Tag Archives: debate

when “calling out” is bullying

A student in one of my classes raised her hand to say something about 20 minutes into a university class guest-lecture I was doing, then smugly 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 didn’t feel like it was a moment of enlightenment for me, nor that she was trying to be helpful; I felt like it was a moment to humiliate and to control. It felt belittling. And I admit that, later, I oh-so-smugly chastised her over her own use of the phrase rule of thumb, a phrase she didn’t realize is tied to an excuse for spousal abuse that can be traced as far back as 1782.

I can be petty. It’s true.

As I noted in a blog called Have I offended?, this and other incidents prompted me to put a slide called modus operandi at the beginning of all of my presentations. I tell the group there are no stupid questions, that I welcome all questions though I might not have all the answers and will freely admit such, 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 he or she thinks is offensive to please raise a hand and ask me to clarify, or to take me aside at a break and ask for clarification. I love training and teaching, 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. So far, it’s been a good strategy: it’s cut down significantly on these gotcha moments where there’s very little learning and listening – but there’s a lot of efforts to control, and often, at least a bit of humiliation.

This all came to mind as I read this outstanding essay, What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic, by Asam Ahmad. It’s from 2015. From the essay:

Call-out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and language use by others. People can be called out for statements and actions that are sexist, racist, ableist, and the list goes on… In the context of call-out culture, it is easy to forget that the individual we are calling out is a human being, and that different human beings in different social locations will be receptive to different strategies for learning and growing. For instance, most call-outs I have witnessed immediately render anyone who has committed a perceived wrong as an outsider to the community. One action becomes a reason to pass judgment on someone’s entire being… It isn’t an exaggeration to say that there is a mild totalitarian undercurrent not just in call-out culture but also in how progressive communities police and define the bounds of who’s in and who’s out. More often than not, this boundary is constructed through the use of appropriate language and terminology – a language and terminology that are forever shifting and almost impossible to keep up with. In such a context, it is impossible not to fail at least some of the time.

I actually teared up as I read this. I so want to connect with my audience, or with other people at a community meeting, or my neighbors, on a human level, and for all of us to be able to treat each other with respect and openness. But sometimes, I’ve felt shut down by call-out culture, by people playing gotcha, and I haven’t felt like they were trying to be helpful or educational – I’ve felt like they were trying to humiliate me, to silence me. I love Ahmad’s assertion that “There are ways of calling people out that are compassionate and creative, and that recognize the whole individual instead of viewing them simply as representations of the systems from which they benefit. Paying attention to these other contexts will mean refusing to unleash all of our very real trauma onto the psyches of those we imagine represent the systems that oppress us.”

Ahmad cites Ngọc Loan Trần’s earlier essay to explain this further, and it’s also excellent at explaining how “calling out” can turn into shutting discussion down and shutting certain people out of a discussion altogether.

This isn’t AT ALL to say someone shouldn’t call out threatening, harassing, abusive, oppressive, dangerous and/or illegal behavior. Absolutely: call that out! It isn’t to say that there shouldn’t be debates about what is and isn’t appropriate to say – English is a living language, culture is evolving, and there’s no reason to fight against it, to not be a part of it. Sadly, there will be those that will claim anyone saying that calling out can sometimes be used as a tool for bullying is just an effort to stop people from calling out threatening, harassing, abusive, oppressive, dangerous and/or illegal behavior. I’ve already had two people say just that when I shared a link to Asam Ahmad’s essay on social media, and I’ll expect it now as I share this blog.

Particularly when working with cultures very different from my own, and working abroad, I’ve heard words and phrases that I felt were inappropriate, even hurtful, but sometimes – NOT always, but sometimes – I also know the words might be open to interpretation in terms of meaning, motivation and intent, and I need to ask for clarification to make sure I’m understanding the speaker’s intent. And sometimes, asking the speaker some questions, getting clarification and even saying, “When you say that, here’s what I hear…” is a more effective strategy to elicit a change in mindset than immediately branding someone as racist, sexist, etc. And sometimes, the person doubles down and they really are a racist, sexist, etc. – and now, I’m sure, and it’s going to be very hard for them, later, to claim it’s not what they meant.

One way of addressing with compassion an issue someone has for what he or she perceives as inappropriate words or actions is “calling in”, which means speaking privately with the individual, addressing the word or behavior without making a more public spectacle of the address itself. I have appreciated this very much when it’s been done with me, when someone tells me, privately, that this or that word or phrase may be offensive to some people and why that is. Sometimes I agree with them and alter my language. And sometimes I don’t. But I always appreciate outreach that comes from a place of sincerity and care, not gotcha.

Also see:

Did Facebook hurt the Syrian Revolution?

Why is it that social media can help win an election in one country and cannot stop a month-long massacre in another?

Erica Chenoweth, a professor at the School of International Studies at the University of Denver, has argued that social media is helping dictators, while giving the masses an illusion of empowerment and political worthiness.

At a recent lecture at Columbia University, when asked for an example where social media played a negative role in a social movement, Chenoweth paused a little to finally say, “what comes to my mind now is Syria.”

Indeed, social media hurt the Syrian uprising. It gave the Syrian people the hope that the old dictatorship can be toppled just by uploading videos of protests and publishing critical posts. Many were convinced that if social media helped Egyptians get rid of Hosni Mubarak, it would help them overthrow Bashar al-Assad.

It created the false illusion that toppling him would be easy and doable.

The above quote is from Ian interesting article by Al Jazeera.

There can’t be any argument that digital activism can have a massive impact, sometimes even more than volunteer engagement, as shown by the 2016 USA election, but it can also be slackervism/slacktivism, when virtual activism stays virtual.

Is social media, Facebook in particular, hurting activism in the USA as well?

Also see:

It’s real: the unpaid internships & volunteers controversy

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

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

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

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

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

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

mistakenly perceived to be or even presented as volunteering.”

Yet CEV also says that

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

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

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

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

But then, later on that same page, saying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Support Your Local Online Discussion Manager!

logoI’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.

Share! Spout! Debate! Discuss!

You’re work or volunteer at nonprofit or an NGO or a government agency – some sort of mission-based organization. Or you want to.

Therefore, you have things to say, or ask, about the Internet, or computers, or smart phones, or any tech that plugs into those. YES, YOU DO!

There are some terrific threads on TechSoup awaiting your comments and questions, like:

GooglePlus – forcing users to use it?

UNV campaign: #actioncounts

Scheduling Volunteers for Therapeutic Riding Center

Library computer system needed for equipment reservations and checkout

Bohemian broadband & fossmaker culture

small nonprofit seeks affordable, reliable automated reminder call service

How to start a computer distribution program for low-income/needy people

Will Facebook kill your web-based online community?

Writing for the web

Which apps would people like?

what video conferencing tools have you really used.

Or start your own thread! You have things to say, to discuss, to share, to whine about when it comes to how you use the Internet, or computers, or smart phones, or any tech that plugs into those. YES, YOU DO!

You can also:

View the TechSoup community by subject matter/branch

View the TechSoup community by latest post


Microvolunteering is virtual volunteering

Imagine if I announced that a one-day beach clean up, or a one-day walk-a-thon, that brought hundreds or thousands of people together for one-off service in support of a nonprofit organization or cause, wasn’t really volunteering. Imagine if I said it isn’t volunteering because most of the participants who are donating their time and service aren’t screened, aren’t interviewed, aren’t background-checked, and aren’t trained beyond maybe a 10 minute speech about things to keep in mind during the experience. Imagine if I also said it was because most participants may never volunteer again with that organization or for the cause.

Imagine if I claimed that people who sewed or knitted items from their home, in their spare time, for some nonprofit group helping kids in hospitals or people suffering from a particular disease, weren’t really volunteers. They also aren’t screened the way most other volunteers are, aren’t background-checked, and usually have no deadline for their work – they get it done when they get it done, if at all.

I would look ridiculous to make such claims. The volunteer management community would laugh me out of the workshop or conference (or the conference hotel bar, as the case may be). Or off the Intertubes.

Of course all of these activities are volunteering. In fact, they are all MICROvolunteering, without a computer! (most volunteer managers call such episodic volunteering, but the new name is much snazzier)

The folks behind the microvolunteering movement The Extraordinaries (though their web site is now called Sparked.com) continue to try to say microvolunteering isn’t virtual volunteering. Which is as preposterous as me claiming those other one-off volunteering gigs like one-day beach clean ups aren’t really volunteering. Of course microvolunteering is virtual volunteering: it’s unpaid, donated service in support of nonprofit organizations, provided via a computer or handheld device. How much time it may or may not take, and how volunteers are or aren’t screened or supported, is immaterial.

I’ve had an ongoing battle with the people behind the Extraordinaires for a while now. They burst online a few years ago, claiming that there was no need for traditional volunteering, or traditional volunteer management, because everything nonprofits need by online volunteers can be done through what they were calling microvolunteering: people who volunteered for just a few minutes at a time whenever they might get an inclination to help, from wherever they were. Web sites would be built. Topics would be researched. Logos would be designed. Marketing plans would be written. Children would be mentored. All by people waiting for a plane or during time outs at sporting events. No need to make time to volunteer — just volunteer whenever you have some spare time, even if that’s just for a minute or two.

I challenged them on various blogs and the ARNOVA discussion group, pointing out that, indeed, microvolunteering can work for some tasks – and I had been saying so since the late 1990s, when I called the practice byte-sized volunteering – but most certainly not for mentoring a child (online or face-to-face, mentoring is effective only if its a long-term, ongoing commitment that builds trust – something I learned when working with the National Mentoring Partnership in launching their standards for online mentoring) and many other activities undertaken by community-serving organizations. I pointed out that microvolunteering most definitely can work for something like logo design — which, in fact, I wrote about back in 2006, per the first NetSquared conference that highlighted several examples of such. But I also pointed out that successful volunteer engagement isn’t about just getting work done; it is, in fact, about relationship-building — recruiting people who could turn into donors, for instance, or raising awareness and changing behaviors — and it’s also about reserving certain tasks for volunteers specifically, because some tasks are actually best done by volunteers.

This recent blog shows that some of those arguments are starting to seep into their thinking – Hurrah! – but they still need to evolve their concept. They are right to point out that microvolunteering doesn’t employ some volunteer management techniques in the same way as other volunteering, but they just can’t get their mind around the fact that LOTS of volunteering doesn’t, like a one-day beach clean up doesn’t. But that doesn’t somehow negate microvolunteering as volunteering, or as virtual volunteering.

Volunteer management and support must be adjusted for a wide variety of volunteering scenarios, online and off; while there are certain fundamentals of volunteer management that are always the same for all volunteering, online or offline, microvolunteering or longer-term, such as capturing volunteer contact info, ensuring volunteers are invited to future opportunities, thanking volunteers for their contributions and showing volunteers how their service has been of value, other aspects of volunteer management have to be tailored to the unique situation, and that does, indeed, mean not recruiting micro-volunteers the same way as long-term volunteers, on or offline. 

In addition to their continued refusal to accept that, indeed, microvolunteering is virtual volunteering, they also continue to make some other misguided statements, such as:

With microvolunteering, ‘You hire EVERY volunteer.’ The end result gets better as more people work on and peer-review your project. You turn no-one away.

You do NOT hire every volunteer in a microvolunteering or crowd-sourcing project. In fact, you reject MOST of them — for a logo design, for instance, most people’s ideas are rejected – most ideas are not used. For open source software design that allows anyone to contribute to the code, not every submission gets included in the released version. It doesn’t mean those volunteering efforts aren’t appreciated and that you shouldn’t thank them and celebrate such, but the reality is that you are not going to use most of the work submitted for such a crowd-sourcing endeavor.

And as for their comment that The end result gets better as more people work on and peer-review your project, I could point to dozens of pages on Wikipedia that have gotten worse as more people have worked on them. The idea that more volunteers automatically means better is something that only someone who does not work with volunteers regularly — particularly online volunteers — would say.

If they want to claim that microvolunteering is the coolest form of virtual volunteering, or even the coolest form of volunteering, I wouldn’t be quite so passionate in my arguments – what’s coolest is, ofcourse, entirely subjective. Of course, I’d still argue that it wasn’t — I’d be speaking as a person who has been both a long-term online volunteer and a micro-volunteer, and has recruited and managed both kinds of online volunteers. To me, mircrovolunteering is like a one-night stand: interesting/fun in the moment, but then quickly forgotten. Um, not that I know what a one-night stand is… Such might lead to something more substantial, but usually, it won’t – and that means it’s not for everyone.

But this fact Ben and Jacob will have to eventually accept: microvolunteering, online, is virtual volunteering. And it’s been going on long before the Extraordinaires showed up. Proposing that it isn’t creates only confusion, segregates them from terrific conversations and resources and networks, and holds them back from the full success they could have with their efforts; accepting that they are part of virtual volunteering would open many more opportunities for their endeavor and ensure their long-term success.

Also see:

Micro-Volunteering and Crowd-Sourcing: Not-So-New Trends in Virtual Volunteering/Online Volunteering

But virtual volunteering means it takes no time, right?

What online community service is – and is not