The revolving door: Study explores ways to prevent volunteer burnout and attrition

Screen Shot 2013-09-16 at 1.15.03 PMAllen, J.A., & Mueller, S.L. (2018). The revolving door: A closer look at major factors in volunteers’ intention to quit. Journal of Community Psychology, 41(2), 139-155.

Introduction: Volunteers provide an invaluable service to non-profit organizations and communities. Unfortunately, perhaps because of the voluntary nature of the role, there is a lot of turnover among volunteers. Studies have found that intention to quit is a strong predictor of turnover; however, the majority of these studies have focused on workplace behavior. The current study examines predictors of volunteers’ intent to quit, specifically the role of burnout in volunteers’ experiences within non-profit organizations.

Method: The study consisted of 151 individuals, mostly middle-aged women, who were volunteering at an animal shelter. Participants completed an online survey with items related to the following measures:

  • Voice: whether volunteers feel that they have input, and that this input is respected within an organization’s decision-making process.
  • Role Ambiguity: volunteers’ sense of outlined expectations, structure and guidelines for their role within an organization.
  • Burnout: “…stress that results from demanding work-related tasks and relationships” (p.140).
  • Intention to quit: “the cognitive manifestation of the behavioral decision to quit” (p.140).


  • Greater perceived voice predicted lower feelings of burnout.
  • Greater role ambiguity (i.e., less role clarity) predicted higher feelings of burnout.
  • Greater burnout highly predicted volunteer’s intention to quit.
  • Overall–a lack of voice and role clarity predicted burnout which, in turn, predicted intention to quit

Conclusions: The findings from this study suggest that volunteers who feel unclear about the nature of their role and perceive that their voices, or opinions, are not valued experience increased feelings of burnout which subsequently leads to greater intent to quit. The authors frame these findings within conservation of resources theory, noting that lack of voice and role ambiguity may contribute to increased burnout through increased frustration and diminished cognitive/emotional resources.

The findings from this study have implications for youth mentoring. Volunteer support staff should offer clear expectations, and ongoing support (e.g., check-in meetings) where opportunities for mentor feedback are fully considered.

Researchers should explore the role of voice within mentors’ experiences, and develop evidence-based practices that increase mentors’ perception of having influence over the process. Similarly, programs can explore factors that are specific to their individual organization and contribute to mentors’ sense of belonging and connection to the program in order to increase retention and positive outcomes.

Given the costs and potentially damaging effects to youth of volunteer attrition, it will be important to explore means of reducing volunteer burnout. This study offers two promising strategies.

reviewed by Stella Kanchewa, doctoral student in clinical psychology at UMass Boston