Author Archives: jcravens

About jcravens

Jayne Cravens is an internationally-recognized trainer, researcher and consultant. Her work is focused on communications, volunteer involvement, community engagement, and management for nonprofits, NGOs, and government initiatives. She is a pioneer regarding the research, promotion and practice of virtual volunteering, including virtual teams, microvolunteering and crowdsourcing, and she is a veteran manager of various local and international initiatives. Jayne became active online in 1993, and she created one of the first web sites focused on helping to build the capacity of nonprofits to use the Internet. She has been interviewed for and quoted in articles in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press, as well as for reports by CNN, Deutsche Well, the BBC, and various local radio stations, TV stations and blogs. Resources from her web site, coyotecommunications.com, are frequently cited in reports and articles by a variety of organizations, online and in-print. Women's empowerment and women's full access to employment and education options remains a cross-cutting theme in all of her work. Jayne received her BA in Journalism from Western Kentucky University and her Master's degree in Development Management from Open University in the U.K. A native of Kentucky, she has worked for the United Nations, lived in Germany and Afghanistan, and visited more than 30 countries, many of them by motorcycle. She is currently based near Portland, Oregon in the USA.

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.

UNDP and Religious Leaders Promote Women in Sport and Education in Afghanistan

Changing minds about girls playing sports in Afghanistan takes the support of religious leaders – and they are starting to get on board.

Mullahs trained by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Afghanistan are preaching about women’s rights and have conducted workshops on girls’ education, child marriage and violence against women that have reached thousands of people and are slowly changing attitudes.

“At first, the villagers were really annoying, telling me that a girl in sports clothes is against Islam and our culture,” says 18-year-old Masooma, who just wanted to go skiing. “They said, ‘Girls don’t have the right to ski – only boys can do sport. Girls are born to learn household chores, like cooking and cleaning.’”

UNDP Afghanistan trained more than 400 mullahs across the country to preach about women’s rights in Friday prayers. Abdul Rahman Redwani is one of the mullahs who started incorporating these issues into his sermons after the training. “Previously, local people didn’t let their girls learn how to read or write,” he recalls. “When girls went skiing the for first time, people gossiped that they were too westernized. But our Friday sermons helped change their minds.”

“Now a lot of girls and women come to watch us ski,” smiles Masooma, “which was not possible a few years back. This motivates me and encourages other girls to start skiing.”

Read the entire story here.

No, I’m not involved in this project. But I would love to read all I can about it, and support it however I can, because leveraging the cultural and religious beliefs can be a great strategy for encouraging women’s equality – something I learned in Afghanistan as well. Back in 2007, when I put together a workshop on to help my Afghan co-workers in Kabul feel more comfortable speaking in public, I did a lot of research, and learned that women speakers, teachers and leaders have always been important in Muslim society, including in Afghanistan. So I put this into my training, talking about the public speaking and leadership roles of Khadija, first wife of the Prophet, Aisha, the favored wife of Muhammad, and Muhammad’s daughters, as well as Rabia Balkhi, a poet of Afghanistan and Razia, a Muslim woman ruler of 13th-century India.

Read more about what I did in Afghanistan as a part of UNDP (and what I’ve done for the country since)

5 ideas erróneas que personas tienen sobre lo que implica hacer un voluntariado internacional

5 ideas erróneas que muchas personas tienen sobre lo que implica hacer un voluntariado internacional

A lo mejor la imagen de voluntarios internacional jugando fútbol con niños en África, construyendo una escuela, cocinando con las mujeres de una aldea o dando clases a una comunidad. Pareciera que la participación de una voluntarios en un proyecto en que se lleva a cabo en países en vías de desarrollo, lograra grandes y duraderas transformaciones, pero no es así. Este artículo presenta 5 ideas erróneas que muchas personas tienen sobre lo que implica hacer un voluntariado internacional. Esta información es de Hacesfalta. No hay un mejor lugar para encontrar información sobre todo tipos de voluntariado que Hacesfalta. Si usted está interesado en voluntariado internacional o micro voluntariado, este es el sitio para usted.

(Perhaps you picture the image of international volunteers playing soccer with children in Africa, building a school, cooking with the women of a village or teaching a community. It may seem that this kind of participation of volunteers in a project in developing countries will achieve great and lasting transformations, but it is not so. This article presents five misconceptions that many people have about what it means to volunteer internationally. This information is from Hacesfalta. There is no better place to find information in Spanish on all types of volunteering than Hacesfalta. If you are interested in international volunteering or micro volunteering, and you are a Spanish speaker, this is the place for you.)

And for my resources on this subject, in English:

  • Volunteering Abroad / Internationally: a Reality Check
    A review of the four different types of volunteering abroad programs, and how to improve your profile to be chosen by highly-competitive programs, such as the PeaceCorps.
  • transire benefaciendo: “to travel along while doing good.”
    Advice for those wanting to make their travel more than sight-seeing and shopping. This may be a better, cheaper option for you if you want to have an international experience and make a difference in some way.
  • Volunteering Abroad / Internationally: a Reality Check
    A review of the four different types of volunteering abroad programs, and how to improve your profile to be chosen by highly-competitive programs, such as the PeaceCorps.
  • Ideas for Funding Your Volunteering Abroad Trip
    If you need to raise money to pay for a short-term volunteering gig abroad, here are realistic ways to do so. Also has advice on how to choose a credible program.
  • Vetting Organizations in Other Countries
    A resource that can help you evaluate volunteer-placement organizations that charge you for your placement as a volunteer, as well as for people interested in partnering or supporting an organization abroad but wanting to know it’s a credible organization, that it’s not some sort of scam, or an ‘organization’ of just one person.
  • The realities of voluntourism: use with caution
    Voluntourism is really awful and really good. I’m totally against it and I support it. Confused yet? This opinion piece is my attempt to explain why voluntourism sometimes works and why, very often, it’s dreadful.
  • Volunteering To Help After Major Disasters
    Whenever a disaster strikes, hundreds — even thousands — of citizens in the USA start contacting various organizations in an effort to try to volunteer onsite at the disaster site. But what many of these people don’t realize is that spontaneous volunteers with no training and no affiliation can actually cause more problems than they alleviate in a disaster situation, particularly regarding disaster locations far from their home. If you want to be a part of the mobilization for a future disaster, here are tips to help you get into “the system,” get training, and be in a position to make a real difference.
  • Tax credits for volunteering (for residents of the USA) – includes information on tax deductions for volunteering abroad

UNESCO World Heritage Volunteers 2017 projects

World Heritage Volunteers (WHV) is a program by UNESCO, a United Nations agency, that helps create opportunities for young people to travel internationally or within their own countries and help preserve and support World Heritage sites. The 2017 campaign has been announced, with 51 youth action projects planned for 50 World Heritage properties from May through November 2017, in partnership with 46 organizations in 32 countries.

“From the Vajrayogini temples of Kathmandu Valley in Nepal to the 16th-Century Monasteries on the Slopes of Popocatepetl in Mexico, from the parks and gardens of Classical Weimar in Germany to the vertiginous peaks of Rwenzori Mountains National Park in Uganda, the local and international volunteers of the WHV 2017 will be involved in projects held at some of the most outstanding places in the world.”  The projects are in Africa, Asia, Pacific Island countries, Arab states, Latin America and Europe.

If you want to get involved in a WHV project, take a look at the 2017 project profiles here and contact directly the project organizer, who should get back to you with information on next steps. The project organizer’s contacts are in the project profiles.

It doesn’t say it anywhere that I can find on the WHV web site, but volunteers are responsible for paying and arranging all of their own international and in-country travel, for paying for their accommodations in-country, paying for all food and other in-country expenses, paying for their own insurance, etc. These are entirely volunteer positions, and no expenses are reimbursed and no stipends are paid. Some countries, like the USA, may offer tax deductions for international volunteering.

The World Heritage Volunteers Initiative is led by the UNESCO World Heritage Centre (WHC) in collaboration with the Coordinating Committee for International Voluntary Service (CCIVS), European Heritage Volunteers (as a branch of Open Houses) and Better World.

Also see:

Volunteering Abroad / Internationally

Ideas for Funding Your Volunteering Abroad Trip

UN mobilizes volunteers to research contribution of volunteerism in fragile communities and post-conflict environments

The United Nations Volunteers (UNV) programme, in partnership with ActionAid, the Association of Voluntary Centres (in Russian), the Beijing Volunteer Federation, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), and Volunteer Service Overseas (VSO), is deploying 15 national and international volunteer researchers to collect evidence on the contribution of volunteerism in fragile communities and post-conflict environments.

The volunteer researchers are currently deploying to 15 countries to gather evidence for the 2018 State of the World’s Volunteerism Report (SWVR) on the theme of “Resilient Communities: The Role of Volunteerism in a Turbulent World”. The volunteer researchers will spend up to six months living with different communities in Bolivia, Burundi, China, Greece, Guatemala, Egypt, Madagascar, Malawi, Myanmar, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Russia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and Tanzania to generate evidence and data to inform the report.

More details of this deployment and research project.

Follow @UNVolunteers on Twitter to stay up-to-date on this project and know when the report will be released.

Previous reports from UNV include the State of the World’s Volunteerism Report 2015: Transforming Governance and the State of the World’s Volunteerism Report 2011: Universal Values for Global Well-being.

Also see:

2017 National Volunteer Weeks & Months

Energize, Inc. (Susan Ellis’ company) has compiled a list of designated volunteer weeks or months in 2017, mostly in English-speaking countries, when nonprofits, government agencies and others are supposed to honor volunteerism. These are celebrated annually:

Canada’s National Volunteer Week, April 23-29, 2017

USA’s National Volunteer Week, April 23-29, 2017

Australia’s National Volunteer Week, May 8-14, 2017

United Kingdom’s Volunteers’ Week, June 1-7, 2011

New Zealand’s National Volunteer Awareness Week, June 18-24, 2017

Singapore’s National Volunteer Month, December, 2017

During these weeks (and always!), remember to honor your online volunteers and to use the Internet to honor ALL volunteers, regardless of where service is performed. This resource can help, you do that, as can The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook.

There are also MANY days designated to encourage volunteer action. Energize has a terrific compilation of these as well on its web site. These are great days for creating one-time, short-term group volunteering activities, including one(-ish) day “tech” activities for volunteers, like hackathons and edit-a-thons.

Is there a Semana Nacional de Voluntarios in Mexico or Spain? Or Semaine Nationale des Bénévoles in France? If you know of other weeks meant to celebrate volunteers, let me know (please include a link to the official web site).

for volunteers: how to complain

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersI write a lot about dealing with problem volunteers – volunteers that are bullies (one of my most popular blogs ever), volunteers that are more focused on their vanity and selfies than service, (another super popular blog), entitlement volunteers (“you should just be glad I’m here!”), etc. But in response to some of these blogs, I’ve gotten comments from frustrated volunteers, and I’ve been asked some pointed questions, like:

what about when the problem is the volunteer manager’s lack of ability, or when the org is in need of upgrading capacity and the volunteers are the victims of that process?

Absolutely, not all community engagement problems are because of volunteers, and I would hate for anyone to think I’m saying that. I love volunteerism – I wouldn’t promote volunteer engagement and demand standards for such if I didn’t. All too often, people that want to volunteer are turned away by mismanagement, and people trying to volunteer are not properly supported. That deserves my sympathy and attention.

There are times when I’ve been a volunteer myself and I have been woefully mismanaged, I haven’t felt valued, I’ve felt ignored by the person that’s supposed to be supporting me, I was left to do all the work while the lead volunteer was a no-show, I was shut down when I tried to point out a problem or make a suggestion, etc. Maybe you, as a volunteer, have felt that too. Maybe you see problems with other volunteers that management doesn’t seem to see. Maybe you see inefficiency, even incompetence. Maybe you see things that have you worried about safety. Maybe you see violations of policy – or a need for a policy. Maybe you have a great idea that really could help dramatically – but the manager of volunteers turned you away.

How to complain, or make a suggestion for a management change, as a volunteer? And to whom? That’s trickier than it sounds. It depends on the nature of the complaint or suggestion, your relationship with the organization, your desired outcome, what’s best for those served by the organization, and more.

Absolutely, if you see or experience something dangerous while you are volunteering, something that could harm someone – or you suspect has harmed someone – document what you have witnessed or experienced: the date, the time, what you saw or heard, how it is dangerous, etc. Email this information to the person in charge of volunteers, the director of programs, perhaps even the executive director or anyone else within the organization you feel should know about it. Depending on the situation, you should also call those same people and tell them they should immediately read an email you have sent regarding a dangerous situation at the organization. Be ready to meet face-to-face to talk about the dangerous situation you have witnessed or experienced. Please don’t ever hesitate to report a suspected dangerous situation, where a client, volunteer, staff member or anyone could be, or has been, harmed.

If it’s a criminal situation regarding safety, such as harm to a child, I would also contact police, without waiting for permission from the organization. If I think a child or anyone is in physical danger, I’m going straight to the police, and if that costs me my volunteer position because the organization would have preferred I contact senior staff members first, so be it. When it comes to safety, I don’t mess around, I don’t hesitate, and the situation regarding Jerry Sandusky and Penn State a few years ago only intensified my feelings about this.

If you are being sexually, racially or culturally harassed, absolutely complain to your supervisor and his or her supervisor, in writing. Have dates, what was said or done and by whom, etc., and how you want the situation resolved. If your supervisor doesn’t act, contact his supervisor the same way, along with the date you first reported this to his or her subordinate.

For non-safety complaints – for complaints about inefficiency, lack of support, a situation mishandled, ongoing mismanagement, abrasive work styles, hurt feelings, etc.,  ask yourself this question: How is the situation or circumstances hurting the organization, volunteers, clients, public relations and/or the bottom line? Document answers to those questions. Be clear about what is happening, the dates of incidents, and, if possible, how it’s adversely affecting the organization, its clients, etc. Once you have this information clearly stated, ask for a meeting with the person in charge of supporting volunteers. You don’t have to present your written information – in fact, doing so may escalate emotions if you walk in with such a document and hand it over. Instead, you may want to keep the documents as just your own notes to speak from, at least at first. You want to stick to facts, like “When I showed up at the work site, there was no guidance on what I was supposed to do, in contrast to what you (or someone else) told me, and I just walked around for an hour not doing anything”, or “I was assured that the other volunteer had been trained, but when she got there, I realized she had not been briefed at all, and it really made the organization look poorly run to those in attendance” or “I have sent emails asking for guidance on these dates, and I have never gotten a response.” Avoid opinions, such as “the manager of volunteers is in need of upgrading her skills” or “I just really don’t like so-and-so’s style of working.” Opinions are subjective and easily dismissed, in contrast to dates and examples and descriptions of circumstances, what was said, what was done, etc. You want to preface complaints with “I’m concerned that…” or “I am worried that…” Make it clear that you aren’t there to just complain because of your hurt feelings – you are there to try to improve a situation that could be leading volunteers to leave, that could be making clients dissatisfied, even angry, that could be leading to a bad reputation for the organization in a specific neighborhood, that could lead to a negative review online, etc. Your goal is to stay fact-based and always emphasizing what’s best for the organization and all volunteers, not just you. Have in mind what you want as a result of this complaint: Volunteers to receive more immediate responses to their emails or phone calls? Volunteers to receive more information from the organization? Volunteers to receive more training? Someone in particular to be better supervised? Someone in particular to receive better training? Someone specifically to be dismissed? What would a resolution of this situation that you are reporting look like? Try to offer realistic ideas for solutions, if at all possible.

If you want to offer a suggestion about software you think the organization should be using, or a different way to support volunteers, such as training videos on YouTube, or a change in the minumum amount of hours volunteers need to give a month, or that the organization should better incorporate virtual volunteering, by all means, make the suggestion. You could make the suggestion verbally in a monthly meeting between volunteers and the staff supporting them, in an online community for volunteers at the organization, or in an email to the person in charge of managing volunteers. Think about how you would like to be approached if someone had an idea of how to do your work better, and do the same in making your suggestion. If you can show that this idea might save the organization money, definitely bring that up. Also think about what resources it would take to make this change: money? additional staff? time? training? Are you willing to commit to any of those needs to help make the change happen? It can be frustrating to make a suggestion for a simple change, like an additional sentence on a web page, or use of a particular keyword tag on Twitter, and never get a response, or be told it’s not possible to do. How you handle that frustration is up to you: Drop it? Try again in six months? Try again when management changes? Bring it up every time you get the opportunity? Leave the organization and try to volunteer elsewhere? Think about what would be best for the organization and those it serves by your actions first, and also what is best for you.

If you feel that you need to circumvent the person in charge of supporting volunteers and go to someone senior with your complaint or suggestion, you can certainly ask to meet with the head of programs or even the executive director, detailing the issues and being clear about why you are circumventing the manager of volunteers. However, know that it’s likely that the manager of volunteers will be angry with you or feel hurt by you for this circumvention, and your relationship with that person may be irreparably harmed. It may not be possible for you to continue to work together, and therefore, the organization may want you to leave rather than address the issue with the manager. You may decide that you can no longer enjoy your time there or that you would no longer be welcomed at the organization. I’m not urging you not to go to senior management if you feel that’s best for the organization – quite the contrary! I’m trying to be very realistic about what will happen if you do. Are you ready to put what’s best for the organization and those it serves above your desire to continue to volunteer with the program?

This is the point that I usually get asked, “But what are my rights as a volunteer?!” You have a right to be safe, to not be harassed, not to be harmed, not to be put into a situation where you feel harmed, not to be exploited, etc. But you have no right to be engaged as a volunteer. You have no right to have a volunteering experience that you love. An organization can dismiss a volunteer for any reason – or no reason at all. An organization is under no legal obligation to provide terrific volunteering experiences – or to involve volunteers at all. Some organizations value the input of volunteers very much, and others see volunteers as merely people willing to work for free and save the organization money. The organization may see dismissing you as a volunteer far easier than dealing with your complaint.

Please don’t think that because you have volunteered for 10 years at the organization while the manager of volunteers has been there for just a year or two that your opinion is somehow more important that hers or his. Also, it is very likely that complaining creates tension at the organization for you and others. Things may get worse before they get better. If you have visions of the manager of volunteers being put through a performance improvement plan, or dismissed, while you are celebrated for your complaints, think again. As a whistleblower, don’t be surprised if you feel coldness from others at the organization, even if your complaint was absolutely justified. You may want to leave and find another place to volunteer once investigations are complete – or even before. Whatever happens, don’t be a volunteer bully . The priority of any organization, and everyone who works there, including a volunteer that complains, should be the mission of that organization and those the organization serves. Nothing except for safety should be more important than that. Keep that in mind as the consequences unfold from your complaint and if your complaint means you will leave the organization.

Regardless of whether or not you complain to the organization, or make a suggestion for change, what might be best for you is finding another organization with which to volunteer. How you leave an organization is up to you: you can make a formal break with a meeting or an email, you can just stop signing up for tasks and disappear, or you can say you want to take a break and just never come back. Just please don’t abandon an assignment before you have completed it. I know a lot of managers of volunteers are reading this and thinking, “It’s so unfair to just leave without explanation!” To which I say: if a volunteer does that to you, maybe it’s because you don’t take complaints well. Maybe you don’t create an environment where a volunteer feels comfortable offering a complaint or suggestion. Volunteers will often show you as much respect and attention as you have shown them. If you want volunteers to tell you why they are leaving, ask them.

What if you are asked to leave an organization as a volunteer? First off: you aren’t alone! It happens. It happened to me! It can be hurtful to hear, “I just don’t think I can work with you anymore” or “I think it would be best if you found somewhere else to volunteer.” It’s entirely your decision at that point to complain, if you haven’t yet, to more senior management. All the previous rules apply: stay fact-based, have dates and descriptions of what was inappropriate or should have been a better experience, keep opinions to a minimum, and be clear about what the consequences could be for the organization if the situation is not addressed.

Should you, the disgruntled volunteer, blog about your negative experience, or write a Yelp review? I won’t tell you not to. What you need to consider is what is best for those served by the organization and what is best for you. If you truly feel that those served by the organization would be best served by your going public with your complaints, then that would be a valid justification for doing so. Otherwise – why would it be worth it? In the moment, it may make you feel great deriding an organization online via your blog or an online review, but if another organization where you want to volunteer reads that, or potential employers reads that, will it hurt you in some way? If you do it, be prepared for a call from a local media organization – they may want to do a story about your experience and investigate further. If you choose to do it, be fact-based – no opinions, no insults, no statements like “Stay away from this organization!” – and respect the confidentiality of clients.

You could even write a song about your frustration, as Dave Carroll did about his attempt to volunteer at his child’s school. I really do think Mr. Carroll was doing what he thought was best for the organization and the kids, and I hope authorities listened to what he was saying. I’d be happy to have him as a volunteer (with the hopes I would get a really nice song about his experience out of it).

I have blogged about negative experiences as a volunteer myself, but without naming the organization. As a consultant regarding nonprofit management, including volunteer engagement, I wanted to use these experiences to educate others, but I saw no point in naming the organization I was complaining about – in some cases, I made my feelings clear directly to the organization before I left, and in some cases, I just quietly disengaged – and they never called to ask me why I had stopped signing up for gigs. Here are some examples of my blogs about or inspired by my own bad experiences as a volunteer:

Some volunteers have become so frustrated that they’ve left a nonprofit and then started their own rival organization, and that’s fine too – though it’s easier said than done. Funders may be reluctant to support you if you are an organization born of anger.

When you leave an organization as a volunteer, you may want to let people know if they closely identify you as being a volunteer at that organization, if they might go to the organization looking for you, if a lot of your friends are also volunteers at the organization, etc. You may want to draft some messages for social media or to send out via email. These messages should be unemotional, with no accusations or blame at all. For instance, for Facebook, your message could be:

Yesterday was my last day at xxxnameoforganizationxxx. Very proud of all I did there. On to a new volunteering adventure! I can be reached at xxxemailaddressorphonenumberxxx.

The policies of the organization may prevent you from staying in contact with clients after you leave. Respect those policies if that’s the case. If clients do get in contact with you, think very carefully about what you are going to say to them, if the relationship is proper to continue, etc. Regardless of official policy, you are ethically bound to make it clear to them, if they contact you, that you are not affiliated with the organization anymore, that you are not a volunteer with the organization anymore, that you do not represent the organization anymore, etc. If volunteers want to discuss their experiences with you after you leave, make sure you continue to adhere to those confidentiality policies, and absolutely speak up and say, “I really don’t feel comfortable talking about this, because I think it’s a violation of the organization’s confidentiality policy.” Let the question what is best for the people served by this organization guide you in any communications and relationships with clients, volunteers and staff of an organization you have left.

How do you talk on your résumé or online profile about an organization where you volunteered but, in the end, you had an uncomfortable or frustrating experience? The same that you would regarding an employment situation that didn’t work out: you list it only if it was a long-term gig, or if you accomplished something at the organization that you are really proud of and that could not be denied by the organization. If you are proud of your work and feel comfortable sharing it, list the name of the organization and your accomplishments or duties at that organization and the time frame for such. Otherwise, leave it off. If you are asked in an interview for volunteering elsewhere, “Why did you leave that organization?”, you can say, “I was ready for a new volunteering opportunity at a different organization. It was time.” You could say, “My work approach wasn’t a good fit/was no longer a good fit for the organization’s work culture.” Be ready, in an interview, to talk about that work approach. For instance: “I believe in being very forthcoming and asking questions in staff meetings. My previous supervisor interpreted my questions as criticisms.” If honestly talking about your work style, a style you are unwilling to change, removes you from the running for a volunteering gig, then be glad you were up front about it before you were hired. That said, in an interview for volunteering elsewhere, you can ask some tough questions of your own, like “What is moral like here among your volunteers?” and “How do you handle complaints from volunteers? Can you give me an example of that process?” and “Do you regularly get new volunteers? Do they stay long? When they leave, why do they leave?”

Should you sue if you are fired as a volunteer? There are two scenarios where you might want to sue: (1) when you can prove that you have been financially and/or physically harmed by the organization’s actions, or inactions, regarding your volunteering. If you have been sexually, racially or culturally harassed while volunteering, and you do not feel the organization responded the way they should, you could explore bringing a suit, but think about what you want as a result of the suit: a court-ordered, public apology? a court-ordered training for all staff and volunteers to prevent this in the future? Money for yourself? And remember that your name will become public, and there may be media coverage of your suit – this can affect your future employment, not just your future volunteer engagement. (2) when you can prove that you weren’t a volunteer but were, in fact, an employee who wasn’t paid. In a small number of cases the UK and in the USA, the courts have found that a volunteer was actually an employee or a contractor who should have been paid, and the volunteer won back wages.

One last thing: when a volunteering situation ends in anger or sadness, take time to mourn and to let any raw emotions heal. You may need to cry. You may need to spend some time being angry. That’s absolutely fine and completely normal. Make time to do that. If you have a very trusted friend or two you can talk to, that would be good to be around and talk to about how you are feeling, do so. Definitely stay off social media at such times.

This is a lot to consider. I’ve tried to be realistic and think about a variety of scenarios. If I’ve missed one, or your want to ask an additional question or make an additional point, I hope you will comment below.

Also see:

Creating a Speak-up Culture in the Workplace

Safety of volunteers contributes to a shelter closing

Keeping volunteers safe – & keeping everyone safe with volunteers

A grassroots group or nonprofit org = disorganization?

VA: a culture of fear, silence & misplaced priorities

Excuses, excuses

Welcoming immigrants as volunteers at your organization

Disclaimer: this is not legal advice. I am not a lawyer. Any activity incurs risk. The author (me) assumes no responsibility for the use of information contained within this document.

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteers
Volunteer engagement is so much more than getting work done
: it allows the community to see, first hand, what a nonprofit or other mission-based organization or program does, it allows a nonprofit or government program to cultivate relationships with certain demographic groups it might not otherwise, it creates stronger ties between a program and the community, and it can contribute to community cohesion, bringing together different segments of a population in a setting that can help build relationships and understanding.

All of these reasons for engaging volunteers are why it’s a good idea for mission-based programs to explore ways to welcome residents who are immigrants as volunteers. You are missing out on a tremendous amount of talent and energy if you are excluding immigrants as volunteers, and such exclusion contributes to community divisions.

Immigrants might be long-term residents of a neighborhood or community, but they can feel on the margins of such, for a range of reasons. They often have children in the local school system, work in a local job, attend a local community of faith, pay taxes, are affected by the same social, political, economic and environmental issues as other residents, etc., but may not feel included or welcomed to volunteer in their communities. Just like other people, immigrants care about children, the environment, people with disabilities, safety, local prosperity, animals and more in the places where they live.

There is no law preventing an immigrant from volunteering with nonprofit organizations in the USA, and most local government agencies, including public schools, also aren’t prohibited by law from involving immigrants as volunteers. This is in contrast to federal agencies, where there are some prohibitions (more on that later).

Here are ways to make your organization more welcoming for immigrants living in your community. Note that this is USA-specific information, and, again, note that rules regarding volunteer screening and engagement can be different for nonprofit organizations versus federal agencies:

If your nonprofit organization or local government agency currently says on its web site or in other material that a volunteer must be a citizen of the USA, reconsider that requirement. Such a requirement excludes green card holders – legal permanent residents – among others. Why would you exclude green card holders from volunteering as, say, volunteer firefighters or tutors in the local school system? Think carefully about why you have certain citizenship or legal residency requirements for volunteers, and unless you can come up with a specific reason for this requirement – for instance, some roles require a multi-state criminal background check because the volunteer would be working with children or other vulnerable populations – consider changing that protocol.

According to this web site from the USA National Park Service, citizens of countries other than the USA are eligible to participate in federally-sponsored volunteer programs only if they are accepted for one of the Exchange Visitor Program categories through a designated sponsoring organization that is certified by the U.S. Department of State. Individuals who are not USA citizens but reside in here may volunteer with a federal agency if they are a lawful permanent residents (green card holders); or if they are non-immigrant aliens with F-1 or J-1 visa status, who are bona fide students residing in the USA to pursue a course of study at a recognized, approved institution of education. Again, these are rules for volunteering with federal agencies, NOT with local government agencies, like public schools, nor with nonprofit organizations.

Also, note that the US military allows certain undocumented immigrants to serve.

If your organization requires volunteers to provide documentation to prove their identity, then state on your web site and in orientations for new volunteers that, at least for some volunteering roles, this could be a driver’s license or passport from any country, not just the USA. You could also ask for a consular identification card, which is issued by some governments to their citizens who are living in foreign countries (they are not certifications of legal residence within foreign countries). If you require proof of a local residence and a local mailing address, ask for a utility bill or housing lease. You can also ask for references from employers or officials of the person’s community of faith. It is possible to do criminal background checks on immigrants without social security numbers: even with just a person’s name and date of birth, many county and state criminal databases will indicate if any applicant has had any prior arrests or convictions. Make it clear to applicants if you are going to do this with their information (submit it to local law enforcement). You may want to check with the law enforcement agency that does your criminal background checks to ask them about their policy for working with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE); many law enforcement agencies will not turn over any information to ICE without a court order, and if they have this stated policy (these days, it will be on their web site if they have this policy), you can let your volunteer applicants know.

Some organizations, such as public schools, require that volunteers provide social security numbers so that a particular type of criminal background check can be conducted, and in many cases, that requirement cannot change because it is required by a state law. But what can change is volunteer roles that are offered. Could you create volunteer roles that don’t require a criminal background check, because a volunteer is never alone with children or other vulnerable populations? For instance, nonprofits that do beach cleanups don’t do criminal background checks of the participating volunteers, nor ask for their social security numbers. Habitat for Humanity does not ask for this information for volunteers participating in house building. Nonprofit theaters and performing arts centers rarely do criminal background checks on volunteer ushers, who show people to their seats before a performance. Could you create such volunteering tasks that don’t require criminal background checks, because the volunteers are always in groups, never one-on-one with a volunteer, client, member of the public, etc.? For instance, in a public school, you could set the rule that only volunteers with a social security number and valid state ID would be allowed unsupervised access to children, for such activities as tutoring and to chaperone field trips, but allow other volunteers without social security numbers (but are vetted in other ways) to create murals or help at in-classroom parties.

(and remember that keeping children and other vulnerable populations safe requires MUCH more than a criminal background check – see this resource for more information)

No matter what form of identification you ask for, state clearly on your web site and in your orientation for new volunteers that you will not sell, trade or give this information to any other agency, that only your human resources staff and head of the organization will have access to this information (no other staff should be able to go through volunteer – or paid staff – files), and that you will not give these records to any law enforcement agency without a court order. Also clearly state that you will not voluntarily release personally identifiable data or information to any law enforcement agency, and will not release information that may be used to ascertain an individual’s religion, ethnicity or race, unless for a law enforcement purpose unrelated to the enforcement of a civil immigration law and only with a court order – or with the volunteer’s permission. Explain your photo release policy carefully, and give all volunteers the right to ask that a photo of themselves be removed from your web site.

Note in your communications with new volunteer applicants that no staff member at your organization shall grant ICE or border patrol agents access to your facilities for investigative interviews or other investigative purposes without a court order. You may want to put this statement on your web site as well.

Except when compelled by a law or a specific written policy, there’s no reason for an organization to inquire into the immigration or citizenship status of anyone. Talk to all employees, consultants and volunteers about what they should and should not ask of each other – not just immigration status, but also things like income, property holdings, health conditions (“Are you disabled?!”), etc.

Consider posting a sign such as the one below at your entrance and in your lobby, to make it clear you welcome all people to inquire about volunteering, about client services, etc.:


A group of volunteers supporting the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina was assigned to find a way undocumented immigrant parents could volunteer in their schools. This article is about their struggle and this article is about what they finally ended up doing.

My only other caution regarding involving immigrants as volunteers would be involving such in unpaid internships. An unpaid internship is volunteering, just as virtual volunteering, skilled volunteering, pro bono services, microvolunteering, episodic volunteering, group volunteering and all the other forms of donated, unpaid service are. But internships are full-time experiences and meant specifically to give someone on-the-job training for eventual paid work. The US Department of Labor is concerned both with the protection of jobs for United States citizens, and views internships as jobs, even those at nonprofits.

On a different note: A federal judge granted class-action status to a lawsuit filed in 2014 claiming thousands of detained immigrants were forced to work for $1 a day or nothing at all while in custody of ICE at Denver Contract Detention Facility. The forced labor could be considered a violation of federal anti-slavery laws, according to the Washington PostJaqueline Stevens, head of Northwestern University’s Deportation Research Clinic, said the Denver facility violated the federal standards of volunteer work programs in which many detainees are required to participate. Stevens’ research prompted the original lawsuit. “Just slapping the word ‘volunteer’ in front of ‘work program’ doesn’t exempt the prison firm from paying legally mandated wages any more than McDonald’s can use ‘volunteer’ senior citizens and pay them Big Macs,” Stevens told the Washington Post.

Here are more resources from other organizations:

  • National Volunteer Week: How Much Do Immigrants Volunteer? “Volunteering has long been shown to bring stability to neighborhoods and increase the level of cohesion and bonding among friends and neighbors. In communities with large immigrant populations, these are particularly desirable attributes, and places like New York City have already increased efforts to incorporate immigrants into social and political volunteerism… Our analysis produced some interesting takeaways that can help advocates and community leaders inspire more immigrants to join organizations—and, in turn, get more out of their participation.” From the New American Economy Action Fund
  • Increasing Knowledge Related to the Experiences of Undocumented Immigrants in Public Schools. This article describes the experiences of school personnel working with undocumented immigrants in public schools and the opinions and attitudes of school personnel. It was published in Educational Leadership and Administration: Teaching and Program Development, Volume 24, January 2013, ISSN 1532-0723 © 2013 California Association of Professors of Educational Administration
  • Parental Involvement in Schools. “Students with parents who are involved in their school tend to have fewer behavioral problems and better academic performance, and are more likely to complete high school than students whose parents are not involved in their school. Positive effects of parental involvement have been demonstrated at both the elementary and secondary levels across several studies, with the largest effects often occurring at the elementary level. A recent meta-analysis showed that parental involvement in school life was more strongly associated with high academic performance for middle schoolers than helping with homework. Involvement allows parents to monitor school and classroom activities, and to coordinate their efforts with teachers to encourage acceptable classroom behavior and ensure that the child completes schoolwork. Teachers of students with highly involved parents tend to give greater attention to those students, and they are more likely to identify at earlier stages problems that might inhibit student learning. Parental involvement in school, and positive parent-teacher interactions, have also been found to positively affect teachers’ self-perception and job satisfaction.”

Here are my own resources on related topics: