Heather Comstock Connects

Helping nonprofits and other volunteer organizations develop strong relationships and a clear voice in the community.

People, Perceptions, and Burnout (with bonus cute pony pic!)

People are little like the Assateague Ponies. They don’t stay on the paths you’d like and when threatened will run off or bite!

I was recently watching a too hip for you travel show that visited Texas. One of the stops was Huntsville, which is arguably the capital of Texas corrections. The show’s host hung around outside the release unit and pounced on family members who were waiting for the release of a loved one. He also talked to one two recently released inmates. I found his fascination a bit disconcerting mostly because he was treating them not like people, but like some sort of circus side show to be gawked at.

Having worked in a jail for two years and later spending seven years working for a correctional education advocacy organization, I have always been irritated by the way people perceive prisoners. They forget that they are PEOPLE – people who have children, parents, and other family members that are concerned about their well-being and may have spent years trying to get them to straighten themselves out. Spend a Saturday afternoon at a correctional facility watching family members coming to visit their loved ones and you’ll never forget the very human pain that this situation etches on the parents, children, and the offenders themselves. (okay, soapbox away now!)

When I worked in the jail, I had to review the client’s files for inclusion in our program. I cultivated a capacity to forget their crimes and criminal histories because the day I walked into class, I wanted to look around and see individuals – not the bad check writer, the prostitute, the drug possessor, or my personal favorite – the urban camper (a county ordinance that targeted the homeless) .

I have been been in meetings with human service organizations where case managers repeatedly pointed out that their clients weren’t honest with them about their situations or were constantly trying to get more services than they were entitled to receiving. Over time, they began to view ALL clients this way. I have also sat in meetings of membership-based organizations where everyone is trying to “outsmart” the members and human behavior when it comes to services and special events. The default setting is that people will take more than they are entitled to take.  While in some instances, this may be true, it is dangerously easy to set up an “us vs. them” situation.

Organizations run a real risk of de-humanizing clients, members, and volunteers.  If all your interactions are with clients who are in crisis and can never seem to get it together or if the only time you contact members or volunteers is when there’s a problem, you tend to forget that you are dealing with people, not problems. 

I am not saying continue to stay in dysfunctional relationships, but don’t paint all the people in your organization with the same broad stroke. If volunteers or clients aren’t moving forward the way you anticipated, don’t just blame the individual. Take a close look to see if your systems aren’t failing in some way. 

  • Check in with clients or members, volunteers, and staff on a regular basis, especially when there’s not a crisis.
  • Watch for signs of burnout.  Don’t let people go too long without rejuvenating breaks or vacations or allow them to take on too many tasks for the organization and become over-committed.
  • People are not one size fits all, cultivating relationships with people is the best way to truly understand what’s happening and anticipate problems.
  • Take a few minutes on a regular basis to remind yourself why you have committed yourself to this organization. Ask those around you why they are involved.

Remember, the common denominator in your dysfunctional relationships is you.


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