"Burnout": Fighting the #1 Enemy of Volunteer Time

Note from the 2% Staff: Burnout is closely related to depression, a very real and serious mental health condition affecting many of us.  Here at 2% for Conservation, we are not mental health professionals - we are conservation volunteerism professionals.  If you feel you are struggling with burnout and/or depression, we encourage you to seek professional help and active support from your friends and family.

January is widely known as the "most depressing month."

Coming right after the stresses of the holiday season, featuring grey skies rarely punctuated by pleasant weather, and saddled with the disappointments of our unrequited goals from the prior year... the month is often a breaking point for many.

In the conservation volunteer world, it's an especially risky time, as these malevolent forces also converge with the hunting tradeshow season and the beginning of 'banquet season.'

It's a recipe for conservation volunteer 'burnout.'

Though 'burnout' may happen any time of year, it should come as no surprise that the middle of winter is a time period that sees high turnover in committed volunteers.

According to Psychology Today, 'burnout' is "a state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress—is not simply a result of working long hours. The cynicism, depression, and lethargy that are characteristic of burnout most often occur when a person is not in control of how a job is carried out, at work or at home, or is asked to complete tasks that conflict with their sense of self."

Burnout Quote

From that description, it is hopefully once again obvious that if you are presently struggling with burnout, you should consider seeking professional help to address the issues in your personal life, beyond the goal of getting back in the saddle of effective volunteerism.

If you are looking to act preemptively we have compiled a shortlist of tactics to help you avoid volunteerism's greatest threat.  While we cannot guarantee that implementing these tips into your life will ultimately stop burnout, we can attest to their effectiveness in helping you maintain donating your time through difficult seasons.  Ultimately, you will need to address some of the underlying personal or organizational issues that may be causing you to get close to burnout in the first place, if you want success for the long-term.

L.E.A.N. - 4 Tactics to Avoid Volunteer Burnout

Look on the bright side

1.  Look on the bright side

"Negativity is the enemy of creativity." - David Lynch

 

Without espousing any head-in-the-sand 'only happy thoughts' fallacies - negativity can be a real fly in the ointment of your will to give back.
A real bit of turd in your candy bar.
A walnut in your oatmeal cookie.
...you get the idea.

Negativity is a sneaky poison.  While it can, and sometimes must, be embraced in small doses, negativity/pessimism is a serious threat to your longevity as a conservation volunteer.

It doesn't come on all of a sudden.

You are slowly poisoned by negativity, to the point that it becomes something you feed on... without realizing that it has made you ineffective and has likely also infected the public image of the cause you care about.

Publicly visible negativity is very unappealing to prospective new members of your cause, increasing the odds that your volunteered time will be lonely volunteered time.

You might think you can hide it, but odds are, if you are struggling to gain support... the cancer of negativity has turned into a full-on publicly visible rash and it will lead to you burning out.

Thankfully, the causes of volunteer negativity are typically easy to pinpoint:

  • FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) is dangerous for passionate volunteers, because it's a widely used marketing tool for tradeshow seasons and fundraising events.  Piles of cash are spent to get you to want to attend.  This has been compounded by some that have embraced a marketing message of, "If you don't make it to our event, you don't matter."
    That message, while effective in building hype and gaining attendees, simply isn't true.  If it is, that organization has bigger problems and you should probably find another place to give your valuable time to.
    • Pro Tip:  Unless following the event hashtag makes you feel endeared to the cause and inspires you to do more with the group, avoid the social media feed.  Don't let missing a 3-5 day event cheapen the reality of the time you've personally given the cause over the course of a year.
  • Unhealthy Competitiveness may, unfortunately, seem to be pervasive in the wildlife conservation space - but it is really isn't.  It's only relegated to the national offices of a few organizations competing for ever-dwindling dollars (a problem 2%'s mission aims to tackle). You likely are not, at least locally, competing with other conservation groups.  Don't let outside struggles invade your local conservation work or relationships.
    Praising the work of others is a wonderful tactic to avoid animosity in your volunteering and to uplift conservation in the local eye.  As the preceding link states, it's like a superpower!
    • Pro Tip:  When another group of wildlife volunteers in your area has a success, celebrate it with them, and do so PUBLICLY!  You will be enriched and their volunteers will be emboldened to support you as well!
  • Engaging trolls on social media is a sure-fire way to take you down the path of negativity and burnout.  Whether it is reading the 'scholarly' work of psychos in the comments section or following industry troll accounts... it's not healthy.  Not only that, but it's widely known that the tactics of troll accounts (IE: MHGA) and comment-section battles are encouraged by social media sites to keep you online longer and more invested in them.
    Them.
    Not the volunteer work you wish you were focussed on.
    While social media is a great tool for getting people organized and raising awareness, we would suggest leaving it at that and avoiding troll sites and the comment sections of intentionally contentious posts.  2%'s follower count may never reach the same number as pages that post the contentious content favored by the social site algorithms, but we will also not be to blame for someone giving up volunteering over a maliciously intentional contentious post.
    • Pro Tip:  If you find yourself drawn to EITHER observing or engaging in fights on social media, IT IS draining your volunteer capacity for wildlife.  Try taking a break from that kind of content for a month (yes, a month) and measure your effectiveness and drive for wildlife conservation on both ends.  Odds are, you'll take some flack, but you'll really appreciate the real-world results.  You, the causes you support, and the wildlife will benefit from your break from fake world conversations and investment in real-world ones.  We would also like to note that the millennial generation employees and board members of 2% believe this... it's not a generational thing! :)

So, if you're already starting to feel pretty negative about the conservation world, what's the best way to combat it?

Well, if negativity is creativity's enemy, then the inverse is also true.

And what's the best way to be creative as a volunteer?

Try something new.

 

Engage more than one group

2.  Engage more than one group.

The most effective and burnout-averse volunteers we know, volunteer for more than one conservation cause.

Read that again.

Why is that?  It seems counterintuitive that being involved with more than one cause would be personally beneficial, just from a stress-vs-risk perspective.

The answer is really quite simple:  The more groups you get to know, the larger and more diverse support network you have for the volunteer work you do.

As long as there is a balance (see #4 in "L.E.A.N.") with clear expectations about your involvement with each group, you and the causes you care about will greatly benefit from your involvement with them.  You can share resources, ideas, and struggles.  Collaborative work can be both a gut-check, keeping you from going 'too far' and an inspiration to go further than you thought you could.

Volunteering with multiple groups can also save you from tunnel-vision around one group's projects.  Many wildlife projects can take years or decades, leaving volunteers with a sense of futility or deadlock.  Having other places to give your time in the short-term can help you stay inspired to work on those projects where the gratification may only come after years of dedication.

If you are someone obsessed with waterfowl, maybe this is the year you volunteer with a fish conservation group.

If you are really into whitetail hunting, try volunteering with a turkey or upland bird group.

If you only work on private land habitat, try volunteering with a public land/water habitat group.

If you are a climber or mountain biker, try volunteering with an alpine or desert sheep or goat count.

Lately, we have seen a trend resurface with some smaller groups requiring exclusivity of their volunteer leaders.  This is akin to a jealous lover not letting their significant other hang out with other friends.  Those relationships tend to end poorly.  Hopefully, these groups learn the lesson of that dangerous mandate early, quickly, and without too much damage to their public image and core mission.

If a group you wish to volunteer with requires exclusivity of your time or dollars, don't waste too much energy fighting it.  Give to them in other ways, or elsewhere, until they wisen up.  Again, like a jealous lover, the demand is coming from a place of internal insecurity. Your time will be more effectively used by groups with a collaborative mindset.

 

To avoid burnout, keep giving some of your time to any groups you are committed to, but take a few hours a year to start interacting with a broader selection of groups.  You and the main causes you care about will benefit greatly!

 

Always focus on your "why"

3.  Always focus on your 'Why'.

This section applies mainly to those in some form of volunteer leadership with a wildlife cause, though the principles are fungible for those employed by conservation causes or employees of businesses with conservation-focused roles.

Odds are you did not start giving your time to conservation because of a passion for chasing donations for fundraisers and membership drives... though there are a few sick individuals out there specially gifted at that, and to you, we nod our collective hats in gratitude!  :)

You started giving your time to conservation because you saw a real-world wildlife need and you wanted to help fix it.

Everyone, especially those of us who work vocationally (meaning, it's our job), in conservation eventually will lose focus on our mission.  On our 'why.'  This is natural and nothing to be ashamed of.  Human life is complicated, messy and sometimes mundane.  With help, it is hopefully a brief detour.

But focusing on the wrong things with your volunteer time will lead to you burning out.

If you find yourself struggling to answer 'why' you are doing things as a volunteer, it's time to refocus on the mission.  It's time to do something radical.

  • The best thing you can do to refocus is to go out and immerse yourself in the landscapes, waterways, and habitat you are seeking to help.  Too many volunteer leaders, especially hunters/anglers, do not spend enough time out in the habitat they once passionately desired to conserve.  Get out, and do it as regularly as your budget allows.
  • The next best thing you can do is take someone new to that habitat.  We say 'next best' because while second-hand is never as good as the real thing, it can be inspiring to see someone else join in your passion for an ecosystem and ultimately the causes supporting it.

Never let your passion for wildlife conservation be replaced with a passion for a specific conservation group/cause/brand.  While dedication and familial love are important to any group's success, making those things the focus can breed dogmatism and internal political strife... which are slow and painful roads to volunteer burnout.

Get your hands dirty in the real world, doing the real work that you set out with your passion to do.

A volunteer with calloused hands rarely becomes a volunteer with a calloused heart.

Say no

4.  No.

“I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” - Bilbo Baggins, "The Lord of the Rings"

 

We observe that unchecked use of the word 'yes' is the primary cause of most volunteer burnouts.

This is part of why we require just 1% of someone's time for 2% Certification.  It is entirely possible to have too much of a good thing.

While it can be true that, "if you make your passion your job, you'll never work a single day" it can also true that, "if you make your passion your job, you'll never enjoy a single day."

More often than not, when we receive requests from people looking to find a "different / new / fun" organization to volunteer with, the root problem had nothing to do with the conservation group they're looking to leave.  It had everything with their personal inability to say 'no.'

'No' to fundraising events.
'No' to member drive events.
'No' to weekly meetings.
'No' to a 2nd, 3rd, 4th leadership position.
'No' to added responsibilities.
'No' to the one little extra thing that put them over the edge.

Some of the most talented and valuable conservation volunteers (and the work they could have done) have been lost to history because of their inability to say 'no' to a good thing.

Ironically, we have found people are more capable of saying "No, my volunteering >20hrs a week is not the problem." than "No, I've done as much as I can this week."

It is better to find where your time is best contributed and stick to that.  Don't sacrifice your passion for conservation to martyrdom in your battle with overcommitting.

If you know overcommitting is a struggle for you, there are a few things that might be helpful:

  • For the self-sufficient - use a personal planner or calendar.  Give yourself a fixed set of hours each month, scheduled in advance, and stick to it.  Even if you fudge a little, you'll see a marked improvement in both your bandwidth and vigor.
  • For the other-reliant - create a personal 'board.'  Be accountable to a few other volunteers, ideally from outside the main group you volunteer with and/or the region you are in.  Keep tabs on each other, to make sure you're getting enough downtime and not overcommitting.
  • For the over-achiever - do both.  We're talking to you board members, chapter leaders, and folks volunteer running conservation causes all by yourselves.  You'll be glad for the structure (not, restrictions) of the planner and for the help from the board.  Your causes are especially dependent on your avoidance of burnout.  You do your conservation cause no favors by thinking "I'll be fine."

 

We hope that the four "L.E.A.N." principles help you in your giving back!

  1. Look on the bright side.
  2. Engage more than one group.
  3. Always remember your "why."
  4. No.

The 'time' element of giving back is critical to the future of fish and wildlife conservation.  Nearly all conservation groups (including 2%) are utterly dependent on committed volunteers for their overall health and growth.

Together, with our dedicated time to conservation, we can accomplish great things for wildlife!

 

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