Volunteer Fatigue

We often take for granted the very things that most deserve our gratitude. – Cynthia Ozick

Volunteer fatigue.  It’s a thing.

All my life I’ve been a volunteer.  If things needed to be done, I was usually right there in the middle.  Some days I wished I could have done more, other days I wished more people would have done something.

But I’m tired.

Too often I’m seeing unfair and unrealistic expectations set on volunteers.  Just because one is volunteering does not mean they are not also professionals, but volunteers are often treated like after thoughts.  I’m not saying we should get our names in lights and a parade, but considering we’re giving up our time, and in some cases money, a certain level of respect is necessary.  Organizing volunteers is similar to herding cats.  It’s the last thing people think about, and why should people think about it?  After all, it’s not like we’re getting paid.

Another unfortunate thing about volunteers is that it’s a very small well.  It’s often the same volunteers at the same events.  It’s not sustainable.  What happens when the faithful volunteers get tired?  Nothing, because there’s no one to take up the mantle.  Tiredness turns into something more extreme, and when those volunteers “take a break”, they rarely come back.

That’s where I’m circling now.

I moved to Airdrie less than two years ago, but even before that, I was driving between Calgary and Airdrie to give my time, and I loved it.  Airdrie is a great town, with a great community.  I love seeing the community support each other, and I wanted to be a part of it.  Except, if I’m being completely honest, it’s a (small) portion of the community helping the larger community.  Which happens.  Not everyone is going to get on board.  Some people just want to go through life doing their own thing.  Diff’rent strokes, after all.

Communities are driven and shaped by not-for-profit organizations and associations.  It’s been great being involved in them, to see the change and improvement they bring.  But it’s also been detrimental.

I’ve been trying to build my own business, and I’m making some progress, but there’s a lot of things I do for free, that if I was getting paid for, there could be some positive changes in my own life.   Like I could actually afford to go on vacation, a much-needed, and at the risk of sounding immodest, much-deserved break.  I have my own dreams and goals, and for the past two years, they’ve been set aside for the good of the many (again, at the risk of sounding immodest).

I’m trying really hard to be level-headed as I write this, because I made the choice to volunteer, and as I said, I like it.  And one does not volunteer to get anything in return, other than the warm feeling in your cockles for doing good.  But to every action, there is a reaction, right?  So what’s the “reaction” to volunteering?  Here’s what it’s been in my experience:  the expectation to do more.  Not, “hey, I acknowledge that you took time to do this for me, and thanks”, but “hey, I need you this day, then this day, then this day.  You can do it, right?”  No.  I can’t do it.  Not anymore.

I find it hard to communicate how unbelievably hurt I was when the people I helped in the past 2-3 years couldn’t find the time to check out my show.  (Conversely, the people who volunteered: Stephanie, Joey, Lindsay, and Alma filled me with joy).  But where were the rest of them?  It’s hard not to think that what I do, what I’m good at is all well and good as long as it fits your purposes, but if it has nothing to do with you, then people couldn’t care less.  So I’m hurt, and disappointed.  But, on the upside, it’s forced me to re-evaluate.  I need to take the time and figure out what I want for me.  Which is difficult, because that sentence sounds super selfish, but I need to take the time for me.  How can I help others at the expense of myself?  It seems counter-productive.

This summer, I’m taking the time to discover what is good for me, and that’s going to mean potentially disappointing people.  That’s learning to say “no”.  And it’s also learning to say “good-bye”.  Perhaps more people will step up if the faithful step back, as hard as that is.

I’m still going to be active in Airdrie’s community; I wouldn’t be who I am if I wasn’t, but it’s going to be different.  Airdrie has a community of 50,000.  How many of them volunteer?  Remember, many hands make light work.  And an invested community is a strong community.

If you want to volunteer, but don’t know where to start, check out local volunteer agencies in your community.  For those of you in Airdrie, check out Volunteer Airdrie.



  1. Kudus to you on your past volunteering – and also for knowing when it’s time to stop. I see the same thing – I’m involved in a couple of groups and a handful to all the work and getting others to pitch in is like pulling teeth… so very frustrating, but volunteering is always good for the soul, especially if it helps those in need. Taking a well-deserved break? Also good for the soul. Rest.

  2. Wow! Well said. I feel your frustration and understand your angst. You are where I was exactly 5 months ago. At one time, I was on three boards, bouncing from meeting to meeting. Sacrificing time with my family, work and myself to volunteer. Now I loved volunteering, right up the point when it was all too much, too often. Today, I see my family and friends and have even developed a hobby or two. Saying “No” was super hard and I personally felt like I was letting everyone down. I am happy to report that each board is still working away today, just like I never left! I hope to go back to volunteering, and want to foster the desire to give within my family. But in time, when the kids are old enough to participate, when I have more time to give and when I am ready. Thank you for the article, thank you for the hours of your time, thank you for being a volunteer!!

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