During a recent meeting of a nonprofit, a roster of more than 100 dues-paid members was announced. Applause! Unfortunately, about a fifth of that roster actively works toward the nonprofit’s mission. Why? Because, as one member stated, “We are all so active in this community that our time wears thin.”
All that community service is good. The bad news is burnout. The good news, lasting bonds with those active members. The bad news — burnout.
In the 1980s, I joined an auxiliary group of career-oriented women, mostly in their late 20s and early 30s, and with growing families, to work with an established nonprofit that benefited our local hospital. This was an amazing group of women. I was honored when I was elected as their president.
Our challenge, besides fundraising, was to bring in more women to serve this worthy cause. We staged pool parties, wine tastings, movie nights, whatever it took to bring in membership and funding. We got them. But, it was the same one-fifth of the membership that did the work. Most of us were worn thin by family, career, life and volunteerism. Sadly, burnout won and we dissolved this auxiliary after about six years of operation.
This came to mind as I made sure that my emergency evacuation boxes included memories that I want to keep. That included the scrapbook that the auxiliary made for me when my president’s term concluded. Talk about taking a walk into the past! Decades later I regret that we disbanded that auxiliary because we did raise substantial funds that probably did save lives. But the truth remains that the dozen or so of us continually worked to meet our group’s mission statement, and that was a ticket to burnout-land.
From the website, Money. How Stuff Works: “There is no end to the ways you can overcommit yourself. … Many adults have trouble using the word ‘No.’ So, you end up coaching your kids’ soccer teams, helping out in their classrooms, designing the school yearbook, reading stories at the library and serving as a field trip chaperone. Or perhaps you counsel troubled youths, walk dogs at the animal shelter, run fundraisers for charitable organizations, organize political campaigns and serve on your condo board.
“The best volunteers are usually the ones most prone to burnout. That's because they’re so dedicated, they often fail to take mental health breaks or ask for help. And because they’re so dedicated, organizations often pile more and more responsibility on them.”
How do we, as volunteers, recognize burnout in ourselves and others? The symptoms include being tired, stressed, resentful and cranky. And the worst symptom is when you no longer get that feel-good benefit from volunteering. When you ask yourself, “Is all this effort worth my time and energy?” you have already burned out.
It’s time to take a no-giving holiday. It’s time to give back to yourself. After all, you have earned it. If your volunteerism history includes years and decades, pull out a notepad and list everything you have given. Include your efforts in fundraising (add up how much money your efforts have raised over the years — you might be surprised), donating clothes to a homeless shelter, driving a neighbor to a medical appointment, answering hotlines, cleaning up the beach, or welcoming newcomers to the community.
“Holding space for yourself” is a term that keeps coming up in my personal research on compassion and volunteerism. As I understand the term “holding space,” it means holding no judgement. By applying this to yourself, according to a recent post on the website Uplift, “If you truly want to help others, and make a positive impact on the world, then learning to hold space for yourself, to befriend and love yourself, is the greatest impact you could make on the planet. You can’t hold space for someone else if you can’t be with your own pain and hold space for yourself. If there’s no room for you in your life, there isn’t really any room for others. When you’re kind to yourself you impact the lives of others by being less reactive, more responsive, more available, empathic, compassionate, kind, present, balanced and at peace.”
Bringing this column back to the challenge of nonprofits with members who are wearing thin, then for those nonprofits that don’t deal with life and death issues, it may be time for re-evaluation of mission, projects and events — a lesson I learned from my time with the doomed auxiliary with high hopes and a dynamic membership that simply ran thin.
Charmaine Coimbra’s column appears the fourth Thursday of each month and is special to The Cambrian.