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The more I work with community leaders across the globe, the more I see cases of them overworking themselves, burning out, leaving their positions exhaustedly (and often quite abruptly). When I listen to their stories, I hear how many of them started with enormous amounts of excitement and genuine motivation. They often describe building a community as fulfilling work. So why are they burning out?

I don’t really know, but here are some observations:

  • Many communities are fully run by unpaid volunteers. But how long can you expect people to work unpaid? I think this is problematic for positions that need long-term consistency or that are heavily admin focused.
  • Community leaders burn out if their communities are structured with a lot of control and processes being held at the top. This usually works on a smaller scale, but as communities grow and start to scale, leadership becomes the bottleneck as more and more work accumulates at the top. This can result in the community being less comfortable / willing to co-create and in more people showing up with a consumer mindset. Models of co-creation are healthier and more sustainable for all people involved within the community — including leadership — , but require that leadership is willing to let go of control.
  • Leading a community is both the best, but quite often the worst job in the world. Trying to compassionately take care of many different human beings with different interests can be exhausting.
  • I continue to observe in many groups a lack of expressed gratitude for volunteer leadership. As mentioned above, I think leading a community is a tough job, yet few communities have that awareness and treat their leaders kindly. In fact, I have seen many examples where communities treat their leaders like shit, even if they are unpaid, working super hard and trying to do the best for the group. How would it feel to lead a community where members would express regularly how grateful they are for their leadership and treat their leaders with special kindness?
  • Many community leaders have unclear, constantly changing job descriptions that often aren’t even written down. This results in vague commitments, mismanaged expectations and often frustrations on all sides. I think it’s crucial to be clear about what collectively is expected from a leadership position, but also what someone in a leadership role can expect in return. This applies across the whole organization, from the main leaders to local volunteers.

Have you had similar experiences about burnout in community leadership positions? I’d be grateful for your thoughts and comments!