Ways to help volunteers become more resilient

Building resilient volunteers

If you google “resilient volunteers”, you will get thousands of articles, blogs, videos, etc on how volunteering can help build resilience in individuals and communities. It won’t give you much at all on how to build resilience in volunteers.

Many roles we ask volunteers to perform are emotionally draining or outright traumatic. Helping dying patients in a hospice or talking to people on a suicide hotline are just two of thousands of examples. And that’s in addition to the regular stressors of life.

Volunteers are at risk of breaking down or burning out. It’s our responsibility as leaders to build resilience in the volunteers who help us so that that doesn’t happen.

Here are a few ways you can do that.

Keep the volunteer team connected

Being connected to a community with similar interests and goals keeps us strong. Even if volunteers are working remotely, create opportunities for them to share time together, in person or online. Virtual coffee get-togethers or in-person training are good ways to allow volunteers to interact with each other. This way they can build a community of friends that can support them when things are tough.

Focus on progress

When, every shift, a volunteer deals with abused children or other distressing situations, it may start to seem like nothing will ever change. Make a point of showing the good that they do. Point to children who have come through your program that are now leading happy, healthy lives because of them. They may not be able to stop all abuse, but show that their volunteering does make a difference.


Knowledge and understanding are key to having resilient volunteers. Warn volunteers of upcoming changes and explain why those changes are happening. Educate them on the signs of burnout and how to care for themselves and each other if they see those signs appearing. Explain that feelings of frustration and despair are to be expected in your sector, and they are not alone. The more you communicate, the more resilient they will become.

Create a support group

Especially in sectors where volunteers are working in highly-traumatic situations, having people to talk with who are going through the same thing can be vital. Set up an in-person or virtual meeting on a regular basis where volunteers can share the distressing scenarios of their shifts and get support and comfort from those who have been there. Longer term volunteers may have suggestions for self-care tools or routines that helped them.

Educate yourself

To effectively assist your team, you need to be aware of the warning signs of burnout and compassion fatigue, methods of prevention, and different ways to handle it when it appears. Study the resources out there. Train yourself in spotting the symptoms. Determine which prevention methods, like the ones above, would work to create resilient volunteers in your program.

Finally, advocate

Educate your executive director and board members on the risks, and encourage them to support—financially and otherwise—your plans to mitigate those risks. There is much that you can do on your own, but more that can be done with the backing of senior staff and the board.

Resilient volunteers should be a goal of every not-for-profit leader

Resilient volunteers are the core of a strong volunteer program. A strong volunteer program equals steady progress toward your organization’s vision. Taking the time to build resilience in volunteers, therefore, will make your entire mission more successful, not to mention making everyone happier.

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/.

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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