Tag Archives: controversy

When mission statements, ideologies & human rights collide

logoThere is a legal case in Canada that started in 1995 regarding a person that was refused participation as a volunteer, and that case has always stuck with me. I have never, ever seen it discussed on an online forum for managers of volunteers and never heard it mentioned at a conference related to volunteerism or nonprofit management. I guess I’ve been waiting all these years for someone else to say, “Hey, what about this? How does this affect us? Might this affect us?” But no one has. So, I guess I will, per a discussion that came up on my blog Treat volunteers like employees? Great idea, awful idea.

In Canada, Kimberly Nixon, a transgendered woman, launched a human rights complaint against Vancouver Rape Relief, a nonprofit, for excluding her as a volunteer peer counselor for raped and battered women that seek the services of this nonprofit. Vancouver Rape Relief said it rejected Nixon as a volunteer peer counselor because the organization’s spaces for counseling clients are dedicated women’s-only spaces, and their clients come to the organization specifically because of this commitment to women’s-only spaces (unlike many other nonprofits that offer rape counseling – another women’s group, Battered Women’s Support Services, accepts transgendered women as volunteers, and Nixon volunteered there previously). Vancouver Rape Relief said the reason was also “because she did not share the same life experiences as women born and raised as girls and into womenhood.”

After 12 years of legal pursuits, in 2007, the Supreme Court of Canada denied Nixon’s appeal to have her case heard, leaving the B.C. Court of Appeal’s decision in December 2005 as the last word on the dispute. This article offers a nice summation of that appeal’s court decision:

While it may appear that Rape Relief discriminated against Nixon because she was born with a penis, they have a different rationale. Rape Relief’s collective belief is that far beyond a person’s biological make-up, socialization and experience are what shapes individuals. It’s part of their philosophy that women experience the male-dominated world differently than men. That was the 34-year-old organization’s original argument for why they should be allowed to exclude men when their women-only policy was first challenged in the 1970s, and they feel it’s relevant to whether they should admit transsexual women.

It’s noted in the article, and I think it is VERY important to note here, that “both parties agreed that Nixon was a woman and that gender existed on a continuum — it wasn’t binary, despite the social convention of dividing everyone into categories of male or female” and “both the tribunal and Rape Relief accept that Nixon has a genuine interest in counselling other women, and she has done so both before and after her filing the human rights complaint.”

This article from 2000, before the case was decided by the courts, does a good job of showing the different arguments in the case. But even with a final decision, the case continues to be a source of controversy in Canada and abroad among those concerned with human rights applications for transgendered people. Some still call Vancouver Rape Relief “transphobic”: this article says that because the organization is “allowed to make their own determinations about who is—or who is not—a woman, and exclude them accordingly” that the organization is “allowed to discriminate against trans women. As a feminist and an ally to the trans community, I find this extraordinarily disturbing.” Disputing these accusations, the organization has a section on its web site defending its definition of a women-only space and its commitment to such, and one of the organization’s long-time staff members, Lee Lakeman, notes in this 2012 interview, that “Aboriginal people used the arguments that we built in court to defend their right to be only Aboriginals in their group.”

I do not bring any of this up to try to debate who is and isn’t a woman.

I could have also brought up cases regarding tribal membership – this article does a great job of explaining why cultural identification determination is so difficult, as well as explaining why tribal leadership gets to determine who is and isn’t a member of their tribe, rather than the federal government or the federal courts. Conversations and debates about such can be just as heated as the Nixon case.

I bring this case up to remind nonprofit staff, employees and volunteers alike, that a definition you may have of a particular aspect of humanity – who is or isn’t a woman, who is or isn’t gay, who is or isn’t a member of a particular ethnic group, who is or isn’t a member of a particular tribe, who should or should not call themselves an Oregonian or a Texan or a German or an English person or an African whatever – may not be the same, or as absolute, as someone else’s. Mission statements, ideologies, beliefs about human rights and the law can all collide – and have over and over, in break rooms, in meeting rooms, at community events, and in the courts. Don’t be surprised when it happens at, or regarding, your nonprofit.

What’s my opinion on this case? No way I’m going there… I’ve been controversial enough on my blog (links below). I’m going to let ya’ll debate it in the comments, if you want.

But I did kinda sorta blog about something like this before, back in 2012: Careful what you claim: the passions around identity

Also see:

OPB & Congress Think Volunteers are Free

It’s bad enough that more than 30 miles of dirt trails and primitive roads in Deschutes National Forest in Oregon were deliberately wrecked in 2014 by unsupervised volunteers who were supposed to be doing necessary, environmentally-appropriate trail maintenance, causing more than $200,000 in damage and who, according to this story on OPB News, are still being allowed to do trail maintenance.

But the comments in the OPB story by politicians and others about the role of volunteers has my blood boiling, not to mention that OPB did not call any volunteer management experts, such as those that are a part of the Northwest Oregon Volunteer Administrators Association , to find an Oregon-based professional manager of volunteers to talk to, to find out about the vast amount of volunteer management resources and expertise that could help make things better and about the very high standards of various volunteer engagement programs. Or call Susan Ellis, the world’s foremost trainer and publisher regarding the management and support of volunteers. Or ME, right here in Oregon and registered on the OPB Public Insight Network to offer commentary regarding volunteer engagement!

The National Forest System Trails Stewardship Act, sponsored by Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyoming, has been proposed recently in the USA Congress. It would strongly encourage government agencies to increase volunteer involvement in trail maintenance, but it doesn’t include funding for agency oversight of volunteers – it doesn’t include any money for volunteer management, for recruiting volunteers, screening them, supervising them, etc. Why does it lack such funding? Well, U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Oregon, a co-sponsor of the act, in his comment to OPB, shows exactly why:

“We don’t have the resources at the federal level to maintain these trails. And yet there’s a group of volunteers out there willing to do the work.”

Could you hear the unspoken “for free” at the end of Walden’s sentence? I could! In short: We have all this work to do. Let’s get some people to work for free to do it. That is a great summation of the National Forest System Trails Stewardship Act. And as any seasoned manager of volunteers or trainer knows, that’s a JOKE we frequently tell at conferences and workshops when trying to show what bad volunteer management looks like. Because NO ONE volunteers for that reason, and because of the implication that volunteers are free – and we know volunteers are NEVER free. Someone has to pay for the volunteers to be appropriately recruited, screened, trained, supervised and supported – otherwise, you end up with tragic consequences similar to what happened in Deschutes National Forest- or worse.

That’s the crux of all these stories from OPB about what happened in Oregon and about this pending bill: volunteers save money! That’s why they are involved!

Here’s a proposal for those managing public lands, and something OPB should consider in future stories about any volunteer engagement, good or bad, at any agency: maybe volunteers are actually the best people to undertake certain activities, like running campgrounds, teaching about Leave No Trace principles and staffing the front desks of ranger stations, not because they are unpaid, but because such involvement allows members of the public to experience first-hand how public lands are administered and how to support the public in experiencing them. Or because of the particular passion or approach volunteers bring to the task that paid employees might not. Or because members of the public might like interacting with a volunteer, rather than someone paid to be there. Or because volunteer involvement is per an organization’s commitment to create opportunities for the community to participate in the org’s work and offer feedback that isn’t financially-based (they aren’t being paid) and endorse the importance of public lands through their investment of time. Say volunteer involvement is part of an organization’s commitment to both transparency and in creating opportunities for community investment in its work. Involve volunteers because it allows people to be involved in the administration and enjoyment of public lands without having to give up whatever they do professionally. Those are reasons that INSPIRE people to volunteer – not, “we have all this work to do, please come do it.”

Emphasizing the money saved in involving unpaid staff also tends to create hostilities with paid staff, who are often angry at the idea of volunteers being involved in order to eliminate paid positions (and they SHOULD be angry at such comments!). The links at the end of this blog explore this and other dangers in emphasizing that the primary reason to involve volunteers is because they aren’t paid.

Instead, organizations that administer public lands should create a mission statement for your volunteer engagement that has NOTHING to do with saving money. And learn to talk about the value of volunteer engagement. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t involve dollar figures.

Oh, but wait, there’s more…. there’s the comments in the story from Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, a national watchdog organization. First up from him:

“Relying on volunteers, as well-intentioned as they are, doesn’t always yield good results.”

The implication, of course, is that volunteers are unreliable, can’t be trusted, are incompetent, etc., and that paychecks are magical and make people better workers – thus, only paid employees can do such work properly! Here’s what the quote SHOULD say, to be accurate:

Relying on untrained, unsupervised volunteers, as well-intentioned as they are, doesn’t always yield good results.

And we could substitute the phrase “paid employees” for “volunteers,” and the new sentence would be accurate as well.

Mr. Stahl also made my head explode with his outrageous statement:

“it would be nice if we could hold volunteers to high standards, for even acceptable ones, but you get what you pay for.”

What an insult to every volunteer firefighter, every volunteer emergency rescue person, every Peace Corps member, and every other volunteer out there that goes through hours and hours and hours of training, over many weeks, even months, often right alongside professionals, to master the skills necessary to do their very serious, even dangerous work. These volunteers are held to high standards – and volunteers who can’t meet those standards are FIRED. They are removed from service, just like a paid employee. That loud “bam” you heard if you were listening to the OPB story in Oregon? It was me, hitting the table in front of me out of outrage over this shameful, insulting statement. My dog is still terrified of me over that.

Kevin Larkin, district ranger for the Bend-Fort Rock Ranger District in the Deschutes National Forest, had to learn of the vital importance of the basics of volunteer management the hard way. He says now, “It’s not as simple as welcoming a volunteer through the door, handing that person a shovel and saying, ‘Go do good work. There’s direction, guidance and attention that’s needed.”

Oh, Mr. Larkin, there are vasts amounts of resources that could have helped you manage and support these volunteers right from the get go. Some resources are free. Many aren’t, but they cost much, much less than $200,000. I wish you had known about them, and I wish you had the funding to tap into them – the books, the workshops, the conferences… even university-level certificate programs on managing volunteers.

Congress must realize volunteers aren’t free, and that there will be financial costs in involving volunteers in trail maintenance on US public lands – and that they are going to have to fund those costs. Otherwise, we’re going to have much bigger bills in terms of trail damage – and worse. I’ve created this petition at Change.org, calling on the bill’s co-sponsors to amend the act so that it provides the resources necessary for this increased volunteer engagement on public lands to be successful. If you are in the USA, or you are a USA citizen abroad, please read over the petition, consider signing it, and share it with your network!

And OPB: next time you are doing a story about volunteers, please call me, or the Northwest Oregon Volunteer Administrators Association, to find a volunteerism expert to comment on your story, give you guidance, etc.

Also see Volunteers trying to help on their own, a blog about how DIY “trail improvements” by unsanctioned, unsupervised volunteers are causing serious damage to a nature preserve, and what to do if you discover that an official volunteer of your organization is doing activities in the name of your organization but outside of the approval of your program.

For more on the subject of the value of volunteer or community engagement:

Reddit controversy is a lesson in working with volunteers

redditReddit is a very high-profile online community that has been in the news a lot lately. It’s in the style of an old-fashioned online bulletin board – a very popular, simple, low-graphics platform on the early days of the Internet that I miss very much. On Reddit, members can submit content, such as text posts or direct links, and can vote submissions up or down – voting determines the position of posts on the site’s pages. Content entries are organized by areas of interest called subreddits.

The community membership has created a strong, outspoken, high-intelligent culture that can be, at times, aggressive regarding its belief in free speech, and there are very few rules about the types of content that may be posted. This has led to the creation of several subreddits that have been perceived as offensive, including forums dedicated to jailbait (since banned) and pictures of dead bodies. On the other hand, the Reddit community’s philanthropic efforts are some of my favorites to highlight in my workshops.

Reddit employee Victoria Taylor helped organize citizen-led interviews on Reddit with famous people on the very popular “Ask me Anything” (AMA) subreddit, including interviews with Benedict Cumberbatch (sigh), USA President Obama, Bill Nye, Madonna, and Eric Idle –  and these sessions often ended up landing on the news for some especially funny or outlandish answer given. She was very popular with the volunteer online moderators. But recently, Taylor was fired. Reddit moderators have said they were “blindsided” by Taylor’s firing and that she was “an essential lifeline” for them and Reddit employees. Many Reddit users have demanded answers from Reddit’s interim CEO Ellen Pao regarding why Taylor was dismissed. In protest of her dismissal, moderators on several of the site’s largest subreddits locked users out. Pao is now scrambling to calm hostilities, and says it’s all just a result of miscommunication.

This mutiny by the online moderators is actually an all-too-common problem for organizations that involve large numbers of very dedicated volunteers, online or onsite. Reddit forgot that its volunteers aren’t just free labor; they feel personally invested in this organization, they feel ownership, and while those characteristics make them excellent moderators, it also means that, if they feel taken advantage of or that they aren’t being listened to, they will rebel, very publicly.

Reddit leadership needs to immediately read America Online volunteers : Lessons from an early co-production community, by Hector Postigo, in the International Journal of Cultural Studies 2009. This article analyzes the case of America Online (AOL) volunteers, specifically when company changes resulted in the rise of a labor consciousness among many volunteers, which in turn made the “free distributed workforce” impossible to sustain – and invited intervention by the US Department of Labor. They also need to each buy a copy of The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, and READ IT. And maybe hire Susan Ellis and I to help them fix this mess…

Update, July 7: the Wall Street Journal has also blogged about this issue from a volunteer management perspective. I’ve added a comment on it.

Taking a stand when you are supposed to be neutral/not controversial

handstopSo many people responsible for communications at nonprofits, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), government programs and international development agencies like the United Nations do their work from a place of fear: fear of negative publicity, fear of reprimand from supervisors or partner organizations, fear of controversy, etc. One of the consequences of this fear-based work style is that these communications professionals overly-censor themselves on social media, avoiding messages that relate directly to their program’s mission, simply because they don’t want to make anyone angry.

It’s impossible to work in communications and not make anyone angry. Impossible. While I think it is very important to be culturally-sensitive/appropriate in communications, the reality is that the work of most mission-based organizations is meant to grow understanding and change minds – and that means, at least sometimes, being challenging, even provocative. I long ago accepted that not everyone is going to like the messages of whatever program I’m representing, even messages that seem quite benign and non-controversial to me. As long as I make all messages reflective of the mission of the program, and ensure all messages come from a place of sincerity and honesty, I make no apologies.

If you want to post a message to social media that promotes something that relates to your program’s mission, but you want to keep negative responses to a minimum – or have a solid response to anyone who complains about such a message, including a board member or donor, here’s what you do: find the message you want to say on your headquarter’s Facebook or Twitter account, or a partner organization’s account, and share it or retweet it.

Here’s an example: I’ve had colleagues at the UN say, “We cannot talk about rights for gay people. It will make too many people angry.” Yet, the UN has a human rights MANDATE that includes rights for gay people. So, what could an office in such a position do in order to promote that human rights message and have a firm defense for doing so in the face of criticism? Follow the United Nations Free & Equal initiative on Twitter (@free_equal) and on Facebook. This is an initiative of the Office of the High Commissioner for United Nations Human Rights (follow that initiative on Twitter and Facebook as well). Share and retweet the messages that initiative says that you feel you cannot say yourself, such as this video from the UN Secretary General in support of the Free & Equal initiative. No one can argue that you shouldn’t share it – unless they can point to a specific, verifiable threat as a result of such a message that could endanger staff.

Another example: while working in a country with a lot of armed conflict going on, our communications office decided that celebrating the UN’s international day of peace with our own messages could be seen as taking sides in the hostilities – saying “We hope for peace” could be interpreted as encouraging one side to “give in” to another. So we decided not to post our own messages – but to share and retweet official UN messages related to international peace day.

It’s a good idea to make a list of Twitter accounts and Facebook accounts that interns and/or volunteers could monitor and whose messages they could share or retweet without pre-approval from a supervisor. You might want to also make a list of accounts they should absolutely *not* retweet or share; for instance, at one work site, I would not allow articles from a certain media outlet to be shared or retweeted via our official account, because I felt the media outlet was profoundly biased against our work and because I felt their articles were often riddled with misinformation.

No matter what: keep communications mission-based. Think about the intent of your message: To educate regarding an issue related to your program’s mission? To encourage someone to do something related to your cause? To celebrate your program’s activities or accomplishments? To create goodwill with a certain community? Always be able to justify any message you want to send.

And did you see what I just did there?

Also see:

Why you should separate your personal life and private life online



How to Handle Online Criticism / Conflict

We need volunteer police officers – & an overhaul as well

The tragic, utterly avoidable death of Eric Harris, shot and killed by Robert Bates, a volunteer police reservist in Tulsa, Oklahoma, has lead not only to grief and protests, but also to some people, including police professionals, saying the involvement of volunteer police officers needs to end.

I am not one of those people.

I’ve been reading all that I can about this tragedy, and there were so many red flags before this shooting, about not only the shooter, but the agency’s involvement of volunteers overall:

  • it’s doubtful the volunteer had received proper training and certification to perform the law-enforcement duties he was allowed to perform
  • it’s doubtful the volunteer had receive proper training regarding the carrying and use of firearms on the job
  • it seems the reservist was, essentially, paying to volunteer alongside career police officers – he donated tens of thousands of dollars in cars, SUVs and equipment to the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office over the past 10 years
  • there’s no evidence that this volunteer was properly supervised or screened regarding the roles he was undertaking on the police force
  • this volunteer was involved in a violent crimes and narcotics task force, not as an observer, but as an arresting officer, and was equipped with a firearm – it cannot be shown that his involvement in these activities, and that his carrying a firearm, was necessary at all

We would never tolerate a career police officer lacking that kind of screening, training and support – we should not tolerate it of a volunteer.

And then there is the reason that some law enforcement agencies involve volunteers; note this excerpt from an article from CNN:

Why do law enforcement agencies have volunteers?
Money, money, money.

Strapped police departments are increasingly looking to do more with fewer resources, and volunteer programs can help plug holes in their operating budgets, says the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which runs the Volunteers in Police Service program

Of course, that statement makes me INSANE, because that is NOT the primary reason why an agency should be involving volunteers! This kind of mentality is what pushing the dollar value of volunteer hours by the Independent Sector, the Corporation National Service, and others is causing: the myth that volunteers are free, and that the best reason to involve volunteers is because they save money.

Why involve volunteer police officers? Here are FAR better reasons than “money, money, money”:

  • The motto of so many police forces is “to protect and serve.” Volunteers can be representatives of that community the police serve. Volunteer involvement can be an excellent way to connect more deeply with community members, by having them see local police work first hand and, to a degree, participating in such. Volunteer involvement allows members of the community to come into a police agency, as volunteers (and, therefore, with no financial stake in the agency), to see for themselves the work that agency does. Involving volunteers — representatives of the community — can help educate the community about what the police do, even changing negative perceptions.
  • Community engagement is community ownership. Volunteer involvement demonstrates that the community is invested in the police and its goals, that they feel a part of those goals. They are more likely to be supportive of the police if they feel ownership of such.
  • Involving volunteers can help your organization reach particular demographic groups — people of a particular age, in a particular neighborhood, of a particular economic level, etc., especially groups who might not be involved with your organization otherwise. How does diversity among your volunteer ranks reflect the diversity of your community?

Police, what demographics are represented among your volunteers, and how does this show community involvement at your agency? What feedback have volunteers provided that has affected your organization, such as improving your services? What do volunteers say about your organization’s performance? How have volunteers helped you build bridges with communities in ways that your career folks could not? If you cannot answer these questions, you are NOT involving volunteers for the right reasons!

Should police be involved in pursuing suspects, investigation of violent crimes, SWAT teams, narcotics task force, and other high-risk activities? Sure – BUT ONLY IF THEY HAVE REGULAR, UP-TO-DATE TRAINING AND PROPER SUPERVISION. This clearly was NOT the case in Tulsa.

Lower-risk-and-still-meaningful ways to involve police volunteers – many of them NOT requiring the officer to carry a firearm:

  • policing community events such as fairs and charitable events
  • staffing DUI checkpoints
  • missing persons investigations
  • neighborhood patrol
  • sex-offender management
  • traffic control
  • helping to staff court proceedings
  • serving low-risk warrants/supporting warrant compliance
  • filling low-risk roles in jails (such as administrative)
  • helping after disasters
  • helping crime victims/victim services
  • leading community events such as bicycle events that promote safety and bike registration
  • chaplaincy
  • code enforcement
  • crime prevention programs
  • translation
  • equipment maintenance

But even in these lower-risk ways, even if volunteer police will not be carrying a firearm, volunteer police still need regular, up-to-date training and proper supervision! THAT REQUIREMENT NEVER CHANGES. They need to be trained even if their role is only to observe and report.

Volunteer police reservists can be an excellent way to connect more deeply with community members, and MORE police departments need to be doing it, not less, particularly in areas where there is friction between the police and those served. But clearly, many police departments need a radical overhaul of their volunteer engagement, particularly regarding volunteers’ training, record-keeping about their training, roles they are given and supervision they are provided. Getting rid of volunteer police has the potential to create even wider cultural gaps between police and the communities they are supposed to serve.

Also see:

UN Agencies: Defend your “internships”

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersI love the United Nations, especially UNDP. I’ve been proud of my association with such in Germany, Afghanistan, Ukraine, and online. I hope to be associated with them again.

I am also a big advocate for internships, paid and unpaid, at the UN and other mission-based organizations.

But I’m bothered by many of the calls by UN agencies for unpaid interns to work 40 hours a week. And how many people are undertaking full-time unpaid internships at UN offices and have NOTHING about their terms of reference in writing at all.

Currently, formal recruitment messages from United Nations agencies for full-time unpaid interns talk about all of the tasks these volunteers – yes, volunteers, because they are UNPAID – will be responsible for, but rarely say what kinds of skills-development/career-development support an intern can expect. They also never say why these tasks have been deemed as most appropriate for an unpaid intern, as opposed to a paid consultant. I asked someone at a UN agency in an office where I was working why a particular role was designated for a full-time unpaid intern instead of a short-term, paid consultant or as a paid internship, and he said, “We don’t have the budget to pay someone.” Yes, I fumed. Involving volunteers – even if you call them unpaid interns – to save money is never the primary reason to involve such! NEVERUnpaid interns are volunteers, and if you are involving them because you don’t have to pay them, you are, in fact, being exploitative.

If this keeps up, UN interns may use the dollar/Euro value of volunteer hours that UN Volunteers, IFRC, ILO & others are promoting to sue UN agencies for back pay – and there is growing legal precedent for them to do so (see the links at the end of this blog).

Also, think about how your full-time unpaid internships are limited to only certain economic classes, excluding some people because they can’t afford to give you that many unpaid service hours. Are you thinking about how to ensure a variety of qualified people can undertake unpaid internships with your organization, not just those that can afford to? One way to address this: make the internships only one or two days a week.

I established my own policy when I worked for the UN Volunteers programme in Germany that all staff in our department had to adhere to regarding involving unpaid interns. This was NOT an agency-wide policy, just the one I established for our department:

  • An internship had to have a primary focus on giving the intern a learning experience, not  getting tasks done. Therefore:
    • There had to be a written job description that reflected this primary purpose of the internship.
    • The intern was invited to all agency-wide staff meetings, all staff meetings for just our department, and encouraged to ask to attend staff meetings for other departments, to learn about work across the agency. Staff were encouraged to take interns with them to meetings or events whenever possible, as appropriate.
    • The intern also had one project that was uniquely his or hers, that he or she was responsible for and could put on his or her résumé (for instance, conducting a survey and writing up the results, or evaluating some process and making recommendations for improvement).
    • The intern received job coaching and job search help from other staff members.
  • Those considered for the internship had to be able to say why they wanted to enter into a profession related to our agency’s work, and say what they had done up to that point, in terms of education, volunteer work and paid work, to pursue that career choice.
  • A person could hold an internship only for up to six months. They absolutely could not hold it beyond six months, no exceptions. An intern could NOT return to our department as an intern again, ever. That reduced the chance of a person being exploited as free labor; it forced rotation in what was supposed to be a role reserved for people learning about our work, not the opportunity for someone to have an unpaid assistant indefinitely. Interns were, however, welcomed to apply for paid positions, and we did, indeed, hire former interns for short-term consultancies sometimes – but we never guaranteed that this would happen.
  • Ideally, the intern that was leaving would overlap with the intern that was coming in by one week, so that the departing intern could get experience training someone, documenting his or her responsibilities, etc. – experience which looks great on a CV.
  • When the intern left, he or she was interviewed about his or her experience as an intern from the point of view of getting the learning and professional development he or she was looking for, and this was used to continually improve internship involvement and to show if interns were getting what our internship promised: a learning experience.

The primary task our department at UNV reserved for interns was answering the many, many emails that came in regarding the Online Volunteering Service. We found that interns really were the best people for this task: in contrast to giving this task to employees, interns brought freshness and enthusiasm to responses that really shown through. They quickly saw patterns in questions or comments that a jaded staff person might not see, leading to adjustments to web site information and other communications. Also, in my opinion, because the interns were volunteers, they assumed a much stronger customer-advocate point-of-view regarding the people emailing with questions or comments than employees did; the agency could have a real siege-mentality outlook when dealing with anyone outside the organization, while the interns had a mentality of being advocates for those outside the organization.

As I mentioned, I also came up with tasks specifically for an intern to own. It might be an internal staff survey, a customer/client survey, a research project, an evaluation/analysis project, production of a report or online resource, etc. Every intern walked away something that was his or hers, a project that he or her directed or managed or lead, and that employees and other interns contributed to. That gave interns the management experience so many were desperate for.

One more piece of advice: create a mission statement for your office’s volunteer (unpaid staff) involvement and live it: state explicitly why your organization reserves certain tasks / assignments / roles for volunteers (including unpaid interns), to guide employees and volunteers in how they think about volunteers, to guide current volunteers in thinking about their role and value at the organization, and to show potential volunteers the kind of culture they can expect at your organization regarding volunteers. A commitment by UN offices to involve volunteers would be a wonderful thing – allowing people, particularly local citizens, to take on tasks and see first hand how an agency works that is meant to serve them, creating a sense of both ownership by citizens as well as a sense of transparency about the agency.

My other blogs on this GROWING internship controversy worldwide:

Note that the links within the aforementioned blogs may not work, as I moved all of my blogs from Posterous to WordPress a year or so ago, and it broke all of the internal links. Also, some web pages on other organization’s sites have moved since I linked to such, and I either don’t know or haven’t been able to find a new location for the material.

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How to apologize to the world

A followup to my earlier post this week, about the PR disaster generated by a PR company, the one formerly known as Strange Fruit PR (ugh!).

In that blog, I quoted their non-apology for the fiasco, and then wrote what their apology should have looked like.

By contrast to that non-apology is the REAL apology from GreenPeace.

GreenPeace did something really horrible: to get the attention of delegates and the press attending the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Peru, Greenpeace activists went to site of the historic Nazca lines in Peru and laid out massive yellow letters reading “Time for Change: The Future is Renewable.” The area around the lines is strictly prohibited, and anyone who gets a permit to walk in the area must wear special footwear, because foot prints could ruin the area. Greenpeace trampled ancient, undisturbed grounds – they harmed something environmentally. Deputy Culture Minister Luis Jaime Castillo of Peru said, “They are black rocks on a white background. You walk there and the footprint is going to last hundreds or thousands of years. And the line that they have destroyed is the most visible and most recognized of all.”

Bad. VERY BAD. This is the apology Greenpeace offered:

We take personal responsibility for actions, willing to face consequences.

Without reservation Greenpeace apologises to the people of Peru for the offence caused by our recent activity laying a message of hope at the site of the historic Nazca Lines. We are deeply sorry for this.

We fully understand that this looks bad. Rather than relay an urgent message of hope and possibility to the leaders gathering at the Lima UN climate talks, we came across as careless and crass.

We have now met with the Peruvian Culture Ministry responsible for the site to offer an apology. We welcome any independent review of the consequences of our activity. We will cooperate fully with any investigation.

We take personal responsibility for actions, and are committed to nonviolence. Greenpeace is accountable for its activities and willing to face fair and reasonable consequences.

I will travel to Lima, this week, to personally apologise for the offence caused by the activity and represent the organisation in any on going discussions with the Peruvian authorities.

Greenpeace will immediately stop any further use of the offending images.

THAT is an apology. It takes full responsibility, it never makes excuses. Well done. Staff at a certain PR company in Austin, and many politicians: take notice.

Also see:

Handling a social media faux pax/ (kudos the American Red Cross)

Fight against unpaid internships will hurt volunteering

Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz is being taken to task after he recommended that jobless university graduates beef up their resumes by working for free. The central banker made the remarks a day after he told a Toronto business audience that 200,000 young Canadians are out of work, underemployed or back in school trying to improve their job prospects.

Claire Seaborn, president of the Canadian Intern Association, described Poloz’s comments as “extremely problematic.” She said the comments mischaracterize existing employment laws, devalue the abilities of young people and show no sympathy for the socioeconomic issues related to unpaid internships.

Nonprofits and NGOs: you need to be paying attention to this controversy. You need to be thinking about why any task at your organization that is being done by a volunteer – and that includes unpaid interns – beyond “We don’t have money to pay someone to do that.” You need a mission statement for your volunteer engagement and you need to be talking about the value of volunteers far beyond dollar/Euro or other monetary value for their hours!

While I cringe at young people being exploited, told to accept full-time, unpaid work with for-profit companies in order to help their employment prospects, I also cringe at people deriding the idea that volunteering at nonprofits and other mission-based organizations is a great way to gain experience and explore careers. Volunteering IS a great way to gain much-needed experience, insight for a career and references. Not every volunteer is engaging in unpaid service just out of the goodness of his or her heart; many are using volunteering to get experience and references for their résumé, and there is NOTHING wrong with that. So many of the volunteers I’ve worked with have gone on to successful careers in work related to their volunteering – and I’ve done it myself.

For nonprofits and other mission-based organizations out there: in addition to being able to say why a task has been reserved for an unpaid intern beyond “We don’t have the money to pay someone,” are you also thinking about how your unpaid internships might be limited to only certain economic classes, and excluding some people because they can’t afford to give you that many unpaid service hours? Are you thinking about how to ensure a variety of people can undertake unpaid internships with your organization, not just those that can afford to?

My other blogs on this GROWING internship controversy in North American and Europe:

Note that the links within these blogs may not work, as I moved all of my blogs from Posterous to WordPress a year or so ago, and it broke all of the internal links. Also, some web pages on other organization’s sites have moved since I linked to such, and I either don’t know or haven’t been able to find a new location for the material.

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Initial feedback on UNV plan to integrate volunteerism in development

United Nations Volunteers has proposed a plan to further integrate volunteering in peace and development action. UNV is now collecting feedback on the Zero Draft to revise it before submission to the UN General Assembly in 2015.

I’m still digesting the report, but at first read, the two recommendations that got me the most excited/agitated:

  • Strengthen the evidence base for the impact of volunteerism through concerted research…


  • Exchange practices in the areas of volunteer management, safety and security, innovative approaches such as online volunteering, inclusion of marginalized…

Regarding the research recommendation – hurrah! Research is so needed, particularly regarding what works, and what doesn’t, in

  • engaging groups of volunteers onsite in one-time, just show up activities – not just park cleanups, but hackathons and edit-a-thons
  • involving youth as volunteers,
  • involving teams of volunteers online
  • microvolunteering online
  • involving volunteers from other countries (organizations wanting to or expecting to host such volunteers need guidance on assignment development, necessary support for volunteers, training for those that will work with such volunteers, etc.)
  • measuring the impact of non-traditional volunteer engagement, such as hackathons and edit-a-thons, group volunteering, and episodic/microvolunteering (online or onsite), on the participating volunteers, on the organizations they support, on the causes they support, and on the communities in general
  • involving volunteers that represent a range of cultures and languages in group volunteering, online volunteering (particularly in teams), and traditional volunteering (commitment of more than just a few days, with a set time and place to be regularly)
  • recruiting volunteers from among ethnic and religious minority groups and creating a welcoming environment for such
  • using volunteering as a way to build cultural understanding among different religious, ethnic, economic or age groups
  • the costs of involving volunteers (because, of course, volunteers are never cost free; there are costs associated with engagement them)

I hope there can also be a promotion of the growing body of research regarding online volunteering  / virtual volunteering.

Regarding the volunteer management recommendation: I’m even more excited about that than the research recommendation. Without more promotion of the necessary systems and practices needed to support and engage volunteers, no other action recommended in this plan will work – every other recommendation will be doomed to failure. For too long, campaigns have focused on encouraging people to volunteer, rather than helping organizations to involve volunteers. I’ve been recommending this action since I first became involve in UNV back in February 2001, while directing the UN’s Online Volunteering Service and managing the online components of the United Nations Information Technology Service (UNITeS). I can’t take the credit for it finally being a priority, however.

That said, I STRONGLY disagree with the suggestion from the report that, as a part of the promotion of volunteer management, that we:

Advocate for the implementation of  the methods suggested in the ILO  Manual for Volunteerism  measurement; Member States to integrate the ILO  methodology in their household surveys.

The ILO Manual has NOT been agreed to as the measurement of volunteerism by most volunteer-involving organizations. Far from it; the ILO manual uses the old-fashioned, highly controversial method of measuring volunteerism by assigning a monetary value to volunteer hours. This kind of measurement for the value of volunteerism is something that has caused a tremendous backlash from unions and other working people, who see this as fuel for corporations and governments to say to nonprofits and non-governmental organizations, “Cut paid staff and replace them with volunteers.” Did UNV learn NOTHING from the backlash from the UK’s “Big Society” push which used a similar measurement for the value of volunteers?

There are much better ways to measure the value of volunteers. It’s time for UNV to promote those more modern ways.

Also, volunteers as are not free, I would have liked to have seen this statement explicitly in the report. It would have been nice to see an explicit statement saying, “Corporations and governments have to be prepared to help fund organizations in the engagement of volunteers.”

I’ll be reading the report more thoroughly in the coming days and formally responding via UNV’s mechanism for such. I encourage you to do the same.

It’s real: the unpaid internships & volunteers controversy

Believe it or not, there are people that do not believe there is an ongoing, at times impassioned, debate as to whether or not unpaid interns supporting charities, nonprofits or non-government organizations (NGOs) are volunteers. These non-believers say that the issue is resolved – that unpaid interns aren’t volunteers, and that’s that. These non-believers are the same people that also do not believe that employees or executives on loan, pro bono consultants, or people doing community service for a court or a class at mission-based organizations are volunteers. Their definition of volunteer is extremely limited: the term is to be used only for people that donate time primarily out of the goodness of their heart, with NO expectations of benefits like job skills development, career exploration, social connections, etc.. For them, the motivation of the person defines volunteer, not their pay status or the reason the role was reserved specifically for unpaid staff.

The reality, however, is that there is a very real, ongoing debate among those that advocate for and research volunteerism, those that involve volunteers, and volunteers themselves, about who is and isn’t a volunteer, including debate regarding whether or not unpaid interns should be considered volunteers.

If you know me, you know that I’m firmly in the big tent camp: of course unpaid interns at nonprofits, charities, NGOs, schools and other mission-based organizations are volunteers, just as employees or executives on loan, pro bono consultants, or people doing community service for a court or a class at such organizations are volunteers, just as people who are volunteering primarily to improve their employability or explore careers or making social connections are still volunteers. However, I also know that not everyone thinks that way, and fully acknowledge that this is an ongoing debate – that there are people with differing opinions on the issue.

Some of my previous blogs on the subject, with links to articles about how this is an ongoing controversy (and not just in the USA) include:

As the first link notes, this is not just a problem in the USA: there is not universal agreement in other countries either about unpaid interns as volunteers.

For instance, the European Volunteer Centre feels that unpaid internships are

mistakenly perceived to be or even presented as volunteering.”

Yet CEV also says that

Volunteering is an outstanding source of learning and a contributor to personal and professional development. CEV considers it important to recognize volunteering as a source of non-formal and informal learning, while keeping a balance in order not to move the focus from the benefit to others to the benefit of the individual in the form of qualifications or recognition of skills.”

Do you see the contradiction? Of course all mission-based organizations have a primary focus on benefiting others or the environment, rather than benefitting any individual, including employees and unpaid staff (volunteers), but any organization of quality will also have a second or tertiary priority of supporting staff – paid employees and unpaid volunteers – in expanding their qualifications or skills. Also, the reality is that there are a LOT of volunteers who are donating service primarily to benefit themselves in terms of skills development, career exploration, job connections, social connections, having fun, and on and on – those motivations don’t make them any less of a volunteer than the person that is there primarily out of the goodness of the heart (which I remain unconvinced any volunteer actually does, primarily, but that’s another blog).

The ILO’s Manual on the measurement of volunteer work is similarly confusing, saying

Volunteers may receive non-monetary benefits from volunteering in the form of skills development, social connections, job contacts, social standing and a feeling of self- worth (p. 14)

But then, later on that same page, saying

Unpaid apprenticeships required for entry into a job and internships and student volunteer work required for graduation or continuation in a school or training programme violate the non-compulsory feature of the definition and should therefore not be considered as volunteer work. (ILO 2011 p. 14)

On the UKVPMs online discussion group for managers of volunteers in the United Kingdom, debate on this subject happened as recently as December 20121. The longest debate on UKVPMs happened in July 2011, with more than 50 messages and more than a dozen people debating the issue2.

Controversies regarding unpaid interns can easily be found in newspaper articles and on Twitter, and further discussions regarding the controversies and emotions on this subject can be found in the comments section beneath most of these online articles, such as these, all retrieved in July 2013 (URLs provided in text in case links no longer work, in which case, type such into archive.org):

Brussels army of ‘slave’ trainees escapes EU gaze, Reuters, June 27, 2013
Retrieved from http://news.yahoo.com/brussels-army-slave-trainees-escapes-123155558.html The European Commission offers some 1,400 sought-after five-month traineeships a year… Yet the pay is well below the Belgian minimum wage requirement of 1,500 euros per month. Many other advertised positions offer monthly stipends of a few hundred euros and sometimes nothing at all. Traineeships are supposed to provide training, but the line between that and actual employment is often blurred.

Are charities’ unpaid interns really ‘volunteers’?
A legal loophole means charities needn’t pay their interns. But pricing graduates out of the sector is damaging and unfair, The Guardian, 28 June 2011
Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jun/28/charities-unpaid-interns-graduates.
“You have to be rich to work for a charity now,” an intern told me recently. “I’m passionate about helping others but after six months of unpaid work it’s a luxury I can’t afford any more. So I’m giving up to do something else.”

NUJ wins first unpaid internship tribunal, The Drum, May 2011
Retrieved from http://www.thedrum.com/news/2011/05/13/nuj-wins-first-unpaid-internship-tribunal.
Payment for interns looks likely to become a reality as the National Union of Journalists celebrates having successfully sued TPG Web Publishing to pay a member who had untaken an unpaid internship at the company.

There are consequences for this confusion: unpaid interns are mobilizing and voicing their own concerns about their employment status and treatment – and not just at for-profit companies, but at nonprofits and NGOs. There are at least seven Twitter accounts representing the interests of such unpaid interns:

@HagueInterns – Hague Interns Association. “HIA is an association of interns working at UN-related and intergov’t orgs in The Hague. We work to improve intern welfare & promote intern rights.”

@UnpaidIsUnfair – “Unpaid internships are unfair. The United Nations should be no exception. Please sign our petition and tell the UN that young people matter.”

@EricGlatt – Interns ≠ Free Labor. “Working to end #wagetheft guised as #unpaidinternships. Law student & Public Interest Fellow at Georgetown.”

@InternLabor – Intern Labor Rights. “In this era of historic inequality, class divide, soaring student debt and persistent unemployment we call for an end to unpaid internships: Pay your interns!” internlaborrights.com

@FairPayCampaign – Join the fight to end unpaid internships in the U.S.A. Launching Summer 2013.

@canadianinterns – “The Canadian Intern Association advocates against the exploitation of interns and aims to improve the internship experience for both interns and employers.”

@InternJustice – “Protecting the rights and wages of interns.”

The debate regarding whether or not unpaid interns at charities, nonprofits, NGOs and other organizations are volunteers doesn’t just complicate discussions about volunteerism; it also complicates discussions and policies about volunteering as a tool for increasing marketable skills or career exploration, especially for young people.

Author, researcher and trainer Susan Ellis, who has authored or co-authored of 12 books related to volunteer management, researched and written more than 120 articles on volunteer management for dozens of publications, trains worldwide regarding volunteerism, and founded the largest publisher of volunteerism-related books, addresses this debate regularly. For instance, in this November 2004 “Hot Topic” blog, she notes:

It’s fine to distinguish specific challenging volunteer assignments that need to be filled by qualified people with more-than-average hours available per week. But why not make these available to anyone willing and able to meet the requirements – not just students? Think about the illogic of assuming that a student, often quite inexperienced, can fulfill an intensive role just because s/he is a student, while an adult “volunteer” who may be truly qualified is relegated to less consequential tasks simply because of being placed into a different category of worker.

Further, the skill necessary to create a meaningful “internship” is exactly the same task analysis that ought to be brought to any work designed for volunteers. It might even elicit more creativity if staff were asked to develop volunteer roles that allowed the doer to grow and learn – at any age and for any reason…

Maybe it’s time to examine our own reactions to the words volunteer and intern. Both are descriptors, not job titles. Neither really tells us what the person is actually doing, nor necessarily the skills the person brings. But if one connotes nice helper to you and the other connotes serious learner, ask yourself why both can’t be both. Then ask yourself whether the distinction has been made in your agency mainly to professionalize internships… and why that wouldn’t be positive as an approach to all volunteered assistance. (Ellis 2004).

Ellis’s blog resulted in more than 20 comments, some from Europe, from both organisations and interns, further demonstrating that there is not universal agreement regarding the status of unpaid interns as volunteers.

This is a real controversy, and the issue remains unresolved. The next time someone tries to tell you there is no debate on this subject, that the issue is resolved, even in Europe, feel free to share the information in this blog!


1 UKVPMs Messages 8992 to 9005, most under the subject line “volunteering vs unpaid internships – the debate continues.”

2 UKVPMs Most of the messages between 7846 through 7909, under the subject lines “Who is a volunteer and who isn’t?” and “Should charities offer unpaid internships?”

Also see this web page, Online & print articles about or addressing controversies regarding volunteers replacing paid staff, and these blog posts: