Tag Archives: criticism

Anti-volunteerism campaigns

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the Presidents’ Summit on America’s Future in Philadelphia, a three-day event that was aimed at boosting volunteerism and community service efforts across the USA. President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, former Presidents George Bush, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter and retired Gen. Colin Powell all participated. The original web sites of these campaigns are long gone, but I have screen captured them from archive.org and linked them from my web page tracking anti-volunteerism campaigns.

The summit resulted in a lot of press coverage, the launch of at least one nonprofit, and a huge boost for the Corporation for National Service, particularly AmeriCorps. But the summit also resulted in some anti-volunteerism campaigns, both on the political left and the political right.

I’ve been tracking campaigns against volunteer engagement since that time, and I’ve linked everything I’ve found from that aforementioned web page as well. These anti-volunteerism campaigns are not just in the USA: I have information about anti-volunteerism in Europe and elsewhere as well.

I track anti-volunteerism campaigns, and share what I find, for two reasons: (1) Those that promote volunteerism need to be aware of criticisms to their belief that volunteer community service is a great thing, and know how to counter such criticisms, and (2) Some of the complaints these campaigns have about volunteer engagement are absolutely legitimate, and also need to be addressed.

Actually, there is a third reason I share what I find: (3) I had someone that heads a major international organization that promotes volunteerism deny that these campaigns exist at all, particularly in Europe.

My only fear in sharing this information is that anyone would think I’m opposed to volunteer engagement! I hope that doesn’t happen…

One more thing: one of the most outspoken organizations against volunteering, which is cited on this page, is the Ayn Rand Institute. And, yet:

Yes, they are against volunteering UNLESS it’s for their organization.

Anyway… here is a long list of great reasons to involve volunteers.

for volunteers: how to complain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also see:

Creating a Speak-up Culture in the Workplace

Safety of volunteers contributes to a shelter closing

Keeping volunteers safe – & keeping everyone safe with volunteers

A grassroots group or nonprofit org = disorganization?

VA: a culture of fear, silence & misplaced priorities

Excuses, excuses

The dark side of the Internet for mission-based organizations

handstopOnline criticism – criticism of you, or your organization, is unavoidable. Even if your organization or program foolishly decides not to use any social media at all, in a futile effort to avoid criticism, others WILL talk about your organization online, some to criticize it, and perhaps even to spread misinformation. Your organization, no matter how small, needs to know how to address online criticism.

NTEN has a good blog on addressing online criticism and trolls: Navigating Naysayers: Managing Difficult Social Media Interactions, by Charrosé King, Senior Social Media Specialist, American Psychiatric Association. “Social media can feel like an incredibly dark place, but don’t let hate silence you or your organization’s messages that other people need to hear.”

My own resource: How to Handle Online Criticism / Conflict. How a nonprofit organization, government office or community initiative handles online criticism and conflict speaks volumes about that organization or initiative, for weeks, months, and maybe even years to come. It can even cause discord offline, among volunteers and employees. There is no way to avoid criticism, but there are ways to address criticism that can actually help an organization to be perceived as even more trustworthy and worth supporting. An organization MUST be able to honestly and openly deal with online criticism, particularly from supporters and participants. Otherwise, the organization puts itself in a position to lose the trust of supporters and clients, and even generate negative publicity — and, once lost, trust and credibility can be extremely difficult to win back.

And it brings to mind a thread I started on TechSoup called It’s not always Tech For Good. The first story is about how a VSO Volunteer from Britain working in Kenya persuaded two leaders from the Maasai tribe, a seminomadic people living in Western Kenya, to do an “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit. To persuade the village chiefs to do the interview, the volunteer said that people across the world wanted to know more about the Maasai community and may even be willing to offer help. Sadly, the online event got hijacked by porn pushers. The next post, also by me, is about how location services on a smartphone can be grossly misused by others, such as an anti-abortion campaigner that uses such to push services to reach women who check-in at fundraisers for pro-choice events. the thread is still open and additional stories are welcomed.

And on a somewhat related note: Yes, Nonprofits Get Scammed, Too: Security Tips to Avoid Phishing, Pretexting, and Baiting is worth your time to read and share with your staff. “While the technology we depend on has changed over the years, people’s social behavior hasn’t. This leaves us at risk of having our goodwill exploited. In security circles we call this scheming activity social engineering. It’s an attempt to acquire sensitive information for malicious reasons through deception… Awareness and vigilance will go a long way towards protecting yourself.”

Also see:

A plea to USA nonprofits for the next four years (& beyond):

speak upAttention nonprofits: stop believing that you automatically have some kind of magical, wonderful reputation because you “do good.”

Your organization’s future over the next four years depends on your organization rapidly becoming a much, much better advocate for its work as well as the work of the entire mission-based sector.

Over the next four years (and beyond):

Please dramatically improve how you communicate why your organization is necessary. Define it well, and say it repeatedly, in a variety of ways – in press releases, on your web site, in every speech you make, on your Facebook page, etc. Ask the spouses and partners of people that work and volunteer for your organization, people who have NOT volunteered or worked there themselves, to come in for coffee and donuts and a short discussion – and ask them why your organization exists, why it is necessary. Be prepared for them to have no specifics, just a possible, general idea. Use their feedback to create a plan to improve your communications, internally and externally, and to make sure it is clear to anyone and everyone why your organization is necessary. Make it a priority for the next four years to constantly and dramatically improve communication about what your organization does and WHY it exists.

Please dramatically improve how you communicate as to why there is poverty, or domestic violence, or homelessness, or unemployment, or a need for live theater, or whatever it is your nonprofit is concerned with addressing. Please don’t just ask for help for an issue without explicitly saying why the issue exists. And please say so more than once. This is another good opportunity for a focus group to find out just how much you need to improve regarding your messaging. This should also be a top priority.

If your organization does not address a critical humanitarian issue, then you must be even more explicit about why your mission is important. You cannot assume people know why a theater organization, a dance organization, a community choir, an art museum, a history museum, a chalk art festival, a historical society, a cultural festival, etc. is important to a community. Have hard numbers ready, in terms of economic impact, on what your organization contributes to your city or county. Have data on the impact of performing arts on health, school grades, crime, and any other quality of life issue and think of ways to get that data out there, repeatedly, via your web site, social media, press interviews, and on and on.

Make sure your volunteers know why your organization is necessary, even volunteers doing just one-time gigs or micro volunteering, and including your board of directors. Every volunteer, even those coming in for just a few hours as part of a group effort, must be given at least a short introduction to why your organization exists. All volunteers, past and present, microtasking volunteers and long-term volunteers, should be invited to public events. You must turn volunteers into advocates for your organization and nonprofits in general to their friends, family and colleagues.

Please correct volunteers and donors, even very large donors, who misspeak about your mission, or why the issue exists that you are trying to address. For instance, if your nonprofit helps the homeless, and a donor says that people are homeless because they are lazy and do not want to work, correct him and her. Make a list of myths about the issue you address, and the counters to those myths, and go over those myths with all staff, all board members, all leadership volunteers, and all long-term volunteers, at the very least.

If your budget is going to be cut because of actions by the President and Congress, you owe it to your community and to all you serve to say so. And you owe it to those same people to say how these cuts are going to affect your programs and, in turn, the community and those you serve. If cuts are going to hurt your clients, say so. This isn’t being political – this is being factual.

Stop talking about volunteer value primarily in terms of their hourly monetary value. When you do that, you justify a government saying, “Cut your paid staff and just get volunteers to do that work.” Governments HAVE done this, and it’s very likely the incoming USA federal government will do it too, and that this thinking will trickle down to state governments as well. When you talk about volunteer value primarily in terms of an hourly monetary value, you are saying that their PRIMARY value is that they work for free.

Use your web site to be absolutely transparent about who runs your organization, what it does, how much money is in its budget, where the money comes from and how it spends the money it gets. AND KEEP IT UPDATED. And be proud of it – no apologies for paying competitive salaries, for having offices that have adequate parking and lighting, for having clean offices, etc.

Make sure politicians know and appreciate your organization. Have a representative from your organization at every local public meeting by your state’s US Congressional Representatives and US Senators, and send those officials press releases about your organization’s accomplishments and impact. Invite representatives from their offices to every public event you have. Here is more advice on how to get a Congressperson to listen to you, which notes that posts to social media are largely ineffective because they are so easy to ignore, that paper letters are more effective than email, and that phone calls RULE. You need to do similar outreach with your state legislative representatives and senators – in fact, they should be much easier to meet with, in-person. Go in front of your local city council at least once a year to speak during the public comment: announce a new program, remind the council of something you are doing, tell them what a budget cut is going to do in terms of how it will affect your clients, etc. You have about two minutes: use it.

Make sure the nearest weekly and daily newspapers, and the nearest CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox affiliate TV stations know why your organization exists, what it accomplishes, and the underlying issues it addresses. And when they get a story wrong about the causes of homelessness, addiction, unemployment, domestic violence, poverty, etc., CALL THEM and SAY SO. Volunteers can help you monitor the media and look for opportunities for correction.

During the 2016 election, a worldwide audience, not just the USA, heard repeated disparaging remarks by the two main Presidential candidates about each other’s philanthropic bodies. Regardless of the truth or not of their attacks, many people have been left with the impression that all philanthropy – all nonprofits, all charities, all NGOs – is corrupt and conducted primarily with the goal of achieving more power and a good public image, rather than a genuine desire to improve people’s lives, improve communities or help the environment. Every nonprofit has to keep that in mind as it looks at the financial information on its web site and annual report, as well as in addressing the aforementioned communication issues.

Henry Berman said, in an article for an article for The Chronicle of Philanthropy, “We must tell our stories and the stories of those who benefit from our philanthropy, lest we allow the unchecked rhetoric of the campaign trail to define who we are, what we accomplish, and how we operate.” I couldn’t agree more.

You will not have your nonprofit status revoked for doing any of the above. Do not let anyone threaten such a thing. The aforementioned is all mission-based work. You aren’t endorsing a politician or a political party, and you are not directing people on how to vote, things that are strictly forbidden for 501 (c) (3) nonprofits.

Also see

“Every nonprofit organization and nonprofit cause or mission that relies on federal regulation, executive orders, or other non-legislative approaches to implementation is at risk of profound change or elimination when Donald Trump takes office in January.” An excellent warning from the Nonprofit Quarterly.

It’s Day One of the Trump Era: Let’s Defend Philanthropy

How Will Trump Presidency Affect Humanitarian Aid & Development?

My consulting services (I can help you with your communications strategies!)

January 6, 2017 update: Forbes has this excellent article on how corporations should have a crisis communications response in case Trump attacks them. It is a step-by-step guide on what that planning should look like. Have a look and think about how your nonprofit or government agency should create a similar guide for your mission-based initiative. If your mission has a focus on LBGTQ people, on helping immigrants, or helping women access abortion services, or is affiliated in any way with the Clinton Foundation, or has any Islamic affiliation, or works to help refugees, or has any other focus “relevant to the president elect’s hobbyhorses,” your organization REALLY needs to read this Forbes article.

February 27, 2017 update: With aid under attack, we need stories of development progress more than ever – from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), the UK’s leading independent think tank on international development and humanitarian issues.

Addressing criticism, misinformation & hate speech online

angryjayneEvery program, agency or individual will face criticism online. Every organization and person will have to address misinformation online as well. We have always lived in a world of criticism, hate speech and misinformation – with the Internet, that speech can be instantly widespread.

No matter how large or small your nonprofit, NGO or government program is, your communications staff needs to be ready to address criticism and misinformation – and worse – online. Here are five resources, some by me, that can help:

  • How to Handle Online Criticism / Conflict. Online criticism of a nonprofit organization, even by its own supporters, is inevitable. It may be about an organization’s new logo or new mission statement, the lack of parking, or that the volunteer orientation being too long. It may be substantial questions regarding an organization’s business practices and perceived lack of transparency. How a nonprofit organization handles online criticism speaks volumes about that organization, for weeks, months, and maybe even years to come. There’s no way to avoid it, but there are ways to address criticism that can help an organization to be perceived as even more trustworthy and worth supporting.
  • Recommendations for UN & UNDP in Ukraine to use Twitter, Facebook, Blogs and Other Social Media to Promote Reconciliation, Social Inclusion, & Peace-Building in Ukraine (PDF). This is a draft document I submitted to UNDP Ukraine just before I left Kyiv in October 2014, having completed my term there as a “Surge” Communications Advisor. This draft document offers considerations and recommendations for social media messaging that promotes reconciliation, social inclusion, and peace-building in Ukraine. It provides ideas for messaging related to promoting tolerance, respect and reconciliation in the country, and messaging to counter bigotry, prejudice, inequality, misperceptions and misconceptions about a particular group of people or different people among Ukrainians as a whole.
  • UNESCO’s Countering Online Hate Speech, a free publication from UNESCO (pdf), spends most of its time talking about what is and isn’t hate speech, but does have some good information about countering hate speech and misinformation, without censorship, in the chapter “Analysing Social Responses”, specifically the sections on Monitoring and discussing hate speech, Mobilizing civil society, Countering online hate speech through media and information literacy, Citizenship education and digital citizenship, Education as a tool against hate speech, Development of critical skills to counteract hate speech online, Educational goals of media and information literacy to respond to hate speech, and Assessing media and information literacy and education initiatives (pages 33-41, and 46-52).
  • I have also been gathering and sharing examples for a few years now of how folklore, rumors and urban myths interfere with development and aid/relief efforts, as well as recommendations on preventing or responding to such.
  • List of my blogs related to conflict, free speech, reconciliation, etc. – my blogs that talk about conflict, extremism, extremists, hate speech, words, offensive, offended, hating, haters, reconciliation, toleration, free speech, apologies and inclusion.

Have I offended?

handstopA few years ago, whilst doing a training in Louisville, Kentucky, I explained that online volunteers shouldn’t be segregated in program management from traditional onsite volunteers, that they are just volunteers, like all other volunteers, and should be treated as such. An attendee was outraged that I had used the phrase just volunteers, even though it was obvious that I had meant solely or specifically, not merely.

A university student in one of my classes told me she didn’t like my use of the words target and setting my sights on something, because these were “references based in violence” (her words). I admit that, later,  I smugly chastised her over her own use of the phrase rule of thumb.

A workshop attendee in Egypt told me it was outrageous that I said volunteers should get written descriptions of the tasks they were getting or that there should be any talk of their commitment or performance. “We should accept their help and be grateful for whatever they can give! We have no right to ask for anything more!” She was almost in tears as she said this.

And then there’s the infamous Florida workshop at the Corporation for National Service conference from the 1990s, where a team of trainers, including me, tried to encourage a group of SeniorCorps program leaders to adjust their recruitment tactics in order to better attract seniors from the Baby Boomer generation. I don’t think I will ever recover from that.

These incidents – and lots of others I could talk about – prompted me to put a slide at the beginning of all of my presentations, called modus operandi. I tell the group there are no stupid questions, that I might not have all the answers, etc. And I also ask for no GOTCHA moments, where an attendee immediately becomes outraged at something I’ve said. I ask that, if anyone hears me say something that they think is offensive to please raise their hand and ask me to clarify. Some people have done so, and it’s helped head off a lot of bad feelings, because most of the time, I did not at all mean what they thought I meant.

I realize that there is no way in the world to avoid saying something that someone won’t like, but I really do want to connect with my audience, on a human level, and for us to be able to treat each other with respect and openness. I love training, and if there is an obstacle to my overall message getting out because of something I’ve said, or a perception of what I’ve said, I want that obstacle addressed post haste.

My work is out there in the public sphere for anyone to read and criticize. That’s the nature of my work, and it can be scary. Most of my work isn’t tucked away on an intranet at a humanitarian organization or in a classroom or high-priced academic journal – it’s on my web site, on my blog, on YouTube, on social media, even on other people’s web sites. It’s not easy to live with that much public scrutiny, and the criticism of me and my work can often be downright hateful, as we Kentuckians say (or, at least, as the Kentuckians I grew up with would say).

I was born and raised in Kentucky, and am fiercely proud of the fact. Fiercely. Ask my non-Kentucky friends and colleagues: they will tell you that they are sick of hearing about my beloved home state. Kentucky is like so many other states I’ve lived in or visited – Texas, Tennessee, Vermont, Iowa – or even other regions of the world – Ukraine, Catalunya, the Westerwald of Germany – where residents are intensely proud of being from that region, where there are unique aspects of their way of talking, even the way they dress, and they have faced jokes – sometimes good-natured, sometimes cruel – about their culture, including their accents. People from such regions get called out almost immediately anywhere else because of their accents, and they can be very sensitive about comments made about their culture, especially when most images about their culture in the media are negative.

Upon hearing that I am from Kentucky, I have heard comments all over the world which have stung me. There is a very particular joke that Germans have about Kentucky that I won’t repeat here, but when Germans would hear I was from Kentucky, and smirk, I would say the joke, in German, and they would be flabberghasted that I knew their “secret.” Instead of being offended, I turned the tables, and it actually often lead to some really great conversations about Kentucky – they got to learn just what an interesting, beautiful place it is, in contrast to what they thought. I hear a lot of hurtful comments from people from other countries when they learn I’m from the USA, because of how they perceive this country, based on our foreign policy, our movies and our TV shows. I have to find a way not to become overwhelmed with outrage at their comments, however cruel, because I’m there to work with them. I guess that’s why it takes a lot to offend me, as someone from Kentucky or from the USA as a whole.

Because of this worldwide perception of Kentucky, I sometimes comment about it at the start of a workshop I’m doing. It’s my way of disarming (oops, gun reference!) the audience: yes, I know you hear the accent, however slight. It’s also my way to represent: hey, you are going to get communications and tech advice from a gal from KENTUCKY – get your stereotypes about my state around THAT! I hope that, by the end of the workshop, they have not only learned about communications strategies, social media, volunteer management, etc. – I hope they have a new, better opinion of people from Kentucky.

I do just that at the start of this video. And it was recently brought to my attention that a Kentucky university professor was offended because of it. She didn’t tell me, however. Instead, she told her colleagues about her offense. Someone else had to tell me about her judgment.

So let me make it clear that my modus operandi isn’t just for my workshops; it’s also regarding my web site, this blog, and anything else I do online. If you read something of mine that you think is offensive, write me, via email (jc@coyotecommunications.com) or, as so many have done, in the comments section of my blog, and immediately ask me to clarify. Maybe I don’t mean what you think I mean. Maybe it’s exactly what I meant. But you won’t ever know unless you ask me.

And, no, I’m not wearing shoes right now. And I did use an outhouse last week, but it was in Canada.

Also see: Could your organization be deceived by GOTCHA media?

keep volunteer info up-to-date or else

logoI really cannot emphasize enough the importance of keeping your records regarding volunteers up-to-date…

“Ada” was a volunteer for two years with a very-well known national organization’s state affiliate. She was very active with the organization in that time, taking on a number of high-responsibility roles and helping to increase the number of attendees at local events. But a conflict with an employee lead Ada to end her volunteering. There was no dramatic departure: she simply stopped taking on new volunteering tasks, stopped attending volunteer meetings, and let her membership lapse. Not one person from the agency contacted her to say, “Hey, where’d you go?!?” Ada always assumed they hadn’t noticed – or were happy that she was gone. A year after she left the organization, she moved to a city almost two hours away.

Imagine Ada’s surprise when, three years after she left the organization, she gets a very friendly email from the director of individual giving from the organization, talking about something that happened in the town where she used to live. The email wasn’t addressed to anyone specifically, such as “Dear volunteers in such-and-such town”, but given the informal, chatty nature of the email, it was obvious that that’s who it was supposed to be going to. As Ada had been gone from the organization for three years, didn’t live in the city mentioned anymore, and had never heard of the person that was writing her this oh-so-chatty email, she was shocked. And a bit put off.

“They didn’t even notice when I didn’t renew my membership and I stopped volunteering,” she said. “And now, three years later, they write me as though we’re the best of friends?”

By not noticing the departure of this volunteer, by not updating its database to reflect that she had withdrawn, and by contacting someone who obviously had disengaged with the program for quite a while now with a message that made it seem like they were still involved and happy with the organization, this organization now has an even more entrenched negative reputation as being incompetent and/or insensitive with this volunteer. Ada may bring this up to her Facebook friends. She may bring it up in social gatherings with friends and family. She may bring it up to co-workers. And it’s that kind of word-of-mouth experience that people really, really listen to.

Also see:

Support Your Local Online Discussion Manager!

I’ve dealt with a LOT of debates and conflict on a variety in online discussion groups, and that vast experience lead to creating this resource on how to deal with such, especially for nonprofits, NGOs, government agencies and other mission-based folks. It’s one of the most popular pages on my web site.

Recently, an experience made me realize there was a crucial piece of advice missing on that resource. Here it is:

Support Your Local Online Discussion Manager!

When you, the Executive Director or Marketing Manager or Program Director, see your online discussion manager facilitating an online debate about something your organization is or isn’t doing, the temptation may be for you, the senior person, to jump in and start posting.

That may or may not be a good idea.

It’s a good idea if there is something you need to clarify that you can say better than your online discussion manager, particularly if it might relieve pressure on that person and allow him or her to move the discussion forward. It’s also a good idea if you see the manager under fire – it can be wonderfully motivating for an online community manager that is bruised from an online virtual debate to see your public support for him or her, and it can help for discussion group members see your faith in that person.

However, it’s a bad idea if you are seen as “taking over;” your posting to the discussion can disempower your online discussion manager, reducing his or her importance to the community. Why should the community look to that person as their liaison with the organization online, when you’ve made it clear that YOU are higher up and in-charge, and you took over the discussion?

If you think there is a different way to handle an online situation than your online discussion manager is doing, talk with that person FIRST, and if at all possible, have the discussion  manager continue to be the lead in facilitating the discussion. If you must post something, be sure to add verbiage that shows you still have faith and trust in your online discussion manager, and that you fully support that person.

Read more about how to deal with online criticism / conflict.

Chat with me on Twitter Oct. 2!

On Tuesday, Oct. 2, from 1-2 p.m. New York City time (10 a.m. Oregon time), I’ll be leading the tweetchat on Twitter.

The tweetchat is focused on building and sustaining online communities for nonprofits, charities, schools, government programs and other mission-based initiatives, though some corporate folks frequently show up and share.

The focus of the chat tomorrow will be on dealing with conflict among members of an online community.

This is a subject near and dear to my heart. I addressed it in this web page, Handling Online Criticism, which recently got quite a few mentions on Twitter. Just as criticism of an organization is inevitable on an online community, so is conflict among members. There’s no way to avoid it, but there are ways to address conflict that can help an organization maintain a reputation for being transparent and responsive, but without allowing someone to dominate a conversation and drown out others. How an organization handles online conflict speaks volumes about that organization, for weeks, months, and maybe even years to come.

Participating in the tweetchat is simple: you log into Twitter, and then you click on the link or do a search on the term #commbuild on Twitter. All messages with the #commbuild tag will appear. Keep reloading the tweets and you will see all new messages. To respond, just choose a message and click on “Reply”. Be sure to put the tag #commbuild in your message, however, so everyone else can see it too!

The questions I’m going to be asking on this Tweetchat (subject to change!):

Q1: Is conflict in an online community avoidable?
Q2: Is conflict on an online community ever healthy? Examples?
Q3: Have YOU ever been an instigator or participant in a lively conflict on an online community?
Q4: Do you include info about conflicts that happen on your community in staff meetings, or to your supervisor? Why/why not?
Q5: Do you have written rules on how to deal with conflict on your online community?
Q6: How long do you let conflict/debate go on on your online community?
Q7: Have you ever said no to calls by others to ban a member? Why?
Q8: When is it time to ask for a debate to stop?
Q9: Other tips for dealing with conflict online?

And regarding Q3: yes, I have been a participant in MANY lively conflicts in various online communities. Some of the experiences have actually been really gratifying: a problem that several people were experiencing got resolved, or minds got changed (this happened a few times in debates regarding virtual volunteering back in the 1990s). Some experiences have not been positive: I’ve lost respect for organizations and individuals who I felt were wanting to shut down debates because they didn’t like the opinions being expressed.

In addition to this being a terrific learning experience regarding how to handle conflict on an online community, it’s also a great learning experience if you are new to Twitter or to tweetchats.

More about the #commbuild tweetchat events.

POSTSCRIPT: Archive of this tweetchat.

Sound off re employees & volunteers appropriate behavior online

I found this article today: How to Handle an Employee’s Controversial Online Behavior – it’s from 2010, but it still works – the graphic is awesome!

I also have my own thoughts on the subject: How to Handle Online Criticism, written especially for nonprofits, NGOs and other mission-based organizations.

On a related note, there are three threads on TechSoup regarding social media that so beg your participation:

Social Media Policies in the Workplace

Instant Messaging policy

Reporting to an Executive Director re social media

Would love to read more comments on these TechSoup threads! How does your nonprofit, government agency, charity, non-governmental agency or other mission-based organization handle all of these various aspects of social media/online activities?