Tag Archives: harassment

International aid workers having sex with people in countries in crisis

I’ve written about the danger of sexual assault for women that work in aid and development, including PeaceCorps members (see the end of this blog for links). But, as I’ve researched, written and published these pieces, I’ve thought about women living in those developing countries, and how those local women are at even greater risk of sexual assault by the foreigners coming to their communities, either military, private enterprise or humanitarian workers. They are at MUCH greater risk, in fact. The Oxfam scandal reminds me that I’m overdue to focus on this.

If case you aren’t aware: earlier in February, The London Times reported that the U.K.-based agency Oxfam covered up an internal inquiry finding that the country director for the African country of Chad, Roland van Hauwermeiren, and members of his staff, had paid prostitutes in Chad for sex. Similar accusations emerged after van Hauwermeiren and his team were reassigned to Haiti following the devastating 2010 earthquake there. In an open letter responding to the allegations, van Hauwemeiren, a 68-year-old Dutch citizen, denied the allegations of sexual exploitation, saying he had “intimate relations” with a woman in Haiti during his tenure there, but that she was “not a prostitute. I never gave her money.”

Can local women in a developing country that has been devastated by war, corruption, natural disaster and/or poverty have consensual sex with foreign military members, business people or aid workers? Can a refugee? I say no. It’s impossible for someone in such a vulnerable position economically or socially to freely consent to sex with someone with that much power. 

About 20 years ago, there was an online community called the Aid Workers Network. I was one of the facilitators of that network, and we had some really incredible discussions about working in aid and development. It was through that network that I read an article about a humanitarian worker seeing his boss leaving a brothel, and it was the first time I had ever considered issues around aid workers and sex with local people – or even six with each other.

I’ve worked with international aid agencies since 2001, including in some developing countries, and in my briefings for working in those countries and with local people, people who are in highly-vulnerable positions because of their dire economic situation and because of the insecurity of their situation, I never once heard a caution about sexual relationships with local people, about power dynamics that many would say render it impossible to call a sexual relationship with a local woman and a foreign man “consensual.”

Sara Callaway, co-founder of Women of Colour Global Women’s Strike, noted in this article in The Guardian: “When women are starving and living in rubble, it is not prostitution. It is rape – what choice do women have?”

Other than on the now-defunct Aid Workers Network, I never once witnessed this as a topic of discussion among aid workers, including at the United Nations. I never felt that I was in a position of stability in terms of my job to dare to ask questions of human resources managers or anyone else, for that matter, regarding being on guard regarding sexual exploitation of local people by aid staff. I now so regret not asking the questions I wanted to, even if it would have jeopardized my career at the UN.

Here’s what I think needs to happen to keep local women safe and to change the culture at oh-so-many field offices regarding the safety of local women in their interactions with international staff:

  • Aid agencies MUST have written policies regarding international staff engaging in romantic or sexual relationships with local people or international staff that are subordinate to them, and these policies should be communicated when a person is hired and re-iterated regularly to ensure that no one can say, “Oh, I didn’t know!”
  • Visiting a prostitute in a developing country for sex, rather than as a part of official work with sex workers to ensure their basic rights, protect their health, etc., should be grounds for dismissal of international staff, as a violation of that agency’s written code of conduct. It should not matter if money was exchanged or not. Aid agencies cannot say they worry about the rights of women and then ignore that staff are visiting prostitutes for sex in developing countries. They must also consider what their policy will be regarding local male staff and their interactions with sex workers – this isn’t just about appropriateness; it’s also about abuse of power.
  • Aid agencies should publicly report how many accounts of sexual misconduct they investigate each year, the number of people dismissed each year for sexual harassment or abuse, and the processes they have for investigating and dealing with reports of sexual harassment or abuse. No need for names of people nor even of the countries where incidents happen – naming the countries where such happens could, in fact, endanger humanitarian workers in those countries.
  • Aid agencies should also say, in writing, publicly, if they are willing to rehire or reassign a staff member or contractor they suspect to have violated their policies regarding sexual misconduct or abuse, and what their policy is for providing a reference to such staff people regarding jobs at other agencies.

Oh, but what if an international aid worker truly falls in love with a local person? Then the aid worker can quit their job, get out of that power position, and get on a more level playing field with the love of their life.

There has never been a greater need for aid agencies. There has never been a greater need for foreign money to support those aid agencies. Aid agencies have prevented wars – no, not all of them, obviously. Aid agencies prevent genocides – no, not all of them, obviously. But without aid agencies, the amount of chaos happening in the world would be untenable. Aid agency scandals provide perfect scenarios for isolationists in government to cut foreign aid even further. Humanity, nor the environment, can survive without aid agencies – and they cannot survive if they do not address this very real, serious issue.

Related blogs:

Have you enabled a Larry Nassar?

Dr. Larry Nassar sexually molested more than 160 young girls. He didn’t drive around in a van and kidnap girls he didn’t know on their way to or from school. He didn’t jump out from behind a tree and grab a girl and run. He wasn’t a stranger to the girls he harmed, nor to their families. Coaches brought girls to Larry Nassar. Parents drove their girls to appointments with him. University officials and Olympic team officials created and supported the environment where Nassar was allowed to do this.

Does that scare you? Good. It should.

Rachael Denhollander, one of the first women to come forward with public accusations against Dr. Nassar, was the last to speak at his sentencing hearing. Her comments are worth noting: “Larry is the most dangerous type of abuser. One who is capable of manipulating his victims through coldly calculated grooming methodologies, presenting the most wholesome and caring external persona as a deliberate means to ensure a steady stream of young children to assault.”

Back in 2011, I wrote a blog called Why don’t they tell? Would they at your org?. It is about how, over the years, more than one person observed Jerry Sandusky, head of the nonprofit organization The Second Mile and former Penn State defensive coordinator, molesting boys, or heard someone say that they had witnessed such. Yet none of those people called the police and none of the people in authority that they told about what had been seen called police. The blog was about how we create environments where, not because of policies but because of culture, we discourage people from asking tough questions or reporting something that has the potential to be profoundly disruptive to everything an organization, a program, or a campaign is trying to do. It’s how, in so many cultures, we are discouraged from even asking questions. The #meetoo movement has confirmed so much of what I said in this blog back in 2011.

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersIn that blog, I challenged 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. and I asked: 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?

Per this latest case of harm to children, here’s some additional, more practical advice for parents and anyone working with kids in any capacity (coach, church group leader, etc.):

Any adult demanding or frequently asking for one-on-one, unsupervised time with a young person is something to look closely at and ask questions about, no matter that adult’s degree, job, religion or familial relationship. Whether it’s a doctor, a priest, a rabbi, an Iman, a teacher, a coach, a choir teacher, an uncle, an aunt, whatever: think about that one-on-one time, why it’s necessary, if it’s really necessary, if it’s appropriate, and how it makes you or your young person feel. Never let fears of how your questions might be perceived or that you might make someone uncomfortable keep you from asking questions. It’s perfectly reasonable and appropriate to say, before your kid goes on a school trip or sporting event, “Will any of these kids ever be alone, one-on-one, with an adult and, if so, what would the circumstances be?” As a parent, remember that you have EVERY right to say to any person in charge, to any adult in a program, even to a doctor, that you would prefer that one-on-one time not happen. This isn’t about parenting or managing from a place of fear and suspicion; it’s about parenting or managing from a place of “I’m watching and I care.”

One-on-one time between an adult and a child or teen is usually a wonderful, positive thing, something to be encouraged and cultivated in many circumstances. It would be a sadder world without one-on-one time between adults and children. But one-on-one time between an adult and a teen or child shouldn’t happen just because of someone’s title, and shouldn’t happen without questions. Ask questions. Decide your comfort level. Listen to kids – and watch them, because often, their behavior will tell you very quickly that there is a problem.

Also see:

Your organization is NOT immune to sexual harassment

When people you don’t like are accused of horrible behavior in the workplace, it’s easy to condemn those people – and you should.

But sooner or later, someone you like, maybe even care for, will be accused of horrible behavior. Watch your reaction carefully when it happens: do you start excusing the behavior of your colleague, friend or family member if the accusations turn out to be based in truth and he or she did, indeed, do what the accused is claiming?

I bring this up as more and more people are coming forward in the USA now with details of very famous, powerful people, mostly men, harassing and assaulting them, usually work-related colleagues. As I’ve watched, I’ve recalled the warning I’ve made in many, many workshops where I am training those that recruit and manage volunteers – a warning that’s often been met with skepticism and a response along the lines of None of MY volunteers would ever do that! No one I know and care for would ever do that!

My trainings regarding volunteer management often talk about screening potential candidates, policies and procedures, and risk management. I warn people at my workshops about the dangers of going with just their gut when ensuring safety, and about the vital importance of being methodical, consistent, dispassionate and dedicated to WRITTEN safety policies. And I say, point blank, that eventually, someone you really, really like, maybe even really, really care about, is going to be accused of sexual harassment – or worse – and you are going to think, “But I never experienced that and I never saw it and he/she was always SO WONDERFUL.” And that may, indeed, be your absolutely true experience with that person. But that doesn’t negate what one person is saying about another person’s bad behavior. If you’ve taken my advice and are methodical, consistent, dispassionate and dedicated to your WRITTEN safety policies, you are going to get through this fairly and appropriately in the workplace and protect yourself from a lawsuit, even if the accusations turn out to be true. But if the accusations are true, then in addition to dealing with any legal and public relations fallout, you will have to do a lot of soul-searching about your relationship with that person who has harassed or otherwise mistreated someone.

If you are thinking, hey, it hasn’t happened at our organization, so it never will, I’ve got news for you: it’s going to happen. The only way to prevent it from happening at or through your organization to disband your agency.

I’ve never let safety or legal concerns prevent me from creating volunteering opportunities nor from bringing multi-generations of volunteers together. You shouldn’t either. But if you don’t have WRITTEN policies regarding volunteering safety, sexual harassment and workplace respect, or you haven’t discussed those policies with your employees, consultants and volunteers in a while – and I mean DISCUSS, not just send people a link to them online – here’s your opportunity, right now. Google is awash with great advice on these subjects. And I would love to help!

Be strategic, be deliberate. But don’t delay.

Further reading and resources:

women-only hours at community Internet centers? why?

This is a blog post I made on 31 August 2009, on my first, now long-gone blog host. Just finally managed to find it at archive.org

women-only hours at community Internet centers? why?

Back in August 2003, I had the pleasure of co-hosting an online discussion at TechSoup regarding Gender and the Digital Divide. It was a discussion regarding the barriers that keep women and girls away from computer and Internet-related classes and community technology centers (telecenters, Internet cafes, etc.). One of the things that came up in this discussion back then was that the barriers for women and girls to tech access are even more pronounced in developing countries, where family-obligations and cultural practices keep large numbers of women from ever stepping foot into a community technology center, telecenter, Internet cafe, etc., whether nonprofit or privately-run.

I was reminded yet again of this recently while corresponding with an Afghan female colleague: her employer has blocks on hundreds of web sites, including several she needs for her own career and skills development. But using an Internet cafe is not an option for her, and thousands of other women in Kabul like her, because:

    • her family would never allow her to go to such a place without a mahram (a male relative she could not marry, such as a brother, uncle, or father, acting as a safety and social escort), and most men aren’t willing to devote a few hours a week to accompany a female relative to an Internet cafe.
  • given the atmosphere of many public Internet sites — the posters in the wall, what’s being looked at on some of the computer screens by male patrons, men coming and going — it’s not an option for her to use a public Internet site even with a mahram.

My friend — and thousands of other women in Kabul — need a place that’s either devoted only to women Internet users, or, a public site that has women-only hours. I have yet to find either using Web searches and posts to various online communities.

But it’s not just in Kabul. Cultural practices keep women out of public Internet sites in communities all over the world.

I appreciate so much that I have the freedom where I live to walk into any public place with Internet access, and not have to worry about any social or legal ramifications as a result. But I also have to acknowledge that not every woman on Earth does have this freedom and, until they do, community technology centers run by nonprofits and Internet cafes run for-profit need to think about their accommodations for women and girls.

Public Internet access points in Kabul, elsewhere in Afghanistan, or in other developing countries, can encourage more women to use their services by:

    • creating women-only hours at a time that is appealing to women, or creating a women-only space with its own supervised entrance/exit and its own bathroom
    • providing women-only classes
    • staffing women-only hours, women-only spaces or women-only classes by women volunteers or women paid staff members, and with just one or two male staff members (if any) closely supervised and never, ever alone with any woman (staff or customer)
    • providing childcare for women using the site (it’s okay to charge a nominal fee for this)
  • a computer user space free of any images that might be deemed offensive to a conservative culture

How else can community technology centers, telecenters, Internet cafes, etc. in conservative areas be more accommodating of women and girls? Let’s hear from you.

— end of original blog —

This blog lead to the creation of this web page, Women’s Access to Public Internet Centers in Transitional and Developing Countries, which I’ve just updated.

Also see

Enhancing Inclusion of Women & Girls In Information Society

Virtue & reputation in the developing world

Judgment & reputation online – and off

The volunteer as bully = the toxic volunteer

This blog was originally posted 16 August 2010.

So many people — media and corporate people in particular — like to talk about volunteers in the most flowery language possible: volunteers as selfless and hard-working and nice and sweet and huggable. Gosh golly, don’t you love them?!?

I’m not fond of using fuzzy language to talk about volunteers, because I find it degrading and disrespectful. It devalues volunteers and their role in organizations.

While in Australia leading workshops on volunteer management earlier this year, one of the very hot-topics that volunteer managers wanted to talk about was volunteers as bullies. So many were facing a toxic volunteer at their organizations who used abusive language with other volunteers, paid staff and even clients, disrupted meetings and plans that other volunteers were leading or organizing, and were uncooperative regarding following policies and procedures. These toxic volunteers were capable of bringing meetings, planning, events, and even entire programs to a halt.

The volunteer managers felt powerless to deal with the bullies, because these volunteers had often been at the organization longer than the volunteer managers had, because the volunteers were also financial donors, because the volunteers had been honored in the past regarding their service, or because the staff was afraid of the volunteers and didn’t want to provoke them further. Volunteer managers told me that just one volunteer complaint — including complaints about being reprimanded for not following policy —  would result in senior leadership displeasure with the volunteer manager. One person said that her supervisor, in regards to complaints by a long-time volunteer who did not want to follow policy, “I just don’t want to hear it. Make her happy.”

One avoidance tactic upper management uses regarding bullies is to require everyone to go into a conflict management workshop. Those workshops can be really great for other issues, but don’t solve the problem of a bully. In fact, volunteer managers report to me that bullies either come up with a way to beg off attending such or are brilliant at hijacking such workshops, portraying themselves as victims and using the tactics they learn at the workshop to divert responsibility from themselves regarding bullying behavior. And I have to admit that I’ve seen it happen myself.

Since those workshops in Australia, I’ve kept my eye out for good resources regarding bullying in the workplace. One that I found was a blog from the Open University, Office conflict: the impact of workplace bullying. Another terrific resource is How to deal with workplace bullying and how to tackle bullying at work, also from the United Kingdom. My favorite resource, however, regarding petty tyranny in the workplace is the book The No Asshole Rule—Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, which I’ve blogged about before. His book is about paid employees, but it most definitely applies to volunteers.

My own advice as well:

    • Document, document, document. Have dates, places and details about the actions of a toxic volunteer in writing. Have details in writing on the consequences of the bullying, such as other volunteers not participating in activities if the toxic volunteer will be there, volunteers dropping out of participation altogether, little or no new volunteers participating in certain activities, and complaints from other volunteers, paid staff and clients. Be ready to present these to your supervisor, the head of your human resources department, and even the head of your organization. Don’t wait to be asked to present this information, and don’t be discouraged if your initial presentation of such doesn’t prompt action; it may take several presentations to get the message across that the toxic volunteer must be let go.
  • Be consistent in applying the rules to all volunteers, so there is no possibility of a toxic volunteer claiming you are singling her or him out, something she or he will be tempted to claim to other volunteers and to paid staff she or he has a long-term relationship with. This starts to create an atmosphere where the toxic volunteer will start to feel unwelcomed and will indirectly encourage her or him to move on.
  • Be willing to lose the bully, as well as her or his allies among your volunteers, and to answer questions from staff or other volunteers who express displeasure at their departure. If you create an environment where the bully cannot engage in toxic behavior without having consequences for that behavior, that volunteer will probably leave your organization, but not without a dramatic exit, like a fiery letter or email or an emotional final meeting, and she or he may successfully encourage other volunteers to leave as well. Say goodbye and wish them well and calmly move on, focusing on your remaining volunteers, reaching out to volunteers who left because of the toxic volunteer, recruiting new volunteers, staying dispassionate and staying positive.
  • Never, ever trash talk the bully to other staff or volunteers, even if you consider those staff or volunteers sympathetic to you. Those words could come back to haunt you. Be above reproach in any comments you make about the toxic volunteer, even among allies. It’s fine for volunteers to share complaints with you regarding a bullying volunteer, but keep it dispassionate and don’t allow them to cross a line where they could be accused of being bullies themselves.

Be on the lookout for misinterpretations and misrepresentations of your actions, and ready to respond to such immediately, quickly and decisively.

Don’t think that the situation will somehow work itself out. It won’t.

Also see:

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.


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.

What is “too much” from an online contributor?

When a nonprofit, NGO or government agency starts an online community or hosts an online event, they envision questions being asked and the staff or event hosts answering such, all in an oh-so-orderly fashion. No arguments, no disagreements – just a reasoned exchange of online information by all participants.

However, online communities and events rarely work the way organizers or hosts envision. These communities or events have hardly any messages at all or an overwhelming number of such. They may be inactive for days, weeks, even months, and then suddenly, a lively debate may break out that sends message numbers through the roof and makes the organization feel uncomfortable. And on many communities, only a small percentage of members regularly share information or engage in discussions; the rest of the members, often 90% of such, are lurkers, reading messages but rarely responding to such.

Most users still get online community messages via email, so remind members, more than once, how to manage email – specifically, how to filter community or event messages automatically into a folder within their email program. The people who get the most upset about a surge in messages are people who subscribe via email digest, where all messages are put into one single email, so encourage members to change their subscriptions to individual messages and to filter these into a folder of their own, which makes it much easier to find the messages each person will want to read and to delete the messages a user doesn’t want to read.

Remember that lively debates are a natural, important part of a successful online community or event. Don’t panic when they happen: let them happen, think about why people are saying whatever it is they are saying, keep everyone fact-based, and let them run their course. Step in only if

  • someone says something that is not fact-based,
  • if arguments get personal,
  • if people are repeating themselves,
  • if your policies are violated, or
  • if the argument reduces down to a back and forth between just one or two people.

You can tell people to take the argument off the group if you truly believe the argument has run its course with other members, or even dismiss someone from the group if he or she has violated policy – but be ready to quote from their messages and your written policy to clearly show the violation.

When should you suspend or dismiss an online community member? If that person:

  • uses inappropriate language or images, as you define such (be ready to cite specific examples in your dismissal; inappropriate is a really vague term!)
  • makes false or misleading statements even after being cited for such (again, be ready to quote examples)
  • posts off-topic even after being warned not to
  • violates confidentiality rules
  • encourages illegal activity (if you are worried that your community could be held liable if a community member does, indeed, engage in that activity and get caught or hurt)
  • violates copyright or trademark laws such that your online community could be held liable
  • misrepresents himself or herself (for instance, as running a nonprofit organization that turns out not to exist, or as being a staff person from an organization when, in fact, he or she isn’t)
  • chronically posts inaccurate information (claims an organization engages in activities that it actually doesn’t, claims there are certain rules and regulations about an activity when, actually, there are not, etc.)
  • contacts community members or event participants off-list and engages in the aforementioned activities
  • tries to stifle views different from himself or herself (again, be ready to cite specific examples of such, with quotes)
  • threatens anyone


You may also have rules about advertising a business, but be careful; if a vendor answers a question like “Where can I find volunteer management software” with “Here’s our company’s product…”, that’s actually a helpful answer. Allow the posting of business information if it is truly on-topic for your group. You may also have rules about when it is appropriate or inappropriate to share information from an online event or an online community outside of that event or community.

Some organizations panic when an online community member that isn’t an employee starts engaging in leadership activities on a group or within an event – when the non-staff person answers questions before the official moderator gets to them, frequently shares events and resources that are on-topic to the community, and otherwise posts on-topic, but posts more than the moderators or facilitators. Don’t panic when you end up with a “super user” – celebrate it! When someone starts exhibiting leadership on your online community:

  • write or call the person directly and thank him or her for the contributions
  • ask the person where he or she heard of the community or the event
  • ask the person why he or she feels so motivated to share

If the person responds to every post to a community, then do likewise: “Thanks, Mary, for that information. Does anyone else have something they would like to add or share?” That encourages others to share as well.

If you want to limit community members to a certain number of posts a day, per person, that’s fine, but that means your staff, including your moderator, has to abide by the same rule!

You may want to approach a super-user about becoming the official moderator, freeing up your staff time for other activities; however, make it clear, in writing, if, as moderator, the person would then be prohibited from sharing opinions. You may also want to invite the person to create and host a specific online event!

By all means, if the person posts inappropriately, per your written policies, tell the person. But don’t reprimand someone for being an active community member!

Also, don’t let one community member dictate what makes your online community or event a success; if one person complains that your community has too many messages, that doesn’t mean everyone feels that way. Survey your community at least once a year so you can get everyone’s opinion.

And a final note: no super-enthusiastic online contributor lasts; it may take a few months, but every super-sharer on an online community eventually slows down. It’s impossible to maintain that kind of unofficial enthusiasm on an online community.

What online community service is – and is not

There is a for-profit company based in Florida, Community Service Help, Inc., that claims it can match people have been assigned court-ordered community service “with a charity that is currently accepting online volunteers” – for a fee, payable by the person in need of community service. There is no list on the company’s web site about what people do as online volunteers through the company, and no list of “charity partners” that use this service – at least not as of the day I’m posting this blog. There is a list of testimonials from people who have supposedly used the service — testimonials which all sound amazingly the same, as though they were all written by the same person. There is also no listing of the names of the staff people and their credentials to show their experience regarding online volunteering or community service.

I found out about this company because someone was posting about it on YahooAnswers > Community Service in response to anyone who was seeking community service per court order.

I was alarmed for a number of reasons, most of which I’ve noted in the opening paragraph, in bold, and also because online volunteering opportunities are plentiful – so plentiful that it’s nothing short of exploitative to charge people to find them. Here’s just a FEW of the many, many places to find online volunteering (Aug. 14, 2015 clarification: note that this is a list of examples of legitimate virtual volunteering with legitimate nonprofits, and it’s offered to show what online volunteering really looks like; not all of these nonprofits meet the standards required by courts or probation officers for community service):

Distributed Proofreaders. These online volunteers turn public domain books into online books, mostly for Project Gutenberg.

Electronic Emissary, one of the best known and most respected online tutoring programs, where adult volunteers help students in a variety of complex academic-based projects.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Volunteer Monitoring Program
This is a mix of online and remote volunteering. Volunteers collect data from the environments around them and submit the information online to the EPA.

Idealist/Action Without Borders has many of the volunteer tasks listed on its site that are online. To find them, do keyword search using online and virtual. You will have to read each assignment carefully to ensure they are actually virtual.

Extraordinaries, hosts a database of micro-volunteering assignments (tasks that can be completed in around an hour or two) in support of different nonprofit organizations.

Infinite Family, an online mentoring program matching adults and families in the USA with at-risk, impoverished children in South Africa.

LibriVox, a nonprofit that coordinates online volunteers to record audio versions of public domain books.

Nabuur, which recruits online volunteers to support organizations working in or for the developing world.

TestPrepPractice Math Tutors

United Nations Online Volunteering Service lists at least a few hundred online volunteering opportunities at any given time, at organizations working in or for the developing world (not just UN agencies). This is the largest database anywhere of online volunteering opportunities.

VolunteerMatch has many of the volunteer tasks listed on its site tagged as virtual volunteering.

That’s not only a short, not-at-all comprehensive list of organizations that are focused specifically on online volunteers: there are thousands of traditional organizations that involve online volunteers as translators, web page developers, researchers, writers, subject-matter experts (SMEs), pro bono consultants, and on and on (I volunteer with the Girl Scouts, and my service is 90% online; I help with communications issues). And there’s also dozens of organizations that allow volunteers to engage in home-based volunteering, knitting blankets for babies who are HIV positive, or organizing food drives for local free food pantries or local animal shelters, and on and on. (Aug. 14, 2015 clarification: note that the aforementioned is a list of examples of legitimate virtual volunteering with legitimate nonprofits, and it’s offered to show what online volunteering really looks like; not all of these nonprofits meet the standards required by courts or probation officers for community service. You can find a comprehensive listing of where to find legitimate online volunteering here, but note that not all nonprofits, online or onsite with traditional volunteer engagement, can accommodate court-ordered community service folks)

So, of course, I was alarmed to find a for-profit company charging people for access to online volunteering opportunities when such opportunities are so freely and easily accessible. In addition, there is no guarantee that an agent of the court will accept online service as fulfillment of community service; I have been approached by dozens of people who want to volunteer online for community service fulfillment, and when I’ve told them to get permission from the court first, they call or email back to say the judge or probation officer refused, because the judge or probation officer felt there was not enough monitoring/supervision. Even so, many courts have been open to the idea, so long as the nonprofit or government agency that will involve the online volunteer can provide proof that the person really did the hours needed.

(I’ve been lucky enough to have involved some court-ordered folks as online volunteers – and I have to say that all of them have ended up volunteering for more hours than they were required to do.)

I started investigating this company immediately. I contacted several associations of nonprofits, including the Florida Association of Nonprofit Organizations (FANO), a couple of DOVIAs (directors of volunteers in agencies) in Florida and various colleagues that research volunteering, including online volunteering. Not one had ever heard of this organization. So I filed a notice with the Florida State Attorney General’s cyberfraud division. The Consumer Services Department of Miami-Dade County began its investigation in December.

Today, the owner of Community Service Help, Inc. called me because of the investigation. He wanted to explain what his company does. And what does his company do? A person pays him $30, and he gives you access to online videos that are supposed to help you be a better person. You do not perform any community service at all; you watch videos. The company’s representative was adamant that watching videos is community service — and that watching them online makes it online community service. The people who use his service do no activities other than watching videos as their “community service.” Through a nonprofit organization in Michigan, he arranges for paperwork to be sent to the court or probation officer that says the paying customer has completed the “community service” and how many hours they spent doing such.

Of course, watching videos is not community service. Court-ordered community service offline looks like this. Or this. Community service involves activity, it involves engagement, it involves an action to do something that needs to be done and that actually helps the community or a cause. Note that there’s no mention at all on these real community service pages regarding watching videos to fulfill court-ordered community service.

Online community service activities look just like online volunteering activities – and also don’t involve watching videos, outside of a person training to be, say, an online volunteer mentor or, perhaps, judging videos that have been submitted to a nonprofit or government agency for some kind of contest. Or maybe watching videos to find information an organization is looking for as part of the person’s online research assignment.

One can only imagine what the paperwork that Community Service Help, Inc. submits to the court or a probation office, or that is submitted by its mysterious “charity partners,” says that the person actually did to complete his or her community service hours (good luck finding an example of such online). I’m sure the judges or probation officers have no idea that all the person did to complete his or her hours was to pay a fee and watch videos on his lap top or smart phone (or, at least, someone watched those videos — who knows who!), that there was no completion of an actual activity that helps a nonprofit, a government agency or those such agencies serve.

The further shock is that, as I’ve researched, there seems to be many of these organizations charging people who have been assigned court-ordered service for freely-available information and resources! Another one is Community Service 101, which charges a monthly fee for users to track and report their hours – something they could do for free on a shared GoogleDoc spreadsheet. There’s also this nonprofit, Facing the Future With Hope, which also offers to find online community service, for a fee. Note that neither web site offers any examples of what online volunteers actually do, what nonprofits actually involve these online volunteers, etc.

While I have no issue with a nonprofit organization, or even a government agency, charging a volunteer — a person who is helping on his or her own, or because a court or school is requiring such — to cover expenses (materials, training, staff time to supervise and support the volunteer, criminal background check, etc.), I have a real problem with companies charging people for freely-available information, and for judges and probation officers accepting online community service that consists of a person watching videos.

If it’s a for-profit company, you should be able to find on their web site:

  • A list of courts, by name, city and state, that have accepted community service arranged through this company (not just “courts in Florida”, but “the circuit court of Harpo County, Florida”
  • A list about specific activities that people do as volunteers through the company
  • A list of “charity partners” or nonprofit partners or government agency partners that use this service
  • The names of staff and their credentials to show their experience regarding online volunteering or community service.
  • A list of all fees – specific dollar amounts
  • A scan of a letter they have provided to a court, a probation officer, a school, a university, etc. (with the contact name for the person blocked out, ofcourse), so you know exactly what the organization says to confirm community service.
  • A list of every court, school and university that has accepted the community service hours this company has ever arranged for anyone.

If it’s a non-profit company, you should be able to find on their web site:

  • Their most recent annual report that notes their income and expenditures for their last fiscal year
  • The names of the board of directors
  • The names of staff and their credentials to show their experience regarding online volunteering or community service.
  • A list of courts, by name, city and state, that have accepted community service arranged through this company (not just “courts in Florida”, but “the circuit court of Harpo County, Florida”
  • A list about specific activities that people do as volunteers through the nonprofit organization
  • A list of “charity partners” or nonprofit partners or government agency partners that use this service
  • A list of all fees – specific dollar amounts
  • A scan of a letter they have provided to a court, a probation officer, a school, a university, etc. (with the contact name for the person blocked out, ofcourse), so you know exactly what the organization says to confirm community service.
  • A list of every court, school and university that has accepted the community service hours this company has ever arranged for anyone.

Good look trying to find this information on the pay-a-fee-for-community-service sites named on this blog.

Will organizations that claim to represent the community service sector such as the Corporation for National Service or AL!VE, investigate? And take a stand? Stay tuned…

November 6, 2012 update: I just got got email from a TV reporter in Atlanta, Georgia who used my blogs about this scam to create this excellent video about this scam and the people behind it. Thanks Atlanta Fox 5!

February 2013 update: Here’s the latest on what’s going on with this company.

August 14, 2015 update: this company continues to try to lure people with false promises about online community service. I have info on how they attempt to harass me online, and the blog links to all of the blogs I’ve written about this and other countries to date, including accounts of people whose community service through this company was rejected by the court.

July 6, 2016 update: the web site of the company Community Service Help went away sometime in January 2016, and all posts to its Facebook page are now GONE. More info at this July 2016 blog: Selling community service leads to arrest, conviction