Monthly Archives: December 2010

Beware those charity rating sites

Very few nonprofits hand out cash to people. Instead, they provide services. Those services could be just about anything: nutritious food for people who can’t afford to feed themselves, live theater, counseling for people who have been victims of domestic violence, shelter for unwanted animals, job training for people desperate to enter or re-enter the workforce, day care activities for people with severe disabilities, and on and on and on.

Many of these services are designed, overseen or provided by professionals — people who have the training and experience to provide specialized services. These nonprofit professionals are just like those in any for-profit profession: they have spent a lot of money on their education and training, they have bills to pay, they have health care costs, they want to be able to buy homes and put their kids through school, they need a retirement plan, etc. And to keep the best people, nonprofits have to pay competitive salaries (and their competition isn’t just nonprofits — its businesses as well).

All of these organizations have rent to pay, equipment and supplies to buy (copy machines, computers, paper, furniture), insurance and utlities to pay for, and on and on.

What about any of these costs isn’t related to program costs? A copy machine may mean the difference between serving 1000 people as opposed to just 100. A trained social worker with a Master’s degree may mean the difference in providing a job counseling program and not providing one at all. A paid, full-time manager of volunteers may mean the difference between involving 100 volunteers and just a dozen or less.

With all that in mind, I have a lot of skepticism for claims that nonprofits give too much to administative costs, as well as for grading systems that are focused mostly on financial reports and not-so-much on the results of a nonprofit’s work. Some nonprofits have told me that they have been forced to hire a revolving door of short-term consultants instead of full time employees because, the way sites charity rating organizations or the way funders count administrative costs, a consultant can be counted as a program cost, but an employee, doing exactly the same work, is considered administrative.

As the Nonprofit Quarterly put it recently, “With one holiday giving article after another urging donors to do their homework on charities, it would be nice to believe that those that set themselves up to inform donors would take care not to do harm.”

Here’s some of the many criticisms of these charity rating sites:

Here’s my advice: when evaluating a charity, look for accredication by professional bodies, such as the Council of Accreditation. Look for membership in national or international networks. Look at what the organization says it does; don’t just look at activities – look at results. Look to see if they involve volunteers — not because volunteers are “free” and replace paid staff but, rather, because volunteers prove community investment in the organization. If you don’t see this documented on the organization’s web site, email the organization and ask for it.

But remember that many large donors refuse to fund administrative costs, and that means the organization may not have the funding to hire the staff that would be needed to provide the level of detail regarding its programs you and others may want — because, you know, that’s an administrative cost.

aid worker arrested in Haiti

An American aid worker is being held in Haiti, accused of kidnapping a 15-month-old boy. Paul Waggoner is the co-founder of Materials Management Relief Corps, a humanitarian organization that seeks to provide logistical support to medical workers in Haiti.

According to news reports, Waggoner was working at the Haitian Community Hospital in Petionville in February when a Haitian man sought treatment for his 15-month-old son. The child died. Dr. Kenneth Adams, a volunteer physician on staff at the Haitian Community Hospital, said he was present when the child’s father returned to see his son and “witnessed as the father looked at the baby for several minutes, waiting for the baby to breathe.” He said the man took pictures with the deceased baby before he left. Jeff Quinlan, who was working as director of security at the hospital when the child arrived said he told the father that the boy had died and instructed him to return within 24 hours to take the body. But he said the father instead returned more than 24 hours later with a “witch doctor” claiming the child was still alive. Hosptial workers said the body was cremated because the father had not claimed the remains within 24 hours.

Waggoner had nothing to do with the child’s care, according to hospital staff. One colleague said this may be an effort to extort money from Materials Management Relief Corps or Waggoner’s family. The conditions in Haiti’s National Penitentiary, where Waggoner is being held, are horrific: as many as 70 inmates are crowded into 20-by-20 foot cells without plumbing, in lockdown conditions. Diseases, like tuberculosis and AIDS, are rife in the prison. Haiti is also currently battling a cholera epidemic.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I believe Mr. Waggoner is innocent, and, therefore, this case illustrates one of the risks faced by aid workers that doesn’t get talked about much: getting entangled in local justice systems. It’s why I do not encourage people to volunteer on their own, sans any host organization: Mr. Waggoner at least has the support of Materials Management Relief Corps. But an independent volunteer who waltzes into a local NGO and just starts helping – if he or she is falsely accused of stealing, of hurting a child, or worse, there is NO organization that will be helping you!

Indeed, there are some aid workers that do bad things:

All horrific cases, and all of these cases put all aid workers under a cloud of suspicion in many countries, making their work extremely difficult. But the reality is that most aid workers not only do not engage in such horrific behavior, aid workers are also frequently the target of sexual abuse, kidnapping and assault themselves: type aid worker sexually assaulted into and you will end up with a long, horrific list of incidents against aid workers including stories that talk about:

And on and on. I’m a frequent international traveler and sometime aid worker myself, and don’t want to be alarmist. I do believe you can do good while traveling abroad. But take security cautions seriously, and remember that the more solo you are, the harder it will be to get any support if you face a local justice system.

You can contact US government officials to urge them to do more to secure Waggoner’s freedom. Blog about this case yourself to raise the profile of this case on search engines and, potentially, in the media.

Also see Vetting Organizations in Other Countries.

UPDATE: He’s just out of prison, but still in Haiti.

July 17, 2017 updateCharities and voluntourism fuelling ‘orphanage crisis’ in Haiti, says NGO. At least 30,000 children live in privately-run orphanages in Haiti, but an estimated 80% of the children living in these facilities are not actually orphaned: they have one or more living parent, and almost all have other relatives, according to the Haitian government.

Germany needs 90 thousand volunteers immediately

(Gehen Sie für diese Abhandlung auf Deutsch hinab)

Germany is getting rid of its compulsory military and community service for young men, and German hospitals, retirement homes, hostels, Red Cross chapters, agencies serving people with disabilities, and other social service and community agencies across the country are deeply worried about how they will now staff their organizations.

For more than 40 years, young German men, age 18 to 20, were drafted into military service — it was originally a two year commitment, but over the years, it was reduced to 15 months, then reduced to 12 months, and most recently, reduced to six. The reductions have been a result of cost-cutting. Men could substitute community service at German social service agencies for military service; the community service commitment was usually a bit longer, by a few months, than the military service. Men who opted for community service instead of military service are known in Germany colloquially as “Zivis.”

But the days of compulsory service — and the Zivis — are over as of 2011. Hundreds of charities across Germany that have relied on almost 100,000 conscripts to run their organizations are bracing for a severe labor shortage. Many charities don’t believe they will be able to find enough volunteers willing to do the grunt work that Zivis have done – washing dishes, cleaning rooms, preparing meals, etc.

Can Germany recruit 90,000 volunteers to replace Zivis? Yes – but it will take a sweeping, fundamental rethinking of how Germany charities perceive the role of volunteers, and a LOT of training and support to implement this new thinking.

Germany already understands the value of volunteers in fire fighting. Germany has the most volunteer fire fighters, per capita, of any country in the world. In Germany, for a community served by volunteer firefighters, the first truck must arrive within eight minutes. Volunteer firefighters train alongside professional firefighters — there is no two-tiered training system, one for professionals and one for volunteers. Volunteers stay for years, not just weeks or months. And volunteer fire fighters fight fires, protecting humans, businesses and property. Yes, they also do grunt work, but they also fight fires. Whether they know it or not, Germany already trusts volunteers with critical services; Germany needs to build on that for other community services.

The place to start: German charities need to involve volunteers in more than grunt work:

    • They need to think about volunteers in the ways organizations here in the USA that are staffed primarily by volunteers do. Volunteers deliver the majority of services provided by the American Red Cross and the Girl Scouts of the USA, for instance, staffing not just the grunt work but leadership positions as well. Many of their volunteers stay for years, not just weeks or months, because they do much more than grunt work. Volunteering varies across cultures in many aspects, but one thing that is always the same, culture-to-culture, country-to-country: volunteers want to feel like the work they are doing is critical, not just nice, but necessary.
  • In addition, volunteering needs to be tied to high school and university work, where appropriate, giving students practical experience applying what they are learning in classrooms — service learning. Certain community service should earn the volunteer high school or university class credit.

To make this transformation possible, however, will take intensive, advanced volunteer management training for charities, for universities and for government agency staff. It also may mean paying people to do the grunt work, while reserving positions with high levels of responsibility for volunteers – that’s a radical way of thinking for many people.

I trained a few times in Germany, and I was taken aback at how far behind the country is with regard to volunteer management:

    • Representatives from volunteer centers told me they would not use online databases of volunteering opportunities because “then no one will use our volunteer center.”
  • Residents who are not ethnically-German are vastly under-represented among the staff of most charities and community service organizations in Germany; you can go to a village in Germany with a significant ethnic-Turkish population, for instance, but you won’t see volunteers from this population at the local fire house. In my eight years in Germany, I never found any charity or community service organization that involved volunteers that was undertaking recruitment activities targeted on minority communities specifically — yes, I looked.

This is a challenging time for Germany, but it’s also an amazing opportunity for Germany to ramp up its involvement of volunteers, and transform its society in a number of positive, sustainable ways. It could become a model for the rest of the EU! Attention Germany: I’m ready to help!

Read more at this story at NPR.

— Übersetzung in Deutsch —

Die Tage der Wehrpflicht – und der Zivis – sind vorbei ab 2011. Hunderte Wohlfahrtsorganisationen in ganz Deutschland, die auf die Arbeit der fast 100.000 einberufenen vertraut haben, sehen sich jetzt einer radikalen Verringerung ihrer Arbeitskräfte gegenüber. Viele Organisationen glauben nicht, daß sie ausreichend Freiwillige finden können um die Routinearbeit zu erledigen, die bis jetzt von Zivis erledigt wurde – spülen, Räume reinigen, Mahlzeiten zubereiten, usw.

Kann Deutschland 90.000 Freiwillige rekrutieren um die Zivis zu ersetzen? Ja – aber es verlangt ein fundamentales Umdenken wie deutsche Wohlfahrtsorganisationen die Rolle von Freiwilligen verstehen, und VIEL Übung und Unterstützung um dieses neue Denken auch umzusetzen.

Deutschland versteht bereits den Wert von Freiwilligen in Feuerwehren. Deutschland hat die meisten Freiwilligen Feuerwehrleute pro Einwohner aller Länder weltweit. In einer deutschen Gemeinde mit einer freiwilligen Feuerwehr muß nach 8 Minuten erste wirksame Hilfe durch die Feuerwehr geleistet werden. Freiwillige Feuerwehrleute erhalten die gleiche Ausbildung wie Berufsfeuerwehrleute, es gibt keine zwei Klassen-Ausbildung. Freiwillige bleiben für Jahre, nicht nur für Wochen oder Monate. Und freiwillige Feuerwehrleute bekämpfen Feuer, retten Menschenleben und schützen Sachwerte. Ja, sie machen auch Routinearbeit, aber sie bekämpfen auch Feuer. Ob sie es wissen oder nicht, Deutsche vertrauen bereits jetzt Freiwilligen mit Aufgaben von entscheidender Bedeutung; Deutsche müssen dies auf andere soziale Aufgaben ausdehnen.

Der Anfang: Deutsche Wohlfahrtsorganisationen müssen Freiwillige für mehr als nur Routinearbeiten einsetzen:

    • Sie müssen sie genauso ansehen wie Organisationen in den USA, deren Mitarbeiter hauptsächlich Freiwillige sind. Freiwillige übernehmen den Grossteil der Leistungen, die das Amerikanische Rote Kreuz und die `Girl Scouts of the USA` (Girl Guides) anbieten, so übernehmen sie nicht nur die Routinearbeit, sondern auch Führungspositionen. Viele ihrer Freiwilligen bleiben für Jahre und nicht nur für Wochen oder Monate, weil sie viel mehr tun als nur die Routinearbeit. Das Ehrenamt variiert in verschiedenen Kulturen in vielen Aspekten, aber eines bleibt immer gleich, Kultur zu Kultur, Land zu Land: Freiwillige wollen merken, dass ihre Arbeit wichtig ist, nicht nur nett, sondern notwendig.
  • Zusätzlich muss ein Ehrenamt mit Hochschulen und Universitäten verbunden werden, wo dies angemessen ist. So, dass Schüler und Studenten praktische Erfahrungen sammeln und anwenden können was sie in Unterricht lernen — “service learning.” Bestimme Ehrenämter sollten den Freiwilligen bei der Hochschule oder Universität angerechnet werden.

Um diese Transformation möglich zu machen, benötigt es intensive und fortgeschrittene Freiwilligen-Management-Schulungen für Wohlfahrtsorganisationen, für Universitäten und für Regierungsbehörden. Es kann auch bedeuten, Angestellte zu bezahlen um die Routinearbeiten zu erledigen, während Positionen mit mehr Verantwortung für Freiwillige reserviert werden – für viele Leute ist dies eine radikal Denkensweise.

Ich habe ein paar Schulungen in Deutschland geleitet und war erstaunt wie weit zurück dieses Land ist im Bezug auf Management von Freiwilligen“? :

    •  Vertreter von Freiwilligen-Zentren erzählten mir, sie würden keine Online-Datenbank für verfügbare Ehrenämter benutzen, weil “dann wird niemand unsere Freiwilligen Zentrum besuchen.”
  • Einwohner mit Migrationshintergrund sind weit unterrepräsentiert in der Belegschaft der meisten Wohlfahrtsorganisationen und gemeinnützigen Organisationen in Deutschland. Man kann z.B. in eine Gemeinde mit deutlichem türkischem Bevölkerungsanteil gehen, aber man wird keinen Freiwilligen dieser Bevölkerungsgruppe im örtlichen Freiwilligen Feuerwehrhaus antreffen. In meinen acht Jahren in Deutschland habe ich nie eine Wohlfahrtsorganisation oder gemeinnützige Organisation, die Freiwillige einbezieht, gefunden, die Anwerbung speziell auf Minderheiten zugeschnitten hatte – ja, ich habe danach gesucht.

Es ist eine herausfordernde Zeit für Deutschland, aber es ist auch eine einzigartige Gelegenheit für Deutschland, um die Einbeziehung von Freiwilligen zu steigern; und um seine Gesellschaft in einer positiven und nachhaltigen Weise zu transformieren. Deutschland könnte zu einem Vorbild in der restlichen EU werden! Aufgepasst Deutschland: Ich bin bereit zu helfen!

Lesen Sie mehr in diesem Bericht auf NPR (nur in Englisch).

(Thanks to Stefan Dietz and Lis Mullin Bernhardt for the translation)

Please comment on these blogs by Afghan women

The Afghan Women’s Writing Project presents short essays, in English, by Afghan women in Afghanistan. They write about their lives, their favorite recipes, their favorite moments, their dreams, their fears, their families — anything, really. The project, a nonprofit, is aimed at allowing Afghan women to have a direct voice in the world, not filtered through male relatives or members of the media. Online volunteers in the USA help the women produce their blogs.

Many of these Afghan women have to make extreme efforts to gain computer access in order to submit their writings to the project. Many have to keep their participation secret because of disapproval from their family and neighbors — and that disapproval could turn violent if they were found out. But the women are willing to risk quite a lot to participate in this program. Giving a voice to their experience — an experience you rarely see in traditional media stories or in any commentary by government officials or international military officials — makes their voice heard, makes us all a witness to their experience. And the women feel heard. It is incredibly empowering to be heard.

I have an Afghan friend who is writing essays for this project, and I hope you will read any or all of her six short blogs. Even better, I hope you will comment on any of her blogs — or comment on any of the blogs written by any these women. Comments mean so much to these writers.

To help the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, you can volunteer online or you can donate to help pay the rent for the project’s office in Kabul (I know first hand how crazy expensive rents are in Kabul) and pay for the center’s Internet access ($300 a month!).


Your flow chart for volunteers

Too often, volunteer involvement is described this way:

Volunteers contact us, we give them an assignment, they do it. Ta da!

This simplified description comes often from people who are from the for-profit/corporate sector or who are in senior management – they have no idea how much work it takes behind the scenes for successful volunteer engagement.

Volunteers should certainly feel like getting into an assignment is seamless and quick, but to give volunteers that experience actually takes a LOT of planning behind-the-scenes by the organization. For instance, there are rarely a plethora of well-defined tasks or roles laying around a nonprofit office waiting to be done by just anyone with some time on their hands and a good heart. It takes a lot of time and support to develop volunteering assignments, including “micro-volunteering” tasks that will take just a few hours, and not just any person is appropriate every assignment – some require particular skills, a certain amount of time within a specific time frame, or work at a particular type of day.

In addition, a person’s desire to volunteer is often not enough for a volunteer to be successful: a candidate needs to be screened at least a bit in order to make sure the volunteer understands the very real commitment he or she is making, even if that commitment is just a couple of hours. The candidate may need to be further screened to make sure he or she really does know how to do the assignment. To not do any screening means much more time down the road for the organization, tracking down volunteers, correcting sub-par assignments, finding more volunteers or staff to re-do assignments that were poorly done or not done at all, etc.

And, ofcourse, supporting volunteers takes a lot of time, no matter how automated you make the process. Someone has to be contacting volunteers to ensure they are getting assignments done, have the support they need, etc. Someone has to keep volunteers in-the-loop about what’s happening at the organization, and to recognize the value of their work – otherwise, those volunteers go away.

A terrific, easy exercise that can be really helpful in showing just what it takes for your organization or an individual department to involve and support volunteers successfully is to create a flow chart mapping your volunteer engagement, or a series of maps for different parts of the volunteer management process — the volunteer in-take process, the volunteer assignment development and matching process, the volunteer support assignment, etc. You could do charts for each of these processes, and then show how they all intersect.

You can do this mapping exercise alone, by yourself (if you are the coordinator of volunteer program or involve large numbers of volunteers yourself), or you can do this with a group of employees and volunteers. A dry erase white board with markers is best, but any computer program that allows you to do a flow chart or graphics will work as well.

Here’s one example of what a volunteer in-take flow chart could look like as a result of your mapping exercise (every organization is different):

Don’t be surprised if, in doing this process, you find gaps in your volunteer management process. I’ve done this mapping process with several departments and organizations, and the results have been revealing. Many times, I’ve found that an organization thinks it isn’t recruiting enough volunteers when, actually, it is — a lot of people are, in fact, responding to recruitment messages, but their information isn’t being forwarded to the coordinator of volunteers, or the volunteers are getting responses weeks or months after they express interest, instead of within hours or a few days. If I’m evaluating a volunteer program and an organization cannot produce such a chart — they don’t know what happens when someone calls, they don’t know how information gets to the coordinator of volunteers, the coordinator can’t say how many calls or emails he or she gets every month from potential volunteers, etc. — I know just how deep problems may be regarding the organization’s recruitment, involvement and support of volunteers.

Doing a chart correctly may require interviewing more than one person. For instance, just to map the volunteer in-take process correctly takes interviewing every person who answers the organization’s phone or main email address.

When I’m in charge of coordinating volunteers, I find this exercise quite helpful because it helps me educate fellow staff quickly on what it takes to involve volunteers successfully and helps explain why I’m doing whatever it is I’m doing.

Again, the example above is just for a volunteer in-take process (it doesn’t show how a volunteer is matched to an assignment, or how an assignment gets developed in the first place), and your map could be different for your organization. Maybe you don’t have an onsite orientation; your volunteer orientation may just be an email message, or may be an online video candidates for volunteering can view on their own. In either case, your map needs to show how you know they have read that email message or viewed that video.

In Budapest soon & looking for more European gigs

It’s looking very likely I will be in Budapest in late January 2011 to perform some training (more on that as details emerge). I would be happy to stick around Europe for a week or even two for other training gigs. If you are in Europe and are interested in booking me for a training the first or second week of February, please contact me.

While most of my training and consulting gigs still come from outside the USA, even though I live in the USA now, in the last 14 months, I’ve done more training presentations locally, in the place I’ve living, than I have ever done in more than 15 years of training — including when I lived in Austin, Texas. Currently, I’m living in the Pacific Northwest, between Salem and Portland, Oregon, and so far, since moving to this part of the world, I’ve done trainings for the Nonprofit Network Southwest Washington in Vancouver, for HandsOn/United Way of the Mid-Willamette Valley in Salem, the Oregon Commission for Voluntary Action & Service/Oregon Volunteers/AmeriCorps, Friends of Family Farmers, Qwest Pioneers Volunteer Network, the Northwest Oregon Volunteer Administrators Association (NOVAA), and the Portland Hostels.

Thank you, Oregon and Washington!


Empower women, empower a nation

This week, the US State Department released the first-ever Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), which includes an unprecedented emphasis on the central role of women and girls in effective development and diplomacy. The QDDR is the first sweeping assessment and new blueprint for all of U.S. international assistance and diplomacy.

It’s fantastic to see the essential role of women so prominent in a US State Department report. Hurrah!

But it’s not enough.

When a girl in the developing world receives seven or more years of education, she marries four years later and has 2.2 fewer children
(United Nations Population Fund, State of World Population 1990). When women and girls earn income, they reinvest 90 percent of it into their families, as compared to only 30 to 40 percent for a man (Phil Borges, with foreword by Madeleine Albright, Women Empowered: Inspiring Change in the Emerging World [New York: Rizzoli, 2007], 13.). Empowering women in places in Afghanistan — giving them safe, easy access to primary and secondary education, to vocational training and to basic health services — improves the lives of everyone in the country. And, in addition, giving women a voice in defining and evaluating development goals is the ONLY way to ensure development activities meet the needs of women and children.

If you are an aid worker, you have to be committed to women’s involvement, no matter what the focus of your work is. I’m not a gender expert nor a women’s mainstreaming expert, but I have a commitment to mainstreaming the issues of women in my aid and development work. That means that, when I’m working as a reporting consultant, for instance, I’m going to kick back reports to the author’s if there’s no mention of how women were involved in whatever they are reporting about, or no explanation of why women were not involved. I’ve made many a male aid worker angry for doing that… Whether its a water and sanitation project, an infrastucture project, a weapons return program, an agricultural project, a governance project, whatever, you have to look for ways women to be involved in at least the decision-making and goal-defining.

As most of you know, I worked in Afghanistan for six months in 2007, and I’ve remained in contact with a few Afghan women in Afghanistan. They tell me that they cherish every inch of freedom they’ve enjoyed over the last eight years, and though it isn’t nearly as much as they hoped for — they still don’t have, in practice, equal rights to men (property ownership, wages, leadership roles, choice in marriage, choice in career, choice in number of children, etc.). They see on TV the freedoms and prosperity Muslim women enjoy in India, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Indonesia, and other countries with large, even dominant, Muslim populations, and they see the prosperity of Muslims in those countries, and they ask, “Why not us?”

But I rarely see these women on TV news reports. I rarely hear women mentioned in news analysis on network TV, in newspapers, in political debates about Afghanistan, in US Government briefings… that’s like not mentioning black Africans or apartheid when discussing South Africa in the 1980s. If the 50% of the population being oppressed, tortured, killed, denied even basic human rights, were an ethnic group or a religious group, the outrage would be oh-so-loud and constant. But women? Suddenly oppression is a cultural thing we have to respect and not interfere with.

Some things regarding Afghanistan that have gotten my attention lately, and are worth your time to read:

I’ve blogged about this before. I guess I’m going to keep blogging about it until things change…

Incredibly sad news re: Gary Chapman, Internet pioneer

Gary Chapman, a senior lecturer at the University of Texas’ Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs who was an expert in the field of Internet and technology policy, died Tuesday of an apparent heart attack while on a kayaking trip in Guatemala.

Gary was the director of the LBJ School’s 21st Century Project. He also was a prolific writer, authoring articles on technology and society for publications that include The New York Times and The Washington Post, and was a general editorial columnist for the Austin American-Statesman.

I am having such a hard time writing the word was about Gary. Gary was my friend. In my opinion, Gary never got his due regarding his pioneering contributions to the study of the Internet and the development of our understanding for the Internet’s potential to communicate and engage. All those hip things we say now about the benefits of online social networking and cloud computing and whatever else is in vogue to say now, Gary was saying many years ago about the potential of the Internet.

My former boss, Dr. Sarah Jane Rehnborg, broke the news to me just now, and among the many things she said was this: He was absolutely one of my favorite people here at LBJ. I so understand that sentiment. Gary was my immediate friend and colleague when I moved to Austin — he made me feel immediately welcomed. I could not count how many people I’ve referred to him in some way, and how many people and resources he has sent my way. He was a huge supporter of my work regarding online volunteering. I just reconnected with him a few months ago, and I remember thinking, Gary’s Facebook posts are always worth reading.

From what I understand, Gary was on a dream vacation. He had been taking kayaking lessons from a champion kayaker in preparation for this trip.

I am guessing that the LBJ School web site will have information on funeral arrangements and suggestions for expressions of sympathy in terms of donations. I can’t get on the web site right now.

Shocking, sad news…. many tears to shed…


Volunteers trying to help on their own

The Nonprofit Quarterly picked up a story about a 240-acre nature preserve in Northeastern New Jersey asking volunteers to please stop “doing good” on their own, because unsanctioned “trail improvements” are causing serious damage to the preserve. Conservancy members have found places where certain fruit-bearing native vines “are being cut wholesale,” threatening a source of food for small animals that live in the woods. In another instance, someone had removed logs and branches from steep trail beds, which could lead to serious erosion.

To prevent further damage, the nonprofit group has sent notices and put up signs along trails telling people who want to initiate their own projects to leave things alone. “We appreciate volunteerism, and we realize a lot of people have good intentions,” said Theresa Trapp, the conservancy’s treasurer. “But we really need people to contact us before doing any work.”

Some of the people doing these “trail improvements” could be mountain bikers. One official who has seen similar problems in county’s parks said mountain bikers will create their own trails, “and if something’s in their way, they’ll move it.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of people thinking they are being proactive as volunteers, without seeking approval first from an organization and, instead, actually doing some harm. For instance, there are people who, once they become an official volunteer of an organization, think they are now official representatives of the organization, and will represent themselves as such to others:

  • they may organize a volunteering event without clearing it with the organization first,
  • book themselves as speakers to community groups,
  • start replying in online discussion groups as though they represent the organization,

Even worse: some people put themselves and others at risk with their independent volunteering following a disaster; this happened following Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast of the USA with a few people who charged in on their own (I wish I’d kept track of all the stories I read about this happening, particularly with people handling chainsaws – one man hurt himself while he was alone in a largely abandoned area).

It’s not enough to have a few lines in your written policies and procedures about when a volunteer should, and should not, represent themselves as volunteers, how they should propose activities, your confidentiality policies, etc.; you need to remind your volunteers and the general public of these policies: on your online discussion group for volunteers, in your online or paper newsletter, on your web site, on your social networking profiles such as Facebook, and maybe even through an interview on the local TV news or a local newspaper.

If you discover a volunteer is doing activities in the name of your organization, but outside of the approval of your organization, contact that person immediately – not via email, but with a phone call or in-person meeting. Tell the person what you have heard and ask the volunteer if what you have heard is true. Welcome that person’s own explanation/description of the circumstances. And then review together the policies of the organization and how this might, or might not, be a violation. If you need more time to investigate, by all means, do so.

If it’s someone outside your organization, again, call that person immediately. Tell the person what you have heard and ask the person if what you have heard is true. Welcome that person’s own explanation/description of the circumstances. Explain carefully why the activity is inappropriate (if it is). And consider: is there a way to make this person an official volunteer and channel his or her energies for your organization in a more appropriate way?

In either case, followup with both email and, as appropriate, a message sent via postal mail, confirming the details of your meeting and the next steps.

And on a related note: How do you know what is being said about your organization or yourself in the public spaces online — on blogs, in captions on Flickr photos, in newspaper articles, and in public online discussion groups?

My favorite tool for tracking what’s being said about an organization I’m working with, or even just me, is GoogleAlerts. This free service automatically notifies you if there is any new content online in a public space — including traditional print media that publishes their stories online — that mentions whatever phrase or phrases you want to track. It won’t tell you about email conversations, as those are private, or about postings on private online spaces (a private online discussion group, for instance, or someone’s Facebook profile that has all of its privacy settings on — so long as Facebook keeps allowing such privacy settings, which it may not always do).

You can use GoogleAlerts or similar tools to track:

  • Your name
  • Your organization’s name
  • Your executive director’s name
  • Another organization (your competition, a partner, an organization you aspire to be like, etc.)
  • A particular subject matter
  • Etc.

Start with two GoogleAlerts at first — one of just your name, and one of your organization’s name. Putting a name in quotes is best, so that you will get only exact matches (I don’t want every newspaper story that mentions Jayne and also Cravens, but specifically, Jayne Cravens, and that won’t happen unless I put my entire name in quotes, like this: “Jayne Cravens”). You will then receive an email when something is published online with your alert name, with a link to the mention. You can set the alerts to come as the mentions happen (for instance, when the blog is posted that mentions your name), in a daily summary, or in a weekly summary.


Be careful when you choose subjects to track; you don’t want to track something generic like dogs, because you will be overwhelmed with alerts. You would want to track something specific instead in one alert, like
dogs abandoned Nowhere County “Humane Society”

GoogleAlerts or similar tools help you respond quickly to newspaper articles, blog posts — even criticism. And you most certainly should respond online quickly, with praise, with thanks or with more or clarifying information, as the situation demands.

With all that said, do NOT try to shut down a volunteer’s blog about his or her experience with your organization. Blogging by volunteers should be encouraged, not discouraged, within the policies of the organization (not talking about confidential information, for instance, or not disparaging co-workers in public).

Needed: Online Volunteering Research

On the Volunteers & Technology forum at TechSoup, someone asked me what I thought the top five potential research areas are regarding online volunteering.

My answer is there, but I’ll put it here as well, with some additional info.

First, I should note that no institution is doing online research regarding online volunteering, and no one person is consistently doing it, including me — I do it when I can, as I have no funding to do such (and, actually, I haven’t been seeking any). I’ve done more in the last two years, for the revision of the Virtual Volunteering Guidebook (to be released early next year), than I’ve done in the 10 years before — but I was stunned at the lack of research by other people I could reference.

Studies regarding volunteering don’t include anything about online volunteering, despite the practice being more than 30 years old. I get an email about twice a year from some graduate student wanting to do a study about online volunteering, and I’m happy to help them, but their topic is always the same, and not at all what’s needed by the field: the motivation of online volunteers. Snooze.

For practitioners — as in nonprofit and government staff that want to be successful in engaging online volunteers — I think the priority research needs regarding online volunteering are the following, but not in any order of priority — any of them would be hugely welcomed by practitioners:

    • What are the factors for success in an online volunteering completing a volunteering assignment.
  • What are the factors that keep an online volunteer supporting an organization for at least a year.

For those first two, practitioners have been talking about this, and I’ve been talking to them about it, but I haven’t been researching it in a consistent way that would meet rigorous academic standards. For those who have been involving online volunteers themselves: we know the answers, for the most part, but the only actual academic research is from back in the 1990s. There really needs to be current research, and not by me. Such research would be an affirmation that’s really needed by practitioners in mobilizing resources to involve volunteers and, as there are a few people running around claiming loudly that no screening, no orientation, no prepping of online volunteers is needed at all, that online volunteers will magically complete their assignments without organizations being so “bureaucratic”, it means a lot of volunteer managers can get push back from senior management when asking for critically-needed resources to properly screen and support online volunteers.

Other research priorities, IMO:

    • Are there management needs that are different for online volunteers representing different groups (by age, by geographic region, by profession, by education level, etc.) to complete assignments and to be inspired to continue supporting an organization over months rather than just days or weeks.
    • How much does involving online volunteers cost – a comparison of at least 20 organizations in the USA (or any one country, for that matter).
    • What differences are there in the success of involving online volunteers in non-English-speaking countries in Europe in comparison with North America?
  • What differences are there in the success of involving online volunteers in developing or transitional countries where Internet access is available to large portions of the population (India, Nigeria, South Africa, Pakistan, Poland, etc.) in comparison with North America?

Okay, that was six instead of five. Those last two are needed hugely. Online volunteering is happening in other countries, whether the NGOs there admit it or not. I’ll never forget doing a training in Germany for about a dozen folks, and once I explained what online volunteering was, it turned out four organizations there were involving online volunteers — they hadn’t realized it, however.  Spain is doing a LOT regarding online volunteering — but no one is tracking it/researching it (I’d say they are ahead of even the UK in terms of online volunteer engagement — they were as of 2001, anyway).

Now, what I didn’t say on the TechSoup forum: why aren’t academics, organizations and institutions including online volunteering in their studies regarding volunteering? Why do they continue to ignore a practice that’s more than 30 years old, and has been talked about widely — in newspapers, at conferences, in online discussion groups — since the late 1990s? Here is why I think that’s the case:

    • Intellectual laziness on the part of of the organizations — and, in some cases, on the part of individual researchers.
    • These organizations and institutions, and many academics, are simply not in touch with what is happening on the front lines of volunteer engagement. They don’t participate in online discussion groups about nonprofits, with practitioners, for instance. Their silence is deafening.
    • They do not listen to others outside their immediate circle — and they let funders, even from the corporate world, define their research topics. Try writing, say, the Corporation for National Service or the Pew Research Center about online volunteering and the need for research or the need for it to be consistently included in volunteerism research, and see if they respond. Yes, I’ve tried, more than once. No, they never wrote back. I gave up.

Your thoughts?