Volunteering & the Saviour Complex

[reading time: 5 mins]

It’s safe to say volunteers, and volunteering managers alike, are nothing short of incredible people and the major of those who involve themselves in this industry typically possess huge amounts of empathy and hold a strong sense of altruism…

So this is a good thing, right? How can this possibly be seen as something that needs to be ‘overcome’?

Well, you’re partially right. Highly empathetic and altruistic people are some of the most amazing people you will ever met. When someone genuinely puts others ahead of themselves for the greater good, it can build an incredibly accepting and caring culture amongst any group of people – and thus an improved quality of life for the masses. However, what happens when people give too much of themselves to others (or to their chosen cause), and what does that mean for the collective?

If you have never heard of the saviour complex, it is “A psychological construct which makes a person feel the need to save other people. This person has a strong tendency to seek people who desperately need help and to assist them, often sacrificing their own needs for these people” (source: Psychology Today). A particular form of this essentially means people can develop a habit of giving too much at the detriment of themselves…

Sadly, this can be a common occurrence in the non-profit and volunteering world. By its very nature, people are attracted to this industry for the pursuit and fundamental drive to “give back to something bigger than themselves”. However, as the saying goes, “you should never have too much of a good thing” and this is certainly no different. It can be hard to spot when this figurative line is crossed, especially since we all have our own limitations and our personal belief of what “moderation” is. However, there can be signs to look out for when you or people in your team might be crossing this line, these can include:

  • Only feeling good about yourself when you are helping others.
  • By-passing your own fundamental needs for others (e.g. making sure someone does not feel left out of an activity, at the expense of your required eating, sleeping and drinking habits).
  • Physical and emotion signs of burn out, without any regard or awareness of their current state and wellbeing.

This behaviour, although in the short term might seem admirable and generous, is certainly not sustainable and can come at a serious emotional and personal costs. Ultimately, if people push themselves past this point, there is a strong chance they will burn out and be unable to give, thereby resulting in a lose-lose situation for everyone (i.e. the person in question cannot continue, the organisation loses a valued member, and those who you were helping will lose a resource and may now go without).

However, never fear, there are of course things you and volunteering organisations can do to prevent this as a collective. These can include:

  1. Giving in moderation – take time to check in on yourself and your team to help regulate who you think might be close to crossing this line. E.g. it can be in everyone’s interest to slow down and step back, for the sake and longevity of everyone involved, and to define what is or isn’t “too much”.
  2. Art vs. Science – volunteering work usually always comes from the heart, which can be hard to measure and regulate for the purpose of controlling this effect. Try to develop a list of criteria or perhaps “do’s and don’ts” when it comes to you or your team working with your volunteers. E.g. we will not answer email after 5pm, if it is an emergency people must call you or dial emergency services (depending on your line of work).
  3. Set expectations with your volunteers first and foremost – A list of what is and isn’t expected of your volunteers, with a clear set of rules they need to abide by. This can be provided to new and existing volunteers, and even be printed out and posted at your workplace (or online platforms) as a way to broadcast your standard of working and engagement.
  4. Not being afraid to say NO – Developing assertiveness can sometimes be a fundamental solution to overcoming this. Drawing a line across you and your team’s limitations, builds a sense of self respect both intrinsically and consequently sets the standard of perceived value to others whom you engage with.
  5. Re-Prioritise the MUST DO’s – trying to cram too much into your work to serve others can subsequently lead you to push your limits without even noticing. If you find you might be doing it to yourself (or others a like in your team), try to write done what MUST be done day to day in order to keep operations moving/growing, and either re-assign, postpone, or let go of things that are not a necessity so you can focus and moderate yourself for the long run!

Ultimately, the purpose of this blog is to highlight what can happen to those this industry and the potential downsides of giving too much of oneself. Make no mistake, putting others before you and giving your time and energy to great causes is an amazing thing to contribute to in your life – when done so in moderation. We hope you take this content as a perspective to consider and, like always, we encourage you to do your own research and review of you and your own teams’ wellbeing.

If you or someone you know might be experiencing difficulties with something like this where there is a concern for safety and wellbeing, we suggest speaking to a medical professional about what can be done to help.