Tag Archives: nonprofits

How do I get to you without a car?

If I want to come to come to your nonprofit organization, your NGO, your government office, etc. for a training or a workshop or a special event or for your services, and I will not be driving, will your web site tell me how to get there?

Will your web site tell me what buses stop nearest to your organization and how far the walk from a bus stop is to your office? Will it tell me where to park my bicycle? Is there a photo of the exterior of your agency, so I’ll recognize it easily?

I’m in a one-car family. I use mass transit and my bicycle to get around. In the greater metropolitan Portland, Oregon area, that’s not an easy thing (it’s fascinating to hear Portlandiers brag about their mass transit system, but start to stutter when I ask, “Do you yourself take it every day, or even every week? Do you rely on it to get to and from work?”). Looking at various nonprofit web sites when I’m supposed to have a meeting, I often can’t find the street address, and even then, there’s no information about mass transit options or bike parking. Yes, I’ve used the Portland mass transit trip planner, but it often doesn’t suggest the quickest route, or tell you that while there is a bus stop a block away, there’s a light rail stop just five blocks away. When you are actually on a Portland bus, routes usually are not announced, bus drivers aren’t happy about trying to help you find the right stop, and there are lots of challenges that would have been much more navigable has someone simply warned you about such.

There are people who cannot afford to buy a car, people who don’t have a driver’s license, and young people, too young to drive, who want to volunteer at your organization, attend an event, or access your services. If you don’t have information to help these people – and that includes me — you are telling these audiences, We don’t want you to come to our organization. Is that really what you want to say?

And, indeed, there are events, trainings and more I have wanted to attend, but cannot, because I either can’t figure out how to get to the organization by mass transit or the organization is having the meeting in a place not easily reached by mass transit. One organization had a meeting at a library branch that would have taken more than two hours for me to get to – but had they had the meeting just 3.5 miles away, at another library branch, it would take just 40 minutes – the difference was that one site is served by a bus that comes only every 30 minutes, while the other is on an express, frequent service bus line.

Your organization’s web site needs to have the following information – and it needs to be oh-so-easy to find:

  • a text-based rendering of your organization’s physical address (not just in a graphic)
  • a map that shows your organization’s location AND the nearest bus stops (including express/frequent service buses) and nearest light rail stops; there are online volunteers who would be happy to prepare this graphic for you
  • written advice that would be helpful to a bus rider (is there a landmark you should be looking for when riding the bus to know when your stop is coming? how long of a walk is it from the stop to your office? is there only one place to cross a particularly busy street that wouldn’t be obvious to someone unfamiliar with the area (as I recently encountered for an evening training, in the dark, at a nonprofit’s office)? Ask your current volunteers and clients about this – or create an investigative project for your volunteers to tease out this information
  • a photo of the exterior of your offices
  • information on where a bicycle rider would park. If you don’t have a rack outside, either get one or allow people to bring their bikes inside (an addition note about this is at the end of this blog)
  • tips specifically for bicyclists, like advice on routes (perhaps a bike rider would be more comfortable riding on a parallel street rather than a main one – another great investigative project for your volunteers)

There is no excuse to not have this information on your web site, unless your organization needs to keep its location private (a domestic violence shelter, for instance).   Not We don’t have the time or We don’t have the funding or All of our clients/volunteers drive. This information is just as important as parking information and your hours of operation!

Volunteers can help you gather this information. If none of your current volunteers are interested, post it as an opportunity on VolunteerMatch (or your country’s equivalent) and with your local volunteer center.

In addition, remember that in most cities, buses stop running after a certain hour. If your training goes past that time, you are excluding people who would be stranded after the training. If there is no way to change the hours, talk about ways to set up participant car pools.

Encourage volunteers to carpool as well. And brag about all these green living efforts to the board and on your blog!

On the subject of bike parking racks: Cyclists prefer to park very close to their destinations and will lock a bicycle to anything available unless a rack is nearby. They do NOT want racks that hold the bike by the wheel, nor racks with which they can’t use a U-Lock. Racks should be in public view with high visibility and good lighting. One that is filmed by a security camera is particularly great. Work with your city to get a rack installed for your building; they will have rules regarding where racks can go. Bike racks are great projects to fundraise around: identify exactly how much it will cost to buy and install such and involve your volunteers on creating a fundraising campaign to raise the funds needed for installation (what a great sponsorship opportunity!); when you install your new bike rack, take photos, make an announcement – maybe even throw a party! In short – make it a big deal.

A plea to USA nonprofits for the next four years (& beyond):

speak upAttention nonprofits: stop believing that you automatically have some kind of magical, wonderful reputation because you “do good.”

Your organization’s future over the next four years depends on your organization rapidly becoming a much, much better advocate for its work as well as the work of the entire mission-based sector.

Over the next four years (and beyond):

Please dramatically improve how you communicate why your organization is necessary. Define it well, and say it repeatedly, in a variety of ways – in press releases, on your web site, in every speech you make, on your Facebook page, etc. Ask the spouses and partners of people that work and volunteer for your organization, people who have NOT volunteered or worked there themselves, to come in for coffee and donuts and a short discussion – and ask them why your organization exists, why it is necessary. Be prepared for them to have no specifics, just a possible, general idea. Use their feedback to create a plan to improve your communications, internally and externally, and to make sure it is clear to anyone and everyone why your organization is necessary. Make it a priority for the next four years to constantly and dramatically improve communication about what your organization does and WHY it exists.

Please dramatically improve how you communicate as to why there is poverty, or domestic violence, or homelessness, or unemployment, or a need for live theater, or whatever it is your nonprofit is concerned with addressing. Please don’t just ask for help for an issue without explicitly saying why the issue exists. And please say so more than once. This is another good opportunity for a focus group to find out just how much you need to improve regarding your messaging. This should also be a top priority.

If your organization does not address a critical humanitarian issue, then you must be even more explicit about why your mission is important. You cannot assume people know why a theater organization, a dance organization, a community choir, an art museum, a history museum, a chalk art festival, a historical society, a cultural festival, etc. is important to a community. Have hard numbers ready, in terms of economic impact, on what your organization contributes to your city or county. Have data on the impact of performing arts on health, school grades, crime, and any other quality of life issue and think of ways to get that data out there, repeatedly, via your web site, social media, press interviews, and on and on.

Make sure your volunteers know why your organization is necessary, even volunteers doing just one-time gigs or micro volunteering, and including your board of directors. Every volunteer, even those coming in for just a few hours as part of a group effort, must be given at least a short introduction to why your organization exists. All volunteers, past and present, microtasking volunteers and long-term volunteers, should be invited to public events. You must turn volunteers into advocates for your organization and nonprofits in general to their friends, family and colleagues.

Please correct volunteers and donors, even very large donors, who misspeak about your mission, or why the issue exists that you are trying to address. For instance, if your nonprofit helps the homeless, and a donor says that people are homeless because they are lazy and do not want to work, correct him and her. Make a list of myths about the issue you address, and the counters to those myths, and go over those myths with all staff, all board members, all leadership volunteers, and all long-term volunteers, at the very least.

If your budget is going to be cut because of actions by the President and Congress, you owe it to your community and to all you serve to say so. And you owe it to those same people to say how these cuts are going to affect your programs and, in turn, the community and those you serve. If cuts are going to hurt your clients, say so. This isn’t being political – this is being factual.

Stop talking about volunteer value primarily in terms of their hourly monetary value. When you do that, you justify a government saying, “Cut your paid staff and just get volunteers to do that work.” Governments HAVE done this, and it’s very likely the incoming USA federal government will do it too, and that this thinking will trickle down to state governments as well. When you talk about volunteer value primarily in terms of an hourly monetary value, you are saying that their PRIMARY value is that they work for free.

Use your web site to be absolutely transparent about who runs your organization, what it does, how much money is in its budget, where the money comes from and how it spends the money it gets. AND KEEP IT UPDATED. And be proud of it – no apologies for paying competitive salaries, for having offices that have adequate parking and lighting, for having clean offices, etc.

Make sure politicians know and appreciate your organization. Have a representative from your organization at every local public meeting by your state’s US Congressional Representatives and US Senators, and send those officials press releases about your organization’s accomplishments and impact. Invite representatives from their offices to every public event you have. Here is more advice on how to get a Congressperson to listen to you, which notes that posts to social media are largely ineffective because they are so easy to ignore, that paper letters are more effective than email, and that phone calls RULE. You need to do similar outreach with your state legislative representatives and senators – in fact, they should be much easier to meet with, in-person. Go in front of your local city council at least once a year to speak during the public comment: announce a new program, remind the council of something you are doing, tell them what a budget cut is going to do in terms of how it will affect your clients, etc. You have about two minutes: use it.

Make sure the nearest weekly and daily newspapers, and the nearest CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox affiliate TV stations know why your organization exists, what it accomplishes, and the underlying issues it addresses. And when they get a story wrong about the causes of homelessness, addiction, unemployment, domestic violence, poverty, etc., CALL THEM and SAY SO. Volunteers can help you monitor the media and look for opportunities for correction.

During the 2016 election, a worldwide audience, not just the USA, heard repeated disparaging remarks by the two main Presidential candidates about each other’s philanthropic bodies. Regardless of the truth or not of their attacks, many people have been left with the impression that all philanthropy – all nonprofits, all charities, all NGOs – is corrupt and conducted primarily with the goal of achieving more power and a good public image, rather than a genuine desire to improve people’s lives, improve communities or help the environment. Every nonprofit has to keep that in mind as it looks at the financial information on its web site and annual report, as well as in addressing the aforementioned communication issues.

Henry Berman said, in an article for an article for The Chronicle of Philanthropy, “We must tell our stories and the stories of those who benefit from our philanthropy, lest we allow the unchecked rhetoric of the campaign trail to define who we are, what we accomplish, and how we operate.” I couldn’t agree more.

You will not have your nonprofit status revoked for doing any of the above. Do not let anyone threaten such a thing. The aforementioned is all mission-based work. You aren’t endorsing a politician or a political party, and you are not directing people on how to vote, things that are strictly forbidden for 501 (c) (3) nonprofits.

Also see

“Every nonprofit organization and nonprofit cause or mission that relies on federal regulation, executive orders, or other non-legislative approaches to implementation is at risk of profound change or elimination when Donald Trump takes office in January.” An excellent warning from the Nonprofit Quarterly.

It’s Day One of the Trump Era: Let’s Defend Philanthropy

How Will Trump Presidency Affect Humanitarian Aid & Development?

My consulting services (I can help you with your communications strategies!)

January 6, 2017 update: Forbes has this excellent article on how corporations should have a crisis communications response in case Trump attacks them. It is a step-by-step guide on what that planning should look like. Have a look and think about how your nonprofit or government agency should create a similar guide for your mission-based initiative. If your mission has a focus on LBGTQ people, on helping immigrants, or helping women access abortion services, or is affiliated in any way with the Clinton Foundation, or has any Islamic affiliation, or works to help refugees, or has any other focus “relevant to the president elect’s hobbyhorses,” your organization REALLY needs to read this Forbes article.

February 27, 2017 update: With aid under attack, we need stories of development progress more than ever – from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), the UK’s leading independent think tank on international development and humanitarian issues.

Nonprofits & NGOs: you MUST give people a way to donate online

fundhuntingThe following quote is from a blog in 2013 by Sue Gardner (hi, Sue!!) of the Wikimedia Foundation, which administers Wikipedia. The quote is about how the many-small-donors-instead-of-a-few-big-ones works so well for Wikimedia, a nonprofit:

We don’t give board seats in exchange for cash… people who donated lots of money have no more influence than people who donate small amounts — and, importantly, no more influence than Wikipedia editors… We at the WMF get to focus on our core work of supporting and developing Wikipedia, and when donors talk with us we want to hear what they say, because they are Wikipedia readers. (That matters. I remember in the early days spending time with major donor prospects who didn’t actually use Wikipedia, and their opinions were, unsurprisingly, not very helpful.)

It’s not only that they have many, many donors of small amounts, rather than a few donors that give huge amounts of money, it’s also that their donors are users of their initiatives, primarily Wikipedia – in fact, many are volunteers for these initiatives.

This isn’t a new model. I worked in professional, nonprofit theater for many years, and this was their model as well; each theater had hundreds, even thousands, of donors that gave, for the most part, small amounts, and the vast majority of those donors were also performance ticket buyers. I learned that a healthy nonprofit theater has at least half of its expenses covered by such individual donors.

Of course, the many-small-donors models wouldn’t work for every nonprofit. But if your nonprofit had at least 100 clients, volunteers and/or event attendees in a year, you MUST have a way for those people to donate via your web site. There is absolutely no excuse for NOT having this way of giving, and no excuse for NOT encouraging such donations.

How about this: at least once a year, I have been ready to donate to a particular nonprofit, I’ve gone to the web site to do so, and, ta da: no way to donate online; the only way to donate is by sending a check or money order. And so, I end up not donating at all.

This happened to me last month regarding a nonprofit right here in Forest Grove, Oregon, where I live. I was going to say something to the nonprofit, but instead, decided to turn my thoughts into a blog for small nonprofits in particular. I hope they notice. I don’t have lots of money: when I donate, I’m giving up the price of a movie ticket and popcorn. Most nonprofits would claim that they would not say no to any amount of cash someone wanted to donate, including that small amount. Yet, that’s just what they do when they don’t have a way for people to donate online.

According to Blackbaud’s 2015 Charitable Giving Report, 93% of funds given to nonprofit organizations came from traditional means in 2015 – major gifts, annual funds, fundraising events, checks, snail mail and by phone. Only 7.1% of donations to nonprofits came in online. HOWEVER, online giving has been steadily growing over the last few years, up 9.2% from 2014 to 2015, and 14% of online giving in 2015 originated on a mobile device. I’ve no doubt the numbers are just going to keep going up. A good summary of the Blackbaud report is here. In addition, a study of younger supporters (age 20-35) found that 56% preferred donating online via an organization’s website.

The excuse I hear by most nonprofits for not having a way for someone to donate online?

We don’t want to have to lose some of the donation to processing fees. 

Let me be clear: you are losing ALL of the online donation by not having a way for people to donate this way to your organization. Those people that go to your web site and can’t find a way to donate online don’t say, “Oh, I’ll write a check then.” Nope – they just don’t give at all.

As of the time of this blog’s writing, Paypal charges 2.2% + $0.30 per transaction on any donation ($0 to $100,000) to a registered nonprofit with 501(c)(3) status. Wouldn’t you rather get most of a donation than none of it?

There’s no service that doesn’t have some kind of processing fee for donations to nonprofits, at least not in the USA. Some services, like Paypal or Google Wallet, just charge a transaction on every donation, but don’t provide any features, like a customized web page. Services like First Giving charge more, but also provide more services, like tracking and managing donor information and easily integrating into whatever donor database you are already using. Which should you use? That depends on the size of your nonprofit’s budget, how many donors you are expecting to donate online and how much information you need from those donors. Have a look at what other nonprofits in your community are doing in terms of allowing for online donations, and don’t hesitate to pick up the phone and give them a call and ask for advice (we need nonprofits collaborating together MORE!). Also, talk to your financial institution, the bank or credit union where you deposit your organization’s funds – they may have options as well.

And if you are looking for a magical third party crowdfunding site that will bring in lots of donations for your organization merely by your inputting all of your information and asking for money, forget it – that’s not how successful online fundraising works for 99% of nonprofits. Rare is the donor who goes to a third party web site with no idea of who he or she is going to give money to.  Most nonprofits that raise money through online means are raising that money through their own web sites, and raise that money from people in their communities that are familiar with their work and want to support them, from people that have attended the organization’s events, or from people that have seen an ad on TV or radio.

More: 

Excellent advice from someone else on how to encourage donations online to your organization

More advice for what should be on your organization’s web site

Nonprofits can learn from motorcycle manufacturers? Yes!

This blog was originally written and published by me back in August 2010.

Jayne and her motorcycleIn the last week, I’ve attended two events by motorcycle manufacturers, and there was so much — SO MUCH — that nonprofits could learn from how these motorcycle events were handled.

One event was a women’s-only event by Harley Davidson. It’s called a Garage Party. I went to the one in Gladstone, Oregon. These events are held at dealerships all over the USA.

The other event was by Triumph in Canby, Oregon. They had about 20 motorcycles you could sign up to ride, on group rides every 30 minutes. The Triumph truck travels all over the USA to bring these events to cities all over.

What I learned from these events that’s applicable to nonprofits:

    1. There were notices in local newspapers about these events, but the Internet also played a huge role in marketing these events, specifically viral marketing. I found out about both events because different people posted the details to online communities I’m a part of. Two of our friends went because we posted about one of the events ourselves on an online group. Text-only messages are easy to forward, and were essential in getting the word out to so many people so quickly about these events. How likely are your volunteers, clients and financial supporters likely to forward your organization’s events via email to family and friends, or to put info about it on their Facebook or MySpace status updates? They are not going to do it for every event, but they will for the ones that feel special to them, that really speak to their heart or that they think others will find fun or especially interesting. Also, do you reach out to specific online communities to market an event? In fact, have you ever considered reaching out specifically to motorcycle communities as event attendees?
    2. Both events were very well attended. The Triumph event had the attendance organizers were hoping for but not really expecting, because of the economy and because of the somewhat remote location. The Harley event attendance in Gladstone far exceeded expectations. I think this excellent attendance at both events came not only from good marketing, but also, because of how people are thinking right now: with the beating we’re all taking in this economy, people are revisiting their priorities and lifestyles, and not just cutting back financially, but also thinking about how they are going to live. Riding a motorcycle is surprisingly affordable, not to mention the sense of control it gives you, a sense of control a lot of people feel they don’t have now in other aspects of their life. These events spoke to people’s hearts and, maybe, even their fears.How might volunteering at your organization or experiencing your organization’s program in an event give someone a sense of stability, control, escape or fun? Could you create a one-day volunteering or program event that could invite new people into your organization with the sole purpose of getting as many people into your organization as possible and getting them in one-on-one conversations with volunteers, particularly in a fun, shared activity?
    3. The garage party was focused on a specific group: women. Harley knows that, to sell motorcycles in this economy, it’s got to create more motorcycle riders. And one of the best target audiences is women. So they have created an event that could not be more female friendly: it’s staffed entirely by women (all male staff leave), because new women riders tend to be very self-conscious and self-deprecating, and there’s nothing like watching a woman smaller than you pick up an 800 pound bike (362.87 kilos) and then tell you, “YOU can do this.” There’s great food, short demonstration stations, gift bags, and free t-shirts with I am not a back rest on the back. What could have made the Garage event better? More hands-on activities, and more interactions with actual women riders (see next bullet). And a lesson for the Triumph demo rides: have at least one woman Triumph rider (even more would be better) out talking to the women at these events, whether they look like they ride their own or not, and recruit more women motorcyclists to attend these events by posting about them on local online communities for women motorcyclists.How could your nonprofit create an event that’s targeted at a specific under-represented group? Are there people who are intimidated to come to your events currently, who would need to be catered to specifically in order to attend? What could you do to make an event more welcoming to a specific group that is currently under-represented among your volunteers, clients or supporters?
    4. The Triumph event was staffed primarily by VOLUNTEERS. Yes, a for-profit company was using volunteers! Because they were “free”? Nope. It was for all the right reasons: Because an event attendee talking to a volunteer — someone who owns at least one of the motorcycles in the line up, and owned at least one other probably at some point, who can speak passionately about the product, who wants you to get to have the experience they have been having, and who won’t get any commission from a sale and doesn’t rely on this activity for their financial livelihood — is in such contrast to talking to a salesperson or paid staff person. The volunteers got to spend two days talking about something they love, a free t-shirt, supper each night, and the opportunity to ride any motorcycle not booked for a ride. The few paid staff there stayed in the background, there to fill in blanks and maybe, must maybe, to make a sale, but volunteers were the official spokespeople.Do you value your organization’s volunteers as unique, important spokespeople on behalf of your organization? Do you encourage them to talk and blog about their experience? Do you have a speaker’s bureau of volunteers available to go onsite and talk to a group about your organization? Do you give volunteers a role at all or most public events? And have you ever considered reaching out specifically to motorcycle communities to recruit volunteers?

A LOT to think about!

Update: Here’s me on a Triumph Scrambler at the aforementioned event back in 2011. And here’s me on the motorcycle I have now (a Kawasaki KLR 650), wearing the t-shirt I got from that Harley event I talk about above (“I am not a backrest”).

The importance of Twitter lists

Twitter_logo_blueAs I said in a recent blog, called the awesome power of Tweet tags, I am still a huge fan of Twitter. As I said in that blog, I still get so much more out of Twitter than Facebook, professionally:

  • I get a great sense of what folks are doing in the areas of expertise and work I care about most
  • I can easily find and connect with amazing experts in areas of expertise and work in which I’m intensely interested
  • I can find what I’m looking for and easily screen out what I don’t care about
  • When I tweet, I get replies and retweets and even requests for more info – real engagement – as well as traffic to my blog and web site

Of course you should follow me on Twitter: @jcravens42

But you should also be aware of another way to leverage Twitter for your nonprofit, government or other mission-based organization or program: creating and sharing Twitter lists, where you curate accounts based on some aspect of your program’s mission or location. For instance:

  • an animal shelter should have a public Twitter list of other shelters and animal rescue groups in the area, and another list of accounts tweeting credible information regarding animal care and training
  • a small college or university should have a Twitter list of its own departments, faculty and students using Twitter to talk about their university work
  • a police department should have a Twitter list of other law enforcement agencies in the area and nearby, and another list of accounts by nonprofits addressing issues that contribute to crime prevention (homeless shelters, drug treatment centers, programs to help teens, etc.)
  • a city office should have a Twitter list of other city offices
  • a public school should have a Twitter list of registered nonprofits in the area focused on youth
  • a water and sanitation program in a developing country should have a Twitter list of similar programs in other countries, so staff can look for ideas they can use in their own area, and have a list of programs and organizations in-country that have funded or might fund the WATSAN program
  • an association of managers of volunteers should have a list of all of the nonprofits in the area with Twitter accounts, another list of all student groups at local colleges and universities in the area that regularly engage in public service, and another list of all civic groups in the area using Twitter.

Creating Twitter lists and sharing them with the public affirms an organization’s mission, establishes a program as a leader regarding that mission, creates valuable resources for people you are trying to serve, and creates another way for you to attract Twitter followers. It also makes it much easier for you to be able to check in with what’s happening with specific audiences – instead of following them all on Twitter, you put accounts on lists, and then read those lists when it’s time to catch up on a particular area of interest to you.

Here’s a good example: Northwest Oregon Volunteer Administrators Association (NOVAA) has several Twitter lists. One is made up of nonprofits in the greater Portland, Oregon area that tweet, a list of people tweeting about the management of volunteers, and a list of people and organizations that tweet about volunteerism and volunteer recruitment. By having such lists and sharing them with the public, NOVAA is helping promote its brand as an organization that can help organizations in the area, including nonprofits, schools and government agencies, regarding effective volunteer engagement. What would be great is if they also had a list of all public officials in the area, or that represent the area, that are on Twitter, so that they could easily follow what those people might be saying regarding volunteers and NOVAA members could more easily contact those representatives regarding volunteerism.

Here’s another good example: United Way of the Columbia-Willamette, also in Portland, Oregon. One of its Twitter lists is of its partner organizations on Twitter. Another list is of organizations focused on helping people and families work towards financial stability. Like NOVAA, they also have compiled a list of nonprofits in the greater Portland, Oregon area that tweet. So UW is using its Twitter lists to both promote nonprofits in the area and help people in the area find the services at nonprofits they need – in short, they are using Twitter lists as a part of their mission to “improve lives, strengthen communities and advance equity by mobilizing the caring power of people across our metro area.”

Here’s how it works for me: I maintain several public Twitter lists – lists of people and organizations that regularly tweet about subjects of interest to me. These lists affirm my areas of expertise and my interests as a professional, help establish me as a leader regarding some of these areas, and create valuable resources for people and organizations with whom I want to connect in some way. It also cuts down on how many people I have to follow on Twitter;  instead, I can put people and organizations on various lists, by subject matter, geography, whatever, and then check in with those lists as I like. I pick one or two of my lists a day, and then spend a few minutes going through the tweets of that list.

For instance, there’s my Tech4Good ICT4D, a list of people and organizations that regularly tweet regarding computers and the Internet used to help people, communities and the environment. Or my ework evolunteer list, which tracks people and programs tweeting about telework, telecommuting, remote work, virtual teams, distributed teams, virtual volunteering, etc. Or my CSR  list, which is made up of corporations that tweet about their philanthropic and social responsibility activities, and people and organizations that tweet regarding corporate social responsibility. My several public Twitter lists become both ways to brand my interests and expertise as well as a way to offer resources that others might find useful.

Take Twitter to the next level: make it not only an outreach and engagement tool, make it something that promotes your program through the lists you curate!

Also see:

Virtual volunteering: it’s oh-so-personal

logoThe 20th anniversary of the launch of the Virtual Volunteering Project is approaching! I count it as December 1, 1996, actually, though I could be off by a few days. It was probably summertime 20 years ago that the project was funded, actually.

All that was on my mind when I read that World Pulse, a global nonprofit organization, put out a call for stories that explore the role of technology in our lives and its potential to bring positive change:

At World Pulse, we see so many signs of the good. Every day, women and men creatively embrace tech tools to solve the pressing problems facing our communities and our world. From mobile apps designed to track incidents of violence against women to crowdfunding platforms that put money in the hands of social entrepreneurs, technology is making so much possible for women everywhere.

What technologies have the most potential to make a difference in your community? Do you have a story about using communication technology to form meaningful relationships or bridge a geographical divide? Maybe you are part of a group using technology to mobilize for change.

I submitted my own story for this challenge, noting:

I’ve been researching virtual volunteering for more than 20 years now, and the biggest shock for most people that aren’t familiar with the practice and hear me talk about it at length is just how close I feel to so many of the volunteers and volunteer-involving agencies all over the world. They are my friends and colleagues, just as real as people I work with onsite, face-to-face. These are all real people with hopes and fears and challenging ideas and humor and talents. So many of these online relationships, established through email and Twitter and online communities, are so very, very personal to me.

I mean that from the bottom of my heart.

By the time I left the Virtual Volunteering Project, I had worked with  more than 300 online volunteers. I could tell you so many things about many of them: their career goals, their music tastes, what they enjoyed doing as online volunteers, what they DIDN’T enjoy, and on and on. No, I didn’t know them all that intimately – not all of them wanted to be known that intimately, and there just isn’t enough time in the day to get to know 300 people that well, online or off. At least one of my online volunteers had mental disabilities, and his doctor was one of his references; I got to talk with that doctor once on the phone, and he told me what a huge impact virtual volunteering had had on this particular volunteer. I hung up the phone and cried – I’d had no idea.

I kept working with online volunteers when I took over the UN’s Online Volunteering service, then also a part of NetAid, in February 2001, and a year later, one of the online volunteers died that I had been working with since joining the UN Volunteers program headquarters. She was very young, killed in an accident. I was shattered. We had often IM’d each other, just chatting over this and that. She’d formed a nonprofit with other online volunteers she met through volunteering online with UNV. I was also heartened that, when I sent an email to the entire UNV organization announcing her death, something any program manager did for a volunteer killed in the field, the head of the organization then, Sharon Capeling-Alakija, immediately directed her staff to write the online volunteer’s parents a letter of condolence, just as UNV does when a UN Volunteer dies.

That’s why I get so weary of explaining over and over to people new to virtual volunteering, or skeptical of the practice without reading anything about it, that this volunteering is not impersonal. As I said in an email to someone that blogged disparagingly about virtual volunteering, saying that, as a result of it, “volunteering has the potential to lose its social and community-building benefits”:

Your blog assumes onsite volunteers work in groups and have lots of interaction. This is often not the case. MANY onsite volunteers work in isolation: they arrive, they receive an orientation and training, and then spend their time alone in a room stuffing envelopes, or sorting in-kind donations, or checking inventory, or cleaning something, etc. You cannot assume that onsite volunteering automatically means lots of personal interactions.

I’ve studied virtual volunteering since the mid 1990s, and what I’ve found is just as much or as little social and community-building benefits as any other volunteering. It all depends on the culture of management: is the manager of online volunteers one who provides lots of personal interactions, or one that gives a task and then interacts only at the request of the volunteer? Whether or not any kind of volunteering has social or community-building benefits depends on the manager and the culture of the organization, not necessarily the task being done onsite or online.

Working with virtual volunteering? It’s personal. At least it is for me.

vvbooklittleThere is lots more information about what it’s like to work with online volunteers in The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, available both as a traditional printed book and as a digital book. The advice is based on both extensive research of virtual volunteering practices at a variety of organizations all over the world and my own experience working with online volunteers – I’ve now worked with more than 1000, some of whom I’m still friends with online, some of whom have become friends offline as well. And if you are about to write about virtual volunteering, but you don’t want to read the guidebook, then PLEASE, at least, first read these Myths About Virtual Volunteering.

“If no one is complaining, we don’t have to change how we do things”

handstopOne of the most common defenses I hear from an organization or program not addressing issues regarding diversity, communications, and accommodations is this:

We’ve done it this way for years, and no one has complained about that. No volunteer / client / member / donor has ever said they don’t like how we do such-and-such. You are the only one. So we’re not changing.

My observation might be about the way something is worded on a web site. Or the process to submit an application for volunteering. It could be about the lack of mass transit access to a location of an annual event or training. It could be about a lack of representation of various groups amid volunteer ranks. Or about a prayer before a volunteer recognition event at a secular organization. It could be about a lack of certain information in another language. Any of the aforementioned, and more, often incurs that defense when I bring up an issue related to diversity, accommodations or communications.

Often, when I do a little digging myself, talking to people that wanted to volunteer at the organization but didn’t, or to current members, or to former clients, and on and on, I find that, indeed, there is dissatisfaction among a few, maybe even more, but no one says anything to the organization itself, because no one wants to be seen as ruining an event or hurting the feelings of others or not being “a team player.” Some even fear repercussions by friends, neighbors and others. So they don’t say anything about something they would like to see changed or improved because there is a culture within the program or the entire organization, that discourages complaints or suggestions.

In the 1990s, I worked for a really incredible organization called Joint Venture: Silicon Valley. While I worked there, as internal communications manager – very much a junior staffer – a board member arranged for a retired HR executive from his oh-so-large global company to visit our organization and do a survey and discussion with staff about the work culture and environment, and then report our feedback to senior staff, keeping individual comments anonymous. That HR executive handled those surveys and conversations with the greatest of care, making us feel welcomed and comfortable in sharing what we liked, and what we didn’t, about our workplace. Afterward, he revealed to us, then senior staff, that junior staff and assistants felt we operated from a place of fear, rather than a place of power. We, as an organization, were risk-averse and even suggestion-averse. We felt corrections were given out by management far more than praise and support. After senior staff got over the shock of the culture they created – they really had no idea – things changed almost immediately, under that HR expert’s guidance. It rapidly became a delightful place to work, because senior management changed the way they worked and talked to all staff. And we all felt free to suggest, even to complain.

Would your organization be so brave?

Also see:

Proud to fool courts re: community service

justice“Jay” of this IP address: 68.37.81.189 (he didn’t give a real email address) commented on the most popular blog I’ve ever written, one where I exposed a company called Community Service Help, Inc. and its affiliated nonprofit, Terra Research Foundation:

I completed approx. 300 hours of community service online with some site and it was affiliated with the Terra Research Foundation back in about 2013. I work full-time and have far better things to do than complete community service and jump through the endless hoops the court system makes you go through in their attempt to “fix” me over a minor violation. I presented the hours sheet to my Probation Officer and he never asked what I was doing for community service exactly, and guess what, I never felt the need to tell him either. That’s his job to find out if it’s legit or not, not mine. He approved it once I completed all the hours and that was the end of it, I haven’t felt a single ounce of remorse for it either. We all moved on with our lives. So, kudos to anyone who has “fooled” the court system by completing online community service by watching videos. You made the right decision.

I’m so glad Jay wrote. Like others who regularly write to insult me regarding this blog, Jay really wanted to mock me for my hardline advocacy over the years against Community Service Help and Terra Research Foundation – both of which have taken down their websites and, apparently, have gone out of business (hurrah!). But instead, he provided a perfect comment that shows exactly why these organizations are unethical and even illegal: here’s a person admitting that it wasn’t really community service. He’s admitting it was a lie. He got away with it but, of course not everyone does. And, thankfully, at least some companies are getting targetted by law enforcement and paying a steep price for what the courts are seeing as not just inappropriate activities, but illegal activities.

The other downside of organizations selling letters affirming community service when, really, none has been done, is that this will make courts and probation officers all the more suspicious of virtual volunteering. As I’ve blogged before, I’ve worked with some people as online volunteers who needed community service hours for the courts, and they’ve all been terrific volunteers. Virtual volunteering is real volunteering. Organizations selling community service harm that message.

So, thanks Jay, for the great comment!

My other blogs on these companies that sell virtual volunteering and other community service in order to fool probation officers and courts, which include links to the various media articles about these companies:

Selling community service leads to arrest, conviction, July 2016 update on how Community Service Help has gone away, and the owner of the notorious the Caffeine Awareness Association pled guilty to a false-filing felony.

Haters gonna hate, November 2014 update on Community Service Help and other similar, unethical companies

Community Service Help Cons Another Person – a first-person account by someone who paid for online community service and had it rejected by the court.

Online community service company tries to seem legit, a November 2013 update about efforts these companies are making to seem legitimate

Update on a virtual volunteering scam, from November 2012.

What online community service is – and is not – the very first blog I wrote exposing this company, back in January 2011, that resulted in the founder of the company calling me at home to beg me to take the blog down

Online volunteer scam goes global, a July 2011 update with links to TV stories trying to expose these scam companies

Courts being fooled by online community service scams, an update from November 2011 that is the most popular blog I’ve ever published

Deriding the monetary value of volunteer hours: my mission in life?

moneysignsDuring a presentation on volunteers at a local government agency that I attended a few weeks ago, the program manager proudly noted that the agency’s volunteer contributions are the equivalent of 21 full time employees, and gave a value of their time at more than a million dollars, based on the dollar value per hour promoted by the Independent Sector. That was one of her very first points in her presentation, and this was the ONLY reason offered during the entire session as to why this agency involves volunteers; she then went on to what volunteers do.

I wonder how the agency’s volunteers would feel to know that they are involved because they replace paid staff? Because they “save money”?

This agency said the greatest value of volunteers is that they are unpaid and mean the agency doesn’t have to hire people to do those tasks. I have so many, many examples on my blog and web site – linked at the end of this blog – regarding why those statements lead to outrage, and how they actually devalue volunteer engagement. These statements reinforce the old-fashioned ideas that volunteers are free (they are not; there are always costs associated with involving volunteers) and that the number of hours contributed by volunteers is the best measure of volunteer program success (quantity rather than quality and impact).

Put this in contrast to a paper on volunteer resource management practices in hospitals which I read today. The post about it on LinkedIn promotes this quote, “volunteers contribute greatly to personalizing, humanizing and demystifying hospitalization.” The paper, “Hospital administrative characteristics and volunteer resource management practices” is by Melissa Intindola, Sean Rogers, Carol Flinchbaugh and Doug Della Pietra and the description never once mentions the value of volunteers as being a monetary value for their hours, money saved, employees replaced, or any other old-fashioned statements to tout why volunteers are involved. I haven’t read the entire paper (it’s $30 – not in the budget right now), and maybe they do talk about these values, but from the summaries of the paper, it sounds like they understand the far better reasons for volunteer engagement, and that this understanding guides their recommendationss.

I’m not opposed to using a monetary value for volunteer hours altogether, but it should never, EVER, be shown as the primary reason volunteers are involved, or even the secondary reason to involve volunteers. If a monetary value is used, it should always come with MANY disclaimers, and should follow all of the other, better, more important reasons the agency involves volunteers. It should come many pages after the mission statement for the volunteer program and the results of volunteer engagement that have nothing to do with money saved.

Years of whining about this has paid off: the Independent Sector noticed yesterday and tweeted some responses to me. Not sure why it took so many years for them to notice my oh-so-public whining, particularly since I tagged them on Twitter every now and again…

I guess it’s time to again recommend this new book, Measuring the Impact of Volunteers: A Balanced and Strategic Approach, by ChristineBurych, Alison Caird, Joanne Fine Schwebel, Michael Fliess and Heather Hardie. This book is an in-depth planning tool, evaluation tool and reporting tool. As I wrote in my blog about this book, “I really hope this book will also push the Independent Sector, the United Nations, other organizations and other consultants to, at last, abandon their push of a dollar value as the best measurement of volunteer engagement.”

Also see:

Keeping volunteers safe – & keeping everyone safe with volunteers

I am thrilled to have just discovered that some of my favorite resources for helping to keep volunteers safe, and keeping everyone safe with volunteers, are now available for FREE – just download them!

One is Kidding Around? Be Serious! A Commitment to Safe Service Opportunities for Young People. It discussed “risk relevant characteristics” of adolescents and children – knowledge that was especially helpful when I was creating and advising on online mentoring programs -, offers a realistic, effective risk management process for dealing with young people, and reviews how to approach different service scenarios involving young participants. If you have young volunteers working together in particular, this book is a MUST read.

Another resource that is now free to download is Screening Volunteers to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse: A Community Guide for Youth Organizations. There are explicit guidelines on interactions between individuals, detailed guidance on monitoring behavior, advice on training staff, volunteers and youth themselves about child sexual abuse prevention, and exactly how to respond to inappropriate behavior, breaches in policy, and allegations and suspicions of child sexual abuse. I really can’t say enough fantastic things about this book.

And still another resource is Safe to Compete: An Introduction to Sound Practices for Keeping Children Safer in Youth-Serving Organizations. This document from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, published in 2013, is a framework for youth-serving organizations to guide their development of a sexual abuse prevention program.

Combine these three books with Beyond Police Checks: The Definitive Volunteer & Employee Screening Guidebook by Linda Graff, available from Energize, Inc. (but not for free), and you’ve got a solid, more-than-basic understanding of risk management in volunteer engagement activities. I really can’t say enough fantastic things about Graff’s book. It completely changed my view of safety in volunteering programs, both for clients and for volunteers themselves – the over-reliance on police checks for safety continues, sometimes with tragic consequences.

Three of these resources are “old”, however, I have had no trouble whatsoever easily adapting their recommendations to online scenarios with volunteers (virtual volunteering). The “old” books were a wake-up call for me regarding the vulnerability of teens, women and people with disabilities, and I carried that new knowledge into my recommendations regarding virtual volunteering, starting in the 1990s and continuing to this day.

And if you are promoting virtual volunteering, digital volunteering, micro volunteering, whatever, these books are a MUST read before you utter another word!

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