Voluntourism is fighting back

I have voluntourism in my Google Alerts, so that I can get links to press releases, news articles that mention the term. I’m not fond of voluntourism, where volunteers pay large amounts of money to go abroad for a few weeks, or even several weeks, to engage in a short-term activity that will give them a sense of helping people, animals or the environment. I look at this growing industry with great skepticism in terms of actually helping anyone, because it’s focused on the wants of the volunteer – that feel-good, often highly photogenic experience – not the critical local needs of local people or the environment, and there’s little screening of volunteers – most everyone is taken, so long as they can pay. What these foreigners bring through these voluntourism programs is often not skills, experience or capabilities that cannot be found locally – it’s money, and I see no evidence that this money benefits local people – maybe the people that run the program are “helped”, but not those meant to be helped by the volunteers. I don’t think all pay-to-volunteer schemes are horrid, and I don’t think creating a vacation that has a social or environmental “good” goal (transire benefaciendo) is a bad thing, but I think there are a tremendous number of voluntourism programs out there that aren’t really benefitting communities in the developing world – and some are actually causing harm. I push back to questions about and posts prompting voluntourism on Quora and Reddit, and I’ve been pleased to see more and more people doing the same. That push-back must be working, because now I’m also seeing a lot of voluntourism companies aggressively fighting back on the blogosphere, asserting that their programs are worthwhile (but never offering hard data to prove it).

I’ve been happy to see the tide turning against many forms of voluntourism as people realize that work abroad should make local people the number one priority, not the feel-good experience for a foreign volunteer. For instance, Australian NGOs are refusing to place volunteers in orphanages abroad, because of the exploitation of children, potential harm to children, and lack of any data showing such voluntourism helps children at all.

The UK’s International Citizen Service (ICS), which has placed thousands of young people in volunteer roles around the world, is now under scrutiny: Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) has taken action against ICS and other members of the UK consortium of organizations providing volunteering opportunities over safety concerns. The UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), according to a report by VSO, regarded ICS as a “high-risk programme due to the security and safety issues” involved.  “ICS safeguarding incidents have included death by drowning of two volunteers, sexual assaults, and the detention of volunteers by local police.” Volunteers live and work in countries where they may be exposed to petty and violent crime, political instability, endemic diseases and natural disasters.

There’s even a growing backlash against medical voluntourism, per reporting by Noelle Sullivan, a member of the faculty in global health studies at Northwestern University, who says her research shows that some people volunteering abroad for a few weeks, or several weeks, to engage in medical “help” for people in developing countries “does indeed cause harm.

It must be taking its toll, because I got a link to a press release about how a certain African “foundation” has hired a PR agency “to change the public perception of medical volunteering or voluntourism.” I’m not going to link to the press release – no free publicity here for a for-profit marketing company. But I had a look at the “foundation”‘s web site. The site is mostly about the gorgeous “luxury” accommodations for volunteers on a game reserve, whcih has an onsite gym, an infinity pool, a private patio “for stargazing,” and nearby opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, golfing, weight training, yoga, abseiling, white river rafting, tubing, kloofing, microlighting, helicopter rides, “and hot air ballooning!” The company can hook volunteers up with wildlife photography tours and photography courses, half day trips to an animal rehabilitation center “featured on National Geographic,” and visits for “pampering yourself at the local spas.” I’m surprised there aren’t workshops provided on how to take the perfect “Look how I’m helping these poor people” selfies… Oh, there is a page or two about the medical services volunteers will squeeze into their busy schedule enjoying all that hiking and hot air ballooning.

Also see:

Governor Bevin & Donald Trump Are Wrong on Community Service Requirements

logoRemember at the start of the year when I warned that 2018 is the time for USA nonprofits to be demanding?

Well, here we go.

Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin and Donald Trump, as well as governors all over the USA, want to require unemployed Medicaid members to volunteer with nonprofit organizations – or, probably, Christian churches – in order to receive those benefits.

This idea was first floated back in Spring 2017. At that time, Danielle Clore, executive director of the Kentucky Nonprofit Network, had a lot to say to Bevin’s office when it asked the group to support his proposal:

The bottom line is this will cost nonprofits money – money and resources we don’t have to spare. It takes professionals to effectively manage volunteers. For the experience to be valuable for both the agency and the individual, volunteer efforts have to be managed. Is it worth the limited and precious resources of a nonprofit to manage a volunteer that is there because ‘they have to be,’ not because they want to be? Nonprofit employees are spread so thin as it is and I feel like a volunteer requirement for anyone not truly committed to the mission of the agency isn’t an effective use of anyone’s time.

I do not typically take people who are ‘required’ to volunteer, because they don’t make good volunteers. Also, 20 hours is A LOT OF TIME. We don’t allow people to volunteer that many hours because at that point they could be considered a part time employee employee, and you have potential legal issues to consider.

Emily Beauregard, executive director of Kentucky Voices for Health, told Kentucky Health News in an interview at that time, “We need to provide them with the support services that they need, but forcing people to volunteer in order to get health care doesn’t make anybody healthier. We know this. There are data to suggest that. In fact, sometimes these stringent requirements put people in a position where they are unable to get care and then they get sick, and they are unable to work.”

I’ve blogged about all this before, in April 2017, when I said that requirements to volunteer are getting out of hand. And I’m calling on all nonprofit centers, all consultants regarding nonprofit management, including volunteer management, and everyone claiming to be advocates for volunteerism to speak out about this.

Here here’s my Facebook post about how I feel:

Nonprofits are not sitting around saying, “I wish several thousand people were forced to volunteer and they would then show up at our offices to do all this work we have just laying around waiting to be done by just any ole’ person that comes through the door.” Bevin and Trump are expecting nonprofits to involve several thousand more people as volunteers – people who are being forced into the act – but without funding all of the increased costs nonprofits are going to have to create more assignments and supervise these people. Nonprofits, don’t do it. Just DON’T. Not without a great deal more money.

Let’s see your statement.

Also see:

Learning From The ‘Not-So-Nice’ Volunteers

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersI am trying to find and revive some of the most popular articles and commentaries I’ve written over the years that were hosted on other people’s web sites, many of which are now only available on archive.org, and then only if you can remember the URL of the defunct site.

In 2004, I was invited by Mary Merrill to write a column for her December Topic of the Month. My topic was:

Learning From The ‘Not-So-Nice’ Volunteers

The premise: we have a lot to learn from the “not-so-nice volunteers”, the people who are putting their time and energy into defending human rights, addressing social ills, and battling institutions who they feel are attacking their quality of life or an element of their community that they treasure. And we have a lot to learn from the people who manage such volunteers.

I’ve reposted that article on my own site.

 

More than helping: wanting to make a difference

One of the most common questions on Quora and the Community Service section of Yahoo is regarding what kind of volunteering is “best.” Given the number of these type of questions from teens and 20-somethings on these platforms, I don’t buy the line about millennials not caring about society, not caring about others, etc. They wouldn’t keep asking questions about volunteering if they didn’t care about something more than themselves. But the number of questions, always about what kind of volunteering they should do, which one is “best”, etc., also shows that a lot of people are lost when it comes to knowing what is a meaningful volunteering opportunity and what would be most worthwhile to them.

Too many initiatives have focused on promoting volunteering without giving realistic guidance on how to find volunteering opportunities – not just how to use a database that lists volunteering opportunities, but how to choose which task or role would be best for someone.

I put assistance to people and communities into two categories:

  1. relief/aid/comfort/charity, such as giving food, providing emergency shelter, providing emergency medical aid, chopping wood for people that heat their homes with such in winter, singing for sick kids to cheer them up, making blankets for children in cancer wards, collecting food for a food bank, etc.
  2. development, such as educating people about HIV/AIDS, educating people about organic farming, providing preventative medical care, educating people about the importance of spaying and neutering pets, creating a community garden that provides food, educates about food production and builds community, etc..

Activities in category number one usually don’t change anything long-term. They usually don’t create a widespread or sustainable change — it helps just in an immediate moment. Not that that’s bad – sometimes, often, that’s exactly what’s needed, such as providing a cold weather shelter on a freezing night, or food for an area decimated by a natural disaster.

Activities under the second category are focused on changing things long-term. The activities are meant to change people’s behavior or how people think about something or to help people to not need emergency aid anymore. These are the activities that, I admit, I am MUCH more interested in personally and professionally.

One kind of assistance isn’t necessarily better than the other. Some situations call for approach #1, and some call for approach #2. Also, activities that seem to be short-term charity can actually contribute to longer-term development and transformations. For instance, say you have a program that helps youth explore leadership activities, better understand their community, work together better, reduce conflict with other young people, etc. So you organize charitable activities for the youth, like participating in a Habitat for Humanity build, or cleaning up a beach, or serving food at a homeless shelter. All of those activities are charitable activities that provide immediate, but not lasting, aid – yet, those activities can contribute to long-term changes / transformations for the youth involved.

Several years ago, because of these frequently asked questions from young people about volunteering, particularly Girl Scouts looking for Gold Award ideas, I made a list of Ideas for Leadership Volunteering. It grows regularly as I come across articles about young people making a difference through their own, self-initiated volunteering activities. It’s focused mostly on that second category of community assistance. If you are a young person looking to make a long-lasting impact on your community through volunteering, this is a good place to start. In fact, I have used this list with women in developing countries who are looking for avenues to cultivate their own community leadership skills.

I also have a list of ways for young people to find community service and volunteering.

Other resources I have for people who want to volunteer:

2018: time for USA nonprofits to be demanding

Did you know Meals on Wheels is being hit HARD by big budget cuts?

And Meals on Wheels isn’t the only one: many of the nonprofits that provide critical services and improve our quality of life and protect the environment all over the USA are NOT funded primarily by charity – by individuals and corporations giving money – and that means their already precarious funding situation is about to get more dire with the current federal government and philosophy of the majority of Congress. That’s not a political opinion: that’s a reality.

Meals on Wheels, like many nonprofits, does NOT get most of its funding from donations: a third of its funding comes from a provision of the Older Americans Act signed into law by President Nixon in 1972. The rest comes from state and local governments, corporate donations, and individual charity. But the OAA, like most government programs, is being scaled back, including federal and state government funding for Meals on Wheels. Among the reasons government officials are giving for the funding cuts, besides that “charity will take care of it” is that they doubt the program is needed – and say there’s no data to prove it is, let alone that it is doing anything critically necessary. As this December 2017 article in Slate notes, part of the problem is that Meals on Wheels data hasn’t been robust until recently:

A literature review in 2015 found that most studies related to home-delivered meal programs were small, unrigorously designed, and measured “self-reported dietary intake,” an unreliable metric. (Try measuring what you eat for a week.) Though senior nutrition advocates swore by the program, the lack of data made it harder to argue for more funding and may be the reason the OAA’s nutrition program has floundered. For many poverty programs, robust data are necessary for survival but not sufficient. Meals on Wheels programs are stuck in an appropriations purgatory where many don’t receive enough money to stay at capacity, much less expand, but they’re too adored to be cut much without political reprisal.

But the article also notes that, in 2013, a public health researcher at Brown University, published a paper that found “if all states had increased by 1 percent the number of adults age 65 or older who received home-delivered meals in 209 under title III of the OAA, total annual savings to states’ Medicaid programs could have exceeded $109 million.” Most of the savings would come from keeping seniors in their homes and out of nursing homes, which are more expensive. 92% percent of Meals on Wheels recipients say the service lets them live at home.

Meals on Wheels has relied on its VERY well known name and mission statement to be enough for government funding, let alone charitable gifts. No more. It needs data to prove the need for its existence and data to prove that its effective – not just number of meals delivered and number of seniors served, but how that changed anyone’s physical or mental health, let alone what independence it created and, ultimately, how much money it saved taxpayers.

And the same is true for YOUR nonprofit.

The United States federal government has just passed a massive tax cut that is giving all of these corporations and very well-off entrepreneurs and business owners a great deal of even more money. Meanwhile, several issues are at a crisis point in the USA: homelessness, poverty among people that are working full time, lack of affordable housing, opioid addiction (as well as other drug addictions), lack of access to health care, lack of access to dental care, understaffed schools in crumbling buildings, failing infrastructure, under-staffed public lands, arts groups on the brink of bankruptcy, and on and on.

So it’s time, for nonprofits in 2018 to be demanding.

Corporations, high-tech gurus and rich entrepreneurs like to tell nonprofits what they should be doing.

You should be using such-and-such fantastic new software/tech tool

You should be using social media more effectively.

You should be involving more volunteers.

You should have micro tasks and expert tasks and group tasks for volunteers.

You should be using meta data more often and more effectively.

You should have a program that addresses such-and-such.

You should do such-and-such activity.

And on and on.

Oh, but, when it comes time for funding any of those activities, they also love to say, “Sorry, we don’t fund overhead.” Let’s make 2018 the year nonprofits turn that statement on its head. Let’s make 2018 the year government officials and corporate leaders hear loud and clear that what they want from nonprofits takes MONEY.

Every time someone says,”You should be doing this,” tell them how much that will cost and ask them how much they will be able to donate to make that happen.

If a corporation asks you to give feedback on an employee volunteering idea or other philanthropic activity, say you would be happy to – and tell them what your hourly consulting fee will be.

If a corporate person says your executive director makes too much money, ask that person how much he or she makes, plus what benefits he or she gets (retirement, paid vacation weeks, bonuses, health care insurance coverage, etc.), and offer a comparison for your executive director, including level and type of responsibility.

When a business calls and says they would like a one-time volunteering opportunity at your nonprofit this Saturday from 10 to noon, tell them great, and also how much they will need to pay to cover the costs you will incur to make this happen. Make sure you charge an amount that truly makes the time and effort on your organization’s part worth the expenditure of your resources.

When a business says they need precise data that proves your organization does what it says it does, present them with an evaluation plan and how much it will cost to undertake such.

Sign up to speak during at least one city council meeting this year, to talk about what your organization is doing to address a community issue, to make your community a better place, etc. Offer specifics – not just number of activities, but testimonials from those that have benefited from such.

Sign up to speak during at least one of your city’s citizen’s committee that’s concerned with an issue your organization or program addresses (public safety, the arts, the historical commission, etc..).

Offer your own information for any “state of the community” statement your mayor or other local official prepares.

Say “NO” a LOT more. If a corporation wants you to do an event, activity or program that your organization cannot afford to do, say no. If a corporation wants you to do an event, activity or program that you don’t feel would be truly beneficial for those you serve and might actually detract from your mission, say no.

Nonprofits are going to be asked to do far, far more in 2018 than they have ever been asked to do before. They are, in many cases, going to be holding families and communities together, and be all that stands between survival and disaster for many people. They are also often what makes a community or public event or public space worth visiting, let alone living in or near. None of what nonprofits do is free. Meanwhile, corporations are experiencing record profits and corporate executives are enjoying record-breaking high salaries and bonuses. Time to charge them in full for your services and remind them of the financial costs of your work.

Also see:

My most popular blogs of 2017

logoEach year, I review which of my blogs have attracted the most traffic. Sometimes, a spike in traffic is because several people tweeted about the blog, or shared it on their own blog. Sometimes, I just have no idea why a blog starts seeing a lot of traffic. I also look at blogs that didn’t go anywhere, that have been seen by just one or two people – that does happen, and I need to figure out why.

I draw my material from my consulting work, from updating the Virtual Volunteering Wiki, from conversations with colleagues, from my own volunteering – even from things I’ve seen on TV or overhead somewhere. I never know what’s going to be popular. I’m frequently surprised what attracts so many readers – and what never catches on.

This list of my most viewed blogs probably isn’t of interest to anyone except me… but it’s something I like to do every year, to look for trends.

My top 20 most viewed blogs that I published in 2017:

I won’t help you recruit a receptionist/volunteer coordinator

Welcoming immigrants as volunteers at your organization

The harm of orphanage voluntourism (& wildlife voluntourism as well)

Anti-volunteerism campaigns

for volunteers: how to complain

Treat volunteers like employees? Great idea, awful idea

Mike Bright, Microvolunteering’s #1 Fan, Has Passed Away

Sympathy for one group – but not the other?

A plea to USA nonprofits for the next four years (& beyond):

Want to work internationally? Get involved locally.

J.K. Rowling speaks out against orphan tourism

Why Girls Want to Join the Boy Scouts

Creating a Speak-up Culture in the Workplace

When mission statements, ideologies & human rights collide

Volunteering, by itself, isn’t enough to save the world

What effective short-term international volunteering looks like

Resources re: labor laws and volunteering

Short-term deployments with Peace Corps & UNV

Medical Voluntourism Can Cause Serious Harm

Measuring social media success? You’re probably doing it wrong

If humans can do it, so can volunteers (who are, BTW, also humans)

That said… these weren’t my most visited blogs in 2017 – 17 of my 20 most read blogs in 2017 are from previous years, five of them having to do companies that sell letters saying someone has done community service for the courts and also claiming that the service is virtual volunteering (it’s not).

Also see:

My top blogs of 2016

My top blogs of 2014 (didn’t track it for 2015)

If humans can do it, so can volunteers (who are, BTW, also humans)

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersWhen should you involve humans in the care and support of vulnerable populations, like children, people with disabilities, women who have been victims of domestic violence, etc., or in high-risk situations, like working with wildlife or fighting fires?

Most people would say humans are essential to all of those scenarios – that care and support cannot be provided in those situations without humans, that emergency response cannot be provided by humans, that addressing the needs of wildlife adversely affected by humans cannot be done without humans. And I would agree. I bet you would too. What’s the alternative – robots? Not yet, robots… not yet…

But what do humans need in order to be able to provide appropriate care and support in those high-responsibility, even high-risk, situations, and to stay safe themselves? Humans need:

  • to be appropriately screened and vetted, with inappropriate humans turned away and appropriate humans brought into the program
  • specific training for these situations – and, perhaps, ongoing training
  • regular, appropriate supervision
  • regular, quality support

You would agree with all of that, right?

Now change the word humans in the aforementioned text the word volunteers. Suddenly, the conversation changes.

Volunteers aren’t appropriate!

Volunteers could endanger the clients!

Volunteers will harm the wildlife!

What’s different? Just one thing: when we were talking about humans before, you were immediately thinking of paid staff. Now that I change the word to volunteers, we’re talking about unpaid staff, and many automatically assume that means untrained, unsupervised people who work whenever they might maybe find some time.

Volunteers mean just one thing: people who aren’t paid a wage, that aren’t given financial compensation for their service hours. That’s it! Volunteers do NOT have to mean untrained, unvetted people, just anyone off the street who says, “I have a good heart! I want to help!”

No one who has not been appropriately vetted, no one who lacks the necessary training, no one who cannot be appropriately supervised and no one who is not regularly supported should be doing any work with vulnerable populations or with wildlife, paid or not. A paycheck has nothing to do with a person’s appropriateness to undertake a role at a nonprofit, NGO, charity, etc.

So, with that said, when should a nonprofit, NGO, charity, school or other mission-based organization involve a paid person instead of an unpaid person? Susan Ellis of Energize says it best, in her book, From the Top Down: The Executive Role in Volunteer Program Success:

Offering a salary gives the agency a pre-determined number of work hours per week, the right to dictate the employee’s work schedule, a certain amount of control over the nature and priorities of the work to be done, and continuity. When you pay a salary, you can require that the person give your organization forty hours a week or whatever number is necessary. Because most people need to earn a living, people can rarely give one agency that much volunteer time per week… (pages 12 – 13).

And, to be fair, people DESERVE to earn a living. I’m looking at you, United Nations agencies that have six-month unpaid internships – volunteer gigs that only well-off young people can undertake…

Volunteers can do high-responsibility, even high-risk activities, and they can fill expert roles. In fact, they actually DO all of these things already, all over the USA and all over the world. What the vast majority volunteers usually cannot do is provide 40 hours a week of service, even 20 hours a week, to an organization, week-after-week – they can’t afford it! Many roles at a nonprofit, non-governmental organization or charity require a person to staff a role full-time, or even part-time, 20 hours a week, week after week – and that means, to keep that role staffed at all times, the agency must pay someone. Many roles at nonprofits, NGOs, charities, schools, etc., require someone to have a great deal of training and experience in order to do the role that needs to be done, and most people that have the training and experience necessary for such roles have such because it is related to their career, their paid work, and they got the certification or degree(s) necessary for such for their paid work.

I don’t believe in involving volunteers to save money – I believe an organization should create volunteering opportunities primarily because they believe a volunteer would be the best person for that particular role, just as an organization reserves certain roles specifically for paid staff, and you make those decisions based on a myriad of criteria. I also believe that one needs to tread carefully when asking an economically challenged community, one with a very high unemployment rate and people struggling to pay for the basic necessities of life, to donate their time to keep a nonprofit afloat.

So, how much time and responsibility may you ask of a volunteer? What’s reasonable?

That is a question that is frequently asked. And there are no easy answers. It can vary from organization to organization, from community to community.

There are communities that are well-served by entirely volunteer fire stations, with enough well-trained, constantly trained volunteers always on-call to respond to any fire or other emergency. But in those same communities there might be a cold-weather shelter for the homeless and the nonprofit running such is struggling to find over-night volunteers to manage the facility for 6-8 hours at a time. Why does one group have a waiting list of people that want to volunteer while another in the same community, with less requirements for training and less of a time commitment each month, struggle?

There can be all sorts of reasons why one organization can easily attract volunteers to high-intensity, high-responsibility, high-commitment roles, and another cannot:

  • One role may look fun, exciting, interesting and even heroic, while another may look difficult, scary, even depressing.
  • One role may look like it could help the volunteer in his or her career or university studies, while another may just look like a lot of work for no pay.
  • One role may look like the challenges would be uplifting, while another may look like it would be disheartening.
  • One role may seem like you get a lot of community recognition, that you are frequently thanked, while another may be rather thankless.
  • One role may look like it would be fun, at least some of the time, while another may look daunting and soul-draining.
  • One organization may be targeting a particular social or economic group that has the financial safety net and family structure (child care) to be able to afford to volunteer, while another organization may be targeting a group that can’t afford to do unpaid work (they are already caregivers, they have child care needs, etc.).

If you are having trouble attracting volunteers, you need to look at a lot of things:

  • Is it easy to know just from looking at your web site what volunteers do, the different roles, the time commitment, the training requirements, and how to sign up?
  • When someone calls or emails about volunteering, or submits an application, do they get an immediate reply regarding next steps? In fact, do they get info at all, or does someone take their name and say someone will get back to them and then, most of the time, no one ever does?
  • Are your next steps for volunteering with your organization something that the volunteer can get started on in a few days? In several weeks? In a few months? The further away the next step, the more likely the volunteer candidate won’t follow through.
  • Do you need to alter the volunteer role so that a volunteer would get more out of it, in terms of training, career-development, university class credit, or personal fulfillment? Is there anything you can do to make the role more fun?
  • Can the people you are trying to recruit as volunteers afford to volunteer – to work for free? Do they have child care responsibilities that are preventing them from helping?
  • Could you make the time commitment less for volunteers? Could you try to recruit more volunteers for shorter shifts, for instance, instead of fewer volunteers for longer shifts?
  • Does the task seem especially intimidating or daunting? Could you make it less so, by reducing the time commitment the volunteer would have to make, or by guaranteeing that there is a seasoned volunteer or employee always with the new volunteer? Or by taking away the tasks in the role that are the most intimidating and giving them to paid staff? Or by better assuring candidates that they will be fully trained before they are put into potentially challenging situations?
  • Are you asking too much from volunteers in terms of a time commitment, training and the responsibilities they will undertake as unpaid staff? Do you need to convert such roles into paid positions, in order to better attract the people that can make the time and emotional commitment to the role?

This is yet another blog that was inspired by my own real-life moments – two, in fact: one from a nonprofit that felt I was being inappropriate for disagreeing with them that their work is too high-risk for volunteers, and another from a situation that is happening in my own community regarding volunteer recruitment. It was supposed to be two blogs – but they seem so closely related, I put them together.

Also see:

Why Should the Poor Volunteer? It’s Time To Re-Think the Answer

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersIn 2006, I was invited by Mary Merrill to write a column about the ethics around asking poor people and chronically unemployed people – those desperate for funds – to volunteer. It was in response to an article on the United Nations World Volunteer Web.

Below is an archived version of my 2006 article for Mary:

Why Should the Poor Volunteer? It’s Time To Re-Think the Answer

In an article on the World Volunteer Web in December 2005, a university student in Yemen asked, “How can you volunteer if you have no income, no money and are concerned about the means to provide your kids with something on their plates every night? With all due respect to those calling for Yemenis to volunteer, I say, ‘Please be serious!'”

In an article from the BBC, reposted on the same web site, Tom Geoghegan said, “the prospect of unwaged employment might not be so appealing if you’re a cash-strapped school leaver who wants to help mum put food on the table.”

When volunteering is so often presented just one way — as a state-sanctioned free labor activity — these responses are completely justified.

Current promotions of volunteerism, whether in rich or poor countries, are focused primarily on government-endorsed or state-driven activities: the state or large corporations, through their sponsorship of such campaigns, encourage people to work without pay to address community and social needs, the gain being a better community, improved self-esteem for the volunteer, and less money needed to pay for such action, as volunteers aren’t paid. It’s an appallingly-limited view of what volunteering is and its true importance and power, and it’s no wonder that the unemployed and the disenfranchised scoff at such campaigns.

The world and its history are rife with examples of volunteering by the unemployed and disenfranchised to positively affect people and the environment in confrontation to or outside of the state or other power structures. These activities have sometimes empowered the volunteers as full citizens for the first time. Those who organized in the Southern USA in the 1950s and 60s to register voters, to shine a blinding light on social injustice and to stop Jim Crow, the American version of apartheid? They were volunteers, often socially-excluded themselves, working against local power structures, in order to improve American society and to change their own destinies for the better. Local people engaging in campaigns to counter the practice of female genital mutilation or to improve women’s rights, often in direct opposition to community leaders or long-held traditions? Again, volunteers and, often, people who do not enjoy full employment and perhaps, in the case of women, who do not enjoy full rights as citizens. Yet, most volunteerism campaigns and conferences ignore these passionate volunteer campaigners working outside “the system,” whom Mary Merrill calls both “vigilantes” and “entrepreneurs.” Talking about volunteering as a way to challenge the state or other power structures, or to empower people and communities, would probably be quite appealing to that earlier-mentioned Yemeni student, or others who are unemployed and disenfranchised. However, mainstream campaigns continue to promote volunteerism as just a feel-good activity and a way for the state or others to not have to pay people for work — a message that just does not resonate with so many.

There’s also a tendency by such campaigns to equate all community service with volunteerism. However, if a person is paid to provide a service to the community, he or she is no longer a volunteer. That isn’t to say he or she, because of the receipt of money, has less dedication than a volunteer; I’ve certainly encountered UNDP and NGO paid staff members who are every bit as committed and heartfelt in their work as people providing unpaid service. But “volunteer” should mean the person is unpaid, or at least, giving up his or her employment for a significant period of time in order to provide full-time community service. In certain situations, volunteers may be the most appropriate to staff an initiative, while other situations may call for paid staff — and these situations often have nothing to do with whether or not there’s a budget to pay people.

If governments and donors want volunteerism campaigns in poor communities to actually lead to more volunteering, they must radically update their message. They must be prepared to show why volunteers, rather than paid staff, are best for a particular task, beyond that there’s no budget to pay such people. They must show how those whom they are trying to entice to volunteer will benefit directly in terms of potential employment or an improved life and a greater voice. They need to point out that volunteering can give a person a first-hand view of the work of the government or others, and a fact-based perspective and voice to endorse or oppose it. They need to explain that volunteers can also have their own agendas for their service, just as those promoting volunteerism do. They need to say, point blank, that one of the primary benefits of volunteering is that it can create the platform for “ordinary people” to become decision-makers, even leaders, regarding their communities and the environment, and that it can allow a diversity of voices to be heard regarding a diversity of issues. And governments and donors need to put the individuals in charge of defining their own volunteerism goals and activities, and to be prepared for those activities, at least sometimes, to be counter to the volunteerism campaigner’s agendas.

NGOs need to talk about and to volunteers as investors. They need to think of volunteer involvement as a way to build trust among community members and those whose support they need. They must learn how to translate volunteer involvement into long-term and consistent support. Volunteerism should be viewed as a way for local people, including youth, to influence policy-making. And NGOs must be explicit in their message to youth regarding how volunteering can help young people, if they so choose, to pursue their future educational and career endeavors.

VENRO, the Association of German development non-governmental organizations (NGOs), says on its web site that “NGOs are described as the core of democratic civil society. NGOs protest and interfere, they are dedicated to dialogue and cooperation. NGOs reflect the will of socially and politically responsible and committed citizens who, to a large degree, work on a voluntary basis.” It’s a much more powerful view of volunteering that what is being promoted by so many mainstream organizations, and one that would certainly appeal to that university student from Yemen.

It’s a challenging proposition for the mainstream promoters of volunteerism to think and speak so differently. But without meeting this challenge, we will turn generations and groups all over the world off to volunteering. What a tragedy that would be.

Note: Mary Merrill was a consultant regarding volunteer engagement, a dynamic, provocative speaker, a skilled facilitator, and a frequently-cited source by other consultants and volunteerism researchers, including me. Her company was called Merrill Associates, and her web site, merrillassociates.com, is archived at archive.org. Mary served as a consultant to numerous nonprofit organizations, non-governmental organizations, charities and professional associations in the United States, Canada, Russia, Armenia, Venezuela, Mexico, Brazil and the United Kingdom, and consulted with the United Nations Volunteers programme based in Germany. She taught the Institute for Community Leadership and Volunteer Administration at Ohio State University. She coordinated international study abroad projects for Ohio State University Leadership Center and North Carolina State University 4-H. She was editor of the Journal of Volunteer Administration. She was a featured speaker at three World Volunteer Conferences. She was also a licensed social worker. She received the Distinguished Service Award from the International Association for Volunteer Administration, a Lifetime Achievement Award for dedication to Volunteerism in the profession of Volunteer Administration from Volunteer Ohio, and an Award for Excellence from the Volunteer Administrators’ Network of Central Ohio, she was named Peacemaker of the Year by the Interfaith Center for Peace, and received the Walter and Marion English Award from the United Way of Franklin County. She was a graduate of Ohio State University. Mary died in February 19, 2006. She was my dear friend and colleague and mentor, and the resources on her web site, merrillassociates.com, archived at archive.org, are worth your time to read.

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Your initiative should exploit UN days

International days, weeks, years and decades, as designated by the United Nations General Assembly, offer excellent outreach opportunities for nonprofit organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), civil society organizations, charities, government initiatives and other agencies focused on improving and enriching communities and individuals, as well as protecting the environment. There is a commemorative day, as designated by the United Nations general assembly, for just about any subject you can think of. Here’s just a sample:

Cancer
Female Genital Mutilation
Women and Girls in Science
the power of radio 
Social Justice 
Wildlife
Women
Racial Discrimination
Poetry
Down Syndrome
Forests
Water
Meteorology
Tuberculosis
Autism
Mine Awareness
Sport for Development and Peace
Reflection on the Genocide in Rwanda
Health
Human Space Flight
Malaria
Tourism
Mountains
Migrants

and on and on and on. Now is a great time to look through the list and think about how you are going to exploit these days throughout 2018 for your initiative’s mission.

You can use these designations to tie in your organization’s events and programs, through

  • issuing press releases about your work and how it relates to the day, week or year
  • posting social media messages that relate to the day, week or year’s theme
  • writing op-ed pieces for local media
  • blogging on a related topic, posting social
  • offering yourself for interviews to radio and TV
  • holding a special event that ties in with the day, week or year

If you mention these days, weeks, years, etc. on your blog and web site, and use the official Twitter tags for the events, you increase the chance of your organization coming to the attention of anyone doing a search online for information about these days, weeks, etc. and reaching an even wider audience.

For a list of these UN days, weeks, years and decades, see either this part of the UNESCO web site or this page by the UN Association of Canada. HOWEVER, note that, as of the start of December 2017, these calendars have not been updated with the 2018 designation. It’s not known of the UN will designate 2018 with any theme. The General Assembly has declared 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages.

The UN Decade of Action on Nutrition is 2016 to 2025, which means it’s still happening in 2018. The designation aims to trigger intensified action to end hunger and eradicate malnutrition worldwide, and ensure universal access to healthier and more sustainable diets for all people.

The International Decade for People of African Descent is 2015–2024, which means it’s also still being celebrated in 2018, as is the United Nations Decade of Sustainable Energy for All, which is 2014–2024.

The decade of 2011–2020, also all still being celebrated, has four designations:

There’s also the International Decade for the Rapprochement of Cultures (2013-2022), which is designated by UNESCO, a UN initiative, but not the General Assembly. Rapprochement means reconciliation, increased understanding, restoration of harmony, agreement, cooperation or harmonization. The decade is meant to promote mutual understanding and reciprocal knowledge of cultural, ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity, and to foster dialogue for sustainable development and its ethical, social and cultural dimensions. The initiative offers a number of free resources you can use to promote the themes of the decade.

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Getting More Viewers for Your Organization’s Online Videos

Videos are a great way to represent your organization’s work, to show you make a difference, to promote a message or action that relates to your mission, etc. But just uploading a video isn’t enough to attract an audience. Also, your time is precious – it takes a lot of work to produce and upload a video, so shouldn’t that work get a payoff with a lot of views with potential supporters, current clients, and others you want to reach?

Getting More Viewers for Your Organization’s Online Videos is a new page on my site that offers specific steps that will get more views for a nonprofit, NGO, charity, school or government agency’s videos on YouTube. Note that many of these tasks would be great for an online volunteer to undertake, with guidance from an appropriate staff member.

Also… have a look at my YouTube channel. There are dog videos!

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