Once upon a time, I was an over-committed community volunteer headed for burnout.  Things were bad.  I felt angry and resentful. Any joy I had ever found in giving my time to charitable organizations I admired was long gone.

I dropped all activities but one (my professional association) and learned how to put boundaries around my giving. And I wrote about my learning in an article called Yes, It’s OK To Say “No!” I regularly get requests from publishers and other coaches and consultants for permission to use it in their work.

Today, I had a reason to revisit the article.  I received an e-mail from someone we’ll call “Lori,” who finds that the newsletter she’s producing for a volunteer organization is taking twice as long to do as she was led to expect.  She was looking for advice.  She wrote: “I’m inclined to keep my word and trudge on, but this last month’s issue took away from my family and job responsibilities. If I say no and stop doing the
newsletter, does this set a bad example for my kids, telling them it’s OK to quit after I’ve committed to something? ” It was this concern about what sort of lessons we teach through our behaviours that touched me the most.

So here, slightly edited, is my reply.

Hi Lori

Thank you for your note.

Step One. Stop beating yourself up for not setting a clear boundary on this. You’ve already learned the lesson and you’ll be sure to agree on expectations the next time someone asks for something.

Bless you for considering the lesson your response to this will teach your children. The first question I’d ask is, “What do I want them to learn?” There are all sorts of potential lessons. You don’t want them to learn that it’s OK to back out of a commitment. Nor do you want them to learn that it’s OK to let someone (no matter how worthy or well-intentioned) unfairly exploit your willingness to help. If you’re up for it, there’s a great lesson in having a good, clarifying discussion with the people who asked you to do this and coming up with an alternative that
respects your time and talent and meets their need.
And there’s a good lesson in asking for help when you need it. It’s very hard for those of us who are helpers, by nature, to ask for help for ourselves.

Can you arrange a discussion where you revisit the arrangement. You agreed to give them X hours. You’ve discovered it takes XX. You can’t give them that without making unreasonable sacrifices. What are the options? Can you explore them together with curiosity and empathy? Your options can be divided into three buckets – purpose, process and people.

Purpose: I’ve seen newsletters turn into big horrible ordeals when they don’t have a clear purpose. They try to be all things to all people and everyone is pressing for space for their pet project. You and the organization need to determine – and be very clear about – the one big reason they have a newsletter. Keeping clients informed? Fund raising? Public relations? Recruiting students? Staff recognition? Whatever it is, there should just be one big objective.
This will determine what goes into the newsletter and makes almost everything about it easier to manage. I’ve done some consulting with organizations that decided to scrap their newsletters and use other forms of communication when I made them answer the question, “Why do you have a newsletter?” They realized they had no purpose for the newsletter – they just did it because they had always done it. It’s important to know the purpose of any communication tool and whether it’s actually working and meeting its objective.

Process: If the reason it takes twice as long as expected to do the newsletter is that your standards are really high, impose the “good enough” rule. One of my MBA team-mates introduced me to this. We lowered our standards, got the work done, and we still got As. Sometimes good enough really is good enough. The newsletter doesn’t have to be perfect; it just needs to be done. If your standards aren’t the issue, then look at process. Is the material coming in to you in an orderly way, or do you have to chase it? It’s more than reasonable to ask to receive the info when and how you need it. Is it the writing or the layout that’s taking all the extra time? If it’s the layout, can you simplify it? If you’re sending an on-line newsletter, changing it to a blog removes the requirement for formatting – you can just send people a link to the blog. Would changing the frequency or the length of the publication reduce your work load and work better for you?

People: Can someone (or several people) help you? Just as you said, “yes,” when they asked you, the best way to get help is to ask for it. Perhaps
the committee can find someone – or you can ask someone you know. If you have very specific tasks outlined, such as calling contributors to get their
material, or copy editing, layout or proofreading, people know the commitment. Or you might take turns, with you working on the December issue while someone else handles November. If you think you’re just the wrong person for the job, have that discussion. There is no shame in honestly admitting that you tried something and it wasn’t your cup of tea. You are, after all, a volunteer, with choices about how you will serve your community. In my experience, as a volunteer, as a manager of volunteers and as someone who has coached a lot of them, nobody throws rocks when a volunteer resigns and the organizations don’t fall apart.

The point is to have a good discussion where you both explore the context and the situation and arrive at a solution that you can live with. Your first priority is to yourself, since you want your community work to be joyful generosity, not a dreaded ordeal.

I don’t know if this was helpful. If I repeated and reinforced things you already know, that’s good. We usually know what has to happen, but the conversation can seem more scary in anticipation than in actuality.

You cannot change a situation by resenting it. You need to have a discussion. Please, let me know how it goes.