Tag Archives: courts

State of organizations working with people in UK criminal justice system

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersClinks is a registered charity in the United Kingdom, based in London. Clinks began life in 1993 as London Prisons Community Links. “Clinks supports, represents and campaigns for the voluntary sector working with offenders.” Note that the phrase “voluntary sector” is the British term for what we call the nonprofit sector in the USA, or the third sector, and by “offenders”, they mean people in, or having recently left, the criminal justice system. Charities in the voluntary sector in the UK may or may not involve volunteers to be a part of the “voluntary sector”, though Clinks reports that more than 90% of the charities it works with do involve volunteers. “Clinks aims to ensure the sector and all those with whom they work, are informed and engaged in order to transform the lives of offenders and their communities.” Clinks employs 21 staff and has over 600 members.

Each year Clinks surveys voluntary sector organizations in the UK working somehow with “offenders” to collect information about how healthy their sector is, the role the sector is playing in society, and the well-being of service users. Results are anonymised and collated a yearly state of the sector report, tracking “key trends for voluntary sector organisations working with offenders and their families.” One interviewee said that “…the needs vary from homelessness, rough sleeping, drugs and alcohol, social and cultural isolation, health, poverty and debt, a very holistic picture of needs that we are presented with and often very complex needs.”

This is a summary of their 2017 State of the sector report, published July 2017 (note that spellings in this paragraph and the report are British):

During a year of political instability, voluntary organisations continue to support the most vulnerable people despite a shifting funding landscape and increasing and changing service user needs. In our latest state of the sector research, organisations told us that they’ve seen an increase in the number of people they are supporting, with more complex and immediate needs, resulting in organisations developing more flexible and creative working and recruiting more volunteers. They have dealt with large reductions in funds, and have struggled to get full cost recovery on services, and some closing services. Through all of this the sector remains innovative and creative, with many designing new services to meet emerging need and responding to a changing landscape.

All I can think as I read this paragraph is that this is also probably true of every social service agency in the USA as well, nonprofit or governmental. I wish we had such an organization here in the USA that would do such a yearly state of the sector for social service nonprofits and government agencies in particular, to find out what’s happening among all those mission-based groups taking on society’s most serious social issues – not just those working in the criminal justice system, though that would be incredible as well.

Also from the 2017 report:

On average volunteers spend 16 hours a month volunteering for organisations that filled out our survey. Organisations told us that on average, the maximum time someone volunteers per month is 80 hours, whilst the minimum time is 8 hours. Volunteers undertake a variety of roles, which include working directly with service users… Organisations often recruit volunteers who have specific skills to support their work, such as research or marketing.

These volunteers in the UK working for charities that are involved somehow with law offenders engage in a variety of tasks (again, British spellings):

  • Organising or helping to run an activity or event  57 %
  • Befriending or mentoring people (clients)  57 %
  • Secretarial, admin or clerical work  50 %
  • Giving advice, information, counselling (to clients)  47 %
  • Getting other people involved  36 %
  • Leading a group, member of a committee  36 %
  • Visiting people (clients)  29 %
  • Other practical help (to clients) e.g. helping out at school, shopping  23 %
  • Raising or handling money, taking part in sponsored events  21 %
  • Representing (I have no idea what this means)  20 %
  • Proving transport, driving  17 %
  • Campaigning  8 %

From the report:

Organisations find it challenging to recruit staff and volunteers, with 50% saying it is slightly or very difficult to recruit volunteers and 57% reporting this to be the case for staff recruitment. The conditions in some prisons, such as high levels of violence, staff shortages and a rise in the use of psychoactive substances, is having a negative impact on organisations’ ability to recruit and retain staff.

Organisations find it more challenging to retain volunteers than staff, with 70% of organisations reporting it is slightly or very easy to retain or keep staff, with 59% of organisations reporting this to be the case for volunteers. On average, organisations reported that it is slightly or very easy to train both staff and volunteers. When discussing the training needs of their staff and volunteers, one interviewee said that due to the changing needs of their service users, they are having to develop a different approach to training.

Again, as I read these paragraphs, I wish we had such an organization here in the USA that would do such a yearly report on volunteers at social service nonprofits and government agencies in particular, to find out what the volunteers are doing and the challenges the organizations are facing in recruiting, supporting and keeping them. I would also love a comparison of the UK sector working with people in the criminal justice system and the same in the USA. Anyone? Anyone?

Here are Clink’s other surveys since 2011.

 

Courts getting tougher re: online community service

justiceFor years, I’ve railed against companies that, for a fee, provide a letter claiming that someone has completed community service as part of a court order or probation requirement. The person that pays for that letter has NOT done any community service – that person may or may not have watched some videos – but there’s been no actual volunteering done.

My blog from November 9, 2011 about one of the biggest fraudsters promoting pay-for-a-community-service-letter remains my most popular blog ever. It often gets more hits in a day – yesterday, for instance – than a blog I’ve just published. The comments on my first blog about these companies earlier that same year has statements from both people who feel this fraud is just fine (and who have participated in it themselves), managers of volunteers who are outraged about the practice and even from someone from a court who knew immediately this was a scam when it came to his attention through someone assigned community service.

I’m so proud that the web site of the company Community Service Help, one of the biggest perpetrators of this racket, went away sometime in January 2016, and all posts to its Facebook page are now GONE. I hope I played a role in that company’s demise, which seemed to be at the hands of a court in Washington State, per this Consumer Protection Division civil complaint and subsequent consent decree. I was also thrilled to learn in July 2016 that selling community service letters lead to an arrest and a conviction in New York state of another “nonprofit”.

I remain angry, however, that there are still companies out there selling community service letters. These companies are giving people a way out of actually doing court-ordered community service – you can easily find them on any city’s Craigslist volunteer section, or by just searching Bing or Google for pay for community service, and there are people that are proud to fool courts regarding their community service.

I’m just as angry that these companies are giving virtual volunteering a bad reputation. Virtual volunteering – editing documents, translating text, designing graphics, managing social media, researching and gathering data for a report, mentoring someone, training someone, and on and on – is real volunteering. But because of these companies selling letters that claim someone did online service when they really didn’t, many courts are looking at virtual volunteering with skepticism, and more than 20 years of virtual volunteering examples and a book and a United Nations program aren’t enough to change their minds.

I’m thrilled that the Kirkland Municipal Court in Washington State has a community service verification form that is trying to prevent people from paying for a letter that says they have completed community service when, in fact, they have not. I’m thrilled because it means that at least some courts in the USA are on to these fraudsters and are actively trying to deny them customers. Here is the wording from Kirkland’s form:

The Court will not accept community service performed for a prior or current employer, family member or an agency for which you have management responsibility. This court does not accept community service hours from online agencies or from agencies in which you must pay a fee to get credit for your hours (some examples of this include, but are not limited to: Terra Research, Community Service Help, Fast Community Service, American Angel Works, Caffeine Awareness Association).

Readers of my blog will recognize those names of companies selling community service – many have been mentioned by me on my blogs.

But I really hope Kirkland Municipal Court will change the wording on their form to:

This court will accept online volunteering only if it is with an established, verifiable, credible nonprofit organization, and only with prior permission from the court before volunteering begins. This court does not accept community service hours from agencies in which you must pay…

vvbooklittleI also wish that this court, and all others, realized that it is possible to supervise online volunteers in court-ordered settingsI want court-ordered folks to have the option to volunteer online. I’ve said it before: I’ve had great experiences involving court-ordered community service folks as volunteers, onsite and online. True, I have a rather tough screening process for any volunteer engagement program I manage, and it’s probably screened out people I would have NOT liked as volunteers. But those that have made it through my screening process have been terrific (and you can create your own screening process for online volunteers using The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook.

I also wish states’ attorney generals would get busy shutting down these pay-for-a-community-service-letter companies!

Finally, if you are looking for legitimate virtual volunteering opportunities, see this page. It features a long list – the longest you will find anywhere – of nonprofit organizations that have opportunities for online volunteers. But always – ALWAYS – let the organization know first that you need community service hours and what documentation you will need from them to show your service hours, because they may say no. And once you get their agreement, you may also need approval from the court or your probation officer.

assigning law breakers to community service: worthwhile?

justiceAs I’ve mentioned before, I regularly get hate email for my ongoing campaign against companies selling letters saying someone did court-ordered community service, claiming it is virtual volunteering when, in fact, no volunteering is actually done. None of the haters have changed my mind: I think these companies are unethical and, at times, illegal and harmful to all volunteering and I dream of them all being shut down. But a recent exchange in the comments section of one of the blogs has made me finally address something on my blog I’ve been meaning to for a while: the appropriateness of assigning law breakers to community service.

According to volunteerism expert Susan Ellis, courts in the USA have given some criminal offenders the option of completing a set number of hours of unpaid work in a nonprofit organization or government community initiative in lieu of a fine or spending time in prison, or as an adjunct to probation or parole, for at least three decades. Here’s an example here in Washington County, Oregon.

Reviewing various literature online and hearing about programs over the years through my work, I’ve surmised that governments like alternative sentencing, in the form of community service, for five reasons:

  • it can greatly reduce the costs of incarceration and supervision of nonviolent offenders.
  • governments see community service as restitution or restorative justice – through service, people are “repaying” the community for the societal costs of their crimes.
  • governments envision nonprofit employees lamenting, “We have all this work to do – if only lots of people willing to work for free would show up and offer to do it.” In other words, these people assigned community service are free labor that nonprofits need.
  • governments think it might teach the offender about ethical behavior and, at least indirectly, how their criminal/negative/illegal behavior affects the community overall, and how it would be better if they would eschew such behavior and be a positive, trusted part of the community instead.
  • it could be an opportunity for an offender the opportunity to learn a new skill, explore a career, and perhaps improve their employment prospects

Courts can order a person to do community service, but they cannot order a nonprofit to accept an offender as a volunteer, and that means many people struggle to find community service. Per all of the frustration about this on various online community fora, like Quora, I created  a resource to help people assigned community service by the courts. It’s packed with advice, more than you will find anywhere else, on how to get into community service quickly. The advice is realistic and it’s free.

I’ve never before questioned the appropriateness of involving court-ordered volunteers, from my perspective as a host of volunteers, because I’ve been lucky enough to write my own mission statements regarding volunteer engagement at whatever program I’m working in, I have always made volunteer involvement about creating evangelists for my program rather than getting people to work for free, and I have always made part of that mission to involve a diversity of volunteers and for all volunteering to have a primary goal of teaching volunteers about the cause at hand, not of getting lots of work done. It has been a luxury to have that kind management freedom, and it’s a luxury that most managers of volunteers do not have. I think a diversity of volunteers, from different backgrounds, made the programs I was involved with stronger, for a variety of reasons I explore on my web site. So, yes, I have been able to involve people who have been assigned community service as volunteers, onsite and online, and my experience with them has been quite good. I’ve never been opposed to involving someone as a volunteer who is doing the work because the court demands it, so long as that person meets the requirements of the task. That means I don’t take every person who applies to volunteer – I have a high bar for participation, to screen out people who won’t take the commitment seriously, who don’t communicate well online, or really don’t understand what they are applying for. I have never had the time to take on absolutely anyone who applies to volunteer and hope it works out. That said, volunteers that have been assigned community service kept volunteering with me even after the required number of hours were completed, which I’ve heard from other managers of volunteers is not unusual.

So, I’m not opposed to the idea of involving people compelled by a court to volunteer. But I do think it’s overdue to have a conversation about the value of this community service for the offender, for the nonprofit, and for the community. It’s overdue to ask some tough questions about it, because there are assumptions about the benefits that I think are unproven.

Looking at the reasons governments like alternative service, let’s consider if the reasons are valid:

  • it can greatly reduce the costs of incarceration and supervision of nonviolent offenders.

I don’t have any stats that say this is true, but I can’t imagine it’s not. It is very expensive to put someone in jail. By contrast, governments don’t pay anything for offenders to do community service with nonprofits – most or all of the costs are shouldered entirely by the nonprofit. As volunteers are NOT free, these costs can be substantial – but not for the government. Even programs run entirely by the government specifically for offenders to do community service (work crews to pick up trash, clean up parks, restore a playground, etc.) are far cheaper than jail.

  • governments see community service as restitution or restorative justice – through service, people are repaying the community for their crimes.

I am not sure I really know what this means. In this sense, it’s a purely symbolic act. And I get that symbolic acts can be powerful, but is there any way at all to measure this benefit?

  • governments envision nonprofit employees lamenting, “We have all this work to do – if only lots of people willing to work for free would show up and offer to do it.”

Anyone who works with nonprofits knows this isn’t the case. Nonprofits are NOT saying this. Again, volunteers are not free; it costs a lot of time and resources to involve and support volunteers. Most organizations that are struggling to find volunteers need people that will make at least a year-long commitment and give a few hours every week – that’s not something court-ordered community service seekers want at all. Most organizations also want particularly-skilled volunteers, even if they don’t require commitments of several months – rarely can an organization take absolutely anyone as a volunteer, regardless of their skill level. Plus, I can’t find any studies where nonprofits say, “Yes, because we involve court-ordered community service people among our volunteers, we are a better organization, we’ve had greater impact, we’ve saved money, etc. And here’s the data that shows it…” So the government is not fulfilling a need of MOST nonprofits by requiring offenders to give a certain number of hours of community service.

Even more than that, here are the two reasons given for community service for people that commit crimes that I really, really question:

  • governments think it might teach the offender about ethical behavior and, at least indirectly, how their crime affects the community overall, and how it would be better if they would eschew such behavior and be a positive part of the community instead.
  • it could be an opportunity for an offender the opportunity to learn a new skill, explore a career, and perhaps improve their employment prospects

Yes, sure, community service COULD teach these things. But does it, usually? And what does it take on the part of the nonprofit in terms of knowledge, resources and activities for court-assigned community service to have this kind of transformation for the volunteer?

In Giving Back: Introducing Community Service Learning, Improving Mandated Community Service for Juvenile Offenders, An Action Guide for Youth Court Programs and the Juvenile-Justice System, published by the Constitutional Rights Foundation, is this assertion:

“Community service, as mandated by the courts, plays a prominent role in our juvenile-justice system as well. Today, many juvenile-justice professionals regard it as an opportunity for rehabilitation. They believe that mandated community service can help juvenile-justice respondents understand the impact of their actions on others; give back to the communities they have harmed; learn critical-thinking, citizenship, and problem-solving skills; develop a personal stake in the well-being of their communities; and raise awareness of their own self worth.“

So, does it? I can’t find any resource saying it does. Apparently, neither can this guide, as it never cites any sources that affirm this. But what the guide DOES say about the transformational power of community service confirms just how much work it takes to make volunteering more than getting work done. And it takes a LOT in terms of resources, time and expertise – three things many managers of volunteers do NOT have. The exercises in the guide are meant to go along with youth performing community service, in order to take the service to a new level, something way beyond “let’s get work done.” And I believe the activities could really do that – but I also know that the vast majority of nonprofits do not have the time nor expertise to do these exercises with court-ordered community service folks.

  • Where are the studies that show that community service teaches offenders about ethical behavior or citizenship or community responsibilities and/or that it affects their future actions for the better?
  • Where are the studies that show community service reduces recidivism rates?
  • Where are the studies that show that offenders benefit from doing community service, in terms of learning a new skill, exploring a career, and even improving their employment prospects?

If you have names of or links to these studies, please note such in the comments below. I’m not looking for feelings about this, from the point of view of the court – I’m looking for hard data. 

If you are a nonprofit that can say that, as a result of involving court-ordered community service people, specifically, among your volunteers, your are a better organization, had greater impact on the community, saved money, etc., and have the data that shows it, let’s hear from you.  

I’m not looking for feelings about this, from the point of view of the court or government – I’m looking for hard data. 

If you have been assigned community service because of an offense and want to comment, please limit your comment to answers to these questions:

  • do you believe your community service taught you anything about ethical behavior, how your crime affects the community overall, how it would be better if would eschew such behavior and be a positive part of the community instead, citizenship, etc.? If yes, please say how. If no, please say if you think it is possible at all. 
  • do you see your community service as restitution or restorative justice – through service, you are symbolically repaying the community for your offense?
  • do you believe that, through your community service, you received the opportunity to learn a new skill, explore a career, and perhaps improve your employment prospects? If yes, please say how. If no, please say if you think it is possible at all. 

If you want to be anonymous in your comment, that’s fine – just fake your email address when you comment on the blog, and I won’t show your IP address online.

Please, no debates on whether or not you should have been arrested, if what you did was really a crime, etc. – that’s not a conversation this blog is seeking.

On a related note: I found a guide online, Community Service Restitution Programs for Alcohol Related Traffic Offenders, published by the US Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 1985 or 1986. It was prepared by International Business Services (IBS) under a contract with NHTSA. Volume One is The 5 As of Community Service is a manual to aid state and local jurisdictions in the design and implementation of community service programs. Volume Two is Case Studies and Resource Materials. Volume one notes, on page 22: “A program representative from the Community Service Program in Boulder, Colorado, stressed the importance of carefully preparing agencies at the outset by precisely defining program expectations. Some programs provide agencies with written agreements clearly delineating the responsibilities inherent in participation.”  Is this a best practice in court-ordered community service? I don’t know about you, but I have NEVER gotten guidance from a court or a probation officer about working with a court-ordered community service person. NEVER.

On page 31, is this: “The underlying premise of community service, that offenders are more valuable to the community when engaged in voluntary service than when incarcerated, rests upon the assumption that those offenders will be responsibly monitored.” I admit I laughed out loud at this. It’s a nice assumption, but given how many people are getting away with paying for a letter saying they did community service when they really didn’t, I think it’s a misplaced assumption.

One final note: the publication Giving Back: Introducing Community Service Learning, Improving Mandated Community Service for Juvenile Offenders, An Action Guide for Youth Court Programs and the Juvenile-Justice System is OUTSTANDING. I think any manager of volunteers should read it, regardless of the volunteers’ ages, particularly the parts about how to make the community service transformative. It’s a great way to make volunteering at your organization more than just getting lots of volunteer hours to brag about.

Also see:

  • Requiring jobless to volunteer – reality check
  • Kentucky politicians think volunteers are free

    Yes, I love court-ordered community service folks

    Supervising online volunteers in court-ordered settings

    Proud to fool courts re: community service

    Selling community service leads to arrest, conviction

    Haters gonna hate, November 2014 update on Community Service Help and other similar, unethical companies

    Community Service Help Cons Another Person – a first-person account by someone who paid for online community service and had it rejected by the court.

    Online community service company tries to seem legit, a November 2013 update about efforts these companies are making to seem legitimate

    Update on a virtual volunteering scam, from November 2012.

    What online community service is – and is not – the very first blog I wrote exposing this company, back in January 2011, that resulted in the founder of the company calling me at home to beg me to take the blog down

    Online volunteer scam goes global, a July 2011 update with links to TV stories trying to expose these scam companies

    Courts being fooled by online community service scams, an update from November 2011 that is the most popular blog I’ve ever published

    Supervising online volunteers in court-ordered settings

    graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersA comment was submitted on one of the most popular blogs I’ve ever written, What online community service is and is not. That blog called out a company that is selling what it calls online community service hours, but which is, in fact, a ruse: customers pay a fee and receive access to videos, which they are supposed to watch, and in return for claiming to watch them, the company gives the “volunteers” a letter from a nonprofit saying they performed online community service. As someone that has been promoting virtual volunteering since the 1990s – and quality standards in all kinds of volunteer engagement – it continues to have me outraged.

    I no longer approve comments on that blog, which has more than two dozen, because, for the last three years, most of the comments I get about this blog are from trolls affiliated with the company, ranting about how I hate hard-working people that don’t have time to do traditional onsite service (a rant that can come only from someone who has not actually read the blog) or name-calling such as this:

    fanmail

    Yes, really. Welcome to my world.

    But a recent comment from Mark Waterson wasn’t either of those. I didn’t want his comment, and my response, to get buried in the sea of comments on that blog, so the blog entry you are reading now is devoted to this comment.

    Mark says in his blog comment:

    “This article points out online community service options that are legitimate, but really misses the point of why those other organizations exist. If you are doing community service for court, you need an official signed letter of someone in the nonprofit organization who “supervised” you saying you have completed X hours of community service. Your alternatives, while more legitimate, do not offer this, even at a price, and so no one doing court ordered community service can even consider your suggestions as possible alternatives for their purposes.”

    Mark is incorrect, however, on this issue. Many of the online volunteering options I recommend on this page DO provide an official signed letter by the nonprofit organization who was assisted by the volunteer, stating how many hours the person gave as an online volunteer. And I have been one of those nonprofit representatives that wrote and signed such a letter for someone doing court-ordered community service through virtual volunteering. As I state on many of my pages for volunteers, a person needs to ask the nonprofit he or she wants to help – whether that nonprofit is down the street or across the country – BEFORE volunteering if staff would be willing to write and sign such a letter. Indeed, many will say no – even for onsite, face-to-face volunteers – but you will find some that will say yes if you keep looking, as I suggest on my pages.

    As volunteerism expert Susan Ellis frequently points out, there are very few onsite, traditional volunteering activities where a volunteer is supervised the entire time he or she is performing service. Instead, the volunteers is trained, then given a desk, or a work space and materials, or a phone, or a garbage bag and some gloves, and then they do MOST of their volunteering largely unsupervised. As someone who has been fooled more than a few times by a volunteer sitting at a desk, looking at a computer screen for hours, and pretending to work – and after a day or two, I find out nothing is getting done – I’ve realized that volunteer supervision is much more than eyes-on-the-volunteer, or sign-in sheets at the door.

    vvbooklittleAs Susan and I discuss in The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, there are many ways to supervise online volunteers, to ensure the work is getting done, that the quality of the work is up-to-snuff, and that the volunteer is getting the support he or she needs, such as regular Skype calls, regular emails back and forth, shared work spaces, regular reviews of work to date, etc. In taking those steps, you are going to know very quickly if you are talking to the person actually doing the work.

    Could someone fake online volunteering service? Sure, just as people can fake onsite service: hand the volunteer the plastic bag and the gloves, send them down the road to pick up trash, and when they are out-of-sight, a friend brings them a full bag of trash to return to you. Ta da! Or put three volunteers at your information booth, walk away for five hours, and return, not knowing that one of the volunteers paid the others to lie about her time at the table.

    Let’s imagine a volunteering scenario: a father gets a DUI and has to do a certain number of hours of community service. He finds a nonprofit that needs 400 photos on Flickr that each need to be tagged with a unique set of keywords, and because each set of keywords is different, it has to be done manually. He signs up to do the work, is accepted to do the work, but his son actually does the work. But here’s the thing: he could also do that as an onsite volunteer: he could go onsite, sit at a desk, and play Tetris until someone passes by, then switch to the Flickr screen and pretend to work until they are gone; meanwhile, his son back at home is actually doing all the work. Here’s a similar scenario: a mom gets assigned court-ordered community service and she signs up to help a nonprofit translate brochures and speeches into Spanish from English. She comes into the nonprofit, sits at a desk, but she plays Scrabble whilst her daughter back home does all the translating.

    I think that any volunteer manager of quality would sniff out these scams quickly, through their discussions with the volunteer, review of work, etc. And that would be true of onsite or online volunteers.  TMZ implied that Lindsay Lohan faked her virtual volunteering to fulfill court-ordered community service (be sure to scroll down to the comments – yes, I commented) – it would have been so easy for the nonprofit to know if she did the work or not, through basic volunteer management 101 principles.

    Does the tiny possibility that a volunteer can fake work done on a computer mean volunteers fulfilling online community service shouldn’t be allowed to do any online work even if it’s supposed to be done onsite at the organization, rather than via their own computer? No more volunteer web site designers, database data inputters, app designers, translators, editors, podcast producers, photo taggers, and on and on, if they are assigned service by the courts? Of course not. Whether this kind of work is being done onsite or online from the volunteers’ home or a nearby library, the likelihood that a volunteer is pretending to do the work while it’s actually a relative or roommate is so tiny, and so easy to sniff out. Fear of what might happen, in this case, isn’t at all justification of not allowing people assigned court-ordered community service to engage in virtual volunteering.

    The biggest challenge to court-ordered folks finding virtual volunteering isn’t fear that they will fake their service by having someone else do it; rather, it’s finding virtual volunteering at all. And many nonprofits refuse to work with court-ordered community service folks period, onsite or online. They just don’t love ’em like I love ’em.

    Even though I disagree with Mark, I thank him for writing – I’ve been wanting to expand on this issue for a while now.

    Also see:

    July 6, 2016 update: the web site of the company Community Service Help went away sometime in January 2016, and all posts to its Facebook page are now GONE. More info at this July 2016 blog: Selling community service leads to arrest, conviction

    What online community service is – and is not – the very first blog I wrote exposing this company, back in January 2011, that resulted in the founder of the company calling me at home to beg me to take the blog down.

    Haters gonna hate, the latest update on Community Service Help and other similar, unethical companies

    Community Service Help Cons Another Person, a first-person account by someone who paid for online community service and had it rejected by the court.

    Update on a virtual volunteering scam, from November 2012.

    Courts being fooled by online community service scams

    Online community service company tries to seem legit.

    Online volunteer scam goes global

    Online community service company tries to seem legit

    Back in January 2011, I discovered a for-profit company called Community Service Help, Inc. that claimed it could match people that have been assigned court-ordered community service “with a charity that is currently accepting online volunteers” – for a fee, payable by the person in need of community service. But the “community service” is watching videos. Yes, you read that right: people assigned community service pay to get access to videos, which they may or may not watch, and this company then gives each a letter for their probation officers or court representatives saying that the person did community service – which, of course, the person didn’t. – he or she just watched videos.

    While I have no issue with a nonprofit organization, or even a government agency, charging a volunteer to cover expenses (materials, training, staff time to supervise and support the volunteer, criminal background check, etc.), I have a real problem with companies charging people for freely-available information.

    I also have a big problem with judges and probation officers accepting online community service that consists of a person watching videos. Watching a video is NOT community service. Listening to a lecture is NOT community service. Watching an autopsy is NOT community service. Courts can – and do – sentence offenders to watch videos or listen to a lecture or watch an autopsy, and that’s fine, but these activities are NOT COMMUNITY SERVICE.

    My many blogs about this company, such as the first one, What online community service is and is not in (January 2011), as well Online volunteer scam goes global (July 2011), Courts being fooled by online community service scams (from November 2011), and Update on a Virtual Volunteering scam (November 2012), have lead to investigative TV reports on Atlanta Fox 5 and an NBC affiliate in Columbus, Atlanta. Just to show how unscrupulous this company is, after the NBC story, the scam company put a tag on its web site noting “as featured on NBC news!” Ugh.

    The pressure hasn’t lead to the company folding, unfortunately. Instead, the company is now trying to go legit, paying for this press release on PR Web to encourage nonprofits to use its service to list virtual volunteering opportunities with the company, which it will then have its paying clients do. The company claims that it will provide “electronic supervision, volunteer hour tracking, time sheets and logging, court reporting, and any necessary phone calls and customer support” for the volunteers it provides to any nonprofit that signs up. Those services are free for the nonprofit, but the volunteers pay the for-profit company for the volunteering. So, now the company can claim that volunteers do real volunteering, provided by legitimate nonprofits.

    My thoughts? I think any nonprofit staff that list opportunities with Community Service Help, Inc. should have their heads examined:

    • There is still no list on the company’s web site about what people do as online volunteers through the company, and no list of “charity partners” that use this service.
    • There is a list of testimonials from people who have supposedly used the service — testimonials which all sound amazingly the same, as though they were all written by the same person.
    • There is also still no listing of the names of the staff people and their credentials to show their experience regarding online volunteering or community service.
    • Its statement on its home page, The only place to complete your court ordered community service online!, is a blatant lie. There are many places to complete online volunteering for court ordered community service – where the volunteer pays NOTHING, or pays a tiny fee, much smaller than what Community Service Help, Inc. charges.
    • The company has no profile on Yelp.com.
    • So far, no online volunteering service has been performed at all through this company. None. The people who use this service do no activities other than watching videos as their “community service.” Through a nonprofit organization in Michigan, the company arranges for paperwork to be sent to the court or probation officer that says the paying customer has completed the “community service” and how many hours they spent doing such.

    I really hope nonprofits continue to steer clear of this company. List your online volunteering opportunities with your local volunteer center, through VolunteerMatch, or through any other legitimate nonprofit service (all are free).

    And for those of you that need to perform court-ordered community service, check out this  list of LEGITIMATE nonprofits that would be happy to involve you.

    Still waiting for officials in Miami-Dade County, where this organization is based, any parole and probation associations, the Corporation for National Service and AL!VE to PLEASE investigate or, at least, take a stand regarding this and other companies.

    July 6, 2016 update: the web site of the company Community Service Help went away sometime in January 2016, and all posts to its Facebook page are now GONE. More info at this July 2016 blog: Selling community service leads to arrest, conviction

    What online community service is – and is not

    There is a for-profit company based in Florida, Community Service Help, Inc., that claims it can match people have been assigned court-ordered community service “with a charity that is currently accepting online volunteers” – for a fee, payable by the person in need of community service. There is no list on the company’s web site about what people do as online volunteers through the company, and no list of “charity partners” that use this service – at least not as of the day I’m posting this blog. There is a list of testimonials from people who have supposedly used the service — testimonials which all sound amazingly the same, as though they were all written by the same person. There is also no listing of the names of the staff people and their credentials to show their experience regarding online volunteering or community service.

    I found out about this company because someone was posting about it on YahooAnswers > Community Service in response to anyone who was seeking community service per court order.

    I was alarmed for a number of reasons, most of which I’ve noted in the opening paragraph, in bold, and also because online volunteering opportunities are plentiful – so plentiful that it’s nothing short of exploitative to charge people to find them. Here’s just a FEW of the many, many places to find online volunteering (Aug. 14, 2015 clarification: note that this is a list of examples of legitimate virtual volunteering with legitimate nonprofits, and it’s offered to show what online volunteering really looks like; not all of these nonprofits meet the standards required by courts or probation officers for community service):

    Distributed Proofreaders. These online volunteers turn public domain books into online books, mostly for Project Gutenberg.

    Electronic Emissary, one of the best known and most respected online tutoring programs, where adult volunteers help students in a variety of complex academic-based projects.

    Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Volunteer Monitoring Program
    This is a mix of online and remote volunteering. Volunteers collect data from the environments around them and submit the information online to the EPA.

    Idealist/Action Without Borders has many of the volunteer tasks listed on its site that are online. To find them, do keyword search using online and virtual. You will have to read each assignment carefully to ensure they are actually virtual.

    Extraordinaries, hosts a database of micro-volunteering assignments (tasks that can be completed in around an hour or two) in support of different nonprofit organizations.

    Infinite Family, an online mentoring program matching adults and families in the USA with at-risk, impoverished children in South Africa.

    LibriVox, a nonprofit that coordinates online volunteers to record audio versions of public domain books.

    Nabuur, which recruits online volunteers to support organizations working in or for the developing world.

    TestPrepPractice Math Tutors

    United Nations Online Volunteering Service lists at least a few hundred online volunteering opportunities at any given time, at organizations working in or for the developing world (not just UN agencies). This is the largest database anywhere of online volunteering opportunities.

    VolunteerMatch has many of the volunteer tasks listed on its site tagged as virtual volunteering.

    That’s not only a short, not-at-all comprehensive list of organizations that are focused specifically on online volunteers: there are thousands of traditional organizations that involve online volunteers as translators, web page developers, researchers, writers, subject-matter experts (SMEs), pro bono consultants, and on and on (I volunteer with the Girl Scouts, and my service is 90% online; I help with communications issues). And there’s also dozens of organizations that allow volunteers to engage in home-based volunteering, knitting blankets for babies who are HIV positive, or organizing food drives for local free food pantries or local animal shelters, and on and on. (Aug. 14, 2015 clarification: note that the aforementioned is a list of examples of legitimate virtual volunteering with legitimate nonprofits, and it’s offered to show what online volunteering really looks like; not all of these nonprofits meet the standards required by courts or probation officers for community service. You can find a comprehensive listing of where to find legitimate online volunteering here, but note that not all nonprofits, online or onsite with traditional volunteer engagement, can accommodate court-ordered community service folks)

    So, of course, I was alarmed to find a for-profit company charging people for access to online volunteering opportunities when such opportunities are so freely and easily accessible. In addition, there is no guarantee that an agent of the court will accept online service as fulfillment of community service; I have been approached by dozens of people who want to volunteer online for community service fulfillment, and when I’ve told them to get permission from the court first, they call or email back to say the judge or probation officer refused, because the judge or probation officer felt there was not enough monitoring/supervision. Even so, many courts have been open to the idea, so long as the nonprofit or government agency that will involve the online volunteer can provide proof that the person really did the hours needed.

    (I’ve been lucky enough to have involved some court-ordered folks as online volunteers – and I have to say that all of them have ended up volunteering for more hours than they were required to do.)

    I started investigating this company immediately. I contacted several associations of nonprofits, including the Florida Association of Nonprofit Organizations (FANO), a couple of DOVIAs (directors of volunteers in agencies) in Florida and various colleagues that research volunteering, including online volunteering. Not one had ever heard of this organization. So I filed a notice with the Florida State Attorney General’s cyberfraud division. The Consumer Services Department of Miami-Dade County began its investigation in December.

    Today, the owner of Community Service Help, Inc. called me because of the investigation. He wanted to explain what his company does. And what does his company do? A person pays him $30, and he gives you access to online videos that are supposed to help you be a better person. You do not perform any community service at all; you watch videos. The company’s representative was adamant that watching videos is community service — and that watching them online makes it online community service. The people who use his service do no activities other than watching videos as their “community service.” Through a nonprofit organization in Michigan, he arranges for paperwork to be sent to the court or probation officer that says the paying customer has completed the “community service” and how many hours they spent doing such.

    Of course, watching videos is not community service. Court-ordered community service offline looks like this. Or this. Community service involves activity, it involves engagement, it involves an action to do something that needs to be done and that actually helps the community or a cause. Note that there’s no mention at all on these real community service pages regarding watching videos to fulfill court-ordered community service.

    Online community service activities look just like online volunteering activities – and also don’t involve watching videos, outside of a person training to be, say, an online volunteer mentor or, perhaps, judging videos that have been submitted to a nonprofit or government agency for some kind of contest. Or maybe watching videos to find information an organization is looking for as part of the person’s online research assignment.

    One can only imagine what the paperwork that Community Service Help, Inc. submits to the court or a probation office, or that is submitted by its mysterious “charity partners,” says that the person actually did to complete his or her community service hours (good luck finding an example of such online). I’m sure the judges or probation officers have no idea that all the person did to complete his or her hours was to pay a fee and watch videos on his lap top or smart phone (or, at least, someone watched those videos — who knows who!), that there was no completion of an actual activity that helps a nonprofit, a government agency or those such agencies serve.

    The further shock is that, as I’ve researched, there seems to be many of these organizations charging people who have been assigned court-ordered service for freely-available information and resources! Another one is Community Service 101, which charges a monthly fee for users to track and report their hours – something they could do for free on a shared GoogleDoc spreadsheet. There’s also this nonprofit, Facing the Future With Hope, which also offers to find online community service, for a fee. Note that neither web site offers any examples of what online volunteers actually do, what nonprofits actually involve these online volunteers, etc.

    While I have no issue with a nonprofit organization, or even a government agency, charging a volunteer — a person who is helping on his or her own, or because a court or school is requiring such — to cover expenses (materials, training, staff time to supervise and support the volunteer, criminal background check, etc.), I have a real problem with companies charging people for freely-available information, and for judges and probation officers accepting online community service that consists of a person watching videos.

    If it’s a for-profit company, you should be able to find on their web site:

    • A list of courts, by name, city and state, that have accepted community service arranged through this company (not just “courts in Florida”, but “the circuit court of Harpo County, Florida”
    • A list about specific activities that people do as volunteers through the company
    • A list of “charity partners” or nonprofit partners or government agency partners that use this service
    • The names of staff and their credentials to show their experience regarding online volunteering or community service.
    • A list of all fees – specific dollar amounts
    • A scan of a letter they have provided to a court, a probation officer, a school, a university, etc. (with the contact name for the person blocked out, ofcourse), so you know exactly what the organization says to confirm community service.
    • A list of every court, school and university that has accepted the community service hours this company has ever arranged for anyone.

    If it’s a non-profit company, you should be able to find on their web site:

    • Their most recent annual report that notes their income and expenditures for their last fiscal year
    • The names of the board of directors
    • The names of staff and their credentials to show their experience regarding online volunteering or community service.
    • A list of courts, by name, city and state, that have accepted community service arranged through this company (not just “courts in Florida”, but “the circuit court of Harpo County, Florida”
    • A list about specific activities that people do as volunteers through the nonprofit organization
    • A list of “charity partners” or nonprofit partners or government agency partners that use this service
    • A list of all fees – specific dollar amounts
    • A scan of a letter they have provided to a court, a probation officer, a school, a university, etc. (with the contact name for the person blocked out, ofcourse), so you know exactly what the organization says to confirm community service.
    • A list of every court, school and university that has accepted the community service hours this company has ever arranged for anyone.

    Good look trying to find this information on the pay-a-fee-for-community-service sites named on this blog.

    Will organizations that claim to represent the community service sector such as the Corporation for National Service or AL!VE, investigate? And take a stand? Stay tuned…

    November 6, 2012 update: I just got got email from a TV reporter in Atlanta, Georgia who used my blogs about this scam to create this excellent video about this scam and the people behind it. Thanks Atlanta Fox 5!

    February 2013 update: Here’s the latest on what’s going on with this company.

    August 14, 2015 update: this company continues to try to lure people with false promises about online community service. I have info on how they attempt to harass me online, and the blog links to all of the blogs I’ve written about this and other countries to date, including accounts of people whose community service through this company was rejected by the court.

    July 6, 2016 update: the web site of the company Community Service Help went away sometime in January 2016, and all posts to its Facebook page are now GONE. More info at this July 2016 blog: Selling community service leads to arrest, conviction