Creating a Smooth Exit for Your Volunteers | Track It Forward

Creating a Smooth Exit for Your Volunteers

Written by James McBryan

Have you ever had a super excited volunteer suddenly get drained, burnt out, and leave your organization?  I've witnessed countless volunteers get burnt out and have almost been there myself on several occasions.  Sometimes when they leave the organization, they disconnect from the community, too.  That is not how it should be.  If a volunteer needs to leave, we should work hard to prevent it, learn from it, and ultimately celebrate the work they’ve done.


Most recently at The Breakaway, the organization I volunteer for, we are trying to create a culture which encourages a positive exit for volunteers.  Most of us started as friends before the organization was formed, so we are extra motivated to stay friends afterward as well.  Below are 5 things that we’ve done to help aid with a smooth exit:


Prevent a Bad Exit with a Burnout Detection System


Burnout is all too common in volunteer organizations.  It usually happens when the expectations of their volunteer work does not match what they can realistically produce in their day to day life.  The symptoms are always different: some people get frustrated, become stressed, or maybe respond to fewer emails.  They usually become less proactive and productive, and nine times out of ten, they start thinking about leaving one day.  Your job as volunteer coordinator is to inquire.


The first thing we do at The Breakaway to avoid burnout is to do check-ins via email every month. In this brief email we ask if anyone is feeling burned out, needs help, or if anyone has extra time to help someone else.  If any burnout is detected, we discuss it at our meetings, and people rise up and help squash those flames.  This happened twice and the people who felt burned out were able to lighten their load with help from others.  In our organization, this dedicated person who sends the monthly check-in email is not the president, but rather its own independent role - simply because the president needs to be checked on as well!


Talk about Leaving: Break the Taboo


Leaving a role can seem taboo in our society sometimes.  There's an immense amount of social pressure and pride to accomplish the expectations to which one has committed.  But honestly, if someone is truly burnt out, they and the group should feel comfortable with them leaving.  It's worse to have someone suffer in their position while doing subpar work than to let them go and allow someone else to rise up.  Also, the organization should be sustainable enough to continue on without them.  At The Breakaway, everyone knows before they commit to a position that it’s completely fine to leave, and that the team will understand.  We have open communication about this topic so that no one suffers in silence, and those that have extra time can lend a helping hand. We even have our President doing one-on-one check-ins once in a while to make sure this happens.


Choose Term Lengths and Roles that Make Sense


Volunteers usually like to complete the term to which they committed.  If the terms are too long, then the volunteer has a higher chance of burning out.  At The Breakaway we have shorter terms.  Initially, each position lasted three months, but that was way too short, so instead, we changed it to six month terms.  At the end of every six month period, we reevaluate the roles and the resources, and continue optimizing the responsibilities within the organization.


Find a New Fit


Life changes and people’s time commitments change. However, that doesn’t mean volunteers need to leave completely!  Volunteers usually want to help out with the cause because they are passionate about it, and finding something that works with their schedule is important.  We’ve done a couple things to make this work: allow people to create their own initiatives instead of having an actual role, create co-roles where responsibilities are shared, or be a general floater that can be called upon when needed.  Sometimes finding a new role with a different time commitment can be a breath of fresh air for the volunteer and can be the difference between them staying or leaving.


Celebrate their Accomplishments


Lastly, if a volunteer needs to leave your organization, celebrate them and their hard work.  If you can’t pull off an appreciation party or an awards ceremony, that’s okay -- even small, sincere gestures that validate the efforts and contributions the volunteers made to your organization are worthwhile.  We had one member leave recently, and we started a huge email thread where everyone thanked her for all the work she did and how she impacted us personally.  It became a very long and extremely positive thread.  Even this email thread helped us create that culture which makes it acceptable to leave, and allows a person to leave on good terms.


If you are saying to yourself, "We need to prevent burnout right away" then I'd recommend starting with check-ins.  A lot of the other tips can be tacked on during that conversation.  If you are not the person in charge, then volunteer yourself to do the check-ins.  It doesn't have to be a one-on-one interview, even just an initial e-mail survey will create immediate results.


Do you have any other strategies to create a smooth exit from your volunteer organization?  I'd love to hear them, and I’m sure the other volunteer coordinators reading this blog would love to hear them, too.  Add your perspective in the comments -- seriously, I read them all, as well as hundreds of other organizers!