Medical Voluntourism Can Cause Serious Harm

In a recent blog hosted by the Scientific American, Noelle Sullivan, a member of the faculty in global health studies at Northwestern University, 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. In fact, the international volunteer placement industry opens the door to potentially disastrous outcomes.”

Empirical data about the medical voluntourism industry is sparse, but Sullivan does have solid data: “I’ve studied medical volunteering in Tanzania since 2011, including over 1,600 hours observing volunteer-patient interactions across six health facilities. I have spoken with more than 200 foreign volunteers in Tanzania, plus conducted formal interviews with 48 foreign volunteers and 90 hosting health professionals.

She notes a variety of voluntourism web sites that invite volunteers with little or no medical training to do invasive procedures abroad, including providing vaccines, pulling teeth, providing male circumcisions, suturing and delivering babies. “Most volunteers I’ve observed deliver at least one baby, despite being unlicensed to do so.”

Her examples in the article are stunning: in Tanzania in 2015, her team encountered a young woman that’s called Mary in her article:

Mary routinely delivered babies unassisted by local midwives because she appeared familiar with the procedure—a skill she said she learned in 2013 on a previous volunteer stint.

Mary violated obstetrics best practices, doing unnecessary episiotomies (cutting the skin between the vaginal opening and anus to make room for the baby’s head) and pulling breech babies (babies positioned bottom instead of head-first in the birth canal). Once routine in obstetrics, current guidelines restrict episiotomy to exceptional cases because they may cause permanent problems for the mother, including incontinence. Meanwhile, pulling breech babies can cause suffocation.

After Mary’s departure, we learned she was not a medical student at all; she was an undergraduate student, unaware of the risks in what she was doing. 

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 – is a growing industry. I look at most of it 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 needs of 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.

The End Humanitarian Douchery campaign takes a much stronger stand against voluntourism in any form than I do, drawing attention to the negative consequences such can have for local communities in particular. The campaign organizers offer tips on “how to find a program that will have a truly POSITIVE impact on the host community.” Likewise, ‘Looks good on your CV’: The sociology of voluntourism recruitment in higher education, an academic paper by Colleen McGloin of the University of Wollongong, Australia and Nichole Georgeou, of Australian Catholic University, says that “voluntourism reinforces the dominant paradigm that the poor of developing countries require the help of affluent westerners to induce development. And this article is advice from someone who paid to volunteer abroad – and realized she shouldn’t be. All are worth reading, no matter where you stand on the issue of voluntourism or volunteering abroad.

I do think there are some effective short-term pay-to-volunteer abroad programs, among them Bpeace and Humanist Service Corps. But both of these programs are driven by what local people want, and they do NOT take just any volunteer that can pay.

This is my reality check regarding volunteering abroad, which reviews all the different types of programs. It links to many articles that discuss the dangers of voluntourism programs to local people, and to volunteers themselves, and to quality advice on how to make a real difference abroad.

Also see:

 

Treat volunteers like employees? Great idea, awful idea

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersBack in 2009, the Volunteer Centre South Derbyshire, in England, featured one of my posts from UKVPMs (a discussion group for volunteer managers in the United Kingdom) on its blog in response to an article that says treating volunteers like employees is a great idea. I’m flattered that they thought my thoughts so worthy!

Here was the situation that I commented on:

In this commentary in the Guardian, the writer talks about a volunteer DJ at a small Christian radio project in South Manchester, England, who was fired when staff became aware that he is gay. The writer’s conclusion is that the employment laws need to apply to volunteers in order to protect them from being fired for no good reason.

Here was my response from UKVPMs (edited a bit for clarity):

On the one hand, I don’t believe in requiring volunteers to do things that staff are not required to do: background checks should be for everyone, not just the volunteers. The anti-discrimination policy of the organization applies to everyone, not just paid staff. Neither paid staff nor volunteer staff should be exploited or mistreated or neglected.

But on the other hand, I also come from the point of view that:

  • volunteering with a nonprofit is a privilege, not a right. I involve volunteers so long as it explicitly benefits the mission of the organization, and if forced to choose, my loyalty would be to the mission of the organization and those it serves rather than to a volunteer.
  • volunteers are human beings and should absolutely be expected to be treated as such, however, they are NOT employees, and therefore are not entitled by law to any of the same legal benefits of an employee.
  • volunteers are managed by a volunteer coordinator, rather than a human resources director, because volunteers are NOT employees.

So I read this article with a lot of empathy and sympathy, but then cringed at “Volunteers should be protected against unfair dismissal.” Legally protected? If so, legally protected how?

The primary consequence of an employee being unfairly dismissed is that he or she loses income. There are other consequences, but loss of income is the primary consequence, and we all know that income is necessary for survival. The laws that protect employees from being unfairly dismissed aren’t designed to do anything other than to prevent an employee from losing income and to restore an unfairly-treated employee’s lost income; the laws aren’t designed to restore anyone’s dignity or honor.

What would be the legal redress of a volunteer wronged? If a volunteer is granted the ability to sue regarding dismissal, what will the compensation be if whatever deciding body sides with the volunteer? Will he or she receive money? If so, say goodbye to volunteer involvement at probably most organizations; they aren’t going to risk that kind of financial expenditure. Reinstatement? The organization will be forced to involve the volunteer in his or her previous role? Does that volunteer then become untouchable, meaning the organization will have to keep the kinds of files, including regular evaluations, on volunteers that they maintain for staff in order to justify the disciplining, the requirement for training or the firing of a volunteer?

I guess in summary: I don’t ever want any volunteer dismissed for arbitrary reasons, I don’t ever want any volunteer mistreated or exploited, and I want us all to work to make sure that never happens, but I also don’t want volunteers to become employees, for a variety of reasons that I hope I’ve made clear (not sure I have).

And so I don’t really know what the answer is…

And I still don’t.

UK House of Lords Select Committee on Charities

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersThe United Kingdom’s House of Lords Select Committee on Charities was appointed on 25 May 2016 “to consider issues related to sustaining the charity sector and the challenges of charity governance.” The committee has issued a report, Stronger charities for a stronger society (HL Paper 133).

There are some good points in the report. For instance, the committee recommends that government funding of charities be “based on impact and social value rather than simply on the lowest cost.” The committee also encourages government “to recognise the added benefits of charities’ involvement in service delivery, and urge local authorities to consider grant programmes wherever possible.” And the committee also highlighted a great observation about risk aversion in mission-based organizations:

371. We also heard that risk aversion and a lack of organisational flexibility were a problem. NAVCA said that “charities need to be bolder, and boards need a greater appetite for risk, if the sector is to adapt and deliver greater impact in a changing world.” Rebecca Bunce from the Small Charities Coalition highlighted the consequences that resulted from trustees not understanding digital technology sufficiently.

372. Helen Milner said that trustees who were risk averse on digital tools were approaching the issue from the wrong starting point: “If they are saying, ‘Digital feels like a risk’, they are asking themselves the wrong question. They should be saying, ‘What is our strategy? Where do we want to be in three years’ time? How are we going to get there? Do we want to help more people and how are we going to reach them?’ Digital ought then, naturally, to become part of that solution.”

I really, really love that observation. Expect to see it quoted frequently by me in the future.

But, for the most part, the report is full of observations that should have been made 20 years ago – and were made 20 years ago by various consultants and nonprofits, myself included. I’m glad that a government body is realizing that “We are living through a time of profound economic, social and technological change and the environment in which charities are working is altering dramatically,” as the report says. But that’s a statement that could be said in the 1990s, when public access to the Internet exploded.

The report also never mentions virtual volunteering by name or concept, and that’s incredibly disappointing; virtual volunteering is a practice that is more than 30 years old. When this report talks about “digital technologies” being used by charities, it’s only to build awareness, not to support and engage volunteers. Meanwhile, on an online discussion group I’m on for managers of volunteers, the discussion last week was about the best platforms for training volunteers online. What a shame that the authors of this report are so out-of-touch regarding nonprofit, NGO and charity use of online technologies to engage and support volunteers.

The report also sees volunteers only in terms of economic value:

“The charity sector relies heavily on volunteers and many charities told us that they could not do their work without them. 372 The Association of Volunteer Managers suggested that the economic benefit of volunteering could exceed £50 billion a year, 373 while other witnesses highlighted the value of volunteers in community cohesion.”

Do I have to say yet again that this talk of the economic benefits of volunteer hours are why so many labor unions and others are turning against volunteer engagement? Do I have to say yet again that no volunteer says, “I really want to volunteer so I can save money by not being paid!” It’s true: deriding the monetary value of volunteer hours is now my mission in life

Also see:

Initiatives opposed to some or all volunteering (unpaid work)
& online & print articles about or addressing controversies regarding volunteers replacing paid staff

Involving volunteers: a cop out for paying staff?

More on the UK’s Big Society

Criticism Continues for UK Government Talk Re Volunteers

Changes in working with volunteers: scary & energizing

logoAlmost 20 years ago, I co-presented at the national conference in Orlando by the Corporation for National Service. The presentation was regarding the emerging senior volunteer — the Baby Boomer. I was the representative from Generation X, another presenter was a Boomer himself, and the other presenter was of the then current senior age group. We thought it was a rather benign but important topic. We certainly had fun putting together our presentation via phone and email (we were in different parts of the USA and had never met face-to-face until the day of the presentation).

The day of the presentation came, and we had a full room waiting to hear us. Our presentation began, with much energy: we talked about how the emerging senior volunteer — the Baby Boomer — wanted to volunteer their professional skills, not just stuff envelopes. How they were willing to commit a lot of hours provided it came with a high-level of responsibility. How they weren’t interested in giving unselfishly as much as wanting to have a real impact and feel like, as a result of their volunteering, they had made a real difference. How this was a great opportunity for volunteering programs…. right?

We were all but booed out of the room.

The workshop attendees, who worked exclusively with senior volunteers, primarily from the “Greatest Generation,” did not hide their venom for our message, and about 15 minutes into our talk, we knew we were in trouble. Amid sighs and folded arms and scowls, attendees started raising their hands to comment and express their obvious frustration. They called these emerging senior volunteers “selfish” and “lazy,” even “un-American.” The characterizations would have never been said about an ethnic group, but it was open season on Boomers. One said, “I’m not changing, and if they don’t like it, they can go somewhere else.” Another said, “I would rather our current volunteers die off and our organization close than work with these people.” One added, to me, directly, in front of the whole group, “You don’t want to know what I think of your generation.”

It was, by far, the angriest, most hostile group I’ve ever addressed.

The only comfort was after the presentation was over, after most of the attendees had stormed out of the room: a woman came up to us in tears — literally crying — and shook all of our hands, saying “I’ve tried to say the same thing, and they were like this to me too.”

More than 10 years later, I shared most of the above via a blog because of an article in the Associated Press that confirmed all that we said at that presentation. The article said boomer volunteers “are increasingly seeking to use their professional skills as volunteers, eschewing office and administrative tasks and seeking roles in marketing, publicity, fund raising, and management.” You can see the article by going to archive.org and looking for this URL:
www.nytimes.com/aponline/2010/03/04/business/AP-US-Retirement-Today-Volunteering.html

I’m reviving that blog, saved from a long-defunct platform, because I still think about this incident every time I get in front of a group or have a discussion about trends in volunteer management. In that previous blog, I also wrote:

  • I wonder what ever happened to all those very, very angry volunteer managers, who I don’t think hated boomer volunteers as much as they hated change. Did they quit their jobs? Did they begrudgingly change? Were they fired?
  • I’ve never worked with these “traditional” volunteers the AP article and others talk about, volunteers happy to do any mundane administrative tasks without question, who do whatever they are told without comment. I’ve been working with volunteers for many years, and they have always wanted something worthwhile through their service beyond just work to do.
  • I bet someone writes almost exactly this same story in five years in a major newspaper or wire service, implying it’s a “new trend.”

Of course, since that presentation, the management of volunteers has changed even more radically. I talked about this in May 2006 on my web site. And let’s be clear: innovations regarding management of volunteers aren’t really about technology. The innovation is using technology so that it is:

giving volunteers a bigger voice in what they do at an organization (and, in the end, actually giving them lots more to do, and even more responsibility, which they like very, very much), on engaging in activities that exude transparency and openness in all aspects of decision-making and management, and on being immediately responsive to volunteers’ and other supporters’ thoughts, suggestions and criticisms — and how not doing so isn’t because of a lack of resources but, rather, misdirected priorities and lack of transparency. Tiny nonprofit organizations with very little staff are doing extraordinary things with volunteers, and making the volunteers feel included and energized, not with pins and t-shirts but through greater and more meaningful involvement — and this movement is being fueled by inclusive uses of technology.

It makes for another big challenge to many people who are expected to successfully engage volunteers, but it’s also a big opportunity to raise the profile of volunteer managers within organizations. It makes volunteer management a lot more interesting.

Are you ready? Scared? Angry? Let’s hear from you in the comments below.

Also see:

Short-term deployments with Peace Corps & UNV

From February 2001 to February 2005, I worked at the headquarters of United Nations Volunteers, in Bonn, Germany. Sometimes, people outside the UN would say, upon learning where I worked, “Oh, you’re just a volunteer?”

My UNV colleagues would get this comment too, and would visibly bristle at the idea that anyone would think they were a volunteer!  They would quickly assure the person that they were not merely a volunteer – they were, in fact, a fully-paid staff person with a UNDP contract!

By contrast, here’s how I would answer such a comment:

Oh, no, I’m not a UN Volunteer. I don’t think I’m qualified to be a UN Volunteer. I would probably be turned away if I applied. International UN Volunteers are experts in their professional field, highly skilled and experienced. I’m just an employee at headquarters, and my role is to support UN volunteers out in the field, doing amazing things.

A UNV HQ colleague was with me once when I said that, and her eyes became huge when she heard my response. Later, she told me she’d never thought of UN Volunteers the way I had talked about them, and that it had never dawned her that, in fact, maybe she wasn’t qualified to be a UN Volunteer either.

I know of two UNV HQ staff, both my colleagues and dear friends, who decided to apply to become international UN Volunteers themselves, were accepted into the UNV roster, and were deployed for two years to a developing country. Both of these colleagues worked in ICT. After those in-the-field experiences, they went on to be employees at other UN agencies, and I thought it was a shame UNV hadn’t worked hard to entice them back to HQ, as they would have brought a much-needed perspective to headquarters.

As I was leaving UNV HQ, where I managed the UN Online Volunteering service and helped manage the United Nations Information Technology Services (UNITeS), I decided to apply as an international UNV myself. I decided that maybe I had acquired the qualifications at last to be a UNV. I was delighted when I was accepted into the UNV roster – the UNV staff that decided which applications to accept were in Cyprus, I had no personal relationship with them at all, and there was no policy (and still isn’t) on automatically accepting UNDP staff as UN Volunteers. I was available only for six-month assignments, however, and those were, and are, few and far between. I interviewed for two such assignments – and didn’t get either. Which should just go to show you how competitive the process to be a UNV is. I eventually got a six-month UNDP gig in Afghanistan, but it was as a consultant, not a UN Volunteer.

Now, at this time in my life, I can no longer do a full six-month assignment, so I doubt I’ll ever deploy as a UNV. When you read about me going to abroad for a UN gig now, it’s for less than four months – like in Ukraine – and, again, it’s as a UNDP contractor (which I love – great colleagues, fascinating work and the pay is good).

But there is this part of me that still really wants to go abroad as a volunteer.

So, for more than two years, I’ve been watching listings at the Peace Corps Response web site. This is a program by the Peace Corps that places highly-skilled volunteers in short-term assignments abroad, from four to 12 months. It’s open to US citizens. I’ve been looking for an appropriate four-month gig and, at long last, I’ve applied for a position. I think it fits my expertise perfectly. But I also know that this is a highly-competitive program, and I may not even make the interview round. Still, it was fascinating to go through part of the Peace Corps application process. I’ve also been a reference for a friend that applied for the regular Peace Corps, so I’ve seen that part of the online process as well.

Fingers crossed!

One last note: the Peace Corps Response program, the entire Peace Corps program, and all United States Agency for International Development (USAID), are under threat of severe cuts by the current Presidential administration in the USA, as well as by current Congressional leadership. I encourage you to write your US Congressional Representative, your US Senators, national media and your local media, and let them know what you think of these proposed cuts.

Also see:

 

What effective short-term international volunteering looks like

I’m not kind when it comes to discussions of pay-to-serve international volunteering. Most programs out there are voluntourism, focused on an unskilled volunteer paying to have a feel-good experience abroad, doing an activity that would be oh-so-much more effective by local people being paid to do it themselves, and spending just a few weeks somewhere – not at all enough time to make a sustainable, positive impact on local people or the environment. Voluntourism is primarily about the volunteer, not the people in the developing country, who would prefer to be paid to build a school for their children themselves, care for the community’s orphans themselves, help take care of local wildlife themselves, protect their own environment, etc.

That said, not all pay-to-serve programs are purely voluntourism: there are some terrific programs that require volunteers to pay their own way, such as Bpeace traveling business mentors and Humanist Service Corps (more on pay-to-serve programs I think are worthwhile here). There are also examples like this: students from the College of Engineering at Oregon State University going to Kenya to help a small village create a series of water projects to give them sustainable, ongoing access to clean water; the local Kenyan people benefitted from the project because they defined what they wanted, and they worked alongside the students so that they could take on more and more responsibilities themselves.

In contrast to pay-to-serve programs, there is the Peace Corps Response program, which is part of the Peace Corps, and that places highly-skilled volunteers in short-term assignments abroad, from four to 12 months. Participants do NOT pay to participate. It’s open to US citizens, and it represents what effective short-term international volunteering can look like: volunteering that’s focused on building the capacity of local people rather than just doing things for them.

In doing some research on the program, I found this terrific blog by Brenna Mickey, who did a four-month assignment in the Peace Corps Response program in Port Vila, Vanuatu, and whose experience represents what a short-term, effective volunteering experience can look like. It’s also a great example of what a tech-related volunteering gig can look like anywhere, at home or abroad. Her specific job title was web design and development consultant for the Ministry of Youth and Sports. Among other things, she worked

  • “as the project manager or product owner, creating a scope of work and requirements documents after meeting with stakeholders of the website, managing expectations and deliverables.”
  • “as an UX strategist, working with the department in the Ministry through card sorting, developing a site map together, sketching out wireframes and talking through user flows on our website.”
  • “not only as the designer of the site, but the developer as well. I taught myself a new content management system and dove in headfirst to writing responsive CSS and HTML5 instead of handing over my designs and CSS to the developers.”
  • “But most importantly, I worked as a teacher, making sure knowledge was transferred to my coworkers in Vanuatu during the web design process, including how to update the CMS after I left.”

Also, “I happened to be in town during another Peace Corps Volunteer’s project, which had been under development for more than two years. The SMART Sistas ICT Camp for Girls was a week-long camp where girls were brought to the capital and taught the fundamentals of informational technology. I was asked to teach an Intro to Web Design course during this camp.”

Please note that Peace Corps Response initiative, and the entire Peace Corps program, and all United States Agency for International Development (USAID), are under threat of severe budget cuts by the current Presidential administration in the USA, as well as by current Congressional leadership. I encourage you to write your US Congressional Representative, your US Senators, national media and your local media, and let them know what you think of these proposed cuts.

Also see:

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

You see the posts on the subreddit regarding volunteerism, on Craigslist, on Quora, on LinkedIn groups, etc.:

Come provide care, love and attention to orphans! Help provide daily care to these orphans, help prepare meals, help watch over them, help with homework, participate in playtime activities, and be a child’s best friend in Africa… You’ll also be the shining light for the children and bring about a fresh and positive energy in the orphanage. You’ll also play the role of a friend and mentor to the children, turning them into confident individuals capable of believing in themselves. The love and attention that these children get from volunteers will uplift their spirits and put a smile on their faces.

Those are all actual statements combined from two different sites that sell volunteer trips to help orphans.

Think about it: these organizations are claiming that foreigners, who may or may not be appropriate to be around children, who may or may not have any experience working with children, who may not even speak the local language, should come interact with orphans, and that an ever-changing group of foreign volunteers, coming in for a few days or weeks at a time, can somehow transform the lives of vulnerable children. Or wildlife. The only thing those foreign volunteers need is the ability to pay all of their transportation, accommodation costs, and program fees to the trip organizer. No criminal background check, no verifiable, needed skills – just money and will.

There are so many Westerners ready to pay big bucks for these feel-good experiences and all the selfies they can take with third world children that many NGOs have popped up with fake orphanages: the children have parents, but the parents are given small fees by the NGOs for their kids to pretend to be orphans for foreigners.

Friends-International, with the backing of UNICEF, has launched this campaign to end what is known as orphanage tourism. This is from their web site:

Voluntourism can be a program that invites tourists (for a specific fee, or through an NGO directly recruiting), to volunteer at an organization. In most cases, these organizations do not require candidates to have relevant qualifications or previous work experience in social work or childcare. At worst, some organizations do not require or conduct proper background checks of volunteers before placing them in direct contact with children.

And then there is this incendiary report by South African and British academics that focuses on “orphan tourism” in southern Africa and reveals just how destructive these programs can be to local people, especially children. From the report:

The term ‘AIDS orphan tourism’, describes tourist activities consisting of short-term travel to facilities, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa, that involve volunteering as caregivers for ‘AIDS orphans’. Well-to-do tourists enrol for several weeks at a time to build schools, clean and restore river banks, ring birds and other useful activities in mostly poor but exotic settings… Well-to-do tourists enrol for several weeks at a time to build schools, clean and restore river banks, ring birds and other useful activities in mostly poor but exotic settings. AIDS orphan tourism has become a niche market, contributing to the growth of the tourism industry…

As in other countries undergoing social or other changes, non-family residential group care (orphanages) in southern Africa has expanded, perversely driven by the availability of funds for such facilities, and the glamour that media personalities have brought to setting them up. However, many orphanages are not registered with welfare authorities as required by law, and most face funding uncertainties and high staff turnover, making them unstable rather than secure environments for children. Moreover, children taken in by orphanages are usually from desperately poor families rather than orphans – the case of David Banda in Malawi is a case in point.

There is also this May 16, 2016 report from The Guardian that volunteers from the west are fueling the growth of orphanages in Uganda. Voluntourism has been linked to damaging local economies and commodifying vulnerable children. It also can perpetuate harmful stereotypes about the so-called “third world”, while also promoting neo-colonialistic attitudes. There’s also this blog from a person who paid to volunteer in an orphanage, and realized just how unethical it was.

A legitimate NGO serving orphans would never solicit come-one-come-all-as-long-as-you-can-pay volunteers via a general web site like Quora. Rather, they would have a proper, detailed Terms of Reference posted to credible humanitarian recruitment sites, like ReliefWeb or DevelopEx. That post for volunteers would detail the education and experience the volunteer would need to have and details on how the volunteers’ credibility would be investigated. And for legitimate programs, not every applicant would be accepted just because they’ve got the money to pay to the program organizer; in fact, many applicants would be turned away because they lack the necessary skills.

In short: unless a program overseas is recruiting volunteers who have many years of experience working with children, certifications, references and criminal background checks, has a web site that details how its programs are evaluated to show impact of their programs, and has endorsements by well-known international organizations,  stay away from the program. And don’t be Savior Barbie.

As for supposed conservation volunteering in another country: why would legitimate wildlife sanctuaries allow untrained foreigners to work directly with wild(ish) animals for a few weeks? No credible zoo in the USA would ever do that. The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee doesn’t let volunteers interact with the elephants! Before you rush off to an animal sanctuary in a foreign country, do a tremendous amount of research to make sure this is truly a sanctuary, not a place that goes out and captures baby animals so that tourists will pay to care for them and have photos with them.

Also see:

Requirements to volunteer are getting out of hand

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersThere are requirements in some school districts for students to perform a certain number of volunteering hours with nonprofit organizations. And courts across the USA often sentence law breakers to work unpaid – to volunteer – a certain number of hours with nonprofit organizations.

I’ve not been opposed to these requirements, though I do feel that schools and courts need to sit down with nonprofits and talk about the costs of such volunteer engagement for nonprofits. Organizations are not sitting around saying, “Gee, we’ve got all this work to do, I wish some people would come do it for free.” Volunteers are not free: they must be screened, supervised and supported. Tasks must be created for volunteers, and nonprofits have NO obligation to accept every person that says they want to volunteer. If you want nonprofits to involve more high school students or court-assigned volunteers, you are going to have to fund these nonprofits so that they have the resources to do that.

Now, I’m reading about governors and state legislators in the USA wanting to require even more people to volunteer.

For instance, as of January 2016, more than 17,000 food stamp recipients in eight Kentucky counties had to begin part-time work, education or volunteer activities to keep their benefits. Childcare is not provided for these food stamp recipients for their part-time work, education activities or volunteering time.

In addition, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin wants to require unemployed Medicaid members to volunteer in order to receive those benefits.

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, “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 have nothing to add to Ms. Clore and Ms. Beauregard’s comments – they are RIGHT ON.
Pennsylvania, Florida and North Carolina also now have these requirements people receiving food stamps must volunteer with a community service provider for a certain number of hours.

Here’s another example, and it may be even worse: in the proposed budget by Ohio Governor John Kasich, House Bill 49, he stealthily includes a line item requiring all licensed educators in Ohio to complete an unpaid internship with a local business or chamber of commerce as a condition of license renewal. As written, this requirement would extend to all educators — including teachers, principals, superintendents, and other school administrators — licensed by the Ohio Department of Education. This shameful proposal is wonderfully skewered in this editorial by Sue Grodek. Kasich is insulting teachers, who must already complete vast numbers of hours of classroom time and teacher training, by requiring them to be free labor for business-focused organizations, implying that teachers lack “real world” experience. It’s absolutely outrageous!

There’s no question that these requirement for volunteering from certain groups is now out-of-control. If you want to require any group to volunteer, you had better sit down, face-to-face, with leaders of organizations that involve volunteers, and work really hard to get their buy-in. You had better be able to say why it is to the organizations’ benefit to involve these people – and you had better not say it will save them money, because it will NOT. In fact, you had better have money to offer to cover the substantial costs of asking them to increase the number of volunteers they involve. And most of all, you better have data showing that this type of required volunteering is needed by the volunteers themselves. 

Nonprofits: if you aren’t worried about this now, then wake up. You have every right to write your state and national legislators, as well as local media, and tell them NO. It’s never been more important for your organization to create a mission statement just for your volunteer involvement. Otherwise, you can expect not only increased expenses as you take on more volunteers you didn’t recruit yourself, but also an even bigger backlash against all volunteering.

Will the various associations of directors of volunteers in agencies (DOVIAs) and associations of managers of volunteers and what not take a public stand on this issue? I’m not holding my breath. But kudos to the Kentucky Nonprofit Network and the Nonprofit Association of Oregon and others for taking a strong public stand against political moves that will damage nonprofits and their clients.

Also see:

Anti-volunteerism campaigns

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the Presidents’ Summit on America’s Future in Philadelphia, a three-day event that was aimed at boosting volunteerism and community service efforts across the USA. President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, former Presidents George Bush, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter and retired Gen. Colin Powell all participated. The original web sites of these campaigns are long gone, but I have screen captured them from archive.org and linked them from my web page tracking anti-volunteerism campaigns.

The summit resulted in a lot of press coverage, the launch of at least one nonprofit, and a huge boost for the Corporation for National Service, particularly AmeriCorps. But the summit also resulted in some anti-volunteerism campaigns, both on the political left and the political right.

I’ve been tracking campaigns against volunteer engagement since that time, and I’ve linked everything I’ve found from that aforementioned web page as well. These anti-volunteerism campaigns are not just in the USA: I have information about anti-volunteerism in Europe and elsewhere as well.

I track anti-volunteerism campaigns, and share what I find, for two reasons: (1) Those that promote volunteerism need to be aware of criticisms to their belief that volunteer community service is a great thing, and know how to counter such criticisms, and (2) Some of the complaints these campaigns have about volunteer engagement are absolutely legitimate, and also need to be addressed.

Actually, there is a third reason I share what I find: (3) I had someone that heads a major international organization that promotes volunteerism deny that these campaigns exist at all, particularly in Europe.

My only fear in sharing this information is that anyone would think I’m opposed to volunteer engagement! I hope that doesn’t happen…

One more thing: one of the most outspoken organizations against volunteering, which is cited on this page, is the Ayn Rand Institute. And, yet:

Yes, they are against volunteering UNLESS it’s for their organization.

Anyway… here is a long list of great reasons to involve volunteers.

National Summit on Volunteer Engagement Leadership, July 26-28, 2017

Registration is now open for the 2017 National Summit on Volunteer Engagement Leadership, July 26 – 28, 2017 in St. Paul, Minnesota. The Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA) is hosting the first national conference in the USA in more than a decade for people in charge of supporting and involving volunteers. This will also be the first time in more than a decade the profession’s most well-known thought leaders, authors, and trainers will be together in one place.

The Summit will offer more than 100 workshops to increase knowledge and skills regarding the management of volunteers. There will also be plenaries and group discussions to determine how to build a new national presence for leaders of volunteer engagement, tackle the issues that affect this profession, and ultimately increase the community impact of the volunteers engaged. There will also be special sessions focusing on grant makers and other philanthropic organizations which support volunteer engagement with funding, providing a unique opportunity for funders and nonprofit leaders alike to learn more about each other’s perspectives, approaches to collaboration, and challenges.

With the budgets of so many nonprofits and community-focused government programs on the chopping block, I hope this conference will also talk about how to advocate for those programs to voters and legislators.

It’s really wonderful that someone is attempting to have a national conference for managers of volunteers – it hasn’t happened in the USA since 2005. Back in 2006, the Association for Volunteer Administration (AVA), the national association of managers of volunteers, went under, due to financial mismanagement. With it went the annual national conference, the largest event in the world focused on the people and systems needed to support and involve volunteers, and event that helped elevate conversations about volunteerism beyond people-that-work-for-free-are-so-nice. The loss of AVA and its annual conference hurt not just managers of volunteers, but all volunteerism – there was no one who was championing the people in charge of creating tasks for volunteers and supporting volunteers in those tasks, and there was no one advocating for the resources those people need to do those jobs. I believe it’s why it’s been so hard to refute claims that the best way to measure volunteer value is by giving a monetary value to service hours, and why, in this era where everything is about community engagement, managers of volunteers at nonprofits have been largely left out of the conversation.

And, as I said the last time I blogged about this conference: if someone doesn’t update the Wikipedia page for the Association for Leaders in Volunteer Engagement (ALIVE) with citations OTHER than the ALIVE web site, the page is going to get deleted. I’ve donated a LOT of time to updating volunteering-associated pages on Wikipedia – it’s time for others to step in.