Quitting, burnout and volunteer renewal
Danae Bosler makes the case for walking away from activist commitments – and for setting up our activist projects to allow for renewal.
I’m no big fan of Ben Harper and I’m always loathe to quote songs out of context, but there’s something to Harper’s song about if you love something, you have to learn to walk away…turn and head for the door, as the lyrics suggest…that rings true to my activism.
That said, for a long time I feared quitting on the social justice movement, climate movement or any project I committed to. I felt guilty, ashamed and a little embarrassed about quitting and so I didn’t. Instead, my involvement in some activist projects had a prolonged and slightly painful death.
I’ve learnt now that sometimes when I’m committed to something, walking away at the right time is the best thing I can do for my own wellbeing and that of the group.
Sadly, there are plenty of negative connotations associated with quitting in the broad activist movement in Australia. ‘Stepping back’ or ‘taking a break’ can be code for being burnt out, tired or just straight up pissed off.
There can be a perception that quitting means someone didn’t have the staying power, or wasn’t committed enough to the fight. My least favourite line is that someone’s ‘priorities have changed’ – like they stopped caring about the impending doom of our planet or something!
I think we need to stop holding on so tightly to our volunteers and activists and embrace the renewal that turn-over brings.
I want to use the example of something seemingly unrelated to the political activism world: my volunteer work at my local sports club. I learnt the hard way about quitting in the climate movement and the lessons I learnt there I have successfully applied to how I recently quit a role at my club.
First, a bit about the club I love. I am deeply involved with my club – so many of my friends are from this world and I exercise there regularly. I have frequent lunches with key folks at my club and we don’t even talk about the work we need to do over lunch, just our lives. I work hard to balance out my time at the clubhouse between exercise (also called ‘fun’) and my volunteer work time. Why would I quit on this when I’ve got it all sorted?
Despite all these good times and much to the distress of our President, I decided to quit for a number of reasons. Top of the list is the fact that the club was becoming a family affair and I needed some space to keep my sanity. I’ve noticed that the social activism world can also become a family affair and in many cases, it’s not a strength!
To me, quitting is about renewing, refreshing and reviving, and it has become an important part of thriving in the activism and volunteer world. Each time I quit, it gives me the opportunity to renew with new projects and new campaigns. I’m changing my role at my club and doing something different, for example. My President thinks I’m abandoning him, but I’ll still be around – just doing something else.
At my club, I have held at least three different roles including secretary, assistant secretary, public officer and website manager. Constantly changing my role means I keep my activism fresh and I’d recommend this culture for any activist group: roles need to change on a yearly basis.
There is often a discussion about getting a ‘succession plan’ into place before someone quits. I was told at my club I couldn’t quit until I found a replacement, for example. I’d argue against this theory or supposed wisdom. Backing out early creates a little ‘volunteer vacuum’ (certainly not a power vacuum!) and often the most unexpectedly fantastic volunteer steps up to fill that vacuum. Indeed, it’s what happened at my club when I quit.
For many activists, it’s hard to know when to quit. My experience with two climate campaigns I worked on was painful as I let my activism slowly peter out. It was easier at my club: because committee positions are re-elected each year, I had to recommit each year. Or, as I did this time round, I chose not to nominate myself and it meant I quit before the burnout hit. That’s another lesson I’d recommend to activist groups: reviewing positions each year means volunteers can also review their commitment.
We need to get over the stigma and other negative associations attached to quitting. Quitting is a good thing – it’s about renewal, regrowth and revival and it’s key to thriving both as an individual and as a movement.
Danae Bosler has worked as an organiser and educator in the union movement and as a regional organiser for the 100% Renewable community campaign. She is currently involved in the campaign to stop the East-West link toll road in Melbourne. Danae has delivered training on campaign skills to numerous community groups and her writing on social issues has appeared in National Times, The Conversation and Farrago. She sustains her energy for activism with hour-long runs along the Yarra River.
What do you feel like quitting? What experiences have you had around quitting?