How to Know when Not to Volunteer

Volunteering is an important and essential contribution from all members of society to help others, ourselves and to keep life running smoothly. But it's possible to overextend yourself and experience burnout. This article is not intended to discourage you from volunteering. Rather, it is about exploring those occasions when there exist very good reasons for not offering your volunteer services or when, at the very least, you need to vary your volunteer offer.


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    Stop offering to volunteer if you do not have the time. If you cannot devote the necessary time, don't say that you can. You create problems for other volunteers when you cease turning up or rarely turn up. It is also disruptive to have your absences occur at key moments when you said you'd do something but were unable to follow through. It's better not to offer at all than to let someone down. This is especially important if you have signed up to visit nursing home residents. Lonely elderly people will quickly come to depend on your visits and won't understand if you stop showing up.
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    Decline if you are already over-committed to volunteering. If you are already on a parent's board, and making cookies for each bake sale, and helping adults to learn English in addition to working full-time, you may be starting to spread yourself too thin. Do not feel obliged to take on more, even if somebody asks. Volunteer overload is not good for you, your family or your work colleagues and it certainly isn't good for the volunteer organization that can't rely on your attendance because you're overbooked. You may explain to the asking organization why you cannot extend yourself at the time, and remind them that you are open to volunteering in the future, when your current obligations have been met. However, you do not owe any explanation whatsoever. You can simply say "I am not available".
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    Avoid volunteer activities for which you don't have the temperament. Don't become a volunteer firefighter if you're afraid of fire or you lack physical fitness. Don't become a volunteer health assistant if you faint at the sight of blood. Don't volunteer in your child's science classroom if you don't relate well to children. Let others take the roles that you're not suited for. Hunt around for roles better suited to you. Or tell the volunteer organization what your skills are and let them find a position better suited to your aptitude and interests. It's far more helpful to devote a few hours to doing something that you can do well rather than volunteering many hours towards something you're not suited for.
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    Be careful of taking on volunteer work that is "close to home". This means to take care that your personal issues and feelings don't spill over into the volunteer work in a way that impacts negatively upon you. If you have been abused yourself and you have decided to help others who are abused, be fully certain that you have worked through the issues that are likely to be raised in your role as a volunteer. You don't want to break down when confronted with an issue that is still very raw for you. This is not to say that you shouldn't find catharsis in facing the issues head-on through volunteering but it does mean that you must feel strong enough in yourself to cope with the feelings as they are presented back at you from someone else suffering them. Good volunteer organizations will talk this through with you at the beginning.
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    Be aware that there are certain stages in your life when volunteering is not a good option for you. Although temporary, there are certain times in your life when your volunteer activities will need to step down and take a backseat to your own life. These times include: death of a family member; exam time; birth of a baby; illness (see below); and moving house. Each of these activities rate highly and you are well within your rights to put all your efforts into seeing yourself and your family through the temporary disruption. In time, you will have recovered or moved on from the hard part and be ready to return to helping others. This is about knowing when to let others help you for a short time! On the other hand, volunteering can sometimes be the only reality you have to hang onto to provide you with stability, such as when you're going through a divorce or you've lost your job. Carefully weigh up your personal physical and emotional demands as compared to what energy you may have remaining to expend on others; be honest before overdoing things. You'll be a better volunteer if you take time out to strengthen yourself first.
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    Avoid volunteering for something just because a friend is volunteering. You must care about the volunteering that you take up; a reason such as "my friend is doing it; so I should also," is unsound. By all means join with a friend if both of you truly are keen on the work involved, but if you only do it for your friend's sake, you may end up resenting the volunteer work and perhaps even your friend. Tell an over-enthusiastic friend that you support him or her, but that your volunteer efforts are being placed elsewhere.
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    Don't be bullied, coerced or co-opted into volunteering. It is not unusual to be elected at a meeting which you do not attend, or to be pushed along by a crowd unwilling itself to take on a position that a club/school/organisation needs filled. If you are present at such a vote, vocalise strongly your refusal. State clearly that you are too busy, too unwell, too over-committed etc. to take on this position at this point in time. If it happens in your absence, send a gently worded letter refusing the position to the board, setting out brief reasons why you do not accept the nomination. Or simply say you do not accept. You must want to undertake the volunteer work, otherwise you may damage your self-esteem, time management and other commitments.
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    Question authorities who seek to over-rely on volunteers. If you feel that an organisation, school or other place is asking too much of volunteers, speak up and say that this work ought to be performed by paid persons. There can be a tendency to rely too much on the goodwill of people. In particular, women are subjected to inordinate pressure to take on more volunteer work than they feel able to cope with. Exercise your letter-writing or phoning skills and ask the school principal, the local municipality or your locally elected member why the funding is so low for certain activities and ask that paid employment be considered or additional financing provided to ease the pressure off of over-worked volunteers.
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    Find other ways to help out that do not sap your time/ energy/ finances/ good will. If you really want to volunteer but you can't, think of other ways to help out. If you have money but no time, donate the money. If you have no money, but have the time, donate your time. If you have neither, donate your messages of goodwill and support. Be creative. Even writing a letter to the editor of a local newspaper to tell of the good deeds being done by others is a great volunteer exercise, often overlooked by many. Thoughtfulness, praise and encouragement for those who are volunteering is the most important contribution of all.
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    Don't risk your safety. If you feel unsafe, consult the person in charge and let them know. For example if you are asked to venture into an unfamiliar part of town, late at night and alone, ask to have someone go with you. If you are on a building site without a helmet or gloves, ask for safety equipment. Trust your instincts. If you are denied any of the safety precautions you requested, you are within your rights to leave.
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    Be wary of any organization that asks you to pay them in order to volunteer, especially if you are strapped for cash. There are many other worthy organizations out there that do not charge, and will provide more hours for less effort.
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    if you don't have enough money to get by, then you're the one who should be benefiting from volunteerism. Some people would rather volunteer than have a job - that's fine, but if you end up bankrupting family members in order to not have a job, it's simply unacceptable.


  • If you want to volunteer, but do not want, or cannot make, a long term commitment, remember that occasional or one-time or short-term commitments can help enormously. Donating blood doesn't take all that long--and you can feel really good about helping others when you do it.
  • If you are in charge of volunteers, thank them regularly. Don't expect them to be content with occasional praise - they don't have to be there and their resentment can spread, ending a good working relationship or even resulting in dissolution of the organisation or club itself.
  • If you need a special skill set, special clothing or any other equipment for carrying out your volunteer work and it has not been provided, demand it. Your safety, health and comfort are as important as that of any paid employee.
  • Don't volunteer simply for the credit or bragging rights. Make sure it is something you are capable of and enjoy.
  • Many volunteer opportunities are seasonal, such as helping to serve Thanksgiving dinner at a homeless shelter; or assembling back-to-school supplies for needy children. If you are truly pressed for time, consider helping once a year.
  • Don't avoid volunteering just because you can't be bothered. All societies need volunteers who are competent, enthusiastic, available and willing. When you feel able to take on volunteer commitments, then do so in a flash. There is an enormous trade-off in volunteering that you will only understand when you do it. While the organisation/club/school/society is getting your time and energy for free, you are getting confidence, satisfaction in doing a good deed, personal growth, nurturing, and perhaps training and other skills that you would not necessarily get by sticking to you and yours alone. Be open to the world and one day, it just may be you who needs and gets that help returned.
  • Keep in mind that wikiHow is always looking for volunteer editors! Stick around and help!


  • Taking your children along might seem like a good learning opportunity for them. However, some job sites do not allow minors due to safety and insurance issues. Check with the supervisor or coordinator before showing up with your children.
  • When volunteering, all personality types come together. This is perhaps more so than in a workplace, where certain personality types will tend to come together through recruitment selection seeking specific skill sets and personality traits. As such, you'll meet people from all walks of life, with different approaches to doing things. To deal with this, sometimes you'll need great patience and a closed mouth. If things get heated, let people have their say and then quietly summarise their position but then go on to suggest the compromising path. You don't want to lose volunteers because of personality clashes, or those that know it all. Often these people will fly in, tell everyone else how to do it and then drop out just as quickly as they arrived. Volunteers that succeed the most are those who stick around for the long haul, who know the background and who treat each other with respect.
  • Don't volunteer if you are sick. You're not helping anyone if you end up giving them a cold. This is especially important if you are working in a hospital, or with the elderly, children or people with weakened immune systems (such as those with HIV/AIDS).
  • If you're chronically sick, don't volunteer if your illness could worsen by performing the volunteer tasks. While some people can still carry out tasks during an illness (and for some, this is even a way of escaping the illness), if there is any possibility that your illness could be worsened by the added strain of volunteering, back down for a time until you feel better. This applies to many illnesses from cancer to chronic fatigue syndrome. You know yourself best - don't let others "persuade" you that you'll be better off doing something other than staying at home. Only volunteer your time if you truly feel it won't harm your recovery and that you have the energy to do so.
  • Be aware of your environment. You may be a tempting target to the underprivileged. Consider taking a friend if you are in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Leave valuables behind. Do not show fear. This signals weakness and could be insulting.

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