Tag Archives: culture

Changes in working with volunteers: scary & energizing

logoAlmost 20 years ago, I co-presented at the national conference in Orlando by the Corporation for National Service. The presentation was regarding the emerging senior volunteer — the Baby Boomer. I was the representative from Generation X, another presenter was a Boomer himself, and the other presenter was of the then current senior age group. We thought it was a rather benign but important topic. We certainly had fun putting together our presentation via phone and email (we were in different parts of the USA and had never met face-to-face until the day of the presentation).

The day of the presentation came, and we had a full room waiting to hear us. Our presentation began, with much energy: we talked about how the emerging senior volunteer — the Baby Boomer — wanted to volunteer their professional skills, not just stuff envelopes. How they were willing to commit a lot of hours provided it came with a high-level of responsibility. How they weren’t interested in giving unselfishly as much as wanting to have a real impact and feel like, as a result of their volunteering, they had made a real difference. How this was a great opportunity for volunteering programs…. right?

We were all but booed out of the room.

The workshop attendees, who worked exclusively with senior volunteers, primarily from the “Greatest Generation,” did not hide their venom for our message, and about 15 minutes into our talk, we knew we were in trouble. Amid sighs and folded arms and scowls, attendees started raising their hands to comment and express their obvious frustration. They called these emerging senior volunteers “selfish” and “lazy,” even “un-American.” The characterizations would have never been said about an ethnic group, but it was open season on Boomers. One said, “I’m not changing, and if they don’t like it, they can go somewhere else.” Another said, “I would rather our current volunteers die off and our organization close than work with these people.” One added, to me, directly, in front of the whole group, “You don’t want to know what I think of your generation.”

It was, by far, the angriest, most hostile group I’ve ever addressed.

The only comfort was after the presentation was over, after most of the attendees had stormed out of the room: a woman came up to us in tears — literally crying — and shook all of our hands, saying “I’ve tried to say the same thing, and they were like this to me too.”

More than 10 years later, I shared most of the above via a blog because of an article in the Associated Press that confirmed all that we said at that presentation. The article said boomer volunteers “are increasingly seeking to use their professional skills as volunteers, eschewing office and administrative tasks and seeking roles in marketing, publicity, fund raising, and management.” You can see the article by going to archive.org and looking for this URL:
www.nytimes.com/aponline/2010/03/04/business/AP-US-Retirement-Today-Volunteering.html

I’m reviving that blog, saved from a long-defunct platform, because I still think about this incident every time I get in front of a group or have a discussion about trends in volunteer management. In that previous blog, I also wrote:

  • I wonder what ever happened to all those very, very angry volunteer managers, who I don’t think hated boomer volunteers as much as they hated change. Did they quit their jobs? Did they begrudgingly change? Were they fired?
  • I’ve never worked with these “traditional” volunteers the AP article and others talk about, volunteers happy to do any mundane administrative tasks without question, who do whatever they are told without comment. I’ve been working with volunteers for many years, and they have always wanted something worthwhile through their service beyond just work to do.
  • I bet someone writes almost exactly this same story in five years in a major newspaper or wire service, implying it’s a “new trend.”

Of course, since that presentation, the management of volunteers has changed even more radically. I talked about this in May 2006 on my web site. And let’s be clear: innovations regarding management of volunteers aren’t really about technology. The innovation is using technology so that it is:

giving volunteers a bigger voice in what they do at an organization (and, in the end, actually giving them lots more to do, and even more responsibility, which they like very, very much), on engaging in activities that exude transparency and openness in all aspects of decision-making and management, and on being immediately responsive to volunteers’ and other supporters’ thoughts, suggestions and criticisms — and how not doing so isn’t because of a lack of resources but, rather, misdirected priorities and lack of transparency. Tiny nonprofit organizations with very little staff are doing extraordinary things with volunteers, and making the volunteers feel included and energized, not with pins and t-shirts but through greater and more meaningful involvement — and this movement is being fueled by inclusive uses of technology.

It makes for another big challenge to many people who are expected to successfully engage volunteers, but it’s also a big opportunity to raise the profile of volunteer managers within organizations. It makes volunteer management a lot more interesting.

Are you ready? Scared? Angry? Let’s hear from you in the comments below.

Also see:

UNESCO World Heritage Volunteers 2017 projects

World Heritage Volunteers (WHV) is a program by UNESCO, a United Nations agency, that helps create opportunities for young people to travel internationally or within their own countries and help preserve and support World Heritage sites. The 2017 campaign has been announced, with 51 youth action projects planned for 50 World Heritage properties from May through November 2017, in partnership with 46 organizations in 32 countries.

“From the Vajrayogini temples of Kathmandu Valley in Nepal to the 16th-Century Monasteries on the Slopes of Popocatepetl in Mexico, from the parks and gardens of Classical Weimar in Germany to the vertiginous peaks of Rwenzori Mountains National Park in Uganda, the local and international volunteers of the WHV 2017 will be involved in projects held at some of the most outstanding places in the world.”  The projects are in Africa, Asia, Pacific Island countries, Arab states, Latin America and Europe.

If you want to get involved in a WHV project, take a look at the 2017 project profiles here and contact directly the project organizer, who should get back to you with information on next steps. The project organizer’s contacts are in the project profiles.

It doesn’t say it anywhere that I can find on the WHV web site, but volunteers are responsible for paying and arranging all of their own international and in-country travel, for paying for their accommodations in-country, paying for all food and other in-country expenses, paying for their own insurance, etc. These are entirely volunteer positions, and no expenses are reimbursed and no stipends are paid. Some countries, like the USA, may offer tax deductions for international volunteering.

The World Heritage Volunteers Initiative is led by the UNESCO World Heritage Centre (WHC) in collaboration with the Coordinating Committee for International Voluntary Service (CCIVS), European Heritage Volunteers (as a branch of Open Houses) and Better World.

Also see:

Volunteering Abroad / Internationally

Ideas for Funding Your Volunteering Abroad Trip

To Do List the Day After the USA election

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

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

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

You could:

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

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

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

Gossip’s toll in your workplace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Truths About Volunteer Retention

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersI’ve been trying to draft a blog about volunteer retention… and then read the latest update from Susan Ellis and Energize, Inc. and her article said it better than I can say it myself. This is reposted online with permission from Susan:

SOME TRUTHS ABOUT VOLUNTEER RETENTION

Schools used to focus on the 3 Rs (reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic), but in volunteer management we have the 2 Rs: recruitment and retention. I can’t tell you how often I’ve been asked to speak on both in a single session! Apart from this request minimizing what it takes to do all the critical tasks of volunteer management, the real problem is that recruitment and retention do not mirror each other.

You can do activities to recruit volunteers, interview them, train them, etc. But you cannot spend Tuesday mornings “retaining” them. Retention happens when everything else is going right. It is an outcome, not a task.

One of the problems with retention is defining it. People often ask me what a “good rate” of retention is, as though there is some external standard for all volunteer programs. Of course there is no such thing.

The desire to measure effective retention is tied to the fervent wish that volunteers might stay forever! Turnover has to be anticipated and planned for (and I might mention that there is lots of turnover among employees, too). How realistic are your expectations for the length of time volunteers will remain with your organization?

Some volunteers leave because things have changed in their own lives…and you had nothing to do with it. People get married, have babies, move away, change jobs, become ill – that’s life. The only thing you can do is leave the door open for a possible return. A volunteer who is forced to leave for external reasons may be willing to remain involved as a trainer of new volunteers, as an on-call substitute in a pinch, or at least as a reader of your newsletter. If the person is moving to another city, might you refer them to a counterpart program in the new location?

Here are some thoughts to ponder:

  • Retention can only be defined in relation to the commitment made by each volunteer at the start of service. So your recordkeeping system should show the amount of time the volunteer promised during the interview and then, if the person stays to that point, you have “retained” them! Anything afterwards is additional.
  • Do you clearly state the minimum commitment that is needed from a volunteer to make the training period worthwhile or to be able to make a difference to the client or cause? (This may be a different amount of time for each volunteer position.) Then, when you interview applicants, do you discuss anticipated length of stay? If neither of these things happen, how can you possibly know what volunteers intend to do in terms of longevity?
  • If a lot of volunteers leave in the first months of their work, it’s a symptom that what they expected and what they experienced did not match. Recruiting and interviewing are the start of the retention process!
  • Is there a pattern to when and from where volunteers drop off? Does one unit seem to keep people happy for a long time while another unit has a revolving door of new recruits? Analyze why and problem solve the situation.
  • Who is staying? Are you keeping long-time volunteers or the best volunteers? These may not be the same people! Again, assess what is going on. If newer recruits or people with top skills seem to become disenchanted with the program, why? How can you re-commit them?

The list of reasons why people volunteer in the first place is very long. After time, however, the reasons volunteers remain committed to your organization distills down to four factors:

  • The work they are doing is visibly meaningful
  • They feel appreciated for their service
  • They continue to learn and grow
  • They enjoy it
  • Quite simple, really – and the outcome of a welcoming, well-run volunteer program.

This outstanding blog content comes from Susan J. Ellis, President of Energize, Inc. More of Susan’s wisdom via her amazing books and services. It is HIGHLY recommended you subscribe to Energize Inc.’s FREE Monthly Volunteer Management E-mail Update for more great stuff!

Online leadership: what is it?

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

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

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

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

Has the Internet democratized engagement?

This week, I’m going to blog and launch new web resources based on my experience as the Duvall Leader in Residence at the University of Kentucky’s Center for Leadership Development (CFLD), part of UK’s College of Agriculture,Food and Environment. My visit was sponsored by the W. Norris Duvall Leadership Endowment Fund and the CFLD, and focused on leadership development and community development and engagement as both relate to the use of online media.

First up for discussion: Democratizing Engagement. Specifically: has the Internet democratized community, even political, engagement? To democratize something is to make it accessible “to the masses.” So, my answer during the presentation in Lexington at the Plantory, to launch discussion in Lexington, was, “Yes… and no.”

On the “yes” side:

  • People can access information they need most, like weather forecasts, communicate with people remotely, even bank and community organize, through text messaging on a simple cell phone. This has been revolutionary for people in the developing world.
  • People with even more sophisticated tools, like laptops and smart phones, can do even more, like access pension information, journalism-based media sites, business information, etc., apply for college or jobs, even run entire organizations and undertake a remote career.
  • Even before smart phones, when cell phones were becoming popular in the developing world, text messaging played a key role in political movements in the Philippines, in helping AIDS patients in Africa remember to take meds, and in appropriate amounts, etc. See this paper from October 2001 for more on these early examples. Handheld, networked devices continue to play important role in political movements.

On the “no” side:

  • Social media has been instrumental in reviving incorrect and, sometimes, dangerous folklore that interferes with humanitarian efforts, government health initiatives, etc.
    Negative consequences for the opinion-sharer.
  • Government and corporate entities are monitoring and recording users’ online activities and sometimes using the information they find against citizens/consumers to curb their rights or voice.
  • Many web sites cannot be accessed by people without the absolute very latest, most advanced laptops and smart phone.
  • The Internet has never been slower.
  • People with disabilities are often excluded from being able to access Web-based resources – the site isn’t configured for people using assistive technologies, an online video has no subtitles, etc.
  • Not every organization is developing online tools for people who use only feature phones and text messaging, and that leaves out millions of people who don’t have smart phones.
  • Not everyone is on the Internet.

And I’ll add one more to the “no” list: many people are made to feel unwelcomed online, to the point of their being threatened with violence if they don’t refrain from saying certain things or even being online altogether. #gamergate is a good example of this. Also see this blog, Virtue & reputation in the developing world.

Even with all that said, and the “no” list being so much longer than the “yes” list, I said that the Internet is playing a role in democratizing information for everyone, but it’s got a long way to go.

What do YOU think? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

(and I have to note that my favorite moment of the evening was when we went around the room to ask why people had come and if they got what they wanted out of the evening. One of the attendees said that, in fact, she was in the wrong room – she had come for something else – but once I started talking, she was so interested in the topic that she stayed!)

Virtue & reputation in the developing world

womantargetMy Facebook newsfeed is filled with posts from my male Afghan colleagues, talking about their travels, their work, their children, sharing photos, etc. But rare is the post from Afghan women I’ve worked with. And recently, I was reminded yet again of why that is.

In some countries, a woman’s reputation regarding her virtue is every bit as important as food and health care, in terms of prosperity, let alone survival. When you are a girl or a woman in Afghanistan, or many other countries, you can’t just shrug at insults regarding your morals or honor. You do not have that privilege. You have to care deeply about what neighbors and co-workers and, really, what anyone might say about your virtue. Damage to your reputation regarding your virginity, your marriage, your care for your children, your sexuality, how you dress, how you behave in social settings, and everything else that makes up one’s moral character can cost a woman a job, her family, her marriage – even her life.

I was gobsmacked to find out just how true this was when I lived in Afghanistan for six months back in 2007 – my Afghan female co-workers were immobilized at times by fear of gossip about their honor. But it’s not just in that country: I heard a few comments when I lived in Ukraine that made me realize that, to a degree, it can be true there as well.

I was reminded of all this per an article in the Washington Post regarding women in Afghanistan who are being virtually assaulted, their Facebook profiles duped to create a second, fake profile, their friends invited to “friend” that profile, and then come the fake posts boasting of drug use and illicit behavior, attributed to the person being targeted. The identity thieves steal the women’s photos and steal and repost personal information publicly. Or, the woman’s actual account is hacked, the password changed so that she can no longer control the account – and the same tactic used: fake posts boasting of illicit behavior, altered photos of the woman drinking alcohol, etc. “Respectable reputations are demolished with a few keystrokes.” In addition, a woman on Facebook in Afghanistan may end up with an inbox deluged with pornography and violent threats from aggressive suitors and alleged militants. It leaves the women terrified of even their own family members, as the article details.

In the article, an Internet cafe owner talks about his attempts to help the many young women who are devastated to find out their profile has been duped or hacked with such reputation-destroying information and frantic to get the information removed. Sadly, his reports to Facebook aren’t taken seriously. The article says, “He suspects that the threats are so culturally specific — a profile photo showing a woman’s face or a beer Photoshopped into a photo of a female gathering, for example — that they often go unnoticed by Facebook administrators reviewing flagged accounts. What may look like an innocent account in the United States can be full of menacing innuendo to Afghan eyes.”

But there’s another reason that keeps so many women in Afghanistan and other countries off of social media as well: the Tall Poppy Syndrome. People talking about an accomplishment can be seen as bragging, and many feel that tall flower has to be cut down to the same size as all the others. The phrase is particularly popular in Australia, though some people say it isn’t success that offends Australians but, rather, someone that acts superior. But in many places, a woman saying anything on social media, except for praising the deity of her religion, is seen as bragging – and she becomes a target for her “tall” reputation being cut down. If you don’t believe that, search for malala yousafzai criticized on Google.

For all these reasons, many women in Afghanistan and other countries have given up on having a virtual identity at all – I personally know of two such women. This greatly hinders their ability to connect with potential colleagues abroad that could help them in their work, to build up a professional reputation beyond the walls of their office or beyond the staff of the organization, and build a career.

Of course, it hasn’t always been so easy in the Western world for a woman to shrug off gossip. In Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813, the heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, warns her father that the consequences of her sister Lydia’s reputation as a flirt affects “our importance, our respectability in the world”, noting that when a girl is perceived as being a flirt, it is the girl’s family members that pay the price: “Oh! my dear father, can you suppose it possible that they will not be censured and despised wherever they are known, and that their sisters will not be often involved in the disgrace?” 200 years later, no girl in the USA has to have that scene explained to her, even in our world of celebrity sex tapes and leaked nude photos and wardrobe malfunctions. Many women worldwide, even in “the West,” still fear loss of reputation through gossip, even if the consequences aren’t nearly as dire as in other countries.

By contrast, I now live in a privileged world where I can choose to shrug at personal insults thrown my way regarding my virtue, my moral behavior, etc. I know who I am, that I strive for integrity in my professional world and in personal matters, I know that the people I love and respect in my life know my true character and morals, and for me, that’s all that matters. If someone calls me a whore, I can simply roll my eyes and say, “Please call me Her Royal Highness and Whore, as it is my correct title,” and then I can go on about my day.

I’m from the Bible belt, and I’ve lived all over the USA, and I find that “but what will people think?!” is a mentality that still very much exists back home. I’m not sure when exactly I shed that mentality, but I do remember the first time I heard a story that says there was a man who constantly harassed and insulted the Buddha, but the Buddha never seemed fazed by it. When someone asked why he didn’t take offense to the insults, he replied, “If someone gives you a gift and you refuse to accept it, the gift stays with the giver.” I remember thinking: that’s what I want to strive for. Though, full disclosure: insults about my looks, my age, my weight, etc., still feel like punches in my gut, anc criticism of my work, and my approach to work, can sting. But insults about my virtue? Have at it – I don’t care.

So we, in the West, do understand, to a degree, the perils of gossip regarding moral behavior for our sisters in other countries. But what’s to be done? We certainly need to pressure social media companies like Facebook and Twitter to better respond to complaints of duping and hacking. But should we also encourage a new way of thinking: “Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me”? I’m not sure it’s possible to become unoffendable – but could an entire culture be taught, deliberately, to become less so? Would that be a part of women’s empowerment, of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly #5 Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls?

Regardless, it should serve as a caution to humanitarian and development workers wanting NGOs and government agencies to engage more on social media; you need to provide guidance for the women who would be expected to manage online activities on how to stay safe and protect their personal reputations.

January 4, 2016 update: See this post on TechSoup that summarizes an article about the risks taken by women in Pakistan, particularly female students, who use social media, and highlights the work of Nighat Dad, a lawyer in Pakistan who works to help women stay safe online.

Also see:

Have I offended?


A 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?

Managers of volunteers & resistance to diversity

It never fails: try to have a conversation about diversity and volunteerism, get comments about how such conversations are not needed.

“Thoughtful Thursday” is an online discussion about issues related to the involvement of volunteers. It takes place in the comments section of the blog and on Twitter using the tag #ttvolmgrs. Two weeks ago, the subject was diversity. The comments section on the blog are a perfect example of how these much-needed conversations in the nonprofit sector frequently turn into:

We don’t need this.
We are doing just fine with the volunteers we have.
Our recruitment has worked for 25 years. No need to change.
We are not going to lower our standards in order to get new volunteers.
Young volunteers just don’t have the commitment that are current volunteers have.

And it’s what frustrates me most about managers of volunteers. Most – yes, I said MOST – are resistant to change. Meanwhile, they wonder why they are having trouble recruiting, or keeping, volunteers.

Harumph.

(not all the comments are negative on the subject – so there’s hope)

Also see:

Recruiting Local Volunteers To Increase Diversity Among the Ranks (also explores the WHY)