The Oregon Volunteers Commission for Voluntary Action and Service recently hosted meetings all over the state of Oregon with representatives from nonprofits, religious organizations and government agencies that involve volunteers, and volunteers themselves, to gather information to use in the 2016-18 Oregon State Service Plan and prepare a report for the Oregon Legislature on how to strengthen volunteerism and engagement.
I attended the Washington County meeting. Not many people attended, unfortunately, but the attendees that were there were enthusiastic and ready to work. The second best part of the meeting, for me, was watching one of the commission board members begin to realize just what a pain in the neck requests to nonprofits from corporations for group volunteering activities can be.
The best part of the meeting, for me, was when Sarah Delphine of Hillsboro Parks & Recreation said she loved working with court-ordered community service folks, and I immediately demanded a high-five. Because, for the most part, I love them too. I’ve had good experiences with them as online volunteers.
Oh how that point of view puts me on the outs with so many managers of volunteers! There are regularly rants on various online groups from people that hate working with court-ordered community service folks – or anyone being required to provide community service, including students volunteering as part of a class assignment. “They aren’t really volunteers! I shouldn’t have to work with them!” Gnashing of teeth, pulling of hair…
I approach management of volunteers as community engagement. I’m not just trying to get work done; I’m trying to build relationships and engage with the community, however I might define the community. Organizations I work for often want to engage a diversity of community members – and if they don’t, it’s something I push very hard for. And that includes engaging with community members who are far from perfect.
Let me be clear: I’m not going to involve anyone as a volunteer, online or onsite, that I don’t think is appropriate for the organization, court-ordered or not. I’m not going to create a volunteering assignment just to involve a particular kind of person or a particular group if I don’t think that assignment has real value to the organization where I’m working. I will tell a volunteer – or a group of volunteers, even from a very well-known Fortune 500 corporation – “No, I don’t think we can accommodate you as a volunteer. You might try looking on VolunteerMatch for something else.” My goal is to serve the mission of the organization, and that often means saying no to someone who wants to volunteer. I won’t lower the standards of the organization for anyone.
That said, I’ve worked with about half a dozen online volunteers that were ordered to perform community service by the court, and all have been terrific. And all were VOLUNTEERS, and I treated them as such.
Not everyone who has contacted me to volunteer online to fulfill a court order has ended up volunteering with me. Most disappear after I write them back – just as most people that inquire about volunteering in general disappear. Why do most folks disappear? Because it’s so easy to say “I want to volunteer with you!” So easy to send that email, send that text, make that call. But it’s much harder to actually do it, court-ordered or not – it dawns on folks that, oh, volunteering, online or onsite, really does take time and effort, and they fade away, off to look at some other shiny something they read about online.
My first communication with every person that wants to volunteer notes, among other things, that they have to get permission from the court or their probation officer BEFORE they start volunteering with me if they are wanting to volunteer to fulfill such an obligation. Many times, they don’t get the permission – the court or probation officer says no. So that’s another factor that’s kept the numbers of court-ordered folks I’ve worked with quite low. But for the half a dozen folks who did get permission to volunteer online with me: they were terrific volunteers. They got the assignment done, they did the assignment correctly, they did it on time, they stayed in touch – and, in addition, they volunteered more hours than they had to by the court. One guy stuck around for a few months doing small online assignments for me, going far beyond anything the court had asked for. And I thanked them, just like I did with any volunteer: they got listed on a web page that named them and what they did, along with all other volunteers, they got an email thank you from me, they got invited to focus groups, and on and on.
I really want to help people doing court-ordered service to volunteer. That’s why I created a web page specifically to help guide them. And that’s why I created a web page of where to find virtual volunteering & home-based volunteering with established nonprofits – because there are so many companies out there claiming to give court-ordered community service folks the hours they need for a small fee (please do NOT pay a company for online community service!).
You can involve court-ordered community service volunteers without lowering your standards for volunteers. But don’t say no to someone who needs volunteering time for a court or probation just because its mandatory service, because it’s not pure volunteering – whatever that is. Put the person through all the same screening and orienting you do for any volunteer candidate. If they make the cut, bring them on board. If you see volunteer management as community engagement, as something so much more than just getting work done, there’s no reason not to.
Want to know more about the realities of engaging volunteers online? Hey, there’s a book for that! The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook is available for purchase, as a hardback book or an e-book. You will not find a more detailed guide for using the Internet to support and involve volunteers! It includes extensive information on safety and confidentiality, for those wanting to use such as an excuse for not involving online volunteers, court-ordered or not – and has specific advice regarding working with court-ordered volunteers.