing to society.”

How to Avoid Volunteer Burnout

Here are some suggestions to consider before saying yes to volunteering:

  • Ask for a detailed description of the job, including how many hours a week the position requires. Find out how long the project will last or when the term will expire.
  • Expect criticism. Just because you’re not getting paid doesn’t mean everyone will compliment your work.
  • Choose volunteer work that’s meaningful to you and your family.
  • Help where you’re needed most. Mrs. Simpson, for example, focuses much of her volunteer time on high school projects because of a lack of parent volunteers.
  • Don’t say yes right away. Take time to think about it.
  • Realize it’s OK to decline a volunteer request. “If you feel like your plates full, it’s OK to say no,” Mrs. Simpson said. “Look at what’s best for you and your family and be good to yourself.”

Volunteers make huge contributions to the economy and Americans’ quality of life. For those who do too much, however, volunteer burnout causes major stress. To prevent it, take time to consider the task at hand and ask questions before saying yes. Seek out meaningful volunteer opportunities that provide fulfillment and balance. And most importantly, don’t worry about saying “no” sometimes.

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