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Volunteer-Matters

Preventing compassion fatigue in your volunteers

Give volunteers a break

Wood is supposed to float. It’s supposed to be buoyant and dance on top of the water. Why, then, are their logs the have sunk to the bottom of a river?

Waterlogging happens when water penetrates into all the cells of a piece of wood, so that the air in it is displaced, causing the wood to sink. It’s a good analogy for compassion fatigue.

Our volunteers come in enthusiastic and eager to help, but over time, as they deal with one distressing situation after another, that enthusiasm is replaced with apathy or, even worse, with depression or resentment.

This is especially true with those volunteers who deal regularly with clients who are undergoing or escaping traumatic events. Those working in sexual abuse shelters or suicide hotlines are a good example.

Mary (not her real name) was a volunteer in a shelter for women escaping abusive relationships.

She was empathetic and caring, and the clients loved her. During her twice-weekly, six hour shifts, she would listen to them talk, provide support and do what she could to help them recover.

Over time, a change came over Mary. Instead of arriving early and diving into her tasks with a big welcoming smile on her face, she started arriving late, cancelling shifts, and seemed to resent having to hear the clients’ stories.

The break came when a woman and her toddler were admitted to the shelter. The child had been so brutally abused that his face was swollen to the size of a pumpkin, and both arms were in casts.

Mary ran from the front desk and was found curled up in the storeroom sobbing and shaking. She was “waterlogged”. All the pain and suffering that she saw shift after shift had displaced her natural stores of optimism and compassion.

Compassion fatigue is more common than people realize.

Mary is not unique, or even uncommon. Compassion fatigue happens a lot, and good volunteer leaders watch for it carefully.

Symptoms can include withdrawal, irritability, apathy, feelings of helplessness, depression and lack of concentration.

If you have a volunteer who was initially great and they start to show these signs, it’s time to have a talk with them—before they break.

Have a conversation to find out what’s going on. Give them some time away, either give them a complete holiday or assign them to less stressful tasks. Lower the number of shifts that they fill, or reduce the hours. Allow them to recover.

Most of all, show them you care. Show you understand what they’re going through, tell them they’re not alone, and that you are willing to work with them to make it better.

The sooner that the situation is identified and dealt with, the less impact it will have on the volunteer and on your organization.

Mary’s supervisors didn’t recognize the signs until too late. After a few months of counselling, she started volunteering again. But not at the shelter.

Waterlogged wood can be made to float again, if it’s taken from the water and given time to dry out.

If you want to prevent compassion fatigue, when you see any of your volunteers “sinking”, try giving them some time off to help them recover their buoyancy. They (and your clients) will thank you.

Would you would like to talk more about this issue, or have another issue you’re dealing with in your non-profit? Contact me at [email protected] and we’ll see if we can work it out together.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.



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About the Author

Karen Knight has provided volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations for more than 25 years.

Her professional life has spanned many industries, working in both the private and public sectors in various leadership positions.

Through her passion for making a difference in the world, she has gained decades of experience in not-for-profits as a leader and a board member.

Karen served in Toastmasters International for more than 25 years, in various roles up to district director, where she was responsible for one of the largest Toastmasters districts in the world.

She oversaw a budget of $250,000 and 300 individual clubs with more than 5,000 members. She had 20 leaders reporting directly to her and another 80 reporting to them—all volunteers.

Karen currently serves as vice-president of the board of directors for the Kamloops Therapeutic Riding Association.

After many years working and volunteering with not-for-profits, she found many leaders in the sector have difficulty with aspects of volunteer programs, whether in recruiting the right people, assigning those people to roles that both support the organization’s mission and in keeping volunteers enthusiastic.

Using hands-on experience, combined with extensive study and research, she helps solve challenges such as volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations.

Karen Knight can be contacted at [email protected], or through her website at https://karenknight.ca/.



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The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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