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GRAWA President’s Message: Different strategies can help address ‘volunteer fatigue’


Katie Courtney

I have been president of GRAWA for almost a year now. I have served on its board in some capacity for at least nine years. I have been an active member of the organization since the fall of 2006. My participation is merely a blink to some of our long-standing members; however, I think it is important to bring up a topic that is affecting many volunteer-based organizations: volunteer fatigue.

I was recently at a meeting of our Judicial Evaluation Committee (JEC) where changes to the process and by-laws were being discussed. It is no secret that the process of rating judicial candidates is fraught with controversy. This committee is charged with executing its own charter, while weathering the current political climate.

A recent survey of our membership came back with contradictory perceptions of being biased towards men, being biased towards women and being biased towards persons of color. There were also many who stated they perceived it as a fair process. The discussion at the meeting was focused on how to serve our membership and legal community, while balancing our mission as a women’s organization. Needless to say, this is an ongoing discussion, but there was a reoccurring theme heard around the table: “I am just tired.”

This committee is generally made up of 12 individuals, who do a lot of work. Many members have tried to walk away, but there is no one available to fill their spot, so they dutifully continue. They review submissions, contact references, sit for days in interviews and debates — and then are often made to feel that their recommendation is wrong or not appreciated.

The talk at the table this meeting was eerily similar to others that have occurred previously, about every other year. A large change occurred when the MCBA stopped doing the evaluations and the by-laws were changed within the last five years to try and accommodate member concerns. Yet, here they were again. Some were questioning whether to end the process because they were just “tired.” In other words, they are burned out.

As an organization leader, hearing this is a double-edged sword. On one hand, I am happy they are so vested in the organization and continue to do the work, so it doesn’t fail. However, if the participation is a burden to them, and they are no longer inspired by it, that is no service to them as an individual and we are failing our mission. If volunteer members are fatigued, they are likely to be cold, distant, disgruntled and uninviting. This is sometimes referred to in other areas as compassion fatigue.

So, what should we do about it? It is hard as a leader to not ask those that have repeatedly “proven” themselves to participate in our organizations, but we need to think about the long-term future and not just the next year. When making an ask of a volunteer, to the best of your ability, give full disclosure about what it entails and how long of a commitment it is. Please never assume someone doesn’t want an opportunity because you perceive them to be busy. As individuals, I know the answer is not as simple as “say no” — especially in a women’s organization. We are sadly predisposed to always say yes when asked, especially by desperate friends. (Shout out for all my friends that I have leaned on this past year, who did not say no.)

If you see, or sense, a volunteer is pulling back or less engaged, talk to them. I have learned this year that face-to-face conversations are often the solution to brewing issues. Despite technology, we still communicate best when we are able to read body language and not hide behind sterile words on a screen. As a leader, I think it is also important to recognize and thank volunteers. This helps with letting them know they are appreciated and that their work is noticed. Lastly, a member this year reminded me that sometimes they just need to be given direction or asked. Believe it or not, fatigue can also be caused by not feeling invested or needed.

Once you are already in and feeling trapped, what can you do? Again, just saying you are done and walking away is not something I see most of our members doing. Let me propose instead a solution to find your replacement. In the idea of “leaning in,” reach out to another woman and pull her up to where you are. This may involve some mentoring, but it will also leave you with peace of mind that your responsibilities are in good hands. If that is not an option, as much as you want to think you are indispensable, there will be someone to step up and make sure the world goes on. Don’t feel guilty if you are doing what is best for you. Then take the time to see if there is another part of the organization that sparks passion in you or another use of your time that you find more fulfilling.

At the end of the day, volunteering to be part of GRAWA, or any organization, is about caring for others. You are giving your time or resources away for free! I personally identify with our mission and have gained so much, professionally and personally, because of my membership. Serving on our board has allowed me the opportunity to help others realize the power of connecting with other women in the profession. Despite my presidency, I still feel there is unfinished business and am eager for my year as immediate past president. I hope this article helps others step forward to give others relief, and that others find peace in stepping back to find renewed passion.

Now, after this reflection, what is to be done with the Judicial Evaluation Committee? Good news is that despite their fatigue, the majority of the active committee members believe the work must continue. Most responses from our organization-wide survey also confirmed this. Everyone also agreed that there needs to be more education about our process and outreach to the community.

Additional board support will be needed to help with those that are feeling fatigued, including findings replacements, offering assistance with educational events, and just raising the general awareness about the work that is being done. Going forward, expect to be hearing more about our judicial candidate rating process and pencil in the date of our luncheon on Oct. 3. If you are looking for a new way to get involved, then reach out and I am sure we can find you a place. A general reminder: Do not wait to be invited to the table, grab your seat and sit down (and don’t feel bad when you need to stand up and stretch your legs).

Katie Courtney is an attorney advisor in the Social Security Administration’s Rochester Office of Hearings Operations. She is the 36th president of the Greater Rochester Association for Women Attorneys.