Monthly Archives: November 2017

What I’ve learned as a mentor online

Since leaving Kabul, Afghanistan in August 2007, after working there for six months for UNDP, I have had the honor and pleasure of mentoring an Afghan co-worker online. She works on a water and sanitation initiative by a government agency, and I consult online with her on social media posts, I edit press releases and project proposals and reports, and I offer advice on her own professional development and career aspirations. I average an hour a week on this relationship – there are some weeks when we don’t interact and others where I need a few hours to read and edit material.

Here are some lessons I’ve learned from this online mentoring experience:

  • That we started off in a face-to-face, onsite relationship helped substantially in setting up this online relationship for success. She already knew me, understood my particular way of communicating and working, and trusted me. Those are three things that take much longer to establish entirely online, even with video conferencing. I have been an online mentor when that hasn’t been the case, and I believe those mentoring experiences were still worthwhile, but I had to do a lot more work to establish trust and find a rhythm in a purely online/remote relationship, and the relationship had to be facilitated by someone onsite, where the person I was mentoring was, to help ensure interactions happened. I just cannot deny that having that already-established real-time/onsite relationship has been a major factor in the success of this long-time virtual volunteering experience with my Afghan colleague.
  • When I don’t respond within 48 hours to a message from her, my mentee worries or, worse, feels neglected. I need to take this relationship as seriously as she does. That means I have to let her know when I am not going to be able to respond because I’m going to be traveling or away from Internet access.
  • I can’t do everything for her – I need to cultivate her skills. That means editing more with questions than corrections. And that’s hard – it would be so much quicker and easier if I just went through and corrected everything like an editor. But this is a mentoring relationship, a learning experience, and I have to keep that foremost in my mind.
  • Personal, non-work stories and photos are essential to cultivating our relationship. I send her links to vacation photos or photos of my garden, for instance. She sends me stories of her family. This keeps us as real people for each other, not just text in an email.
  • I make absolutely sure I don’t say anything that can’t be backed up with cited sources. Rumors are rampant in Afghanistan, and it’s very important that I show, by example, how to fact-check.
  • Knowing the culture in which my mentee/protogé is living has also been essential to maintaining this relationship. I’m no expert on Afghanistan or Islam, but I lived in Kabul for six months, I have read up on Afghan history (and continue to do so), I have read the Koran and continue to read Islamic scholars and others about Islam, including those I strongly disagree with, and I know there are a range of viewpoints by Muslim women about their religion. That’s been helpful in preventing me from making various cultural missteps – though I won’t for a minute say that still doesn’t happen. Knowing the culture has helped me know what is possible and what is NOT possible for her regarding activities online, travel and interacting with others, and to remember just how fragile reputations for women can be in that part of the world.
  • I try to know what’s going on in her country and her city. That’s not easy, as news about Afghanistan doesn’t show up in any newsfeed. Major news outlets do cover what’s happening in Afghanistan, but I have to go looking for it. There’s so much more to Afghanistan than bombings and oppression of women. For instance, I found a story that mentioned a Rotary Club in Kabul, and I emailed my friend to let her know about it. She’s been going to the meetings now for almost a year because I let her know about the meetings.
  • I ask her questions about her views, her life, etc. I make sure she knows, regularly, that I want to hear from her. And after those stories, I respond in a way that shows that I read what she says and value it.
  • Online mentoring is not micro-volunteering. I cringe when anyone says it’s possible to mentor a person, especially a youth, in a meaningful, impactful way by just spending a few minutes a month sending some encouraging words. Mentoring takes time, thought and careful action – it can’t be done on the fly while you are waiting for your coffee.

vvbooklittleSusan Ellis and I go into great detail about cultivating online relationships in virtual volunteering and the keys to success for online mentoring projects and programs in The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook. I’ve been researching online mentoring since the 1990s, and helped design programs for America Online and People Magazine back in that decade, as well as an elementary school-based program for an Austin, Texas school. I’ve been involved as a mentor with others since then and I keep track of online mentoring programs because of their uniqueness among virtual volunteering activities: the high-responsibility nature of the programs, the essential requirement of building trust, the added safety procedures needed for such, etc. Our book attempts to document all of the best practices for using the Internet to support and involve volunteers, including in online mentoring relationships with adults or children, and our recommendations come from the more than three decades that these practices have been happening. The book is available both in traditional print form and in digital version from Susan’s company, Energize, Inc.

Also see:

Lessons for online outreach to nonprofits, NGOs & charities

Since June 1, I’ve served as the nonprofit liaison for OpenAIR – Accessibility Internet Rally. It’s an online event by Knowbility, an international nonprofit based in Austin, Texas. I have been working to recruit nonprofits, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), charities and artists in the USA and abroad to participate in the event, which begins in February, but there are some things nonprofits need to do now, or up to that date, to participate. OpenAIR provides participating organizations and artists with both a new, professionally-designed, accessible website that accommodates all visitors, and with expanded awareness about accessibility issues. They get more than a new website; they become a more-welcoming place online – and maybe offline as well.

People with disabilities want to donate, volunteer and otherwise support causes they care about, including the arts. But if a nonprofit’s or artist’s website isn’t accessible to them, they are left out – and that means leaving out potential donors, volunteers, clients, ideas, talent and more. All of that changes when the organization participates in OpenAIR. The OpenAIR website has full details on the benefits of participation, why every organization or artist should make web accessibility a priority, and exactly what participation looks like for a client organization/artist. If you decide to participate, all you have to do is fill out the registration form, and then you will receive a client needs survey which you need to fill out before December 15. Registration is $100, but we’re not billing anyone until December.

I have no budget for this outreach for OpenAIR. I can’t buy ads or airtime anywhere. I’ve been doing outreach for OpenAIR almost entirely online, mostly via one-to-one emails, but also via a few face-to-face visits with nonprofits representatives here where I live in Oregon, in coffee shops, on a front porch, while walking our dogs… Of course, the face-to-face pitches have been the most effective ones. That’s why I created a five minute pitch video, trying to recapture whatever it is I do face-to-face that makes people want to participate and that seems to be far more effective than emails.

Other than the importance of face-to-face, personal pitches to sell an idea even an online one, what else have I learned from doing outreach for Knowbility and OpenAIR? Listen up, because I think these are important in understanding outreach to and by any mission-based organization, including schools and government agencies:

  1. Many nonprofits, NGOs, charities and artists do not have any way to contact them electronically via their web site. I’m not kidding! There is no email address, no contact form, no nothing. And going to the WHOIS database to look up their registration info often doesn’t help: they’ve paid a company to block their email address from view, or the domain name registration company is the contact. All of these organizations and artists rely on donors and clients/audiences to exist – and, yet, they make it oh-so-hard to reach anyone at the organization except by telephone (and sometimes not even that is listed!).
  2. Many nonprofits, NGOs, charities and artists have only an online form to use to reach them electronically – no actual email address. Often, these forms require you to choose a reason for your message, and none of the reasons offered are why I’m writing. Or I get an error message after submitting the contact form – the person receiving the message is no longer at the organization, or the email address no longer works, or the script is broken, or something didn’t work and I can’t figure out what or why. How many potential clients/audiences also tried to use this form – and were turned away?
  3. We’ve got a long way to go regarding making accessible web design a priority, even at nonprofits that have a large clientele of people with disabilities or diminishing abilities (sight, hearing, mobility, etc.), even among initiatives that claim to focus on the digital divide, e-inclusion, social inclusion, social justice, equity and human rights. I am flabbergasted to find 99% of the nonprofits, NGOs, charities and artists I have checked out do not have anywhere near an accessible web design.
  4. Many nonprofits, NGOs, charities and artists flatly reject the idea that their site needs to be accessible. Some feedback I’ve heard:
    — “We don’t have that many people we’re trying to reach / that want our services that have a disability.”
    — “Seems expensive/too much work” (it’s NOT, BTW)
    — “A company owned by one of our board members did our web site – we don’t want to offend them by asking for a change.”
  5. There are still nonprofits, NGOs and charities that don’t control their own web sites! I thought this was a problem that was left behind with the last millennium. But, even today, there are a lot of organizations that got a site donated by a board member or some other supporter, or a consultant or volunteer did the site, and to make any change to the site, whether adding text or changing a photo or adding a page, the organization has to contact the company or person that controls the web site and ask him to do it (I’ve het to find a “her” that exerts such control). And these organizations are really reluctant to “bother” that person.
  6. There are some really awful domain names out there. My #1 rule for a domain name is that it’s easy to say, because that means it’s easy to remember. Yes, it’s wonderful if it’s also short, but if it’s short and impossible to remember, it’s not a good URL. There are even some organizations using the ~ (tilde) symbols in their web addresses! ARGH!

And before any for-profit/corporate folks comment to say, “Well, this is why nonprofits need to be more like businesses”, let me say that part of the above is YOUR fault. Why? Because (1) you refuse to fund “overhead”, which means you refuse to fund the web hosting, the domain name registration, or even a part-time person to manage a web site at a nonprofit, and you also refuse to fund classes for the person at a nonprofit charged with managing the web site, and (2) you donate space on your server for a nonprofit’s web site, or say you will otherwise host the web site, and pat yourself on the back for this in-kind donation, but then you don’t treat the nonprofit as a client, responding to their requests for changes to the web site promptly. And when a nonprofit comes to you and says, “We’d like our web site to be accessible”, you balk and say “Too expensive.” Even though it’s NOT “too expensive.” Again: ARGH!

Also see:

Lessons for aid & development are everywhere – including on a TV comedy

I find lessons for aid and humanitarian work, including public health education, all around me, if I’m paying attention.

That includes watching the Andy Griffith Show, a 1960s television show that is still frequently shown in the USA. For my international readers: the show, mostly a comedy but sometimes dramatic, follows the adventures of a small town Southern sheriff and his family. It’s a highly sentimental, idealized show more about how people wish small town life was in the USA than it actually ever was. But I’m very fond of it because it shows the very real sweetness and eccentricities of small town anywhere, not just the USA, even if it’s highly romanticized and leaves out important facts of life in the Southern USA, like Jim Crow and the oppression of black Americans.

I recently saw one of the few episodes I don’t recall seeing when I was a kid. It’s called The County Nurse. The official summary: “Andy is forced to exert all his persuasiveness to get a farmer to take a tetanus shot.”

The premise is this: there is a county nurse – a government-funded health worker – that is visiting the town of Mayberry as a part of her job. The nurse has promised her bosses that she will have a 100% success rate in inoculations, but the person standing in her way on delivering on this promise is farmer Rafe Hollister, who has never had a tetanus shot. Rafe says he has never been sick and has never had to see a doctor and, therefore, doesn’t need this shot. In fact, he’s quite skeptical about vaccines in general. Sheriff Andy wants to help because he does believe in vaccines and because he is attracted to the new, and very pretty, county nurse and wants to help her out. At one point, Andy says to Rafe “go ahead and try the stethoscope. You can hear your heart beating!” And Rafe replies “I don’t need that to know if my hearts beating, I’m alive ain’t I? Then my hearts beating.” Rafe also says, “I ain’t never been to a doctor in my life. When I was born, I had my mama. When I die, I’ll have the undertaker. I don’t see no sense in clutterin’ up things in between.”

Andy offers the nurse advice at one point: “With a fellow like Rafe, you don’t just walk up and say ‘let me give you a tetanus shot.’ You hafta kinda make him trust ya first. Gain his confidence. Well ya sneak up on him is whatcha ya do.” And that’s just what they do: Andy finally uses his singing and storytelling ability to shock Rafe into taking his shot. Andy sings a sad song,”Dig my grave with a silver spade,” and talks about what Rafe’s funeral will be like if he dies from tetanus. Rafe relents at last.

It’s an episode where city sensibilities and country ways clash. The wariness of the country folk towards doctors and formal medicine is stressed – and not for the first time in this show. The only thing missing from this episode to make it more realistic would have been Rafe repeating crazy beliefs about vaccines.

You can find pirated versions of this episode online relatively easily. It’s less than 30 minutes long.

Sadly, I don’t think we have county nurses anymore…

Also see:

Gift idea for nonprofit, NGO, charity staff

Looking for a gift for someone working at a nonprofit, non-governmental organization (NGO), charity, school or government initiative that involves volunteers?

vvbooklittleWhether the volunteers are working in groups onsite, in traditional face-to-face roles, in remote locations, or any other way, anyone working with volunteers will find The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook helpful – or, at least, interesting. This book, which I co-wrote with Susan J. Ellis, is our attempt to document all of the best practices for using the Internet to support and involve volunteers from the more than three decades that this has been happening. The book is available both in traditional print form and in digital version.

Why did we call it the LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook? I detail why at length in this blog.

I think the book would also make a good gift for a student studying nonprofit management or community engagement, and anyone managing a corporate volunteering / philanthropy program.

If you read the book, or have already read it, I would so appreciate it if you could write and post a review of it on the Amazon and Barnes and Noble web sites (you can write the same review on both sites). If you could also review it on GoodReads as well, that would be terrific!

Your organization is NOT immune to sexual harassment

When people you don’t like are accused of horrible behavior in the workplace, it’s easy to condemn those people – and you should.

But sooner or later, someone you like, maybe even care for, will be accused of horrible behavior. Watch your reaction carefully when it happens: do you start excusing the behavior of your colleague, friend or family member if the accusations turn out to be based in truth and he or she did, indeed, do what the accused is claiming?

I bring this up as more and more people are coming forward in the USA now with details of very famous, powerful people, mostly men, harassing and assaulting them, usually work-related colleagues. As I’ve watched, I’ve recalled the warning I’ve made in many, many workshops where I am training those that recruit and manage volunteers – a warning that’s often been met with skepticism and a response along the lines of None of MY volunteers would ever do that! No one I know and care for would ever do that!

My trainings regarding volunteer management often talk about screening potential candidates, policies and procedures, and risk management. I warn people at my workshops about the dangers of going with just their gut when ensuring safety, and about the vital importance of being methodical, consistent, dispassionate and dedicated to WRITTEN safety policies. And I say, point blank, that eventually, someone you really, really like, maybe even really, really care about, is going to be accused of sexual harassment – or worse – and you are going to think, “But I never experienced that and I never saw it and he/she was always SO WONDERFUL.” And that may, indeed, be your absolutely true experience with that person. But that doesn’t negate what one person is saying about another person’s bad behavior. If you’ve taken my advice and are methodical, consistent, dispassionate and dedicated to your WRITTEN safety policies, you are going to get through this fairly and appropriately in the workplace and protect yourself from a lawsuit, even if the accusations turn out to be true. But if the accusations are true, then in addition to dealing with any legal and public relations fallout, you will have to do a lot of soul-searching about your relationship with that person who has harassed or otherwise mistreated someone.

If you are thinking, hey, it hasn’t happened at our organization, so it never will, I’ve got news for you: it’s going to happen. The only way to prevent it from happening at or through your organization to disband your agency.

I’ve never let safety or legal concerns prevent me from creating volunteering opportunities nor from bringing multi-generations of volunteers together. You shouldn’t either. But if you don’t have WRITTEN policies regarding volunteering safety, sexual harassment and workplace respect, or you haven’t discussed those policies with your employees, consultants and volunteers in a while – and I mean DISCUSS, not just send people a link to them online – here’s your opportunity, right now. Google is awash with great advice on these subjects. And I would love to help!

Be strategic, be deliberate. But don’t delay.

Further reading and resources: