Tag Archives: children

Safety in virtual volunteering

Between my Google Alerts and those whom I follow on Twitter, I see a story at least once a day about the engagement of online volunteers. I put the most interesting or unique ones on the Virtual Volunteering Wiki. It’s so wonderful to see virtual volunteering oh-so-mainstream. I’m not at all surprised: by the 1990s, it was already impossible to track every organization involving online volunteers – there were so many! If there is anyone out there still talking about any form of virtual volunteering – digital volunteers, micro volunteering, crowd sourcing, ework, etc. – as “new”, you have to wonder: have they been under a rock?

But I do have a concern: many of these virtual volunteering initiatives don’t seem to have thought about online safety. Too many, in my opinion, are focused on creating a really complex, feature-rich web site for volunteers to use to sign up and contribute their time and skills, but not thinking about risk management – protecting clients and volunteers.

As Susan Ellis and I say in The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, and I say in any workshop related to virtual volunteering:

Relatively speaking, the Internet is no more or less safe than any other public space, such as a school, faith community, or sports stadium. Fears of exploitation, abuse, or exposure to sexually-explicit or violent material should not prevent an agency from engaging in virtual volunteering, any more than such fears should prevent the involve­ment of volunteers onsite. There is risk in any vol­unteering, online or face-to-face. The challenge is to minimize and manage such risk. (page 112)

Do you have to interview every candidate for online volunteering? Do you have to check professional references on every candidate for online volunteering? Do you have to conduct a criminal background check on every online volunteer? No, you don’t have to do any of these things IF the tasks they will do as volunteers don’t warrant such – they aren’t going to work with clients, they aren’t going to work with other online volunteers and know their names, they aren’t going to have access to confidential information, they won’t have access to any online systems in such a way that they could even accidentially harm such, etc. Again, back to a quote from The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook.:

Every organization will have different interview­ ing and screening methods based on what services volunteers provide and its workplace culture. Even for volunteers working onsite, the issues involved in volunteering for a beach cleanup or simple clerical work are not the same as issues involved in volun­teering to tutor young children or manage an orga­nization’s computer systems.

The same is true for online volunteers. Your screening approach will be different for a volun­teer designing a Web page than for one creating a private online area where your staff and clients will interact and the online volunteer will have far more access to client contact and other confidential information. (page 41)

If an online volunteering role does warrant some degree of screening – and not all do, but most do – then you have to decide how much there will be, and how it will be conducted. First and foremost is that you must follow the law. For instance, many states require a criminal background check on any volunteers that will work with children one-on-one. A volunteer who will come to a classroom one time to speak about his or her job may not be required by law to undergo a criminal background check, but someone who will talk with a child, one-on-one, even if they will always be in a room with other adults and children, probably is required by law to undergo such – apply the same principles to online volunteers in determining what screening is required. Should the online volunteering candidate be interviewed? If the person is new and is doing any task that requires at least some expertise – web page development, translating text from one language to another, moderating an online discussion group, designing a newsletter, editing a brochure, etc. – yes, absolutely! Many more tips for screening online volunteers to ensure they really can do the task that they have signed up for, and have the time to do so, can be found in The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook.

My favorite resource on screening volunteers, online or offline, that will work with clients in any capacity, is free to download: Screening Volunteers to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse: A Community Guide for Youth Organizations. Point one under the section on what to do before the organization starts screening volunteers is this: “Develop criteria that define how screening information will be used to determine an applicant’s suitability.” That will be different for every organization, depending on their mission and the work volunteers will do. You have to think about not only worst-case scenarios – screening out people that might sexually and/or financially-exploit clients, other volunteers, etc. – but also about people who don’t have the skills necessary for the work, people who don’t have the temperament for the challenges, and people who really don’t have time to volunteer, as all of those scenarios, while not criminal, can be harmful to your organization and those it serves.

You also have to clearly define what behavior is inappropriate on the part of online volunteers, how you will communicate that to volunteers, the consequences of inappropriate behavior, and how you are going to be aware of such behavior. As we note in the guidebook, a way to absolutely ensure safety in online interactions between volunteers and clients is to set up a private sys­tem through which all messages are sent, reviewed by staff before they can be read by the intended recipient, stripped of all personal identifying information by the moderator, archived for the record, etc., but that such a system can ruin an attempt to create trusting, caring relationships between volunteers and clients (and we provide a powerful example of how such a super-safe system ended up almost derailing an online mentoring program). Your efforts to ensure safety must balance with your program goals.

Among the many suggestions we make in The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, regarding online safety is this:

The best way to ensure that clients and vol­unteers are having positive online experiences is for program staff to stay in frequent touch with both, to encourage an atmosphere of open communication. Also, it is fundamental that you establish and clearly (and frequently) communicate policies regarding online exchanges between volunteers and clients. (page 114)

Clearly, explicitly inform applicants for volunteering about your organization’s policies and procedures regarding safety, abuse prevention, and all aspects of risk management, as well as circumstances that would lead to a volunteer being dismissed. Be explicit. Also share your code of conduct or statement of ethics in writing. Ask applicants if they have a problem with any of the policies and procedures, code of ethics, etc.; such a discussion will help you find out if applicants are uncomfortable with any aspect of such, which can be an indicator that they are an inappropriate candidate. Even though it is not legally binding, require applicants to sign a document that states they understand and agree to adhere to your policies and procedures and code of conduct; again, this can help you find out if an applicant is uncomfortable with any aspect of such, which can be an indicator that they are an inappropriate candidate. It also affirms to volunteers that you make the safety of your volunteers, staff and clients a priority, which can encourage new volunteers to take such precautions with the utmost seriousness.

vvbooklittleThere are lots more suggestions and specifics about risk management, online safety, ensuring client confidentiality and setting boundaries for relationships in virtual volunteering in The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, available both as a traditional printed book and as a digital book. Suggestions for risk management are found throughout the book, in the chapters regarding developing and revising policies, designing assignments for online volunteers, interviewing and screening online volunteers, orienting and training online volunteers, basic techniques for working with online volunteers, and online volunteers working directly with clients, as well as the chapter written for online volunteers themselves. Our advice is based on both virtual volunteering practices, including micro volunteering and crowdsourcing, and the proven fundamentals of onsite, face-to-face, traditional volunteer management.

Also see:

Keeping volunteers safe – & keeping everyone safe with volunteers

Why don’t they tell? Would they at your org?

Safety of volunteers contributes to a shelter closing

volunteer managers: you are NOT psychic!

Photos & videos by & of volunteers online – privacy issues?

Keeping volunteers safe – & keeping everyone safe with volunteers

I am thrilled to have just discovered that some of my favorite resources for helping to keep volunteers safe, and keeping everyone safe with volunteers, are now available for FREE – just download them!

One is Kidding Around? Be Serious! A Commitment to Safe Service Opportunities for Young People. It discussed “risk relevant characteristics” of adolescents and children – knowledge that was especially helpful when I was creating and advising on online mentoring programs -, offers a realistic, effective risk management process for dealing with young people, and reviews how to approach different service scenarios involving young participants. If you have young volunteers working together in particular, this book is a MUST read.

Another resource that is now free to download is Screening Volunteers to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse: A Community Guide for Youth Organizations. There are explicit guidelines on interactions between individuals, detailed guidance on monitoring behavior, advice on training staff, volunteers and youth themselves about child sexual abuse prevention, and exactly how to respond to inappropriate behavior, breaches in policy, and allegations and suspicions of child sexual abuse. I really can’t say enough fantastic things about this book.

And still another resource is Safe to Compete: An Introduction to Sound Practices for Keeping Children Safer in Youth-Serving Organizations. This document from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, published in 2013, is a framework for youth-serving organizations to guide their development of a sexual abuse prevention program.

Combine these three books with Beyond Police Checks: The Definitive Volunteer & Employee Screening Guidebook by Linda Graff, available from Energize, Inc. (but not for free), and you’ve got a solid, more-than-basic understanding of risk management in volunteer engagement activities. I really can’t say enough fantastic things about Graff’s book. It completely changed my view of safety in volunteering programs, both for clients and for volunteers themselves – the over-reliance on police checks for safety continues, sometimes with tragic consequences.

Three of these resources are “old”, however, I have had no trouble whatsoever easily adapting their recommendations to online scenarios with volunteers (virtual volunteering). The “old” books were a wake-up call for me regarding the vulnerability of teens, women and people with disabilities, and I carried that new knowledge into my recommendations regarding virtual volunteering, starting in the 1990s and continuing to this day.

And if you are promoting virtual volunteering, digital volunteering, micro volunteering, whatever, these books are a MUST read before you utter another word!

Also see:

Vanity Volunteering: all about the volunteer

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersIf you regularly read my blog and web site materials or have seen me present, then you know just how strongly I believe in the importance of the involvement of volunteers in nonprofit/mission-based causes. I believe that volunteer engagement represents community investment, can allow people from different walks of life to be associated with a cause more deeply than just donating money, can allow people who don’t want to or cannot quit their day jobs to be involved in a cause, educates people about a cause through firsthand experiences, and can demonstrate the organization’s transparency regarding decision-making and administration. Service activities can educate volunteers to be better advocates for a cause, even change their behavior or feelings regarding certain issues, activities and groups. And I believe any of these reasons are far, far better reasons for involving volunteers than to save money by not paying staff.

I feel so strongly about the importance of volunteer engagement that when I see nonprofit organizations that don’t involve volunteers in some way, it makes me suspicious of them – how invested is this organization in the community it’s supposed to serve if it isn’t letting the community participate behind-the-scenes? How much does this organization really want to be a part of the community if the only way I can be a part of that organization is to work for it, professionally?

But I also have to say that I am wary of the value of a lot of volunteer activities, much more so now, having worked for international humanitarian aid and development agencies for more than 15 years. I regularly witness or hear about volunteering activities abroad and right here in the USA that are more about making the givers of service feel good than about benefitting the cause that the organization is supposed to serve. Voluntourism gets accused of this a lot: people going for a week or two to a poor community, usually in another country, and doing things that local people would love to do themselves, and be paid to do themselves, like build wells, build schools, repair houses, play with orphans, teach a few English classes, etc. Do those activities primarily benefit local people or a critical cause, or are they actually more about being great money-makers for organizations, including religious groups, that know Westerners will pay big bucks for a feel-good volunteering experience and lots of touching photos of them in exotic or devastated locations? There are even tragic consequences from this kind of volunteering, such as the rise of orphan voluntourism, where children that are NOT orphans are presented as such, in need of help from short-term international volunteers, people with little or no expertise regarding the needs of at-risk children.

An article from December 2015 in Cracked captured my wariness about some volunteering, particularly around the holidays. It’s called “5 Realities Of A Homeless Shelter At Christmas.” Regarding homeless shelters, the article notes:

These charities exist to help people with serious problems. They do not exist to round up sideshows and parade them around for gawkers, or to help regular folks gain perspective on their own lives. Surprisingly, not everyone is aware of this.

The article also notes:

Remember, these people are homeless for a reason. We don’t mean “because they’re jerks and deserve it”; we mean that mental illness and substance abuse issues run rampant. If you reserve your charitable feelings only for those capable of showing gratitude in some satisfying way, you’ll be neglecting the ones who need help the most. They show their gratitude by still being alive the next time Christmas comes around.

This all came to mind recently when I found an article about a young boy who created his own nonprofit so he, personally, could hand out food to homeless people in the city where he lives. That’s the primary purpose of the nonprofit: to give him an outlet to hand out food to homeless people. He’s well under age, so I’m not going to name him or his nonprofit or say where he is – I also really do not want to humiliate a kid, especially one that has such a big heart. But his nonprofit seems to be more about him than the homeless: the nonprofit has his name in the title, the web site for the organization is filled with many, many more photos of him than homeless people, and on the web site, a link for more information doesn’t say “About our organization,” but rather, “About me.”

He says he started his nonprofit because organizations serving the homeless turned him away as a volunteer because he’s “too young to help,” and that made him “sad.” What I suspect shelters and food kitchens actually said is that many of their clients are not allowed, legally, to be around anyone under 18, and the organization would, therefore, be causing those people to break the law by interacting with a child. They probably also told him that shelter staff need to put their resources into helping clients, not diverting such to ensuring the safety and heart-warming learning experience of underage volunteers.

The web site for this child’s organization has no information about the nutritional needs of the homeless or statistics on food availability for the homeless in this particular city. The web site has no information about the causes of homelessness. The aforementioned Cracked article correctly points out that when homeless people die, it’s most often from heart disease, substance abuse and trauma, rarely from hunger, although, of course, nutrition is a big challenge and hardship for many homeless people. The principle causes of food insecurity in the United States are unemployment, high housing costs, low wages and poverty, lack of access to SNAP (food stamps), and medical or health costs, but the web site for this child’s nonprofit never mentions any of these realities – it makes it sounds like he’s personally keeping these folks alive, that most homeless people die of starvation. Even if his nonprofit isn’t going to address any of those causes of hunger, shouldn’t those causes be mentioned somewhere on his site? This young man’s nonprofit could make a HUGE difference by helping people, particularly young people, understand why people are homeless, why they experience food insecurity – and they could take that knowledge to the ballot box, and make donation decisions based on that knowledge. Instead, this nonprofit, as demonstrated by the web site and by the media coverage of the nonprofit, is about making a little boy feel like he’s making a difference in the world, and making us feel good about him.

Robert Lupton, a veteran community activist based in Atlanta and author of Toxic Charity: How the Church Hurts Those They Help and How to Reverse It, was quoted in an opinion piece in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, saying this about various volunteer groups that show up to hand out food in Atlanta parks: “The folks that come and hand out sandwiches? I call that harmful charity. It’s irresponsible… Who is this service activity for? To help the homeless? Or someone else?” I am not as down on charity as Lupton; in contrast to him, I do believe charity and aid will always be needed, that food banks and on-the-street food handout programs cannot and should not be replaced entirely by community development / empowerment / teach-a-man-to-fish programs, and I think there are very good things that can come from group volunteering projects in communities . But I do agree with him that a lot of high-profile volunteering seems more about making the giver have a feel-good experience and lots of great photos than focusing on the primary needs of those to be served.

No one is too young to volunteer, but there are volunteering activities in which a youth or child may NOT participate, because it would be illegal or inappropriate. Even with that restriction, there is no cause a young person can’t support in some meaningful way as a volunteer, including helping the homeless, and there are many ways a young person can volunteer, no matter how young he or she is. Volunteering is a great way to teach children about compassion and empathy, but it shouldn’t perpetuate old-fashioned ideas about volunteering, that it’s just about charity, and that its primary purpose is about well-off people giving food and items to poor people, but not talking about why there are poor people and not addressing those reasons. Volunteering by youth shouldn’t be primarily about making the kids feel good about themselves. Volunteering by youth should educate those young people about why causes are important, about community challenges, and/or about people very different from themselves. And volunteering should ALWAYS be primarily about what the person or cause needs most, not about the volunteers themselves. That means sometimes telling well-meaning people, even young people, “It’s great that you want to help, but the way you want to help is not what’s needed most and, in fact, can take valuable resources away from what we really need. And what we really need is…”

This is not a call for a volunteer motivation “purity” test. Volunteering doesn’t have to be selfless – as I have said many times in my workshops, I’m a part of Generation X, and I’ve never volunteered “to be nice” in my entire life; I’ve volunteered because I’m angry about a situation and want to do something about it, because I’m lonely or bored, because I want to explore careers, because I’m curious about an organization or activity, because I want to develop a skill or get experience for my résumé, because it sounds fun, because I want the fabulous t-shirt, and on and on. Almost any reason to volunteer is a great reason to volunteer. What I’m questioning are some of the reasons volunteering activities are created – what I’m saying is that they may actually do harm rather than good.

Even with all my disclaimers and all my work to date promoting volunteerism, I have a feeling this blog is still going to get me accused of being anti-volunteer. Nothing could be farther from the truth. But vanity volunteering… sorry, I’m just not a fan.

For more on this subject – written by others:

Symptoms of a Vanity Nonprofit by Mark Fulop, from May 28, 2014.

The Most Outlandish Charity Trends: Is It About Vanity?, from MainStreet an online financial magazine & news site by TheStreet, in April 2014.

Vanity Charity, an opinion piece by Alan Cantor, published online on March 5, 2013

This 2012 Cracked article: “5 Popular Forms of Charity (That Aren’t Helping).

This New York Times Magazine article, “The Vanity of Volunteerism,” from July 2000.

#InstagrammingAfrica: The Narcissism of Global Voluntourism , from the Pacific Standard, June 2014

This Boston Globe article, Corporate volunteers can be a burden for nonprofits, from March 2015

How to judge a charity: the five questions no one asked Kids Company (How do you know if a charity is changing lives?), 2 January 2016 article from The Spectator

Added Jan. 18: In The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems, Courtney Martin warns against a line of thinking which leads privileged young Westerners to think they can solve serious social problems in developing countries. Ms. Martin points to failed international development efforts like the now-infamous PlayPump, a piece of playground equipment that was meant to also pump underground water in remote communities. It was embraced by the development community — though the pumps didn’t, in fact, work. “It’s dangerous for the people whose problems you’ve mistakenly diagnosed as easily solvable. There is real fallout when well-intentioned people attempt to solve problems without acknowledging the underlying complexity.”

July 17, 2017 updateCharities and voluntourism fuelling ‘orphanage crisis’ in Haiti, says NGO. At least 30,000 children live in privately-run orphanages in Haiti, but an estimated 80% of the children living in these facilities are not actually orphaned: they have one or more living parent, and almost all have other relatives, according to the Haitian government.

And for more by me, on related topics:

learning from a campaign that went viral

Sweeping the Internet this week: a viral video campaign by Invisible Children to make Joseph Kony, a terrorist leader in Uganda, a household name, and thereby get the media and politicans to pay attention. Viewership is through the roof, #KONY2012 is trending on Twitter, and the press is all over it. Even Lord Voldemort is on board:

voldemort protests kony

The video is here; jump to 10:30 on the video if you want to get to the heart of the video, and watch until 27:00, to get a sense of what the campaign is trying to achieve and how it will do so, without having to watch the whole thing – it’s 16 or so minutes of your life worth spending, both to learn about an important human rights campaign and to see how to make a campaign go viral.

This is already a wildly successful activism / digital story-telling campaign – but it’s not a campaign that can be easily replicated by *most* nonprofits.

Here’s why it is working:

  • it’s an easy-to-understand cause
  • it’s a cause that gets an immediate emotional-response by anyone who watches the video
  • it’s a slickly produced video – very well edited, compelling imagery, excellent script
  • it offers both simple and ambitious ways to get involved: at the very least, you can like the Invisible Children Facebook page, share the video with your online social network, and help get the word out further. At the other end of the spectrum, you can organize an event on April 20, per Invisible Children’s guidelines for such, garnering press coverage and participation on a local level for an international issue.
  • it builds up to a specific day – April 20
  • it has a wide range of items for sale for activists to wear and display on April 20, which will help publicize the event and help make participants easy to identify the day of the event, and the sale of those items helps fund the campaign
  • there are Invisible Children staff engaging with people on Twitter and Facebook for hours at a time – not just tweeting one link to a press release and hoping it catches on
  • it has an easy-to-remember Twitter tag that isn’t in use by anyone else: #KONY2012

It’s having that specific day of action and a video that creates in-depth awareness about a specific issue that, IMO, makes this go well beyond slacktivism/slackervism.

What did it take for this campaign to be successful:

  • money. Yes, I’m sure a lot of things were donated and a lot of expertise was give pro bono, but it still took money to pay for people and their time and knowledge to make this happen.
  • wide-ranging, deep relationships with key people (media, corporations, celebrities, politicians, communications strategists). These relationships took many months, even years, to cultivate – more than some tweets and email.
  • a very detailed, well-thought-out strategic plan. Somewhere, this plan is in writing, no matter how spontaneous the feeling this campaign is conveying.
  • a LOT of people to undertake the necessary outreach activities via traditional and online media. This isn’t just sending press releases; this is also engaging with people on Twitter and the phone for hours at a time. It took people to design the web site, to design the materials, to distribute those materials, to talk to the press – and it took those people MANY hours of work to do so, and it’s taking even more time to respond to all of the press and critics now focusing on the effort.

But while there is a lot to learn from this campaign for nonprofits and NGOs, this is not the campaign most should aspire to.

  • Most nonprofits and NGOs do NOT have the resources to make something like this happen – and never will.
  • Your nonprofit is probably engaged in something that’s only local, or that is a more complex issue to explain, and that doesn’t garner an immediate emotional response.
  • Your nonprofit might not be able to survive the incredible attention and scrutiny that a campaign like this would bring.

That doesn’t mean your nonprofit is less worthwhile than Invisible Children – it just means that having a video go viral nationally or internationally might not-at-all be what is best for YOUR nonprofit.

As you read about this campaign and see it get so much attention, think about what you really want from donors, volunteers, the press, politicians, clients and the general public regarding your organization.

Think about local celebrities, local policy makers, local leaders (both official ones, like elected officials, and unofficial ones, like prominent business people or local leaders of religious communities) and local activists – what do you want them to say about your organization, and how might you get them to?

Also see this TechSoup resource on Digital Storytelling.

Another lesson to learn from this campaign: don’t spam celebrities. I’ve seen a lot of celebrity Twitter feeds over-run with tweets from people begging for that person to follow or mention this or that nonprofit or cause. George Clooney probably gets 100 of those tweets in just one day! Don’t make George Clooney dislike your organization because you keep tweeting him, begging for a mention.

One of the things that has been amusing to see is the stampede of smug aid workers and other smugsters to condemn the campaign – the theme of the pushback falls into four categories:

Here’s why a lot of these criticisms are bogus:

Americans are some of the most globally-unaware people on the planet. I moved back to the USA in 2009 and have heard things every day by neighbors, people I volunteer with and people on TV that have reminded me of this every day. And this ignorance about the world leads to some profoundly ridiculous statements and actions by my fellow Americans. Maybe this campaign will help make a few people, particularly young people, aware of the world beyond the borders of the USA. BandAid/LiveAid did that for me once-upon-a-time – don’t laugh, but it did. I was a teenager in Kentucky as ignorant as a box of hammers. That record and that concert set me on a path for a lifetime.

Also, in the USA, no human rights movement has ever succeeded without a lot of outside pressure and support – and anyone who thinks apartheid was removed as an official policy in South Africa only because of pressure and evolution from within South Africa isn’t paying attention.

Some of the arguments I’ve heard about why the USA should not be focused on Uganda are the same arguments I’ve heard from China and Russia about why the world needs to not “interfere” with Syria.

Compassion for one thing breeds compassion for other things. No one – NO ONE – is saying, “Don’t be focused on local issues – instead, care about what’s happening in Uganda!” As this campaign ends, the people that have gotten caught up in it, particularly young people, are going to have a taste for advocacy and wanting to make a difference. If your local nonprofit is jealous, then start thinking now about how you are going to leverage what’s happening. Is there going to be an anti-Kony event at your local schools or in your local community? Then start designing the handbills you are going to give out at anti-Kony-related events to tell those energized young people about your local cause and how and why they can get involved.

By all means, offer legitimate criticisms of this campaign and Invisible Children. But some people are trying to kill this campaign – and I question their motivations in doing so.

Also see:

Use Your Web Site to Show Your Accountability and To Teach Others About the Nonprofit / NGO / Charity Sector

How to Make a Difference Internationally/Globally/in Another Country Without Going Abroad

Ideas for Leadership Volunteering Activities to make a difference locally

Advice for volunteering abroad (volunteering internationally)

CNN Recognizes Virtual Volunteering; Do You?

Virtual volunteering in all its forms – long-term service, online mentoring, online microvolunteering, crowdsourcing, etc. – has been around for more than 30 years, as long as the Internet has been around, and there are several thousand organizations that have been engaging with online volunteers since at least the late 1990s. While directing the Virtual Volunteering Project, I gave up trying to track every organization involving online volunteers in 1999, because there were just too many!

Virtual volunteering – people donating their time and expertise via a computer or smart phone to nonprofit causes and programs – has been talked about in major media, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, the Associated Press, Deutche Welle, the BBC, even the Daily Show, for more than 15 years (I know because I’ve been quoted in a lot of those stories!).

But virtual volunteering has remained thought of as a fringe movement, or something brand new, by many, despite it being so well-established. Virtual volunteering still isn’t included in national volunteerism reports by any national or international body, such as the Points of Light Foundation, the Corporation for National Service or the Pew Research Center, Volunteering England, or Volunteer Australia.

Perhaps the last holdouts regarding virtual volunteering will finally give in and accept it as mainstream, now that an online mentoring program representative has been nominated as a CNN Hero.

I was introduced to Infinite Family in 2010, and was immediately impressed with its commitment to the fundamentals of a successful online mentoring program in its administration of the program, including the importance it places on site manager-involvement in its program. This is an online mentoring program absolutely committed to quality, to the children its been set up to support, and its online volunteer screening process is no cake walk – as it should be, as the children it supports deserve nothing less! Mentoring cannot be done whenever you might have some time, in between flights at an airport: it takes real time and real commitment, even when its online. Infinite Family gets that.

While all of the CNN Hero projects are worthy of attention and support, I am throwing my support to Infinite Family as the top CNN Hero for 2011.

If you want to volunteer online, here is a long list of where to find virtual volunteering opportunities, including long-term service, online mentoring, online microvolunteering, and crowdsourcing.

Also see the archived Virtual Volunteering Project web site, and resources on my web site regarding volunteer engagement and support.

Giving the wrong way

I regularly read the questions posted to the Community Service section of YahooAnswers. It helps me to know what is trending regarding volunteerism, philanthropy, community service, especially among pre-teens and teens.

One of the many things I’ve learned from participating on YahooAnwers is the ongoing misconception people have, particularly in the USA, that collecting items to send abroad is a great idea and something NGOs and international agencies will help you coordinate. Most organizations do not want donated items. There are a number of reasons why:

    • Donated items can take away desperately needed local jobs. Even donated food can hurt, because how are local farmers supposed to get people to buy their food if a rich country dumps huge amounts of such into a country? There are local people in poor countries barely getting selling clothes, paper, pencils, building supplies and more – and donations of these materials flooding a country can drive them out of business.
  • Donated items shipped from the USA to another country can cost more to ship than simply buying the materials locally, or closer to the affected area.

That’s why many aid agencies try to buy needed materials and supplies locally, whenever possible, in cities near an area in need of such assistance: it helps the local economy, which is often in tatters because of the crisis, and stretches donor dollars much farther.

In addition, a lot of people want to donate their “gently-used clothes and toys” to people in need, not understanding that even the poorest people want their children to have new clothes and new toys, not people’s cast offs, however “gently-used.” Maybe the last thing they have to hold on to is their dignity.

That isn’t to say people shouldn’t donate used items appropriately: I’m a strong advocate for Goodwill, because it is a secular organization, accepting all people as volunteers and recipients of service, and it is focused on helping people to enter or re-enter the workforce. Goodwill stores aren’t just the places where the organization raises funds for its programs; they are also training grounds for those the organization is trying to help. Volunteers work alongside clients on the sales floor and behind the scenes in inventory.

My friend Ann in Ukraine wrote an awesome blog that talks about how international donations of stuff can be giving the wrong way. She wrote about a US NGO that wanted to send a humanitarian aid shipment to a hospital in a Chornobyl-affected area of Ukraine. It turned into a DISASTER. She isn’t trying to discourage people from giving:

There are extremely important reasons to give to humanitarian aid organizations. They do valuable and critical work, and they are essential in conflict zones, disaster areas and other at-risk places around the globe. I don’t want the “take-away” of this post to be that you should never give to a humanitarian aid organization. You should!

That said, her blogs about her situation with the US NGO will give you wonderful insight into why many NGOs in the developing world just-say-no to material donations.