Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux. You can comment here or there.
You volunteer for a thing. Good for you. Seriously, non-sarcastically: good. The world needs people to step up on so many fronts, and you do. And you do the thing, and then the thing gets done, and sometimes you have a natural gift for it, and sometimes you don’t, sometimes you just work hard at it and do some learning and figure out the thing. You get good at the thing, fast or slow you get good at it. There’s a little bit of applause but maybe not as much as there is work done. There never really is, that’s how volunteering works.
Great! Fantastic! Now stop.
I’m serious. I’m really, really not kidding. You need you to stop. Your organization needs you to stop.
Not stop volunteering completely. Nope. The world needs people to step up. But here’s the problem: if the same person steps up to the same job for too long, it becomes invisible. It becomes A’s job. And A still gets thanked, hey, good job, A, what would we ever do without A. But sometimes that last rhetorical question turns literal: A is probably not immune to breaking their leg, having a family member who needs care, a job crisis, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel to Tahiti. (Or Australia. Hi, Paul.) A, to get really morbid with you, is probably not the world’s first immortal. So if you can’t do the thing without A…you can’t do the thing. And the more important the thing is, the more that’s a problem.
Also of concern, and very hard to bring up: sometimes A’s skills slip for one reason or another. Yes, you. Even if you’re A.
Say you’re arranging the little kids’ Christmas program. And the first two years, you are filled with joy and energy and you have so many ideas and it is amazing! And people tell you how amazing it is! The best ever! My golly! What a Christmas program! And the next few years, you have not quite so much joy but so much experience, so the combination is still pretty great, probably better than anyone else could do! Wow! You are the Christmas program monarch! And when a 4-year-old vomits off the back of the risers, you have someone ready to clean it up quietly, and you have enough adults to make sure that the 6-year-olds do not rampage when they get offstage afterwards, and this is just a super, super job!
And ten years down the line, not one single person has approached the beloved mainstay of the community to say, “Your Christmas programs stink on ice and you need to stop.” Which of course they would feel totally comfortable doing, so you can definitely tell that you’re still at the top of your game and feedback will always get to you before people are frustrated enough for it to be non-constructive.
Say it’s not the Christmas program. And it’s not just burnout. Say it’s finances, and say your memory has started to go. This is not a random example; I know someone who was in charge of part of the finances of a volunteer organization and started to slip into the early stages of Alzheimer’s. And for the first few years, experience carried them through, and I bet that they told themselves that it was still fine and they were still doing a better job than anyone else would have done. And for the first few years they were probably even right. And by the time they moved into the memory unit, there was literally over a decade of mishandled finances for that volunteer organization. No one is the villain here. That person is not a bad person. But we never think it’s us. We never think, I bet I’m the problem here.
Nor is Alzheimer’s the only way this can happen. There are habits of thought one falls into, things that seem obvious, that are just The Way We’ve Always Done It, and some of them are because We have had Bitter Experience, and some of them are…just habit. Sometimes the Bitter Experience no longer applies. Sometimes this is all very true, and passing the job along to someone else will mean that it is done worse. We have to do that anyway. We have to be willing to let someone else make mistakes and do it worse sometimes. And sometimes we can pass along notes and advice and all sorts of information to make this smoother, but it can never be perfect.
But seriously. Rotating jobs. Changing what you’re volunteering for. I very, very occasionally see this discussed as a favor to yourself to avoid burnout, and it is. It’s also a favor to your organization. And you can come back after a few years, when someone else has taken a turn and learned to do the thing…although if it’s always you and the same person alternating, that also tells you a thing about the organization.
The last question is, what if no one else steps up? And the answer is: that tells you something about the health of the organization, right there. If no one else steps up and you are literally the only one, then maybe it’s time to say that your volunteer energies should be used on something else anyway. Which is a bitter pill to swallow when you’ve put a lot of time, energy, and love into something. But. Sometimes.
I have no exact perfect answer for a timeline on this. There is no five-year rule or ten-year rule or one-year rule. It depends on what you’re doing, how often it happens, what kind of energy it requires, what size of group, all sorts of things. But I’ve seen this in more than one kind of organization–churches, art groups, science fiction conventions–all in the last year, so I thought I’d say: we never think it’s us. Sometimes it’s us when we least want it to be, and those times are the times when we get the least signaling about it.