Enough is Enough: When Volunteers Should Say ‘No’!


Where do you draw the line with the organization you volunteer for? There is always so much work to be done, and if you respect and believe in the cause, how do you know when you need to say ‘no’ to the next request?

So, you’ve signed up to volunteer with a great organization, for an important cause. You’ve put your best effort into the work, and you’ve discovered it to be more rewarding than expected. So far, so good. Now, 6 months later, you hate to admit it, but these days you’re just not as enthused. Like the monotony that settles into some relationships after the honeymoon period, you wonder if the “glow” of this once new and exciting endeavor has worn off. It doesn’t make sense really, because everyone is so nice and you’re constantly being thanked, but still… the doubt keeps nagging.

Frankly, you wonder if anyone at the organization really understands the value of your time. And it’s not that you can’t handle the more mundane work. You understand mundane—sometimes it’s just what needs to be done. What you can’t handle is being asked to do everything. Everything. If there’s an empty slot, they call you. Someone needs to stay late? Yup, you. Oh, and arrive early? Yours truly. Every time. You have a distinct sense of your dependability being taken advantage of. Even with all the “thanks,” you’re feeling a little used.

Here’s an idea: maybe you should do a time assessment and assign a dollar value to the hours you’re spending at the organization? Except that feels a little dirty. It’s like telling your best friend how much he’s worth to you and expecting him to respect you for it. Yeah… never mind. It just feels wrong. Still, how do you know where to draw the line?

The Good Die Young

In my experience, it is the best, most loyal and invested volunteers who ask these kinds of questions. And usually, you ask them because you volunteer with a passionate, cause-driven, mission-focused non-profit. We all love to work for this type of organization. What they do matters enough that they’re able to make believers out of anyone who stands still long enough to hear what they have to say. Unfortunately, the tremendous importance of their cause can potentially obfuscate the value of the people who are there to help achieve it.

You, of course, start out entirely ignorant of this recipe for burnout that awaits you. You dive in with absolute abandon. You find respect and admiration growing in you for the people you work with. You fall in love with the mission. You’re invigorated by the seemingly endless need for your personal contribution. Each day there is more work to be done, new milestones to achieve, greater good to give. But somewhere in there, that nagging feeling begins to creep in as you realize that the demand far exceeds your resources. And yet, you really believe in this thing, so you tell yourself to find a bit more time, create a wider margin, give just a little more.

Next thing you know, the thanks you’re receiving just isn’t enough. Even the plaques and public acknowledgment are beginning to come across a little insincere. Do they really understand why you’re there or what you’ve been giving? You feel a pair of unwelcome and conflicting emotions building inside of you: guilt and resentment.

Setting limits or creating a meaningful gauge can help a little, but it will always feel like you’re selling out, giving up, losing the faith. Eventually the time will come where the stress is no longer worth the effort, and you’ll take a break or decide to leave. Maybe a more suitable opportunity will present itself down the road.

It’s All About Give and Take

Okay, here’s what you do: Start taking rather than giving.

I know, I know, it’s better to give than to receive, right? Well, yes, that’s right. But what I am advocating is sustainable giving. When you decide what, why and how much you’re willing to give, both you and the non-profit will experience long-term benefit. Giving for these reasons is healthier and longer-lasting than giving for banal praise or general appreciation. You didn’t get into this thing so that everyone would think you’re a great person. (Ok, maybe you did—but I guarantee you that’s not why you’re still there after all this time.)

Sit down and think through why you got involved with volunteering in the first place – and specifically why you chose the organization you’re with. What was it that you connected with? What ideas reached something meaningful inside you? Who moved you to become involved? In what ways did you hope volunteering would change your life? Focus on these things and strictly limit the rest. Your enthusiasm for serving on the soup line does not obligate you to chair the board. If you came to participate in the river clean-up, you don’t have to stay late to clear out just because you’re known as the “go-to” guy. Do what you love. That’s it. This is your highest level of contribution. When you step outside of who you’re meant to be, you will inevitably diminish your contribution and begin the path to burn-out.

I promise you this: If you focus on what you get out of the experience and give yourself permission to remain faithful to it, you won’t have to ask these kinds of questions anymore.

It’s not that non-profits don’t benefit from new volunteers who arrive full of passion and enthusiasm. They certainly do. I mean, at the beginning, it’s mutual euphoria! The non-profit has renewed hope with someone positive and dependable to send work through, and the volunteer feels like a god with all the gushing praises like, “How did we ever make it without you?” It’s wonderful! And… it’s the beginning of a perpetually damaging cycle of enabling and codependency. When the euphoria wears off, both parties feel betrayed. The nonprofit feels their volunteer is ungrateful for the privileged work they provided, while the volunteer feels conned into bearing the weight of the organization’s survival.

Both sides are responsible to work for the solution. Organizations must begin to acknowledge that the health and growth of the volunteer is vital to their own health and growth. Volunteers have got to stop giving so damn much, and take a little. It’s only when they are confident of the value of what they are receiving that volunteers will have anything meaningful to give.

It is always better to give than to receive. As long as we’re giving at our highest level of contribution.

chris jarvis chief strategist realized worthChris Jarvis
Chief Strategist, Co-founder, Realized Worth
Connect with Chris on LinkedIn

Realized Worth is a global agency that specializes in employee volunteer training, volunteer program design, and employee engagement. Want to talk? Shoot us an email. You can also reach out to us on Facebook and Twitter.

Chris Jarvis - Chief Strategist

Chris Jarvis

Chief Strategist

7 Comments. Leave new

  • My 20 year old daughter took a volunteering job at Red Cross seriously. She complained her superior never validated her work, and the e- mails she did receive were to encouraged her to leave volunteering all togerher because she’s in college. She was frustrated and began to internalize her superiors negativity. The last act of her superior was that her shift/role was replaced without notifying her. She found out through a chat congratulating the new volunteer. Very humiliating. I recommended her to move on as the environment seemed toxic.

    • That does sound terribly frustrating. Sometimes volunteer positions are not a good fit for a number of reasons. But in any case, the goal should be to focus on cultivating citizens as life-long volunteers and not just a resource to get work done (although, that is also important of course).

  • As a volunteer, I’m experiencing the flip side of this. Instead of wanting more from the nonprofit, I’m feeling batted by their “giving” and like I am trapped by it. I volunteer because I like the cause and I have a lot to give, not for money. However, when the nonprofit offer to compensate me a tiny bit I didnt know that, in hindsight, I should have turned down the offer. Their teeny tiny compensation completely changed the tone of the “volunteer” position. I now feel like I’m treated, in a negative way, like a low paid employee or an intern. I’ve been considering telling the nonprofit I changed my mind and don’t want compensation, however, I have a strong feeling the money is linked to what they said they would give someone in a grant proposal and that they would be annoyed with me about the hassle it would give them if I changed my mind. I feel stuck. They also made me sign a contact that I would complete a certain amount of work over a certain number of weeks. The contact is poor, so I don’t think breaking it would hold legally but I don’t want to leave the cause and I don’t want to ruin my reputation of doing what I say I’ll do.

    • Hi Grace,

      Sorry to hear that the volunteering experience has not been a positive experience. From the sound of it, the volunteering organization is working to ensure they are following best practices of compensating volunteers for expenses, outlining clear expectations, gaining an agreement (contract) on the work and length of the commitment and then treating volunteers with the same professionalism as you would expect if you were an employee. However, the issue is likely not these practices but rather the ‘tone’ of the relationship. Somehow, in all of this, you have begun to feel less valued. Or maybe even as though you are being taken advantage of.

      This is why I am NOT a fan of the ‘best practices’ I outlined. I like the principles behind them, but these actions only serve to turn something fun into work. And what’s worse, both sides of the volunteering equation have begun to expect more and appreciate less. This is a recipe for burnout (as you are now experiencing).

      My advice is to speak with your supervisor (or someone in charge) and tell them you are planning to resign. It is hard (as a volunteer) to turn things around as you have little power and no position to do so. The organization is committed to the best practices because they want to do the right thing (I promise, that is what they are thinking) but they have no idea of the affect on you (and others). So you should ‘volunteer’ to help them. Tell them what you are feeling and why. Tell them you know they are trying to do the right thing. But maybe it isn’t working the way they are hoping. Tell them to ask other volunteers if they may feel as you do.

      If they respond – perfect. If they tell you it’s not really an issue, then you can step down. This is important to do as your anxiety and frustration may begin to create some negative energy for the staff and other volunteers. Not that you are the problem – but you just need some space to sort out your inner feelings.

      I hope it works out for you Grace.

      Chris Jarvis

  • I am a Docent at a major museum. The work requires considerable research, time (both in and outside of the museum), expense and a very specific committment. There are other’s are this instituation that work as “volunteers”, greeting people at the front door, running errands around the building or answering general questions. The Docents would prefer to be called “Docents” and not “volunteers”. The institution throws us all into the same category and we see a very big difference. What says you?

  • I am a Docent at a major museum. The work requires considerable research, time (both in and outside of the museum), expense and a very specific committment. There are other’s are this instituation that work as “volunteers”, greeting people at the front door, running errands around the building or answering general questions. The Docents would prefer to be called “Docents” and not “volunteers”. The institution throws us all into the same category and we see a very big difference. What says you?

    • I think it’s pretty typical to offer volunteers a title/role indicator such as ‘usher’ or ‘greeter’ or even director or research analyst and so on. So offering volunteers at the museum the role indicator of ‘Docent’ makes sense to me. I assume the role is descriptive of “a person who leads guided tours, especially through a museum or art gallery.” Unless there are paid Docents, I cannot imagine why you are experiencing resistance. Good luck!


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