Daily Archives: 14 December 2010

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).