News and analysis
March 24, 2013

Charities Can Minimize the Strain on Volunteers Too Close to a Cause

Respond to volunteer applicants quickly, help them identify ways they can help, and other advice.

Craig Lassig/AP Images

After Patty and Jerry Wetterling’s 11-year-old son was abducted, she joined the board of a charity that focuses on missing children. “I wanted to do everything and anything that would help keep this from happening to someone else’s child,” she says.

Patty Wetterling’s son Jacob was abducted by a masked gunman in 1989, when he was 11 years old. He has never been found.

As a way to channel “our grief and also our hope,” Ms. Wetterling says, she and her husband started a charity in 1990 to promote child safety. But she also found herself drawn to work with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

“I wanted to do everything and anything that would help keep this from happening to anyone else’s child,” she says. She joined the center’s board in 1991 and now serves as its chair.

After surviving an intense experience with gun violence, cancer, or another life-altering event, people are often inspired to work for a nonprofit focused on that issue. This deep, firsthand experience with a group’s mission can bring powerful benefits to both survivor and charity.

But passion can be a volatile thing, and harnessing it in a way that benefits both the individual and the organization can be a challenge. Following are ways that nonprofit managers have tried to protect volunteers and employees who have been directly affected by a group’s cause while making sure that the cause is well served.

Respond to volunteer applicants quickly. At the Cancer Research Institute, “100 percent” of people who volunteer for the organization have a direct connection to the disease, whether their own experience or that of a relative, says Brian Brewer, the group’s communications director. “They tend to come in with a lot of momentum,” he says. “You have to be ready to respond in kind.”

The first step is to acknowledge and support the person’s desire to do something good, he says. Then follow that quickly with a more detailed discussion of how that can work within the organization.

Explain what your charity does. And spell out what it doesn’t do. David Hind, director of volunteer work for GMHC, a social-service group for people with HIV/AIDS, recommends making your group’s mission, values, and approach clear from the very first, to be sure there is a true fit with the volunteer’s desire to contribute.

Sometimes, he adds, the volunteer’s and the charity’s needs are simply out of sync: “On occasion we have had to say, 'We appreciate your enthusiasm, but we don’t know if this is the best place to apply it.’”

Some volunteers at the New York group, which used to be called Gay Men’s Health Crisis, have themselves been clients of the charity, says Mr. Hind. But no matter how familiar a person is with the charity, the group always takes steps to make sure volunteers know what they are getting into.

People who want to volunteer are invited to attend the group’s weekly open house so they can get an overview of the organization and specific options for giving their time. Afterward, candidates return for an in-depth individual meeting with a volunteer liaison who assesses their skills and interests.

“It is very much like a job interview,” Mr. Hind says. “We approach this as seriously as hiring an employee.”

Assess the applicant’s readiness to work. Jan Withers, now national president of MADD, once known as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, became involved with the group after her daughter, Alisa Joy, was killed in 1992. She understands the urge to turn pain into positive action but also knows that healing takes time.

At MADD, she says, candidates may apply to volunteer only after at least a year has passed since the crash that killed or injured someone they care about. When that milestone passes, a staff evaluator interviews the applicant, paying attention to his or her verbal responses and body language.

The interviewer watches to see if the candidate is moved to tears, for example, or becomes visibly angry while talking about the experience—signs that the trauma is still too fresh.

“They’re not ready until their own emotions are well enough managed that they can support someone else, rather than respond to that tragedy as if it were their own,” she says.

Joshua Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, who notes that one-third of his organization’s staff members and key volunteers are people whose lives have been directly touched by gun violence, says that many factors determine the rate at which people move through their recovery. Among them: whether they have a resilient personality and how much support is available to them.

“Working for their particular cause can in fact be hugely beneficial to the healing process,” he says.

Help them identify ways they can help. People who have been a victim of a traumatic event often want to do something to help others like them, notes Ms. Wetterling, but don’t know where to start.

“Have a process for helping them identify the thing that sparks their energy,” she advises. Ask them, “Do you like to answer the phones? Do you like to speak publicly? Do you like to write?”

Susan Ellis, president of Energize Inc., who trains nonprofit groups in managing their volunteers, also emphasizes communicating all the ways people might engage with your organization. “It’s likely they aren’t aware of all the menu options,” she says.

Someone who is deemed not quite ready to join the front lines will very likely still want to support your group in other ways, she says, so make those opportunities clear.

Give new volunteers a tryout. At the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, says Mr. Horwitz, volunteers are accepted for temporary roles and assessed as they work. As they are given different tasks, the group figures out what skills they have to offer and where they are in the recovery process,

Be sensitive to the needs of trauma survivors. People who have “gone through the fire,” as Ms. Wetterling puts it, not only may make effective advocates for a charity’s cause, but “they can also be wonderfully nurturing and sensitive managers within the organization.”

Consult these veterans, she suggests, to identify ways to fine-tune the charity’s administrative policy and approach.

“They are able to not only understand that particular times, like the holidays or anniversary dates, are tough but also anticipate the need to build flexibility in staffing levels or scheduling around significant dates,” she says.

Set boundaries and communicate them to everyone. Sometimes people get more involved in a cause than is healthy for them emotionally. Activities that cross that line need to be clearly identified for staff members and volunteers alike. Among them: spending time with a charity client outside of the volunteer setting.

“You can’t just say, 'Don’t get too involved,’ with no guidelines for them to follow,” says Ms. Ellis.

Check in frequently. Keep tabs on how volunteers are faring. Mr. Hind reports that the GMHC staff hosts regular, structured meetings for all volunteers who work with patients, and attendance is mandatory. (Some of his group’s more than 700 volunteers have been active for 25 years or longer, he says, and those veterans are also encouraged to “keep an eye on the newbies.”)

Even a weekly, five-minute phone call between volunteer and supervisor can suffice, says Ms. Ellis, noting that this is as much an opportunity to reinforce good volunteering as it is to monitor the person’s well-being.

She also recommends creating support groups for volunteers, organized perhaps by geography or by training class, whose members then meet in online forums to check in with one another.

Says Ms. Ellis, “The key is that it is a regularly scheduled event, where they know they will be able to bring things up if they need to.”

Heed red flags. When monitoring does reveal signs of distress, a manager should step in—even when the trouble might not be with the volunteer’s performance.

“I’ve worked with families where the mom really wanted to throw herself into the work, but you can see that there are siblings at home who are struggling,” says Ms. Wetterling. “You have to take this person aside and say, 'Maybe you need to refocus on your family.’”

MADD’s Ms. Withers says her group looks for concrete signs that workers are responding to someone else’s trauma as though it were their own, such as crying or showing extreme anger.

Other signs of overinvolvement might include someone who starts doing personal errands for a client or does not report all the hours spent with the client, say experts.

Volunteers and employees who help deliver services and communicate directly with a charity’s clients can be particularly vulnerable to stress that triggers a trauma response, even after years at the organization, says Ms. Withers. Such deeply committed workers, she says, “might not realize when they need to take a break.”

Focus on the future. One of the greatest ways an organization can boost a volunteer who has lived through a traumatic experience or loss is simply by giving that person goals to work toward.

Emphasize his or her contributions to the organization’s successes—for example, in securing the passage of new laws or reductions in the numbers of victims.

Says Ms. Wetterling, “Remind them that no matter what terrible things have happened in the past, they are fighting for the way the world should be.”