Prevent Volunteer Burnout

Photo by Chang Duong on Unsplash

I am elated see a lot of volunteer groups springing up like mushrooms to help people out during any crisis. The second wave of Covid-19 in India is nothing less than a disaster comprised of both system failure and systemic failure.

In spite of the chaos of people dying on the streets, bodies getting washed up in the river Ganges the unhindered spirit of many of these people seem to be anything but inspiring. Below were some of my observations from seeing multiple such groups.

Internal Problems

All said and good in newspapers, Instagram posts, etc the actual process is more difficult than said. These are not organizations that allocate a certain part of their workforce/resources to help, rather people who have never met before joining hands because they have similar goals ie, to see fewer people suffering. By the time it reaches 3 people somehow a hierarchical structure is formed already where the leader gets recognized. In spite of the talent, the skill set of the people who come and join after this, the authority still remains the same. Though this in itself is not a bad thing the problem lies in the underlying system behaves. With growth comes complexity, this demands the leader to clearly have a sense of the effectiveness of the underlying process. He also needs to support them with tools required to get things done. Failure to do so will lead to demoralization and splintering as not all volunteers will be convinced with decisions taken. With the crisis in hand, the initial core members simply feel it's best to barrage with their set of choices rather than putting it to the test.

The timeline of start to break

  1. Small team of people (mostly who know each other) join together because of passion
  2. Communication is simple and they fulfill the needs what ever they set out to do
  3. They become a headlines for news
  4. More people even from unknown background join in , everyone is excited
  5. The leader with the initial core member takes liberty to form sub teams to handle the various tasks.
  6. Things become less clear , the fulfillment rates starts dropping steadly
  7. Friction start to form between teams and blame game is started
  8. Certain members especially the ones of the initial batch feel they are overworked and undercredited
  9. Voices to remove some people begins to echo
  10. The leader steps in and motivates everyone, rekindles positivity
  11. People feel rejunivated but the underlying issues remains same
  12. By this time most people start to feel indifferent and stop contributing
  13. The fulfillment rate picks up only to start falling after a few days
  14. Leader steps in again to give a motivational speech yet the underlying issues remain
  15. More people feel demotivated because they start thinking the leader is biased
  16. The leader keeps firefighting until the whole team falls apart.

The solution to this problem lies in shifting attention from people to the process. Unless the leader steps out of managing the people and starts to look at the process, he can never fix the root cause. If at all the group still keeps functioning it is only because of the leader’s extraordinary efforts. The minute he ceases then the legacy and charisma cannot be replicated by the successors eventually leading to breakage.

People Vs Process

Just because you have joined together for a good cause does not mean that systems and processes can be discarded. Without proper systems in place you end up with

Lack of Accountability & Visibility: Most small teams start off with managing things on messaging groups like WhatsApp/Telegram . This is sufficient for a team say from 3 to 7 people but anything more than that there will only be noise. Only few members who are online responding when a request a posted, and from that only a few start working on it. When further requests/messages get posted the earlier one gets lost in the flow. No one knows what case is handled and the status of it. Further, you got a duplication as the same messages get posted again and again. To manage most set out to form multiple groups reducing transparency even more.

Wasted data management: Efforts are taken to bring order by managing things with Excel sheets . Which is best for for tabulation and calculation. Not for managing the process, all the details irrespective of their importancecare now added as rows. Most sheets get are created. The time and efforts taken to add and manage all these information is nothing but waste.

Creating Function Silos: Teams with multiple people are created. Some times even sub sub teams are created. Each with own group and excel sheets. The problem is to complete a single task members from different teams should work in parallel at any given time. Also the each team blames other for any faliure.

Non Essential Work: Apart from this some are passionate to go overboard focus on creating publicity stunts setting up offices , websites etc

It is very important to converse the energy and focus on the most important task at hand that is to fulfill the request.

Going Lean

Go Backwards: Being tracing backwards from the fulfillment to the request. This will give a clear idea on what are the least amount of resources required to get the task done. See how a single request flows and then plan the resources based on that.

Cross Functional : Unless you are not dealing with rocket science you should try your best to see if a single individual or a small team is able to fulfill the by going through all the tasks from start. By this way when a request comes in that micro team will handle the entire show.

Scale in teams : When the number of requests grow instead of creating teams based on functionality create more microteams. By this way each team will be intrinsically motivated because they are able to see the fruit of their efforts right from the start to the end. Moreover they become self managed required little or no motivation. Even the leader becomes part of a team because this gives him first hand experience of the whole process.

Visualize : Start using tools that can help you visualize and manage a process. If you feel project management tools are costly and complicated use a simple tool like trello. This will give you a sense of completion.

Measure: As the saying goes what gets measured gets managed. These micro teams need to keep an eye on each stage. Check how long does it take to fulfill the request. Intentify bottle necks and size the team and the number of requests you can handle only to the size of the bottle neck . Otherwise you will end up will pile of unfulfilled requests.


As the team grows so does the complexity. The only way to grow is to shift you focus to micro-manage the process and not the people. My best wishes to all lovely volunteers who wish to create a better future for everyone.

Life depends on Your Interpretation of it! I am crafting an interesting story out of it :)