Tag Archives: exploitation

Medical Voluntourism Can Cause Serious Harm

In a recent blog hosted by the Scientific American, Noelle Sullivan, a member of the faculty in global health studies at Northwestern University, 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. In fact, the international volunteer placement industry opens the door to potentially disastrous outcomes.”

Empirical data about the medical voluntourism industry is sparse, but Sullivan does have solid data: “I’ve studied medical volunteering in Tanzania since 2011, including over 1,600 hours observing volunteer-patient interactions across six health facilities. I have spoken with more than 200 foreign volunteers in Tanzania, plus conducted formal interviews with 48 foreign volunteers and 90 hosting health professionals.

She notes a variety of voluntourism web sites that invite volunteers with little or no medical training to do invasive procedures abroad, including providing vaccines, pulling teeth, providing male circumcisions, suturing and delivering babies. “Most volunteers I’ve observed deliver at least one baby, despite being unlicensed to do so.”

Her examples in the article are stunning: in Tanzania in 2015, her team encountered a young woman that’s called Mary in her article:

Mary routinely delivered babies unassisted by local midwives because she appeared familiar with the procedure—a skill she said she learned in 2013 on a previous volunteer stint.

Mary violated obstetrics best practices, doing unnecessary episiotomies (cutting the skin between the vaginal opening and anus to make room for the baby’s head) and pulling breech babies (babies positioned bottom instead of head-first in the birth canal). Once routine in obstetrics, current guidelines restrict episiotomy to exceptional cases because they may cause permanent problems for the mother, including incontinence. Meanwhile, pulling breech babies can cause suffocation.

After Mary’s departure, we learned she was not a medical student at all; she was an undergraduate student, unaware of the risks in what she was doing. 

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 – is a growing industry. I look at most of it 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 needs of 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.

The End Humanitarian Douchery campaign takes a much stronger stand against voluntourism in any form than I do, drawing attention to the negative consequences such can have for local communities in particular. The campaign organizers offer tips on “how to find a program that will have a truly POSITIVE impact on the host community.” Likewise, ‘Looks good on your CV’: The sociology of voluntourism recruitment in higher education, an academic paper by Colleen McGloin of the University of Wollongong, Australia and Nichole Georgeou, of Australian Catholic University, says that “voluntourism reinforces the dominant paradigm that the poor of developing countries require the help of affluent westerners to induce development. And this article is advice from someone who paid to volunteer abroad – and realized she shouldn’t be. All are worth reading, no matter where you stand on the issue of voluntourism or volunteering abroad.

I do think there are some effective short-term pay-to-volunteer abroad programs, among them Bpeace and Humanist Service Corps. But both of these programs are driven by what local people want, and they do NOT take just any volunteer that can pay.

This is my reality check regarding volunteering abroad, which reviews all the different types of programs. It links to many articles that discuss the dangers of voluntourism programs to local people, and to volunteers themselves, and to quality advice on how to make a real difference abroad.

Also see:

 

The harm of orphanage voluntourism (& wildlife voluntourism as well)

You see the posts on the subreddit regarding volunteerism, on Craigslist, on Quora, on LinkedIn groups, etc.:

Come provide care, love and attention to orphans! Help provide daily care to these orphans, help prepare meals, help watch over them, help with homework, participate in playtime activities, and be a child’s best friend in Africa… You’ll also be the shining light for the children and bring about a fresh and positive energy in the orphanage. You’ll also play the role of a friend and mentor to the children, turning them into confident individuals capable of believing in themselves. The love and attention that these children get from volunteers will uplift their spirits and put a smile on their faces.

Those are all actual statements combined from two different sites that sell volunteer trips to help orphans.

Think about it: these organizations are claiming that foreigners, who may or may not be appropriate to be around children, who may or may not have any experience working with children, who may not even speak the local language, should come interact with orphans, and that an ever-changing group of foreign volunteers, coming in for a few days or weeks at a time, can somehow transform the lives of vulnerable children. Or wildlife. The only thing those foreign volunteers need is the ability to pay all of their transportation, accommodation costs, and program fees to the trip organizer. No criminal background check, no verifiable, needed skills – just money and will.

There are so many Westerners ready to pay big bucks for these feel-good experiences and all the selfies they can take with third world children that many NGOs have popped up with fake orphanages: the children have parents, but the parents are given small fees by the NGOs for their kids to pretend to be orphans for foreigners.

Friends-International, with the backing of UNICEF, has launched this campaign to end what is known as orphanage tourism. This is from their web site:

Voluntourism can be a program that invites tourists (for a specific fee, or through an NGO directly recruiting), to volunteer at an organization. In most cases, these organizations do not require candidates to have relevant qualifications or previous work experience in social work or childcare. At worst, some organizations do not require or conduct proper background checks of volunteers before placing them in direct contact with children.

And then there is this incendiary report by South African and British academics that focuses on “orphan tourism” in southern Africa and reveals just how destructive these programs can be to local people, especially children. From the report:

The term ‘AIDS orphan tourism’, describes tourist activities consisting of short-term travel to facilities, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa, that involve volunteering as caregivers for ‘AIDS orphans’. Well-to-do tourists enrol for several weeks at a time to build schools, clean and restore river banks, ring birds and other useful activities in mostly poor but exotic settings… Well-to-do tourists enrol for several weeks at a time to build schools, clean and restore river banks, ring birds and other useful activities in mostly poor but exotic settings. AIDS orphan tourism has become a niche market, contributing to the growth of the tourism industry…

As in other countries undergoing social or other changes, non-family residential group care (orphanages) in southern Africa has expanded, perversely driven by the availability of funds for such facilities, and the glamour that media personalities have brought to setting them up. However, many orphanages are not registered with welfare authorities as required by law, and most face funding uncertainties and high staff turnover, making them unstable rather than secure environments for children. Moreover, children taken in by orphanages are usually from desperately poor families rather than orphans – the case of David Banda in Malawi is a case in point.

There is also this May 16, 2016 report from The Guardian that volunteers from the west are fueling the growth of orphanages in Uganda. Voluntourism has been linked to damaging local economies and commodifying vulnerable children. It also can perpetuate harmful stereotypes about the so-called “third world”, while also promoting neo-colonialistic attitudes. There’s also this blog from a person who paid to volunteer in an orphanage, and realized just how unethical it was.

A legitimate NGO serving orphans would never solicit come-one-come-all-as-long-as-you-can-pay volunteers via a general web site like Quora. Rather, they would have a proper, detailed Terms of Reference posted to credible humanitarian recruitment sites, like ReliefWeb or DevelopEx. That post for volunteers would detail the education and experience the volunteer would need to have and details on how the volunteers’ credibility would be investigated. And for legitimate programs, not every applicant would be accepted just because they’ve got the money to pay to the program organizer; in fact, many applicants would be turned away because they lack the necessary skills.

In short: unless a program overseas is recruiting volunteers who have many years of experience working with children, certifications, references and criminal background checks, has a web site that details how its programs are evaluated to show impact of their programs, and has endorsements by well-known international organizations,  stay away from the program. And don’t be Savior Barbie.

As for supposed conservation volunteering in another country: why would legitimate wildlife sanctuaries allow untrained foreigners to work directly with wild(ish) animals for a few weeks? No credible zoo in the USA would ever do that. The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee doesn’t let volunteers interact with the elephants! Before you rush off to an animal sanctuary in a foreign country, do a tremendous amount of research to make sure this is truly a sanctuary, not a place that goes out and captures baby animals so that tourists will pay to care for them and have photos with them.

Also see:

Exploitation of volunteers in refugee camps?

UNLogoFounded in 1991 as a temporary shelter for Somalis fleeing horrific violence in their homeland, the Dadaab complex in Kenya now houses nearly half a million refugees, and is supported by a variety of international agencies, including the United Nations. Children have been born there and grown up there – it’s the only home they’ve ever known. Conditions there are often deplorable. Ben Rawlence profiles nine of the camp’s residents in his new book, City of Thorns, and details the profound challenges in providing even basic services there, let alone helping refugees get out of their precarious situation. Rawlence was interviewed on the radio show Fresh Air (the broadcast is available for free online). And his comments about volunteers in the camp grabbed my attention – and not for the right reasons.

In October 2011, security conditions in the Dadaab camp changed drastically after the kidnapping of two Spanish aid workers by al-Shabab, the radical self-described Islamist group. The kidnapping caused the U.N. to evacuate much of its international staff and shut down all non-lifesaving activities, such as counseling, sanitation support, public health education, fuel deliveries to the boreholes to pump water, schools, and training. Food rations continued, distributed by refugee volunteers, and the hospital was staffed by just a skeleton staff, providing minimal medical care. Rawlence explained this in the Fresh Air interview – the emphasis is mine:

In order to fill the gap, the refugees themselves had to step up and run things… Life deteriorated quite quickly. The situation in the hospitals became quite critical. Their water shortages were very grave. The food continued as normal, but there was an outbreak of cholera right afterwards because the kidnapping coincided with the rainy season. And the capability to deal with the cholera outbreak wasn’t there. So for about four to five months, the camp was plunged into a real crisis. And the aid agencies issued several warnings, saying that, you know, life can’t go on like this. We’ve really got to turn things around… What really happened was that a new model emerged where the camp was run by refugee volunteers. And the agencies realized that instead of paying expensive Kenyan or expatriate staff to run services that they could rely on cheap volunteers and pay them stipends. So while the services themselves are back and running, it’s not quite how it used to be. And although the refugees are happy because there’s perhaps more work for them, there is less depth of expertise. There are, you know, not so many foreign qualified nurses and so on that there need to be. So things have moved to a much more sort of shaky footing.

I think it’s absolutely required to involve refugees in the work of running the camp – and in decision-making regarding the camp. Creating volunteering opportunities for refugees, particularly the teenagers, is not just nice, but vital. But to staff positions with refugee volunteers – people living in extreme poverty, desperate for paid work – specifically so that money can be saved by not bringing in much-needed expert staff? That’s absolutely outrageous.

Now, to be fair, Rawlence is calling these people volunteers, and others call them refugee incentive workers. This is a class of worker used by the UN and other international NGOs that’s meant to get around government restrictions regarding refugees undertaking paid work. Refugees, per Kenyan law, cannot receive salaries, even if those payments are coming from international agencies; however, refugrees are permitted to receive what are termed as incentives or stipends. These stipends are nowhere near what a salary would be for the work they do as community health workers, carpenters, masons, security guards, teachers, nurses, clinical officers,  water engineers, sanitation workers, etc. – and nowhere near what these people need to support themselves and their family. They workers also receive no minimum hours of work, maternity leave or sick leave. Kakuma News Reflector – A Refugee Free Press blogged about this – and not kindly, and explains the perils for refugees in this situation quite well.

There’s a lot wrong with this situation – the primary problem is the horrific conditions refugees are facing and the impossible nature of their circumstances in terms of getting proper access to work and education opportunities, proper healthcare and proper security. But the words being used regarding these stipended workers is also troubling – this is not at all what volunteering is supposed to be.

Also see:
UN Agencies: Defend your “internships”

UN Agencies: Defend your “internships”

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersI love the United Nations, especially UNDP. I’ve been proud of my association with such in Germany, Afghanistan, Ukraine, and online. I hope to be associated with them again.

I am also a big advocate for internships, paid and unpaid, at the UN and other mission-based organizations.

But I’m bothered by many of the calls by UN agencies for unpaid interns to work 40 hours a week. And how many people are undertaking full-time unpaid internships at UN offices and have NOTHING about their terms of reference in writing at all.

Currently, formal recruitment messages from United Nations agencies for full-time unpaid interns talk about all of the tasks these volunteers – yes, volunteers, because they are UNPAID – will be responsible for, but rarely say what kinds of skills-development/career-development support an intern can expect. They also never say why these tasks have been deemed as most appropriate for an unpaid intern, as opposed to a paid consultant. I asked someone at a UN agency in an office where I was working why a particular role was designated for a full-time unpaid intern instead of a short-term, paid consultant or as a paid internship, and he said, “We don’t have the budget to pay someone.” Yes, I fumed. Involving volunteers – even if you call them unpaid interns – to save money is never the primary reason to involve such! NEVERUnpaid interns are volunteers, and if you are involving them because you don’t have to pay them, you are, in fact, being exploitative.

If this keeps up, UN interns may use the dollar/Euro value of volunteer hours that UN Volunteers, IFRC, ILO & others are promoting to sue UN agencies for back pay – and there is growing legal precedent for them to do so (see the links at the end of this blog).

Also, think about how your full-time unpaid internships are limited to only certain economic classes, excluding some people because they can’t afford to give you that many unpaid service hours. Are you thinking about how to ensure a variety of qualified people can undertake unpaid internships with your organization, not just those that can afford to? One way to address this: make the internships only one or two days a week.

I established my own policy when I worked for the UN Volunteers programme in Germany that all staff in our department had to adhere to regarding involving unpaid interns. This was NOT an agency-wide policy, just the one I established for our department:

  • An internship had to have a primary focus on giving the intern a learning experience, not  getting tasks done. Therefore:
    • There had to be a written job description that reflected this primary purpose of the internship.
    • The intern was invited to all agency-wide staff meetings, all staff meetings for just our department, and encouraged to ask to attend staff meetings for other departments, to learn about work across the agency. Staff were encouraged to take interns with them to meetings or events whenever possible, as appropriate.
    • The intern also had one project that was uniquely his or hers, that he or she was responsible for and could put on his or her résumé (for instance, conducting a survey and writing up the results, or evaluating some process and making recommendations for improvement).
    • The intern received job coaching and job search help from other staff members.
  • Those considered for the internship had to be able to say why they wanted to enter into a profession related to our agency’s work, and say what they had done up to that point, in terms of education, volunteer work and paid work, to pursue that career choice.
  • A person could hold an internship only for up to six months. They absolutely could not hold it beyond six months, no exceptions. An intern could NOT return to our department as an intern again, ever. That reduced the chance of a person being exploited as free labor; it forced rotation in what was supposed to be a role reserved for people learning about our work, not the opportunity for someone to have an unpaid assistant indefinitely. Interns were, however, welcomed to apply for paid positions, and we did, indeed, hire former interns for short-term consultancies sometimes – but we never guaranteed that this would happen.
  • Ideally, the intern that was leaving would overlap with the intern that was coming in by one week, so that the departing intern could get experience training someone, documenting his or her responsibilities, etc. – experience which looks great on a CV.
  • When the intern left, he or she was interviewed about his or her experience as an intern from the point of view of getting the learning and professional development he or she was looking for, and this was used to continually improve internship involvement and to show if interns were getting what our internship promised: a learning experience.

The primary task our department at UNV reserved for interns was answering the many, many emails that came in regarding the Online Volunteering Service. We found that interns really were the best people for this task: in contrast to giving this task to employees, interns brought freshness and enthusiasm to responses that really shown through. They quickly saw patterns in questions or comments that a jaded staff person might not see, leading to adjustments to web site information and other communications. Also, in my opinion, because the interns were volunteers, they assumed a much stronger customer-advocate point-of-view regarding the people emailing with questions or comments than employees did; the agency could have a real siege-mentality outlook when dealing with anyone outside the organization, while the interns had a mentality of being advocates for those outside the organization.

As I mentioned, I also came up with tasks specifically for an intern to own. It might be an internal staff survey, a customer/client survey, a research project, an evaluation/analysis project, production of a report or online resource, etc. Every intern walked away something that was his or hers, a project that he or her directed or managed or lead, and that employees and other interns contributed to. That gave interns the management experience so many were desperate for.

One more piece of advice: create a mission statement for your office’s volunteer (unpaid staff) involvement and live it: state explicitly why your organization reserves certain tasks / assignments / roles for volunteers (including unpaid interns), to guide employees and volunteers in how they think about volunteers, to guide current volunteers in thinking about their role and value at the organization, and to show potential volunteers the kind of culture they can expect at your organization regarding volunteers. A commitment by UN offices to involve volunteers would be a wonderful thing – allowing people, particularly local citizens, to take on tasks and see first hand how an agency works that is meant to serve them, creating a sense of both ownership by citizens as well as a sense of transparency about the agency.

My other blogs on this GROWING internship controversy worldwide:

Note that the links within the aforementioned blogs may not work, as I moved all of my blogs from Posterous to WordPress a year or so ago, and it broke all of the internal links. Also, some web pages on other organization’s sites have moved since I linked to such, and I either don’t know or haven’t been able to find a new location for the material.

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Fight against unpaid internships will hurt volunteering

Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz is being taken to task after he recommended that jobless university graduates beef up their resumes by working for free. The central banker made the remarks a day after he told a Toronto business audience that 200,000 young Canadians are out of work, underemployed or back in school trying to improve their job prospects.

Claire Seaborn, president of the Canadian Intern Association, described Poloz’s comments as “extremely problematic.” She said the comments mischaracterize existing employment laws, devalue the abilities of young people and show no sympathy for the socioeconomic issues related to unpaid internships.

Nonprofits and NGOs: you need to be paying attention to this controversy. You need to be thinking about why any task at your organization that is being done by a volunteer – and that includes unpaid interns – beyond “We don’t have money to pay someone to do that.” You need a mission statement for your volunteer engagement and you need to be talking about the value of volunteers far beyond dollar/Euro or other monetary value for their hours!

While I cringe at young people being exploited, told to accept full-time, unpaid work with for-profit companies in order to help their employment prospects, I also cringe at people deriding the idea that volunteering at nonprofits and other mission-based organizations is a great way to gain experience and explore careers. Volunteering IS a great way to gain much-needed experience, insight for a career and references. Not every volunteer is engaging in unpaid service just out of the goodness of his or her heart; many are using volunteering to get experience and references for their résumé, and there is NOTHING wrong with that. So many of the volunteers I’ve worked with have gone on to successful careers in work related to their volunteering – and I’ve done it myself.

For nonprofits and other mission-based organizations out there: in addition to being able to say why a task has been reserved for an unpaid intern beyond “We don’t have the money to pay someone,” are you also thinking about how your unpaid internships might be limited to only certain economic classes, and excluding some people because they can’t afford to give you that many unpaid service hours? Are you thinking about how to ensure a variety of people can undertake unpaid internships with your organization, not just those that can afford to?

My other blogs on this GROWING internship controversy in North American and Europe:

Note that the links within these blogs may not work, as I moved all of my blogs from Posterous to WordPress a year or so ago, and it broke all of the internal links. Also, some web pages on other organization’s sites have moved since I linked to such, and I either don’t know or haven’t been able to find a new location for the material.

coyote1Have a comment? Comment below!

Why I liked an anti-crowdsourcing Facebook page

On Facebook, I’ve just liked “Crowdsourcing Sucks,” which I originally found on Twitter under crowdsource666. Its motto: “Crowdsourcing, the scourge of the graphic design industry.”

How can a person such as myself that has been an evangelist for virtual volunteering, including crowdsourcing, since the 1990s, like this person or organization or whatever it is?

Because I do see his/her/their point.

I don’t trust a nonprofit organization that doesn’t involve volunteers in some way – but I also don’t trust an organization that talks about volunteers in terms of hourly monetary values of service given, as this says, “We involve volunteers because we don’t have to pay them! Look at the money we saved in not having to hire someone to do this work!” There is far greater value of volunteer involvement than that.

So, rock on crowdsource666.

Also see:

When to NOT pay interns, redux

A US Federal judge has ruled that against the company that made the movie “The Black Swan” for not paying interns.

In the ruling, U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley III said the film’s producers should have paid the two interns because they did the same work as regular employees, provided value to the company and performed low-level tasks that didn’t require any specialized training. In ruling for the interns, the judge followed a six-part test outlined by the Labor Department for determining whether an internship can be unpaid. Under the test, the internship must be similar to an educational environment, run primarily for the benefit of the intern as opposed to the employer, and the intern’s work should not replace that of regular employees.

“Undoubtedly Mr. Glatt and Mr. Footman received some benefits from their internships, such as resume listings, job references and an understanding of how a production office works,” Pauley wrote. “But those benefits were incidental to working in the office like any other employees and were not the result of internships intentionally structured to benefit them.”

I tried to warn you! I did! I tried to warn you in my blog When to NOT pay interns and my other blog Are Interns Exploited?.

Note that this was NOT a matter of the organization being volunteered for being a for-profit. That this was a company, a business, rather than a nonprofit, NGO or charity, was NOT the problem for the judge. The problem was the nature of the work these unpaid interns (these VOLUNTEERS) were doing and the reason these tasks were done by volunteers (to save the organization money!).

Nonprofits, NGOs, charities: WAKE UP. This kind of lawsuit could happen to you. Especially if you keep harping on the dollar/Euro value of volunteer hours, the way UN Volunteers, IFRC, ILO & others are encouraging you to do.

Here’s a better idea: create a mission (and a mission statement) for your volunteer involvement and live it! State explicitly why your organization reserves certain assignments for volunteers, to guide employees and volunteers in how they think about volunteers, to guide current volunteers in thinking about their role and value at the organization, and to show potential volunteers the kind of culture they can expect at your organization regarding volunteers. It will also help to prevent exploitation – or perceptions of such – regarding your involvement of volunteers. Let it be an answer to this question: “Why do volunteers do these tasks rather than paid people” but without the answer, “Because we can’t afford to pay people to do this work.”

My previous blogs on this subject:

Note that the links within these blogs may not work, as I moved all of my blogs from Posterous to WordPress a few months ago, and it broke all of the internal links. Also, some web pages on other organization’s sites have moved since I linked to such, and I either don’t know or haven’t been able to find a new location for the material.

Why don’t they tell? Would they at your org?

Over the years, more than one person observed Jerry Sandusky, head of the nonprofit organization The Second Mile and former Penn State defensive coordinator, having sex with boys. Yet none of those people called the police, and none of the people in authority that they told about what they saw called police.

Why?

A leading candidate for the Republican nomination for President of the USA is being accused of sexual harassment by women who worked for a business association he lead, and by a woman who claims when she asked for help getting a job, he pressured her for sex (and, yes, the latter is sexual harassment – a coercive request for sex in exchange for a job, a good grade or other non-sexual “reward”). But people looked the other way, this latest accuser didn’t say anything at the time and for many years, and this man kept moving up in his political party to where he is now.

Why didn’t people in the know say more?

I have the answer to both of those questions: the consequences for the accuser or witness of saying something to people in authority or to the police seemed greater, and worse, than saying nothing. Consciously or unconsciously, people said to themselves, I don’t want to deal with this. This makes me uncomfortable. I may lose my job / never get a job if I say something. I don’t want this to define me, to follow me at this job and all jobs in the future. Maybe he’s better now or maybe someone else will deal with this. I don’t want to be the bad guy. It’s easier for me and this organization not to say anything.

I am not at all excusing the behavior of all the people who didn’t speak out. Penn State’s Athletic director and one of the university’s vice president have not only lost their jobs: they face possible prison time for lying to a grand jury and for not reporting to proper authorities the allegations of sexual misconduct. And that is exactly as it should be. Shame on them! It’s a shame that people in the Catholic Church who knew about sexual assaults by many priests weren’t similarly punished.

But I am challenging nonprofits, non-governmental agencies, universities, government departments and other mission-based programs – and particularly aid agencies with staff members in the field! – to take a hard look at not just their policies, but their culture.

Are you never hearing about inappropriate behavior by employees or volunteers at your organization not because nothing is happening, but because people don’t feel comfortable saying anything?

The consequences of a culture that, intentionally or not, discourages victims and witnesses from coming forward can even be deadly: Kate Puzey, a Peace Corps volunteer in the west African nation of Benin in 2009, was murdered in apparent retaliation for accusing a local Peace Corps staff member of child sexual assault. Her murder, and the poor reaction of the Peace Corps administration to this and to reported sexual assaults on Peace Corps members themselves, lead to a volunteer protection act, passed by Congress this year, establishing sexual assault policies and training to protect victims and whistle-blowers.

What about your organization?

  • Are you going to look at not only your policies, but your practice?
  • Do you do trainings and awareness activities for employees and volunteers regarding sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior every year?
  • What do you do to create a welcoming environment regarding the reporting of inappropriate behavior?
  • What do your individual employees and volunteers say about your organization’s culture, particularly in how comfortable they would feel reporting suspected inappropriate or even criminal behavior by someone, particularly a person in authority?

And in case you are wondering – yes, this is a personally important issue to me.

A Stupid Name for a Service for Nonprofits

Which one of the following is something that a company actually thought was a great name for a product, event or service?

  • Market to Kids Like an Internet Pedophile! Reach Any Kid With Your Message!
  • Women’s Shelter Wife Beater T-shirts (fundraiser!)
  • Pimp My Cause: Marketing a Better World
  • Nonprofit Marketing: How to Sell Yourself Like a Whore (but not get screwed over!)
  • Effective Volunteer Management: Learn Best Practices from Southern Slave Owners
  • Pole Dancing for Foster Kids (fundraising event)
  • Learn to Screw the Competition and Get That Foundation Grant!

The for real idea is #3, Pimp My Cause: Marketing a Better World.

Yes, some genius thought that naming an online volunteering service after people who enslave women and children and force them to have sex for money would be a great idea for a product name marketed to nonprofit organizations, non-governmental organizations and others – including NGOs working against human trafficking.

In addition to the makers of this service thinking it was a great name, the United Nations Volunteers program did too, tweeting about it to their followers via its @volunteerplus10 account. And i-volunteer, in the UK, wrote about it and never once mentioned anything in their article about the wildly-inappropriate name (but you can, in the comments section of the story, as I have).*

The last time a nonprofit, NGO or volunteerism-focused organization did this that got my attention was back in 2008, when NetSquared and OneWorld – both of whom should have known better – thought “OneWorld.net Gets ‘Pimped’ at NetSquared DC Meetup” was a splendid headline. When I called them on it, their defense was:

We’re really just trying to be a little lighthearted…we use it in the most recent mainstream definition of the word.

Were I to use a racial slur in a little lighthearted way, because in the most recent mainstream definition of the word, it just means friend or man of a particular ethnicity, I have a feeling use of that word would cause quite a bit of outrage. Or what if I’d greeted a female UN Volunteer in an equally lighthearted and mainstream way, calling her bitch or ho or the dreaded “c” word? After all, those terms are used just as freely as pimp these days, and all the singers and actors and comedians interviewed about their use of these words swear they aren’t being derogatory to women.

In the world in which I work — and in the world that nonprofits, NGOs, UN agencies and UN Volunteers work — the word pimp means a person who engages in human enslavement, trafficking and sexual exploitation, and a show on MTV and use by techno hipsters and rap stars doesn’t change that. And in this world, there are millions of people enslaved by pimps. For real.

This is wrong on every level. Shame on everyone who doesn’t think so.

For more information about the sex trafficking of enslaved women and girls, and to understand why there is NOTHING cool or hip about slave traders, also known as “pimps”, please see:

Be sure to let UN Volunteers, the comments section of the i-volunteer article and the makers of this outrageously-named service just how wrong this is. Or, if you don’t feel that way, then feel free to choose any of those name ideas at the start of your article yourself, so I can blog about it.

Update: See the followup to this blog: It’s About Respect – a lesson for all social entrepreneurs, corporations and other for-profit sector folks who want to help nonprofits, NGOs and other mission-based organizations.

* May 5, 2017 update:

I challenge you to go to Twitter and type in this phrase, pimp my cause, into the search function. Not only will the Twitter account for this reprehensibly-named organization come up, but look at the tweets and profiles that also come up. This is what any potential client would also see if they went looking. It shows all-too-well why the word pimp should not be used in a nonprofit’s name.

UNV’s @volunteerplus10 Twitter account has been discontinued, as have the IVO, i-volunteer, sagesf.org and againstourwill.org web sites , and the Against Our Will video, What is a Pimp, is no longer available online – at least that I can find. I managed to find the IVO/i-volunteer page originally referred to at archive.org, via this URL:
http://www.i-volunteer.org.uk:80/newshound/marketing-a-better-world-pimp-my-cause/

Going too far

A national nonprofit organization asked me to participate in a one-hour conference call this week to help them brainstorm something they want to do. I said sure, because I can make time available to do this, the topic is interesting to me, and I would like to contribute.

That same nonprofit then asked me to participate in a series of calls between now and the summer, contributing more than 20-30 hours of my time to a planning process. I said no. They wanted 20-30 hours free consulting from me, and from about a dozen other people as well, and seemed stunned that I (and at least one other person involved) found this request exploitative.

If I were running a store, would you walk in and say, “Hi, can you give me several hundred dollars of stuff for free?”? If I ran a restaurant, would you say, “Could I eat hear for six months every night for free? After all, we’re friends!”?

When does a request for donated time go from being appropriate, even welcomed, to being exploitive? When the organization forgets what they are asking for — for volunteering. Pro bono consulting is volunteering.

Time is a precious commodity. In today’s economy, asking for a person’s time can be the same as asking for money. If you are going to ask me to part with that much of my time, you had better have a highly-motivating reason for me to do so, because you are asking me to give you something that I normally charge for – and I have bills to pay, a household to support, and many things to pay for, just like you do.

This organization forgot what goes into recruiting volunteers. Which is shocking, since it’s an organization that is supposed to be focused on volunteering. Recruiting volunteers is never, “Here’s a bunch of work we need done. Please come do it. Because we’re a nonprofit.”

I volunteer a lot, with various organizations. How did these organizations recruit me to give so much of my precious time to them? Their recruitment messages focused on:

    • what their organization does, in terms of results for their target audience, and it inspired me or motivated me to get involved.
    • why volunteers are essential to what that organization does, but never in terms like, “We could never have enough money to pay staff to do this, so we involve volunteers” or “volunteers contribute $xxxx in services,” which implies money saved in having to pay people; instead, the messages focus on why volunteers are more appropriate to do the tasks than paid staff, for reasons that have NOTHING to do with money.
    • what the benefits will be for me in volunteering; Will I get to work with a target audience or regarding an issue I care deeply about? Will it be fun? Will I get opportunities that might help me in my professional work? Will I get some kind of incredible discount on something I would love to have?

I don’t wait for some free time to give these organizations; I MAKE time to help them. And these organizations also let me know that they appreciate my work:

  • They send me personalized emails when I finish an assignment, commenting on the work to show me that they actually read it.
  • They send me stuff: a pen, a t-shirt, a trophy.
  • Sometimes, someone writes me just to say “hi.”

In short, they treat me like a precious investor!

I cannot possibly say yes to every organization that wants my donated time. In fact, I say “no” more often than I say “yes,” even to organizations that have a great volunteer recruitment message, because, as I’ve said, I have bills to pay. In fact, even if I win the lottery and can afford to give away all my time for free, I will still have to say “no” often, because there are only 24 hours a day, and I’ll still need time for eating, sleeping, spending time with my family, etc.

Time is precious. Sometimes, if you really want it, you are going to have to pay for it – even if you are a nonprofit.