On Burnout and Recruitment

Ted Glick


been thinking about these two, opposite aspects of an activist’s life and work

while on vacation in the mountains of western North Carolina. It seemed

appropriate that I spend some vacation time, in particular, considering the

issue of "burnout."


is when the demands of the struggle for change, the day-to-day grind of

organizational work, become so overwhelming that a person literally cannot

continue to do the work anymore. They pull back and withdraw, at least for a

while. In some cases the effect is permanent; the individual never returns to

the work of organizing and instead takes up a less demanding line of work.


burnout be eliminated? I don’t think so. Its occurrence can be lessened; there

are steps that can be taken both by individuals and organizations to minimize

its frequency. Ultimately, however, it is unrealistic to expect that all people

who take up the critically-needed work of organizing for social justice are

going to be able to continue doing so for years and decades, indeed, for a



question is not, "can burnout be eliminated?" The question should be,

"how can we hold and attract the energies and commitment of growing numbers

of organizers?" With this as the objective, our tasks become clearer.


and foremost, we need to build organizations that are welcoming to new people

and a source of support for all members. Community-building, through events such

as pot-luck meals, picnics, educational programs, retreats and cultural

activities, as well as through an open and friendly style of work on the part of

the organization’s leadership, are concrete ways that such groups can be built.


it is essential that all members of the organization, not just paid staff or a

few, hard-working, volunteer leaders, are actively encouraged and assisted to be

as active as possible. If much of the work of the organization is done mainly by

the paid staff or by a few, it is a certainty that some of those staff/volunteer

leaders will burn out, not solely because of overwork but also because the staff

will come to resent others in the organization and feel isolated and put-upon.

One way to keep up one’s energies is to see and experience the collaborative

work of others on collectively agreed-upon projects. And this is also a way that

new and/or inexperienced members can begin to learn in practice how to become

effective organizers.


we need to build organizations, whether it be trade unions, community

organizations, or single-issue and constituency-based organizations, that are

fiercely independent and broadly democratic. You can’t have one without the

other. Together they can keep the group and individuals within the group from

falling prey to the seductive, cooptive lures of the system, keep everyone

focused on the prize of a genuinely democratic, people-oriented society.


means much more than just periodic elections for leadership. Elections are

important, but in the absence of conscious efforts and mechanisms to inform

those voting and encourage active participation in between elections, they are

little more than a hollow shell.


means the encouragement of discussion on a broad scale about key issues,

including the articulation and circulation of differing positions. If it is only

the views of the current leadership which are being circulated, and differences

within the leadership group are withheld from the broader membership, this will

inevitably lead to paternalistic or hierarchical, undemocratic forms of



is important that there be flexible but firm time limits on people speaking in

meetings to discourage the monopolization of discussion by articulate,

long-winded individuals. This is not a small issue. If time is not consciously

provided for all those who wish to speak and limited for those who tend to go on

and on, those not used to speaking will feel intimidated and discouraged from

active involvement.


employment of a small-group discussion format, when possible, helps to make it

easier for those afraid or not used to speaking up in large groups to find their

voice. This is a way of including those who can easily feel excluded. Sometimes

the best format is a mix of small-group and large-group discussions, with

report-backs from the small groups to the large group.


possible, a consensus-seeking method of discussion should be used. This

discourages "show-boating" by individuals trying to get across their

individual point and encourages a more collective process of listening and

healthy interaction.


collective evaluation is an essential part of a genuinely democratic process. In

this way those who are making mistakes or errors can have them corrected, and a

process is established in which everyone comes to understand that no one

individual is above the group.


all of these aspects are working effectively, there will be much less burnout

and new leadership will be emerging all the time. As importantly, we will be

"building the road as we travel," creating the new society in the

present as we work towards the day when the corporate elite is a class from the

past and all of the institutions of society are geared toward the maximum of

human and scientific advancement.


Glick is the National Coordinator of the Independent Progressive Politics

Network (www.ippn.org) and author of the recently-published, Future Hope: A

Winning Strategy for a Just Society. He can be reached at [email protected]

or P.O. Box 1132, Bloomfield, N.J. 07003.)


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