Tag Archives: ethical

Voluntourism is fighting back

I have voluntourism in my Google Alerts, so that I can get links to press releases, news articles that mention the term. I’m not fond of voluntourism, where volunteers pay large amounts of money to go abroad for a few weeks, or even several weeks, to engage in a short-term activity that will give them a sense of helping people, animals or the environment. I look at this growing industry with great skepticism in terms of actually helping anyone, because it’s focused on the wants of the volunteer – that feel-good, often highly photogenic experience – not the critical local needs of local people or the environment, and there’s little screening of volunteers – most everyone is taken, so long as they can pay. What these foreigners bring through these voluntourism programs is often not skills, experience or capabilities that cannot be found locally – it’s money, and I see no evidence that this money benefits local people – maybe the people that run the program are “helped”, but not those meant to be helped by the volunteers. I don’t think all pay-to-volunteer schemes are horrid, and I don’t think creating a vacation that has a social or environmental “good” goal (transire benefaciendo) is a bad thing, but I think there are a tremendous number of voluntourism programs out there that aren’t really benefitting communities in the developing world – and some are actually causing harm. I push back to questions about and posts prompting voluntourism on Quora and Reddit, and I’ve been pleased to see more and more people doing the same. That push-back must be working, because now I’m also seeing a lot of voluntourism companies aggressively fighting back on the blogosphere, asserting that their programs are worthwhile (but never offering hard data to prove it).

I’ve been happy to see the tide turning against many forms of voluntourism as people realize that work abroad should make local people the number one priority, not the feel-good experience for a foreign volunteer. For instance, Australian NGOs are refusing to place volunteers in orphanages abroad, because of the exploitation of children, potential harm to children, and lack of any data showing such voluntourism helps children at all.

The UK’s International Citizen Service (ICS), which has placed thousands of young people in volunteer roles around the world, is now under scrutiny: Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) has taken action against ICS and other members of the UK consortium of organizations providing volunteering opportunities over safety concerns. The UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), according to a report by VSO, regarded ICS as a “high-risk programme due to the security and safety issues” involved.  “ICS safeguarding incidents have included death by drowning of two volunteers, sexual assaults, and the detention of volunteers by local police.” Volunteers live and work in countries where they may be exposed to petty and violent crime, political instability, endemic diseases and natural disasters.

There’s even a growing backlash against medical voluntourism, per reporting by Noelle Sullivan, a member of the faculty in global health studies at Northwestern University, who says her research shows that some people volunteering abroad for a few weeks, or several weeks, to engage in medical “help” for people in developing countries “does indeed cause harm.

It must be taking its toll, because I got a link to a press release about how a certain African “foundation” has hired a PR agency “to change the public perception of medical volunteering or voluntourism.” I’m not going to link to the press release – no free publicity here for a for-profit marketing company. But I had a look at the “foundation”‘s web site. The site is mostly about the gorgeous “luxury” accommodations for volunteers on a game reserve, whcih has an onsite gym, an infinity pool, a private patio “for stargazing,” and nearby opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, golfing, weight training, yoga, abseiling, white river rafting, tubing, kloofing, microlighting, helicopter rides, “and hot air ballooning!” The company can hook volunteers up with wildlife photography tours and photography courses, half day trips to an animal rehabilitation center “featured on National Geographic,” and visits for “pampering yourself at the local spas.” I’m surprised there aren’t workshops provided on how to take the perfect “Look how I’m helping these poor people” selfies… Oh, there is a page or two about the medical services volunteers will squeeze into their busy schedule enjoying all that hiking and hot air ballooning.

Also see:

Treat volunteers like employees? Great idea, awful idea

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersBack in 2009, the Volunteer Centre South Derbyshire, in England, featured one of my posts from UKVPMs (a discussion group for volunteer managers in the United Kingdom) on its blog in response to an article that says treating volunteers like employees is a great idea. I’m flattered that they thought my thoughts so worthy!

Here was the situation that I commented on:

In this commentary in the Guardian, the writer talks about a volunteer DJ at a small Christian radio project in South Manchester, England, who was fired when staff became aware that he is gay. The writer’s conclusion is that the employment laws need to apply to volunteers in order to protect them from being fired for no good reason.

Here was my response from UKVPMs (edited a bit for clarity):

On the one hand, I don’t believe in requiring volunteers to do things that staff are not required to do: background checks should be for everyone, not just the volunteers. The anti-discrimination policy of the organization applies to everyone, not just paid staff. Neither paid staff nor volunteer staff should be exploited or mistreated or neglected.

But on the other hand, I also come from the point of view that:

  • volunteering with a nonprofit is a privilege, not a right. I involve volunteers so long as it explicitly benefits the mission of the organization, and if forced to choose, my loyalty would be to the mission of the organization and those it serves rather than to a volunteer.
  • volunteers are human beings and should absolutely be expected to be treated as such, however, they are NOT employees, and therefore are not entitled by law to any of the same legal benefits of an employee.
  • volunteers are managed by a volunteer coordinator, rather than a human resources director, because volunteers are NOT employees.

So I read this article with a lot of empathy and sympathy, but then cringed at “Volunteers should be protected against unfair dismissal.” Legally protected? If so, legally protected how?

The primary consequence of an employee being unfairly dismissed is that he or she loses income. There are other consequences, but loss of income is the primary consequence, and we all know that income is necessary for survival. The laws that protect employees from being unfairly dismissed aren’t designed to do anything other than to prevent an employee from losing income and to restore an unfairly-treated employee’s lost income; the laws aren’t designed to restore anyone’s dignity or honor.

What would be the legal redress of a volunteer wronged? If a volunteer is granted the ability to sue regarding dismissal, what will the compensation be if whatever deciding body sides with the volunteer? Will he or she receive money? If so, say goodbye to volunteer involvement at probably most organizations; they aren’t going to risk that kind of financial expenditure. Reinstatement? The organization will be forced to involve the volunteer in his or her previous role? Does that volunteer then become untouchable, meaning the organization will have to keep the kinds of files, including regular evaluations, on volunteers that they maintain for staff in order to justify the disciplining, the requirement for training or the firing of a volunteer?

I guess in summary: I don’t ever want any volunteer dismissed for arbitrary reasons, I don’t ever want any volunteer mistreated or exploited, and I want us all to work to make sure that never happens, but I also don’t want volunteers to become employees, for a variety of reasons that I hope I’ve made clear (not sure I have).

And so I don’t really know what the answer is…

And I still don’t.

Involving volunteers: a cop out for paying staff?

Nurses in the Philippines are angry. They are being forced to work for free, or for a stipend on which they cannot live, while the hospitals where they are working call them “volunteers.” Some hospitals are even charging nurses for their “volunteer” work experience. Thousands of graduate nurses are paying hospitals and working for months without salaries under the guise of “training,” so the nurses can gain work experience and have an improved chance of being employed as a regular staff eventually. As a result of this exploitation, nurses have filed cases against four hospitals through the Philippines Department of Labor and Employment – National Labor Relations Commission in February and March. Nurses have also sought the help of a Philippines political party, the Ang Nars Party, which has been using its Facebook page to highlight their campaign against what they are calling “false volunteerism”. (Thanks, oh-so-awesome DJ Cronin, for the heads up about this situation!)

You can read more about this situation at the Nursing News, March 2, 2017, but be warned: this is a click-bait site, packed with advertising banners and in-text advertising links.

I am, of course, outraged about this situation in the Philippines. It’s the same outrage that prompted me to call on the United Nations to defend its involvement of full-time, unpaid interns. It’s not only horrible that these nurses are being exploited; these kinds of actions create campaigns opposed to some or all volunteering (unpaid work). No doubt the hospitals in the Philippines have happily talked about the value of volunteering only in terms of money saved in not paying staff, just as ILO, the Johns Hopkins University Center for Civil Society Studies, UNV, and others have encouraged them to do.  The result of this exploitation will be a further backlash against all volunteering in hospitals in the Philippines – and beyond. The fight against unpaid internships hurts volunteering. And all of this is because so many organizations see volunteers only as a way to not pay staff, to save money.

If you do not have a  written statement that explains explicitly why your organization reserves certain tasks / assignments / roles for volunteers, including unpaid interns, and that statement has NOTHING to do with not having enough money to pay staff, then you have no business involving volunteers, or unpaid interns, or whatever it is you want to call people you aren’t paying for work.

Good luck to the nurses in the Philippines. And good luck to hospitals in justifying future engagement of volunteers after making so many enemies to the term.

Also see:

humanitarian stories & photos – use with caution

whitesaviorbarbieIf you are going abroad, particularly to developing countries, even just for vacation rather than a humanitarian mission, be really careful and respectful in what you write for the public about your travels, including your use of social media – blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. -, and what photos you take and post. Think about a post or photo carefully before you publish: is it accurate? Is it enlightening? Could it be seen as patronizing? What would the people I’m talking about say if they read what I said/saw my photos? Would it be acceptable for a stranger to talk about your community, and share photos of your children, on their blog in the way you are about to?

Earlier this month, National Public Radio did a story about how Zambians, other Africans and aid workers are using social media to show factual errors and condescending remarks in a memoir by British actress Louise Linton about her gap year. The hashtag being used is #LintonLies.

An excerpt from Linton’s book:

I still sometimes feel out of place. Whenever that happens, though, I try to remember a smiling gap-toothed child with HIV whose greatest joy was to sit on my lap and drink from a bottle of Coca-Cola.

Really? THAT moment was that child’s GREATEST JOY?! And that is the kind of circumstance that makes you feel not out of place? She also talks in her memoir about child soldiers in Zambia – something that is not actually an issue in Zambia. Throughout her book, she confuses Zambia with Congo and Rwanda. The Zambian embassy in London has even called her out.

And then there’s actress Debra Messing, who seems similarly confused about Africa being a country, and posted photos online recently that gave people the impression that her message was more about “look where I am!” than the people she was supposed to be there FOR on behalf of two NGOs, as dissected by a commentator at Jezebel.

It all looks like ‘White Savior Barbie’ come to life – White Savior Barbie is an Instagram account that hilariously parodies volunteer selfies in developing countries, as highlighted in this article on the Huffington Post. There’s also an article in the satirical magazine The Onion that mocks voluntourism , joking that a 6-day visit to a rural African village can “completely change a woman’s facebook profile picture.”

I actually have a little bit of sympathy for Messing. I know that they had good intentions. And we’ve all done things out of ignorance that we later, often quickly, regret. We all make cultural missteps. We all make communications missteps. And aid workers can get quite carried away in an ongoing and very smug game of more-in-tune-with-people-and-not-acting-privileged-than-thou when they mock volunteer humanitarians and others, and that can be just as bad as the missteps they mock. I’ve been called out a few times for things I’ve written my blogs from developing countries – sometimes I haven’t agreed with those criticisms, sometimes I have. But I hope I’ve never come from a place of “look at me going to save all these poor people!”

I also hope these missteps don’t stop people from sharing their adventures online, including photos:

UNICEF recognizes the enormous power of visual imagery such as this to engage, inform and inspire audiences – and to advocate for children’s rights. Photographs or film footage that depict real life situations of children, and UNICEF programmes supporting supporting them, are one of the most effective ways to communicate these issues. — UNICEF Guidelines: Protecting children’s rights in corporate partner image use, viewed online in July 2016. More UNICEF photo guidelines here

I learn so much reading various posts on social media from people working in developing countries. It’s brave to put yourself and your thoughts and opinions out there, for public consumption. But be ready to revisit what you’ve said and thought online when it comes under public criticism.

And aid agencies, PLEASE train your workers, including volunteers and celebrity representatives, on how to use social media – and what not to do – before they start their work abroad or go on a field visit.

Check out this code of conduct resource from Child Rights International Network regarding taking photos of children in developing countries (really, anywhere).

Update October 21, 2016:  “a hot mess” of “neo-colonialism, racism, hypocrisy and privilege.” A Christian ministry feels the backlash of a very ill-thought video of their impressions of Uganda. Another story about the video from NPR’s Goats & Soda.

Update May 10, 2017: A photo of a young girl being raped, used by the magazine LensCulture to promote a for-profit competition by Magnum, a prestigious photo agency, violated UNICEF’s ethical guidelines on reporting on children by showing the victim’s face, which makes her identifiable, and lacked any explanation regarding the enslavement and abuse of the girl. The incident also brought attention to a broader issue in photojournalism: how the Western media depicts — and often demeans — young women and girls in poor countries. More about the incident here (the photo is NOT shown on this page).

Also see:

Vanity Volunteering: all about the volunteer

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersIf you regularly read my blog and web site materials or have seen me present, then you know just how strongly I believe in the importance of the involvement of volunteers in nonprofit/mission-based causes. I believe that volunteer engagement represents community investment, can allow people from different walks of life to be associated with a cause more deeply than just donating money, can allow people who don’t want to or cannot quit their day jobs to be involved in a cause, educates people about a cause through firsthand experiences, and can demonstrate the organization’s transparency regarding decision-making and administration. Service activities can educate volunteers to be better advocates for a cause, even change their behavior or feelings regarding certain issues, activities and groups. And I believe any of these reasons are far, far better reasons for involving volunteers than to save money by not paying staff.

I feel so strongly about the importance of volunteer engagement that when I see nonprofit organizations that don’t involve volunteers in some way, it makes me suspicious of them – how invested is this organization in the community it’s supposed to serve if it isn’t letting the community participate behind-the-scenes? How much does this organization really want to be a part of the community if the only way I can be a part of that organization is to work for it, professionally?

But I also have to say that I am wary of the value of a lot of volunteer activities, much more so now, having worked for international humanitarian aid and development agencies for more than 15 years. I regularly witness or hear about volunteering activities abroad and right here in the USA that are more about making the givers of service feel good than about benefitting the cause that the organization is supposed to serve. Voluntourism gets accused of this a lot: people going for a week or two to a poor community, usually in another country, and doing things that local people would love to do themselves, and be paid to do themselves, like build wells, build schools, repair houses, play with orphans, teach a few English classes, etc. Do those activities primarily benefit local people or a critical cause, or are they actually more about being great money-makers for organizations, including religious groups, that know Westerners will pay big bucks for a feel-good volunteering experience and lots of touching photos of them in exotic or devastated locations? There are even tragic consequences from this kind of volunteering, such as the rise of orphan voluntourism, where children that are NOT orphans are presented as such, in need of help from short-term international volunteers, people with little or no expertise regarding the needs of at-risk children.

An article from December 2015 in Cracked captured my wariness about some volunteering, particularly around the holidays. It’s called “5 Realities Of A Homeless Shelter At Christmas.” Regarding homeless shelters, the article notes:

These charities exist to help people with serious problems. They do not exist to round up sideshows and parade them around for gawkers, or to help regular folks gain perspective on their own lives. Surprisingly, not everyone is aware of this.

The article also notes:

Remember, these people are homeless for a reason. We don’t mean “because they’re jerks and deserve it”; we mean that mental illness and substance abuse issues run rampant. If you reserve your charitable feelings only for those capable of showing gratitude in some satisfying way, you’ll be neglecting the ones who need help the most. They show their gratitude by still being alive the next time Christmas comes around.

This all came to mind recently when I found an article about a young boy who created his own nonprofit so he, personally, could hand out food to homeless people in the city where he lives. That’s the primary purpose of the nonprofit: to give him an outlet to hand out food to homeless people. He’s well under age, so I’m not going to name him or his nonprofit or say where he is – I also really do not want to humiliate a kid, especially one that has such a big heart. But his nonprofit seems to be more about him than the homeless: the nonprofit has his name in the title, the web site for the organization is filled with many, many more photos of him than homeless people, and on the web site, a link for more information doesn’t say “About our organization,” but rather, “About me.”

He says he started his nonprofit because organizations serving the homeless turned him away as a volunteer because he’s “too young to help,” and that made him “sad.” What I suspect shelters and food kitchens actually said is that many of their clients are not allowed, legally, to be around anyone under 18, and the organization would, therefore, be causing those people to break the law by interacting with a child. They probably also told him that shelter staff need to put their resources into helping clients, not diverting such to ensuring the safety and heart-warming learning experience of underage volunteers.

The web site for this child’s organization has no information about the nutritional needs of the homeless or statistics on food availability for the homeless in this particular city. The web site has no information about the causes of homelessness. The aforementioned Cracked article correctly points out that when homeless people die, it’s most often from heart disease, substance abuse and trauma, rarely from hunger, although, of course, nutrition is a big challenge and hardship for many homeless people. The principle causes of food insecurity in the United States are unemployment, high housing costs, low wages and poverty, lack of access to SNAP (food stamps), and medical or health costs, but the web site for this child’s nonprofit never mentions any of these realities – it makes it sounds like he’s personally keeping these folks alive, that most homeless people die of starvation. Even if his nonprofit isn’t going to address any of those causes of hunger, shouldn’t those causes be mentioned somewhere on his site? This young man’s nonprofit could make a HUGE difference by helping people, particularly young people, understand why people are homeless, why they experience food insecurity – and they could take that knowledge to the ballot box, and make donation decisions based on that knowledge. Instead, this nonprofit, as demonstrated by the web site and by the media coverage of the nonprofit, is about making a little boy feel like he’s making a difference in the world, and making us feel good about him.

Robert Lupton, a veteran community activist based in Atlanta and author of Toxic Charity: How the Church Hurts Those They Help and How to Reverse It, was quoted in an opinion piece in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, saying this about various volunteer groups that show up to hand out food in Atlanta parks: “The folks that come and hand out sandwiches? I call that harmful charity. It’s irresponsible… Who is this service activity for? To help the homeless? Or someone else?” I am not as down on charity as Lupton; in contrast to him, I do believe charity and aid will always be needed, that food banks and on-the-street food handout programs cannot and should not be replaced entirely by community development / empowerment / teach-a-man-to-fish programs, and I think there are very good things that can come from group volunteering projects in communities . But I do agree with him that a lot of high-profile volunteering seems more about making the giver have a feel-good experience and lots of great photos than focusing on the primary needs of those to be served.

No one is too young to volunteer, but there are volunteering activities in which a youth or child may NOT participate, because it would be illegal or inappropriate. Even with that restriction, there is no cause a young person can’t support in some meaningful way as a volunteer, including helping the homeless, and there are many ways a young person can volunteer, no matter how young he or she is. Volunteering is a great way to teach children about compassion and empathy, but it shouldn’t perpetuate old-fashioned ideas about volunteering, that it’s just about charity, and that its primary purpose is about well-off people giving food and items to poor people, but not talking about why there are poor people and not addressing those reasons. Volunteering by youth shouldn’t be primarily about making the kids feel good about themselves. Volunteering by youth should educate those young people about why causes are important, about community challenges, and/or about people very different from themselves. And volunteering should ALWAYS be primarily about what the person or cause needs most, not about the volunteers themselves. That means sometimes telling well-meaning people, even young people, “It’s great that you want to help, but the way you want to help is not what’s needed most and, in fact, can take valuable resources away from what we really need. And what we really need is…”

This is not a call for a volunteer motivation “purity” test. Volunteering doesn’t have to be selfless – as I have said many times in my workshops, I’m a part of Generation X, and I’ve never volunteered “to be nice” in my entire life; I’ve volunteered because I’m angry about a situation and want to do something about it, because I’m lonely or bored, because I want to explore careers, because I’m curious about an organization or activity, because I want to develop a skill or get experience for my résumé, because it sounds fun, because I want the fabulous t-shirt, and on and on. Almost any reason to volunteer is a great reason to volunteer. What I’m questioning are some of the reasons volunteering activities are created – what I’m saying is that they may actually do harm rather than good.

Even with all my disclaimers and all my work to date promoting volunteerism, I have a feeling this blog is still going to get me accused of being anti-volunteer. Nothing could be farther from the truth. But vanity volunteering… sorry, I’m just not a fan.

For more on this subject – written by others:

Symptoms of a Vanity Nonprofit by Mark Fulop, from May 28, 2014.

The Most Outlandish Charity Trends: Is It About Vanity?, from MainStreet an online financial magazine & news site by TheStreet, in April 2014.

Vanity Charity, an opinion piece by Alan Cantor, published online on March 5, 2013

This 2012 Cracked article: “5 Popular Forms of Charity (That Aren’t Helping).

This New York Times Magazine article, “The Vanity of Volunteerism,” from July 2000.

#InstagrammingAfrica: The Narcissism of Global Voluntourism , from the Pacific Standard, June 2014

This Boston Globe article, Corporate volunteers can be a burden for nonprofits, from March 2015

How to judge a charity: the five questions no one asked Kids Company (How do you know if a charity is changing lives?), 2 January 2016 article from The Spectator

Added Jan. 18: In The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems, Courtney Martin warns against a line of thinking which leads privileged young Westerners to think they can solve serious social problems in developing countries. Ms. Martin points to failed international development efforts like the now-infamous PlayPump, a piece of playground equipment that was meant to also pump underground water in remote communities. It was embraced by the development community — though the pumps didn’t, in fact, work. “It’s dangerous for the people whose problems you’ve mistakenly diagnosed as easily solvable. There is real fallout when well-intentioned people attempt to solve problems without acknowledging the underlying complexity.”

July 17, 2017 updateCharities and voluntourism fuelling ‘orphanage crisis’ in Haiti, says NGO. At least 30,000 children live in privately-run orphanages in Haiti, but an estimated 80% of the children living in these facilities are not actually orphaned: they have one or more living parent, and almost all have other relatives, according to the Haitian government.

And for more by me, on related topics:

Extreme poverty is not beautiful

(a version of this blog first appeared in March 2009)

I was in a convoy heading to the Pansjir Valley in Afghanistan once upon a time, when a non-Afghan man in the back seat, a fellow aid/development worker, started talking to a colleague about how beautiful and simply the people lived in Afghanistan, how idillic it was, how it was a shame to bring them aid and development if it meant they would have to give up their beautiful, simple life.

I wanted to stop the SUV, throw him out of it, and let him see how he liked living “simply” for a few weeks.

Being poor is NOT the same as living in extreme poverty.

Dolly Parton and my grandmother grew up poor in Tennessee and Kentucky, respectively: there was no money to buy new clothes when they were children and, often, their mothers made clothes from whatever they could find (such as used potato sacks), their families had to grow most of their food, their families didn’t have a car, etc. But they were resource rich: they could grow and raise their own food, they had access to free, clean drinking water, they had access to doctors for emergency medical care (though a long walk to such), the fathers lived at home most of the time rather than having to live far away for most of the year to send money home, the families never went hungry or suffered from extreme cold, and they had access to wood for the stoves in winter. They never had to sell any of their children in order to feed the rest of the family. There was no danger of a rival tribe or religious zealots or a mafia looking for money or revenge breaking down the door and killing everyone or taking all their animals. Yes, there were hardships: many babies died in infancy, many women died in childbirth, diseases and injuries that are curable/treatable now were deadly back then, many children had to work rather than go to school, people died young compared to today, etc. But often, there was freedom and time for children to play safely around their homes. The whole family could read by the time they were teens. Talk to people who grew up like this, and they will tell you stories of hardship, but also of laughter and family and dreams.

By contrast, there’s nothing at all beautiful about extreme poverty, especially in Afghanistan. Extreme poverty means a family that has no means to grow its own food and, therefore, starves without the means to purchase food or attain food aid. It means women who die in childbirth, and babies that die in infancy, at rates that far exceed most other places on Earth. It means children sold as child brides or slaves in order to raise money to feed the rest of the family for a few weeks. It means a life expectancy of around 40. It means having no resources to build a fire or cook food — if there was food to cook. It means few people, if anyone, in the family being able to read, which means less of a chance of accessing health care and food assistance that MAY be available. It means people dying by the thousands regularly from preventable diseases. It means being a repeated victim of criminals and having no protection or justice because there’s no money for the bribes the police or the militias require. It means absolutely no way, on one’s own, to ever improve life for the family. It means no freedom, no time and no safety to play or dream or plan. It means no control over your life at all.

I’ve never forgotten that guy’s comments. And what’s sad is that I heard it again just recently in a video by someone I consider a dear friend . That there can be any confusion between living off-the-grid and living in extreme poverty is astounding to me.

Want to help combat poverty? There no better organizations than these, IMO, to donate to, and to spend your time reading their field updates:

Also see:
*Another* Afghanistan Handicraft program? Really?

Pizzeria tries to recruit unpaid interns, feels Internet’s wrath

Ah, the smell of volunteer exploitation in the morning…

Roberta’s, a famous, hip restaurant in New York City that sells $18 pizzas is (was?) seeking “unpaid interns” to work in its community garden.

Yes, I find it outrageous. And so did a LOT of folks.

Here is a blog I wrote back in May 2012 about various organizations recruiting unpaid interns, and the interns being upset at being called “volunteers.” The title, When to NOT Pay Interns, is meant to be provocative, but, make no mistake: I’m on the side of those interns that SHOULD be paid – like those at Roberta’s.

Note: some of the links in the blog may not work; I just switched blog providers, and while all of the blogs transferred over no problem, I’m still working on fixing the links. And as I’m not a not-for-profit organization, and as I cannot afford to pay an assistant, no, I am NOT recruiting “unpaid interns” to help me. Argh.

Three Cups of Tea Fallout

The media and nonprofit world is abuzz regarding the allegations against Three Cups of Tea author and Central Asia Institute founder Greg Mortenson. And they should be. There is no question that Mortenson has done a pathetic job of managing donor money. There is no excuse for his lack of financial accounting – I’m annoyed by his aw-shucks-I’m-not-a-nonprofit-professional-I’ve-never-done-this-before-therefore-I-get-a-pass attitude as anyone.

But that’s where my condemnation ends, at least for now. I think this is a nuanced story of misunderstanding, mismanagement and exaggeration – not just on Mortenson’s part, but on some others’ as well, including Jon Krakauer. Many of the accusations by 60 Minutes and Krakauer are as in dispute as Mortenson’s claims.

That facts and recollections are in dispute regarding events described in Three Cups of Tea, that one person’s kidnapping is another person’s hosting of a foreigner, isn’t surprising to me at all. It’s not even alarming. I worked in Afghanistan for six months. In that region, reality is in flux. Many people will tell you what you want to hear. That approach has kept many Afghan and Pakestani individuals, families and villages alive – but can make evaluation and reporting a massive challenge. This village member says such-and-such happened yesterday. Another says it happened last year. Another says it never happened. A perpetual real-life Roshoman. Although, really, I can’t single Afghanistan out for this behavior – have you ever watched Judge Judy?

It’s been revealed that a school Mortenson’s organization funded is being used to house hay instead of educate children. Some schools may not have been built. Some are claimed by other donors. None of that is surprising – I knew of a school funded by the Afghan program I worked for that was housing the local village elders instead of holding classes. I knew of a local employment project that had paid everyone twice – once by our agency and once by a military PRT, for the same work. Not saying it’s right, not saying you shouldn’t be upset when you hear those things, but you should know that in developing countries with severe security problems, widespread corruption and profound poverty, this happens ALL THE TIME. Humanitarian professionals are told again and again: give local people control over development projects. And we do. And a result is that, sometimes, local people double dip, or don’t do what they were paid to do, or exploit others. How do you stop that? Are YOU ready to go on site visits in remote regions of Waziristan every three months? Are YOU ready to be called culturally-insensitive or overly-bureaucratic in your efforts to ensure quality in development projects in remote places?

Let’s also remember that many people have criticized Krakauer’s own “facts” in his best selling non-fiction book Into Thin Air. 1. 2. I remain unconvinced that many of his accusations are true.

Do not confuse incompetence with corruption. It sounds like Mortensen was and is completely out of his depth of competency in running a nonprofit, and he deserves every ounce of blame for not remedying that situation when this was made clear to him – repeatedly! But I have yet to read anything that makes it sound like he, and his work, are completely fraudulent. Or even mostly fraudulent. By all means, call into question Mortensen’s accounting and call for a verification of results. I look forward to further investigations. But to dismiss everything Mortensen has said as fallacy is ridiculous.

Absolutely, let’s demand Mortenson and his agency adhere to the basic fundamentals of financial transparency and program evaluation. Let the line between his personal, for-profit activities and his nonprofit activities become thick and very tall (something Bob Hope never did, it’s worth noting – his USO tours and his Christmas TV specials were underwritten by the US government, and Hope profited handsomely from the television broadcasts). Let the Montana Attorney General’s office to do its job of investigating the finances of both Mortenson and the organization he founded. Maybe Mortenson should resign as Executive Director and become an unpaid spokesperson. Maybe he should pony up the salaries of one or two super-nonprofit-fixers to get the organization back on track (yes, those people do exist), and the board should hire a seasoned nonprofit, NGO or humanitarian agency manager to lead the organization.

Maybe when all the facts are in I’ll be calling for Mortenson’s head as well. But I’ll be waiting for the facts first.

Why does this concern me so much? This quote from Joshua Foust’s blog captures my feelings well:

Sadly, Mortenson’s good work is going to be overshadowed — possibly destroyed — by this scandal (albeit one that looks like it was largely of his own making). And the losers, besides wide-eyed Americans who’ve lost an unassailable hero, will ultimately be the people his schools were helping.

I care about Afghanistan, and I not only chide Mortenson for putting support for children there in danger, I chide people and publications like 60 Minutes and the Nonprofit Quarterly for making a judgment without all the facts yet.

UPDATE: New York TImes‘ NIcholas Kristof also offers a caution on claims that everything Mortenson has done has been a lie. “I’ve visited some of Greg’s schools in Afghanistan, and what I saw worked. Girls in his schools were thrilled to be getting an education. Women were learning vocational skills, such as sewing. Those schools felt like some of the happiest places in Afghanistan.”

Donated service or donated cash?

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersThe discussion group for volunteer managers in Ireland and the United Kingdom, UKVPMs, brought to my attention a question from Directory of Social Change:

Which would most benefit your organisation, a £10,000 cash donation or an equivalent value in volunteers (or volunteer hours)?

My answer was this:

But what is “equivalent value in volunteers”? How many volunteers do I get for £10,000? Is it one pro bono obstetrician, working for a month in my free health care clinic? Is it three Java programmers for my online mentoring program interactive platform? Is it 300 volunteers that show up every weekend for a month to fix up the trails and visitor areas of a large park?

I would most definitely take the cash – because I could use it to fund the training, management and support needed to involve more volunteers, involve volunteers in new areas, etc.

What I wish I had said additionally: if you took £10,000 worth of volunteers (which, as I’ve pointed out, can mean oh-so-many things), how much extra is it going to cost to involve those additional volunteers? Volunteers are never free!

So, yes, I would take the cash – and put it toward volunteer engagement!

Also see

Volunteers – still not free! Even at Wikipedia!

Government support re: volunteerism increasing worldwide (but not their financial support)

Are You a Member of the Cyber Sweatshop?

One of the most contentious discussions ever on OzVPM, an online discussion group for volunteer managers in Australia and New Zealand, was whether or not it was appropriate for people to volunteer for for-profit companies. The discussion started with a question on April 7, 2010, and it exploded with 221 messages for the month, on a group that averages about 35 messages in a month. Boundaries were pushed. Tempers flared. Teeth were gnashed. No conclusion was every reached.

Of course I was in the middle of it all. I said that, indeed, volunteers already DO contribute to for-profit organizations. I talked about volunteers in for-profit hospitals and for-profit hospices. I talked about volunteers at a recent Triumph motorcycle event I had attended. I talked about how these companies didn’t involve volunteers to save money; they involved volunteers because volunteers were the best people for the jobs. I also brought up that at least 90% of the content on Facebook was generated for free by users, meaning that we were all volunteering online for a for-profit company.

A year after I was bringing this up in workshops and online, The New York Times has thought of it as well, publishing a commentary, At Media Companies, a Nation of Serfs, which laments:

the growing perception that content is a commodity, and one that can be had for the price of zero… Old-line media companies that are not only forced to compete with the currency and sexiness of social media, but also burdened by a cost structure for professionally produced content, are left at a profound disadvantage.

Journalists aren’t happy. “The technology of a lot of these sites is very seductive, and it lulls you into contributing,” said Anthony De Rosa, a product manager at Reuters, in the article. “We are being played for suckers to feed the beast, to create content that ends up creating value for others.”

This isn’t the first time this concern has been vented, and that a backlash has been built against an online media company by users providing its content — remember America Online? Several of its users sued over ownership of the content they had created for AOL, content they weren’t paid for. Note this from the Wired.com article Disgruntled users called it a Cyber Sweat Shop from a few years ago:

Call them volunteers, remote staff, or community leaders – they are the human face of AOL. They host chats, clean scatological posts off the message boards, and bust jerks for terms-of-service violations. Fourteen thousand volunteer CLs not only play hall monitor to AOL’s vaunted “community,” they are that community. Their hours? Flexible: Some work as few as four per week, others put in as many as 60… Six months ago seven former AOL community leaders asked the Department of Labor to investigate whether AOL owes them back wages.

A disgruntled AOL community leader started making noise about his unfair treatment as far back as 1995. Here we are, 16 years later, having a very similar conversation about the Internet. Is there another backlash coming?

Volunteers don’t necessarily save money, even online volunteers: Wikimedia’s content is created and managed primarily by volunteers, yet Wikimedia still needs to fundraise every year to cover the many costs that come with involving several thousand online volunteers. And look at the quality of Wikimedia content – if I can’t find a fact in an academic article or newspaper article, I won’t quote it in something I’m working on, and many people feel similarly; without professional editors, the information there cannot be fully trusted.

I certainly have my own limits regarding when I think it’s appropriate to ask someone to work for free, and when I think such goes too far. I am on numerous online discussion groups, and I freely share a lot of resources – and it takes several hours of my time to do so. I admit I’m not doing it just to be nice; I’m also hoping that it could lead to paid work. I’m happy to share my time for free only up to a point, however: at least once a week, I have to turn down at least one request asking me to review a business plan, offer advice on a web site, etc. – for free. Unfortunately, the utilities company, DirectTV, my car insurance company, grocery stores, gas stations, my Internet Service Provider, and others that charge me for products and services do not accept volunteer time helping nonprofit organizations or aspiring entrepreneurs as payment.

I used to freely provide answers on the community service section of YahooAnswers, where the same questions about volunteering, community service and fund raising events get asked over and over again. At first it was to learn more about teen perceptions about volunteering, but it dawned on me finally that I was adding tremendous value to this Yahoo service, without being paid for it. So I created a series of web pages on my own site to answer these frequently-asked questions, and started pointing questioners to these pages; if visitors click on the GoogleAds on the page, I get a few pennies. In less than a year, I’ve raised enough money to pay for my web site hosting and my domain name ownership. Without this financial incentive, I’m not sure I would continue answering questions on YahooAnswers.

I also have seen a different trend emerging: more and more sites that pay people for their time to contribute to projects, instead of asking them to volunteer it: CrowdSpring, Yahoo’s Associated Content service, Freelancer.com, Elance.com, Guru.com and similar sites pay people for the content they create. If the companies using these services could get the quality content they need for free, they would NOT be paying for it. Will other sites now getting their content for free, like YahooAnswers, eventually have to follow suit in order to get the quality content more and more users are demanding?

I’ll end with this: the hilarious Should I Work For Free chart that was brought to my attention during my presentation in Hungary last month.