Before I got my first nonprofit job, I loved to volunteer. In fact, it was how I got that job in the first place.
Fresh out of college, I flew to the other side of the world for a two-week volunteer stint responding to an earthquake. I was eager, passionate and full of energy. Within a few months, I was no longer a volunteer, but was actually being PAID to the thing that made me happiest: helping others in a great time of need. This led to a fulfilling career, a social work degree and some wonderful personal and professional connections.
Seven years later though, I was struggling. What was once a career of passion and inspiration had started to become “just a job”. I was still putting in the effort and doing the work I was being paid to do, but I no longer woke up in the morning excited about the opportunity to care for others.
What I was suffering from was early stages of compassion fatigue.
Though there are several different definitions of compassion fatigue, it is often identified as the cumulative effect of caring for others. Similar to secondary trauma, it can cause emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion, and a reduced sense of meaning in the work. It is common amongst people in all helping professions. Some say it’s like you’ve given all of the empathy you have, until your cup is empty.
The good news is that unlike burnout, compassion fatigue can be overcome relatively quickly. The easiest cure is to take some time off. I did this first. It was refreshing and extremely helpful, but it still wasn’t enough for me. So, I went back to what inspired me in the first place: volunteering.
I signed up for three opportunities that interested me. One that was similar to my job, and two that were completely different. And, I loved it.
I began working with refugees that were resettled in my area, helping them access services and practice English. I was using many of the skills that I had learned in my career, but it was much different. As a volunteer, I felt more connected to the people I was working with. I developed deeper friendships with them and felt more myself. Over time, I began to see what drew me to this type of work in the first place: the connections to people. Back at my job, I was able to draw on this renewed sense of connection and found the passion slowly coming back. It also inspired me to look at new career opportunities outside of the path I was on that used a similar skill set.
For others, volunteering can help prevent compassion fatigue before it starts. Elizabeth, a clinical social worker from New York volunteers regularly with her community’s animal rescue program and goes on disaster response service trips whenever she has time. Here’s what she says:
Because my job as a clinical social worker providing counseling is so mental, I love the physicality of the service trips I go on with AHV. I love waking up early and setting out knowing that in a very concrete way, we are helping people gain back--even in small ways--the lives that they lost. It really combines so many of my interests: travel, encountering other cultures, assisting people who need help and changing the world one small bit at a time. When I return from these trips I feel very lucky to have the advantages I do have in my life, and I think that basic gratitude infuses my work with a positive slant. Plus meeting other people willing to travel so far and do so much simply to be able to help others really reminds me of the basic nature of good in the world.
The animal rescue work I do in my own community is more a local way I have found to connect with the people of my neighborhood across all kinds of boundaries: economic, racial, etc. Everyone loves animals, and everyone loves the pets they have. Assisting other people in getting pets, keeping pets, caring for their pets is sort of helping them keep a positive force in their lives. I mean, I would be incredibly sad without animals in my life.
For me helping internationally, and locally has given me a good balance of what I feel like I am putting out into the world.
While others might feel differently, I find that the key to having a refreshing and life supporting volunteer experience is to have it feel separate from your actual work. Donating your professional skills or offering pro-bono services is a positive and noble thing. If you are able to do this, you should feel great about it. But, if you are looking for something to re-engage your spirit in the work of helping people, I recommend trying something that is outside of your professional scope. Think about how you can use your professional skills in a new and different way. You may just find a new career!
So, if you’re starting to feel your passion and compassion fade, here are a few things to try:
1. Take a step back
If you can, take a break from your work — even a few days off can be helpful.
2. Think about what drew you to the work in the first place
For me, it was the connections to people. For others, it might be the high-speed pace of the work, the challenge of solving a problem or the joy of working with kids. Figure out what made you passionate about the work you do and what’s missing now.
3. Find a volunteer opportunity that fits your interest and schedule
Find something that draws on that original passion, but, ideally, uses your skills in a new way. Make sure that it is something different than your everyday job and that you're not overwhelming yourself with too many time commitments — more of the same will probably just make the problem worse!
4. Reflect on the experience
Think about how the volunteer experience has been. Was it positive? Did your compassion fatigue carry over into that work? If you felt a new connection to your work, great! If not, maybe it’s time to look into taking a longer break or even make a career change.
Here’s some final inspiration. Katherine, a nonprofit program manager from Texas, started volunteering at an urban farm in her community. She says:
I love growing my own food and gardening in general, so I was drawn to this opportunity. It’s nice to be around plants fresh food. By volunteering, I felt more connected to nature, but also to my own community. I met new people and we all worked together to contribute to our community in a tangible way. Plus you get a free box of produce for the week!