Category Archives: Nonprofit/NGO/Agency Management

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:

A grassroots group or nonprofit org = disorganization?

logoThree comments I received or read in the last few weeks via email or social media:

As a nonprofit, we can’t always make updates and changes to our web site quickly…

As an all-volunteer organization, we won’t be able to do much marketing for this event…

We haven’t replied to people that have posted on Facebook saying that they want to volunteer because we’re an all-volunteer movement and we’re progressing methodically…

Being a nonprofit, or being an all-volunteer organization, or being a grassroots group organizing a march, has nothing to do with a group or organization’s ability to:

  • make simple changes to its web site
  • market an event
  • provide quality customer service
  • have an up-to-date list of the board of directors or senior staff on the web site
  • say on the web site what volunteers do at the organization and how to express interest in volunteering
  • say on the web site what the organization needs in terms of volunteer support
  • respond to emails in a timely manner
  • refer all phone calls and emails to the appropriate person immediately
  • quickly reply to every person who wants to volunteer, even with a simple message that says “you will hear from us in the next two weeks with next steps”

Legitimate reasons for not doing those things is because the organization or group:

  • is suddenly and severely understaffed (mass staff walk out, mass layoffs…)
  • has other immediate, urgent priorities in that specific moment (building burning down, death of a client, etc.)
  • is inefficient
  • is disorganized

If you have ever wondered why so many people from the for-profit sector think nonprofits are incompetent, that people that work at nonprofits aren’t experts, this is why: because we use our nonprofit status, or our volunteer staffing, as an excuse for not being able to do the basics of customer service, management and marketing.

My reaction to someone who says As a nonprofit, we can’t always make updates and changes to our web site quickly… or As an all-volunteer organization, we won’t be able to do much marketing for this event… is this: maybe you should dissolve your organization, or seek new leadership for your organization and its programs. And my reaction to anyone that says their group doesn’t have time to respond quickly to every person that expresses interest in volunteering is this: in fact, you don’t have to involve volunteers at all, and you should say so.

Yes, I’m talking to all you folks organizing marches as well.

When you get an email from someone asking why certain information isn’t on your web site, or why you aren’t updating your Facebook page, or why your nonprofit wasn’t represented at some event, here’s an idea: apologize to the person for not having the information or activity that you should have had, tell that person you are currently understaffed, and ask if he or she would be interested in volunteering with the organization to help you correct this. For instance:

Thanks so much for the email noting that we haven’t updated our Facebook page for four months, and haven’t posted any information about our upcoming event. Our marketing manager is currently on maternity leave, and we are looking for a volunteer to help us with social media management for the next four months. Would you be interested in helping us? 

Or

Thank you for writing about your frustration about trying to volunteer with your organization. People that want to volunteer with us deserve a quick response to their expressions of interest. Would you like to help us do that? Would you be interested in volunteering to help us quickly respond to people that want to volunteer?

Yes, I know, I wrote a similar blog back in 2012.

Also see:

Creating a Speak-up Culture in the Workplace

speak upMission-based agencies – nonprofits, non-governmental organizations, charities, government offices, schools, etc. – are often thought of as being in the business of doing good rather than the business of making money. We like to believe, therefore, that such programs are naturally, inherently good, righteous, even superior. We like to believe that, at such programs, everyone – employees, consultants, volunteers and program participants – is on the same page when it comes to honest practices and integrity.

However, the reality is that such agencies are run by humans, and humans suffer lapses in ethics, common sense and judgment. Humans are fallible and, therefore, mission-based organizations are fallible.

I don’t know of many nonprofits or government programs that make ethics a written, central priority to their operational strategy. According to the Ethics and Compliance Initiative, research shows that such a practice can reduce misconduct “by as much as 66 percent in organizations with effective programs,” as noted in this article “Before the Whistle Blows: Creating a Speak-up Culture at Work,” from August 2016 in Workforce magazine. Yes, the author is talking about for-profit businesses, but I can’t imagine anything in this article isn’t also applicable, and essential, to the mission-based world.

The subtitle of the article is “Creating an environment in which employees feel empowered to speak up when they suspect wrongdoing starts at the top.” I would love to go to an entire workshop on this subject, and see such workshops offered at any and all conferences for managers of volunteers and conferences regarding any kind of nonprofit management.

From the article:

Creating a “speak-up” culture puts a premium on ethical decision-making across the board with responsibility shared by all. But setting the tone and promoting that culture rests squarely on the shoulders of organizational leaders. Their endorsement and modeling create an atmosphere of openness and trust that reassures employees who are understandably anxious about coming forward, whether out of fear of being let go or fear of being ostracized. Leaders who take employee concerns seriously and follow through send a strong message about integrity.

That should be a wake-up call to all senior staff at mission-based organizations. How many of you have communicated your views to your staff regarding ethical behavior?

The heart of how to create such a speak-up culture is this, at least IMO:

Make sure that managers and supervisors receive thorough training in how to respond to and guide employees who come forward. These sessions may also expand to include full team training with hypothetical scenarios or case studies. Simultaneously, the organization ensures that the ethics and compliance policy is clear on how violations are identified and acted upon. Employees must know what constitutes misconduct within the organization and at what point it should be reported. From there, employees need to know the methods available for speaking up. A high quality ethics program will have multiple methods for reporting concerns.

The profound failures at Penn State to address reports of suspicions of crimes against children and to warn people if their safety might be threatened, all regarding former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, convicted of child molestation while working at Penn State, should give every organization pause. There was no “speak up” culture at Penn State, and not just within the athletic program. I remain flabbergasted as I read about the case – and I read extensively about it – that people did not report what they saw, or if they did report, those who received the information did not act appropriately about it. And I wish I could say it was the exception, but I quiz organizations about their reporting procedures regarding suspected misconduct and, more often than not, find they do not have such. Many will say, in their defense of not having any procedure, “Well, we haven’t had any problems!” And I say, “So far.”

Every organization is different in how it should set up methods for reporting suspicion of misconduct or unsafe conditions, for response to such and for follow-up. In addition to getting legal advice on how it should be done, creating procedures can be a terrific exercise for employees and volunteers – they will be buying in to it by designing it. But you have to create a trusting environment where participants feel comfortable asking questions and discussing sensitive topics, such as what they think they should do if they:

  • hear a client telling a joke that is racist or sexist to a staff member
  • have seen an employee, consultant, volunteer or client use an organization’s device and/or Internet access to visit pornography sites
  • know a staff member is taking equipment home without permission
  • learn that an adult volunteer frequently texting with an under-aged teen volunteer
  • suspect an adult volunteer at your organization is dating a minor he or she met through your organization

How will you create that trusting environment? That’s the subject of another blog.

Also see:

To Do List the Day After the USA election

The USA Presidental election is over in the USA at last. While not everyone is happy with the results, everyone is happy that it is over. It feels like it’s been going on for two years or more!!

This Presidential election has been contentious, controversial and very, very heated. I wrote in another blog about mistrust being rampant in so many communities in the USA and elsewhere, but the reality is that, fueled by this election, mistrust has seeped into organizations and families all over the USA: friendships have dissolved, many people aren’t speaking to various family members, and employees and volunteers may also not be speaking to each other because of what’s been said and done in this election, perceptions of the candidates and perceptions of the candidates’ supporters.

Strong feelings about the election and the issues it raised can poison workplace congeniality, kill employee and staff motivation and drive the exit of employees and volunteers you really didn’t want to lose. Maybe some of this has already happened at your nonprofit or government agency. You may need to do a number of things over many months to ease tensions, heal hurt feelings, reinforce your policies regarding workplace behavior and culture, and make sure everyone understands that the mission of your organization is always the priority while acting in an official capacity as an employee or volunteer.

You could:

  • Encourage departments to organize lunch together one day every other week, or do this for your entire organization if staff numbers are small, for a few months. You could introduce non-work topics for each lunchtime: recommendations for binge-watching, best classic black and white movies, predictions about March Madness, etc. Or have lunchtime trivia contests. The goal is to create fun, friendly, non-political conversations and help employees and volunteers again see each other as real people with real feelings. You don’t have to say why you are doing this – just do it.
  • Have a simple, fun contest for staff. For instance, ask them to bring in photos of themselves as babies or very young children, or in a Halloween costume, put the photos on the bulletin board in a common area and ask people to say who they think each person is. Or staff can bring in photos of pets they have, or have had, and staff can guess what animal belongs to what staff member. Or have a weekly staff award, like most tenacious, or most congenial, or person with a work situation that would make the best reality show. The winner could get a gift card. Again, this creates fun, friendly, non-political conversations and help employees and volunteers again see each other as real people.
  • Consider posting appropriate quotes in the break room that encourage humanity and kindness. For instance, from Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address: Let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations. Or this quote from Carlos P. Romulo: Brotherhood is the very price and condition of man’s survival.
  • Organize several activities over the course of coming weeks that will remind staff and volunteers of the mission of your organization, such as a Q & A with frontline or program staff, a video of clients talking about the difference the organization makes, etc. This is good advice anytime, not just after a contentious election.
  • Remind staff in various ways that, at your organization, people matter, and in the workplace, we need to take care of each other, we need to have each other’s back. Cite individuals in front of all staff that have demonstrated this, or any teamwork, in some way. Have a brainstorming session on what kinds of words your staff would like, ideally, to be able to say about their workplace culture.
  • Note in an all-staff meeting that your organization’s staff has the right and responsibility to ensure that the work environment is free of hostility aimed at employees, consultants, volunteers or clients because of protected classification, such as race or gender, and that there are federal and state laws that prohibit hostile work environments on the basis of sex, race and religion. It’s better to do this in-person, in a conversational tone than a memo, as it feels less like a cold command, but certainly, you can also send out a written memo as a reminder of what you discussed in a recent meeting on this topic.
  • Remind staff – employees and volunteers – that, in the workplace, political discussions should never interfere with work, should be avoided with clients, and among staff, should never be allowed to devolve into debates over race, national origin, gender roles or religion, as such talk could be construed as creating a hostile work environment, even by someone not participating in such debates but just hearing such. Remind staff that such discussions should not happen in the workplace and, instead, should happen outside of the organization. This may require a written memo to drive home the point if things are getting out of hand.
  • Immediately take aside any employee, consultant or volunteer who seems to be crossing the line regarding political comments and remind them in specific terms what they have said that is inappropriate and in violation of your policies. Take appropriate action for repeat offensives, including dismissal.
  • If your organization, as a part of its mission, is focused on issues that came up frequently in the election, such as marriage, immigration, refugees, veterans, safety, government transparency, women’s health, insurance coverage, etc., make sure all staff, including non-program staff, know where the organization stands on these issues and knows how to properly refer any questions or criticisms of such.
  • Be absolutely strict on senior staff demonstrating the behavior they want out of subordinates and volunteers in all of the above. If they aren’t walking the talk, all of the aforementioned is for naught.
  • Be prepared to say goodbye to employees, consultants or volunteers who cannot let go of hostility about the election and are letting such affect their work and the work place.
  • Welcome questions or discussions from staff about any of the above.

If you try anything at your organization, or are struggling with staff cohesion, share your experience in the comments below.

Also see For Nonprofit Organizations: How to Handle Online Criticism.

Gossip’s toll in your workplace

gossipBack in March 2010, an article (registration may be required for access) in Workplace.com highlighted a study in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography regarding workplace gossip. It reviewed how rumors among employees about a company can dilute authority, can poison workplace congeniality and contribute to staff turnover, all of which can cause harm an organization without ever becoming public (external to the organization). The study is focused on paid employees, but, of course, its findings are important to nonprofits and volunteers as well. The study’s author, sociologist Tim Hallett, calls such gossip “reputational warfare,” and says that once a bad reputation has been solidified, justified or not, it usually sticks — often with negative consequences for the entire organization.

Employees and volunteers will always talk internally about how things are going at an organization, what they think the future holds, what obstacles they see facing the country, etc. There’s nothing wrong with that. But a misunderstanding, a small fear, an unanswered question or an observation by someone uninformed about a situation can turn conversations into negative gossip, layout the foundation for mistrust, conflict, and negative public relations.

Don’t try to stop conversations about the internal workings of an organization – those conversations can be important informal training for new staff and help you discover and address issues before they become full-blown problems. But do work to make sure conversations by staff – employees, consultants and volunteers – are fact-based and within the bounds of your confidentiality policies, and work continually to create a culture where employees and volunteers share their fears, questions and suppositions early with supervisors, without fear of retribution for merely expressing a fear or asking a question.

Gossip tends to crop up when there are voids in communication. Therefore, address fears, questions and suppositions quickly and regularly. Filling the void with information — about possible office relocation, promotions, layoffs, firings, conflicts with funders or partners, budget shortfalls, etc. If a situation must be kept confidential and can’t be shared with employees, consultants and/or volunteers — for instance, the reasons why a staff person was fired — then explain why such information is kept confidential, in such a way that employees realize that you will honor their personnel issues, positive or negative, in a confidential manner as well. If the information could be damaging to the organization if released too early, then say so, explicitly. If you should have released the information sooner internally, apologize to staff and talk about what you will be doing to ensure that information is not withheld again — or ask them how they would have liked the situation to have been handled.

If you don’t want to commit anything or everything to writing, such as in a company-wide memo, then meet individually with staff and volunteers, have the executive director or a senior manager address individual department meetings, and have all-staff meetings. Give employees multiple opportunities to ask questions and voice concerns about rumors that they have heard.

But how do you know gossip is happening? By having trusting relationships across the organization – including across an organization’s hierarchy. That comes from regular conversations, formal and informal, and by showing explicitly how feedback from staff is heard, how suggestions from volunteers does influence the organization, etc. And building trust would take several more blogs to explore…

In short, you must create a culture of faith and trust among your paid staff and volunteers in each other and in the organizational leadership in order to prevent damaging gossip. It’s much easier to create and sustain such a culture than it is to try to overcome “reputational warfare.”

Also see For Nonprofit Organizations: How to Handle Online Criticism.

sabotage your organization’s productivity: tips from the CIA in 1944

In 1944, the CIA’s precursor, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), distributed a secret pamphlet, the “Simple Sabotage Field Manual“, providing instructions to citizens living in Axis nations who were sympathetic to the Allies on how to weaken their country by reducing production in factories, offices, and transportation lines. It was declassified in 2008 and is available on the CIA’s website.

Most of the tips are about easy-to-do, hard-to-trace physical vandalism: sabotaging electric motors, fuel, cooling systems, power grids, railways and more. But several are timeless instructions on how to be a terrible employee in meetings and in management. And these instructions would be really funny except that I have encountered people in many of my work places that employ these methods. The motivations of employees using these methods today aren’t to help foreign governments – at least I hope not. I’m not really sure what their motivations are. But here’s my favorite productivity-crushing activities recommended in the manual, because I’ve encountered them so often (quotes are used because the manual used them; italics show exact quotes):

When possible, refer all matters to committees, for “further study and consideration.” Attempt to make the committee as large as possible — never less than five.

Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible. Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.

Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.

Frequently advocate “caution.”

Multiply the procedures and clearances involved in issuing instructions, pay checks, and so on. See that three people have to approve everything where one would do.

Do your work poorly and blame it on bad tools, machinery, or equipment. Complain that these things are preventing you from doing your job right.

Give people wrong numbers and cut them off “accidentally”

Delay the transmission and delivery of telegrams (now emails and other messages)

Ruin presentations by coughing loudly and by talking (or ignore them while you play on your phone)

When training new workers, give incomplete or misleading instructions.

Misfile essential documents.

Spread disturbing rumors that sound like inside dope.

Work slowly.

Give lengthy and incomprehensible explanations when questioned.

Act stupid.

The last one made me laugh out loud.

But what the manual recommends is not all bad: there’s also this recommendation, which I find particularly valuable it getting what I want when working with government clerks:

Cry and sob hysterically at every occasion especially when confronted by government clerks

“If no one is complaining, we don’t have to change how we do things”

handstopOne of the most common defenses I hear from an organization or program not addressing issues regarding diversity, communications, and accommodations is this:

We’ve done it this way for years, and no one has complained about that. No volunteer / client / member / donor has ever said they don’t like how we do such-and-such. You are the only one. So we’re not changing.

My observation might be about the way something is worded on a web site. Or the process to submit an application for volunteering. It could be about the lack of mass transit access to a location of an annual event or training. It could be about a lack of representation of various groups amid volunteer ranks. Or about a prayer before a volunteer recognition event at a secular organization. It could be about a lack of certain information in another language. Any of the aforementioned, and more, often incurs that defense when I bring up an issue related to diversity, accommodations or communications.

Often, when I do a little digging myself, talking to people that wanted to volunteer at the organization but didn’t, or to current members, or to former clients, and on and on, I find that, indeed, there is dissatisfaction among a few, maybe even more, but no one says anything to the organization itself, because no one wants to be seen as ruining an event or hurting the feelings of others or not being “a team player.” Some even fear repercussions by friends, neighbors and others. So they don’t say anything about something they would like to see changed or improved because there is a culture within the program or the entire organization, that discourages complaints or suggestions.

In the 1990s, I worked for a really incredible organization called Joint Venture: Silicon Valley. While I worked there, as internal communications manager – very much a junior staffer – a board member arranged for a retired HR executive from his oh-so-large global company to visit our organization and do a survey and discussion with staff about the work culture and environment, and then report our feedback to senior staff, keeping individual comments anonymous. That HR executive handled those surveys and conversations with the greatest of care, making us feel welcomed and comfortable in sharing what we liked, and what we didn’t, about our workplace. Afterward, he revealed to us, then senior staff, that junior staff and assistants felt we operated from a place of fear, rather than a place of power. We, as an organization, were risk-averse and even suggestion-averse. We felt corrections were given out by management far more than praise and support. After senior staff got over the shock of the culture they created – they really had no idea – things changed almost immediately, under that HR expert’s guidance. It rapidly became a delightful place to work, because senior management changed the way they worked and talked to all staff. And we all felt free to suggest, even to complain.

Would your organization be so brave?

Also see:

Apps4Good movement is more than 15 years old

Back in 2001, while working on the United Nations Information Technology Service (UNITeS), launched by then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and hosted by the United Nations Volunteers programme (part of UNDP), I wrote a paper on Handheld computer technologies in community service/volunteering/advocacy. It’s a compilation of examples of volunteers, citizens, grass roots activists and others using handheld computers – what then were called personal digital assistants (PDAs) –  or mobile phones as part of community service, volunteering and or advocacy. I found examples from health and human services, from environmental science, from citizen reporting initiatives and from activists. My favorite example was a project where software was developed for PDAs that allowed illiterate trackers in Africa to record wildlife observations by selecting icons from a set of pictures that depict various species and animal behaviors.

That was 14 years ago, before the term apps4good came into vogue, and some of these initiatives were already more than a year old then – that means apps4good, using mobile phones for good, is a movement that’s more than 15 years old. Some of the initiatives I wrote about are still in existence. Some have long ago ended – but similar initiatives, and much more advanced ones, have popped up since. For instance, there’s the Smart Health App, which focuses on providing accurate baseline information resource on HIV/AIDS, TB and Malaria and is currently available in Tanzania, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Angola, Ghana, and Senegal. Or mPedigree, a phone app which allows pharmaceutical retailers and users to verify the authenticity of a drug; this is done by text-messaging a unique code found on the product to a universal number.

My point is this: humanitarian aid workers and people working for nonprofits and NGOs anywhere, including volunteers, are using such tools in ways beyond just fundraising. Here are articles with more recent examples:

I love FOSS software!

For more than seven years, I’ve been using FOSS software for all my office software needs:

  • I use LibreOffice and OpenOffice for all word-processing needs on my laptop, including opening and editing Microsoft Word documents sent to me by other, for creating slide show/presentation/stacks and editing Microsoft PowerPoint files sent to me by others, for all spreadsheets, simple databases)
  • I use Thunderbird, from Mozilla, for my on-my-computer email client and Roundcube for my webmail needs via my laptop.

Open source software allows users (including online volunteers!) to study, change, and improve the software at the code level, rights normally reserved for the copyright holder – usually, a large corporation. Free software usually refers to software that grants you the freedom to copy and re-use the software, rather than to the price of the software, and is often referred to as FOSS (Free and Open Source Software). But in this case, I’m talking about cost-free-for-the-user software: it doesn’t cost a user money to use it.

It bothers me when I see people in countries where I work or visit – Afghanistan, Ukraine, Egypt, etc. – using pirated Microsoft software rather than LibreOffice or OpenOffice. Or when I see nonprofits struggling with expenses and spending huge amounts of money on proprietary software from multi-billion dollar companies rather than FOSS software. FOSS proves again and again to be just as secure, stable, frequently-updated, feature-rich and reliable as proprietary software. FOSS products are powerful, constantly debugged and upgraded, and feature-rich. The support forums for them are as good as anything large software corporations provide.

Sure, there are the occasional file translation issues — sometimes the fonts don’t translate ideally between FOSS and Microsoft Powerpoint, for instance, or the bullets in a word-processing document sometimes goes wonky from one software to another — you know, the same problems that happen between different versions of the same software from large, well-known corporations.

As I’ve said before, you evaluate and choose free software the same way you choose fee-based software:

  • how long has the software been around?
  • how often is the software upgraded?
  • how much documentation for the software is provided?
  • is there an online forum where users freely post questions and offer support to each other?
  • look for reviews of the software (these are very easy to find online). Read many different reviews from many different sources, not just one or two, and not just the “official” review from the software’s manufacturer(s).
  • is the software talked about by users on the TechSoup forum?

Beware of unsolicited email offers or web page pop-ups for free software. These are often associated with malicious software, viruses, and scams.

As I’ve said before, what’s most important in being able to work in the modern office is not a certain number of years using a particular office software. Rather, it’s for you to understand all that office software should be able to do, such as in a document:

  • using fonts appropriately and changing them as necessary
  • setting tabs and margins
  • creating and editing tables
  • adding headers and footers, page numbers, etc.
  • adding and editing tables
  • adding graphics and integrating them into a page’s design
  • recording and showing, or hiding or accepting, edits by other people
  • creating an automatically-updated table of contents based on headings and subheadings within a document
  • creating mail merges for customized text
  • etc.

What’s MOST important is that you understand the capabilities of word processing software, spreadsheet software, presentation software, web page creation software, etc. – having that understanding means you will be able to learn to use future versions of the software or any software produced by a different company that is designed to do what you want done, whether it’s to create a document or a web page or a database, whatever. The most important software skill you can have is the ability to learn new functions on upgraded software or ability to learn new software quickly or ability to figure out new software/upgrades, because software changes. And changes and changes. It gets upgraded. The IT manager decides to use something different. A board member can get a special deal on something different. The head of the organization has a personal preference. Whatever.

In short, don’t marry software. Because your relationship won’t last a lifetime. It just won’t. And it WILL break your heart at some point. Date it – and enjoy it while it lasts!

For more information, see these previous blogs and other web pages, where I talk more about FOSS options, including about entire country governments that have converted to FOSS use, and more about software choices:

Online leadership: what is it?

This week, I’m blogging and launching new web resources based on my experience in October as the Duvall Leader in Residence at the University of Kentucky’s Center for Leadership Development (CFLD), part of UK’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environment.

Yesterday, I blogged about one of my workshops about Democratizing Engagement. Specifically: has the Internet democratized community, even political, engagement?

Yesterday, I launched a new web page about online leadership. There is plenty of information about leading and supporting a team online, and I reviewed some of those suggested practices and resources in my workshop, but I wanted to focus this new web page solely on online leadership, on engaging in activities that influence others online, that create a profile for a person as someone that provides credible, important, even vital information about a particular subject. To me, leaders are looked to for advice, direction, knowledge and opinions on specific subjects, and their online activities, collectively, influence the thinking of others. And they engage online – they don’t just post information. They discuss, they acknowledge reactions and feedback, they even debate.

I’ve made it a web page, rather than a blog, because it’s a resource I intend to regularly update and maintain, part of my portfolio of online resources about working with others online. But your comments about the page, here on this blog, are welcomed!