Organizational Guide for Supporting Volunteers and Reducing Burnout

Organizational Guide for Supporting Volunteers and Reducing Burnout#

The authors of this guide are connected with open source communities to varying degrees, but recommendations and lessons from this guide can be broadly applicable to many types of organizations who interact frequently with volunteers. This guide was produced during the DISC Unconference in Amsterdam, NL, 9-10 Sep 2023.


Volunteering is a critical form of support for many organizations. There are many benefits and opportunities available to volunteers through the nature of their work, yet volunteer burnout is too common of a phenomenon. This comprehensive guide is meant to help organizations reduce volunteer burnout in two ways, by: recognizing the many barriers to and stressors of volunteering providing actionable suggestions for organizations to combat these stressors and support volunteers


This guide is for organizations and communities that work with volunteers and individuals and groups who lead and interact with volunteers.


The content of this guide can be adapted by individual organizations to help them design volunteer management policies and procedures to reduce burnout and improve the experience of their volunteers.


Volunteer - someone who performs a service or work voluntarily, usually unpaid Burnout - emotional or physical exhaustion, usually as a response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors on the job Marginalized groups - groups who historically have been underserved and undervalued, largely due to identity demographics (e.g. people who are BIPOC, women, gender minorities, etc.)

Problem Statement#

People get involved in volunteering for a number of reasons: as a form of self-education or skill-building, to network and build community, to gain access to open spaces, etc. It is often an entry point into open source and future opportunities.

The open nature of volunteerism paradoxically can also reproduce societal inequalities. Volunteer works cuts into leisure time and inherently demands stability, resources, energy and time from volunteers – therein lies the source of many issues related to burnout, as volunteering becomes more unsustainable over time. Volunteer participation is dependent on an individual’s available leisure time (and fiscal resources to compensate for that time). This dependency can be especially strenuous for volunteers from marginalized backgrounds, who are historically underserved and may have limited resources, leading many to burnout and dropout over time.

We hope this guide can help organizations be aware of and reduce these barriers to participation for their volunteers. Organizations have a multitude of resources available to them, e.g. monetary funds, personnel, institutional knowledge, which can be leveraged to support volunteers. This guide aims to provide clarity on how organizations can reduce burnout in their volunteers by providing recommendations and inspiration for how organizations can best utilize the resources available to them.


Recognize that volunteering carries an inherent opportunity cost. Every hour spent volunteering is an hour that cannot be spent doing paid work. This opportunity cost disproportionately affects members of marginalized groups especially those who are economically disadvantaged. Organizations should be mindful of this when asking volunteers to donate their time and look for ways to offset this cost.

Depending on the organization’s available resources:

  • Organizations with monetary resources can help make volunteering more equitable by paying for items relevant to work-life balance

    • Detail of ways to enable economically disadvantaged individuals to take advantage of volunteer opportunities, e.g. travel cost/transportation stipend, covering the cost of child care, internet, covering accommodations, per diems

    • Challenges to monetary compensation: Tax implications - make sure you’re aware of the laws regarding payments to individuals


Recognize why people become volunteers and understand their expectations.

Reasons why people choose to volunteer:

  • access to mentorship

  • upskilling

  • access to job opportunities

  • networking

  • sense of contribution

  • community recognition

  • community belonging


Creating more and better structure around volunteering opportunities is an effective way to reduce the time burden placed on volunteers. Streamline tasks to reduce the amount of volunteer labor required to produce the same outcome. Roles and responsibilities can be more well defined to reduce the amount of time volunteers spend on ineffective or unproductive activities. Active management of volunteers can help organizations evaluate and continually adjust how work is divided up among individuals.

Recommendations to organizations:

  • Make expectations and responsibilities explicit, bonus if there are time estimates

  • Automate (tedious) work wherever possible.

  • Make sure that the scope of work is appropriate for volunteers rather than paid contractors or employees


Ensure volunteers have a positive experience when donating their time. Here are some tangible ways to support volunteers in their work and help reduce burnout.

  • Clear role and responsibility descriptions, with ample opportunities for follow ups Article recap/summary Organizational description of expected roles and responsibilities can be iterated on by integrating feedback from volunteers.

  • Retrospective survey for volunteer after events/projects Surveying volunteers about their experiences after events is a great way of documenting lessons learned from the experience, which in turn facilitate more positive experiences for future volunteers. It is important to understand what volunteers did, how they spent their time, what were their responsibilities, any difficulties in performing those responsibilities, positive and negative aspects, and main takeaways from the experience.

  • Encourage volunteers to submit issues whenever It is important to create a space where volunteers feel they can share questions, concerns, or comments about their experience at any time. Github issues are a great way for volunteers to share their thoughts at any point. Organizations should consider facilitating anonymous forms of feedback as well.

  • For managers/leaders: Keep an 👁️ out for burnout Signs of burnout in volunteers include feeling fatigue, apathetic/dissatisfied towards work, headaches, changes to sleep/diet patterns source If you sense or notice that a volunteer might be experiencing symptoms of burnout, offer to arrange a 1:1 meeting for a check-in.

  • Volunteer mentorship (program?)

  • Include volunteers in decision making, especially making newcomers feel welcomed and appreciated Have multiple ways for volunteers to get in contact with you Volunteers can communicate consistently with one another Encourage them to speak up and participate in decision making Make them feel welcomed and included Engage with them early and often An unwelcoming environment can be a barrier to participation Build their confidence by placing trust in their abilities