Daily Archives: 7 January 2011

What online community service is – and is not

There is a for-profit company based in Florida, Community Service Help, Inc., that claims it can match people have been assigned court-ordered community service “with a charity that is currently accepting online volunteers” – for a fee, payable by the person in need of community service. There is no list on the company’s web site about what people do as online volunteers through the company, and no list of “charity partners” that use this service – at least not as of the day I’m posting this blog. There is a list of testimonials from people who have supposedly used the service — testimonials which all sound amazingly the same, as though they were all written by the same person. There is also no listing of the names of the staff people and their credentials to show their experience regarding online volunteering or community service.

I found out about this company because someone was posting about it on YahooAnswers > Community Service in response to anyone who was seeking community service per court order.

I was alarmed for a number of reasons, most of which I’ve noted in the opening paragraph, in bold, and also because online volunteering opportunities are plentiful – so plentiful that it’s nothing short of exploitative to charge people to find them. Here’s just a FEW of the many, many places to find online volunteering (Aug. 14, 2015 clarification: note that this is a list of examples of legitimate virtual volunteering with legitimate nonprofits, and it’s offered to show what online volunteering really looks like; not all of these nonprofits meet the standards required by courts or probation officers for community service):

Distributed Proofreaders. These online volunteers turn public domain books into online books, mostly for Project Gutenberg.

Electronic Emissary, one of the best known and most respected online tutoring programs, where adult volunteers help students in a variety of complex academic-based projects.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Volunteer Monitoring Program
This is a mix of online and remote volunteering. Volunteers collect data from the environments around them and submit the information online to the EPA.

Idealist/Action Without Borders has many of the volunteer tasks listed on its site that are online. To find them, do keyword search using online and virtual. You will have to read each assignment carefully to ensure they are actually virtual.

Extraordinaries, hosts a database of micro-volunteering assignments (tasks that can be completed in around an hour or two) in support of different nonprofit organizations.

Infinite Family, an online mentoring program matching adults and families in the USA with at-risk, impoverished children in South Africa.

LibriVox, a nonprofit that coordinates online volunteers to record audio versions of public domain books.

Nabuur, which recruits online volunteers to support organizations working in or for the developing world.

TestPrepPractice Math Tutors

United Nations Online Volunteering Service lists at least a few hundred online volunteering opportunities at any given time, at organizations working in or for the developing world (not just UN agencies). This is the largest database anywhere of online volunteering opportunities.

VolunteerMatch has many of the volunteer tasks listed on its site tagged as virtual volunteering.

That’s not only a short, not-at-all comprehensive list of organizations that are focused specifically on online volunteers: there are thousands of traditional organizations that involve online volunteers as translators, web page developers, researchers, writers, subject-matter experts (SMEs), pro bono consultants, and on and on (I volunteer with the Girl Scouts, and my service is 90% online; I help with communications issues). And there’s also dozens of organizations that allow volunteers to engage in home-based volunteering, knitting blankets for babies who are HIV positive, or organizing food drives for local free food pantries or local animal shelters, and on and on. (Aug. 14, 2015 clarification: note that the aforementioned is a list of examples of legitimate virtual volunteering with legitimate nonprofits, and it’s offered to show what online volunteering really looks like; not all of these nonprofits meet the standards required by courts or probation officers for community service. You can find a comprehensive listing of where to find legitimate online volunteering here, but note that not all nonprofits, online or onsite with traditional volunteer engagement, can accommodate court-ordered community service folks)

So, of course, I was alarmed to find a for-profit company charging people for access to online volunteering opportunities when such opportunities are so freely and easily accessible. In addition, there is no guarantee that an agent of the court will accept online service as fulfillment of community service; I have been approached by dozens of people who want to volunteer online for community service fulfillment, and when I’ve told them to get permission from the court first, they call or email back to say the judge or probation officer refused, because the judge or probation officer felt there was not enough monitoring/supervision. Even so, many courts have been open to the idea, so long as the nonprofit or government agency that will involve the online volunteer can provide proof that the person really did the hours needed.

(I’ve been lucky enough to have involved some court-ordered folks as online volunteers – and I have to say that all of them have ended up volunteering for more hours than they were required to do.)

I started investigating this company immediately. I contacted several associations of nonprofits, including the Florida Association of Nonprofit Organizations (FANO), a couple of DOVIAs (directors of volunteers in agencies) in Florida and various colleagues that research volunteering, including online volunteering. Not one had ever heard of this organization. So I filed a notice with the Florida State Attorney General’s cyberfraud division. The Consumer Services Department of Miami-Dade County began its investigation in December.

Today, the owner of Community Service Help, Inc. called me because of the investigation. He wanted to explain what his company does. And what does his company do? A person pays him $30, and he gives you access to online videos that are supposed to help you be a better person. You do not perform any community service at all; you watch videos. The company’s representative was adamant that watching videos is community service — and that watching them online makes it online community service. The people who use his service do no activities other than watching videos as their “community service.” Through a nonprofit organization in Michigan, he arranges for paperwork to be sent to the court or probation officer that says the paying customer has completed the “community service” and how many hours they spent doing such.

Of course, watching videos is not community service. Court-ordered community service offline looks like this. Or this. Community service involves activity, it involves engagement, it involves an action to do something that needs to be done and that actually helps the community or a cause. Note that there’s no mention at all on these real community service pages regarding watching videos to fulfill court-ordered community service.

Online community service activities look just like online volunteering activities – and also don’t involve watching videos, outside of a person training to be, say, an online volunteer mentor or, perhaps, judging videos that have been submitted to a nonprofit or government agency for some kind of contest. Or maybe watching videos to find information an organization is looking for as part of the person’s online research assignment.

One can only imagine what the paperwork that Community Service Help, Inc. submits to the court or a probation office, or that is submitted by its mysterious “charity partners,” says that the person actually did to complete his or her community service hours (good luck finding an example of such online). I’m sure the judges or probation officers have no idea that all the person did to complete his or her hours was to pay a fee and watch videos on his lap top or smart phone (or, at least, someone watched those videos — who knows who!), that there was no completion of an actual activity that helps a nonprofit, a government agency or those such agencies serve.

The further shock is that, as I’ve researched, there seems to be many of these organizations charging people who have been assigned court-ordered service for freely-available information and resources! Another one is Community Service 101, which charges a monthly fee for users to track and report their hours – something they could do for free on a shared GoogleDoc spreadsheet. There’s also this nonprofit, Facing the Future With Hope, which also offers to find online community service, for a fee. Note that neither web site offers any examples of what online volunteers actually do, what nonprofits actually involve these online volunteers, etc.

While I have no issue with a nonprofit organization, or even a government agency, charging a volunteer — a person who is helping on his or her own, or because a court or school is requiring such — to cover expenses (materials, training, staff time to supervise and support the volunteer, criminal background check, etc.), I have a real problem with companies charging people for freely-available information, and for judges and probation officers accepting online community service that consists of a person watching videos.

If it’s a for-profit company, you should be able to find on their web site:

  • A list of courts, by name, city and state, that have accepted community service arranged through this company (not just “courts in Florida”, but “the circuit court of Harpo County, Florida”
  • A list about specific activities that people do as volunteers through the company
  • A list of “charity partners” or nonprofit partners or government agency partners that use this service
  • The names of staff and their credentials to show their experience regarding online volunteering or community service.
  • A list of all fees – specific dollar amounts
  • A scan of a letter they have provided to a court, a probation officer, a school, a university, etc. (with the contact name for the person blocked out, ofcourse), so you know exactly what the organization says to confirm community service.
  • A list of every court, school and university that has accepted the community service hours this company has ever arranged for anyone.

If it’s a non-profit company, you should be able to find on their web site:

  • Their most recent annual report that notes their income and expenditures for their last fiscal year
  • The names of the board of directors
  • The names of staff and their credentials to show their experience regarding online volunteering or community service.
  • A list of courts, by name, city and state, that have accepted community service arranged through this company (not just “courts in Florida”, but “the circuit court of Harpo County, Florida”
  • A list about specific activities that people do as volunteers through the nonprofit organization
  • A list of “charity partners” or nonprofit partners or government agency partners that use this service
  • A list of all fees – specific dollar amounts
  • A scan of a letter they have provided to a court, a probation officer, a school, a university, etc. (with the contact name for the person blocked out, ofcourse), so you know exactly what the organization says to confirm community service.
  • A list of every court, school and university that has accepted the community service hours this company has ever arranged for anyone.

Good look trying to find this information on the pay-a-fee-for-community-service sites named on this blog.

Will organizations that claim to represent the community service sector such as the Corporation for National Service or AL!VE, investigate? And take a stand? Stay tuned…

November 6, 2012 update: I just got got email from a TV reporter in Atlanta, Georgia who used my blogs about this scam to create this excellent video about this scam and the people behind it. Thanks Atlanta Fox 5!

February 2013 update: Here’s the latest on what’s going on with this company.

August 14, 2015 update: this company continues to try to lure people with false promises about online community service. I have info on how they attempt to harass me online, and the blog links to all of the blogs I’ve written about this and other countries to date, including accounts of people whose community service through this company was rejected by the court.

July 6, 2016 update: the web site of the company Community Service Help went away sometime in January 2016, and all posts to its Facebook page are now GONE. More info at this July 2016 blog: Selling community service leads to arrest, conviction