Tag Archives: procedures

If humans can do it, so can volunteers (who are, BTW, also humans)

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersWhen should you involve humans in the care and support of vulnerable populations, like children, people with disabilities, women who have been victims of domestic violence, etc., or in high-risk situations, like working with wildlife or fighting fires?

Most people would say humans are essential to all of those scenarios – that care and support cannot be provided in those situations without humans, that emergency response cannot be provided by humans, that addressing the needs of wildlife adversely affected by humans cannot be done without humans. And I would agree. I bet you would too. What’s the alternative – robots? Not yet, robots… not yet…

But what do humans need in order to be able to provide appropriate care and support in those high-responsibility, even high-risk, situations, and to stay safe themselves? Humans need:

  • to be appropriately screened and vetted, with inappropriate humans turned away and appropriate humans brought into the program
  • specific training for these situations – and, perhaps, ongoing training
  • regular, appropriate supervision
  • regular, quality support

You would agree with all of that, right?

Now change the word humans in the aforementioned text the word volunteers. Suddenly, the conversation changes.

Volunteers aren’t appropriate!

Volunteers could endanger the clients!

Volunteers will harm the wildlife!

What’s different? Just one thing: when we were talking about humans before, you were immediately thinking of paid staff. Now that I change the word to volunteers, we’re talking about unpaid staff, and many automatically assume that means untrained, unsupervised people who work whenever they might maybe find some time.

Volunteers mean just one thing: people who aren’t paid a wage, that aren’t given financial compensation for their service hours. That’s it! Volunteers do NOT have to mean untrained, unvetted people, just anyone off the street who says, “I have a good heart! I want to help!”

No one who has not been appropriately vetted, no one who lacks the necessary training, no one who cannot be appropriately supervised and no one who is not regularly supported should be doing any work with vulnerable populations or with wildlife, paid or not. A paycheck has nothing to do with a person’s appropriateness to undertake a role at a nonprofit, NGO, charity, etc.

So, with that said, when should a nonprofit, NGO, charity, school or other mission-based organization involve a paid person instead of an unpaid person? Susan Ellis of Energize says it best, in her book, From the Top Down: The Executive Role in Volunteer Program Success:

Offering a salary gives the agency a pre-determined number of work hours per week, the right to dictate the employee’s work schedule, a certain amount of control over the nature and priorities of the work to be done, and continuity. When you pay a salary, you can require that the person give your organization forty hours a week or whatever number is necessary. Because most people need to earn a living, people can rarely give one agency that much volunteer time per week… (pages 12 – 13).

And, to be fair, people DESERVE to earn a living. I’m looking at you, United Nations agencies that have six-month unpaid internships – volunteer gigs that only well-off young people can undertake…

Volunteers can do high-responsibility, even high-risk activities, and they can fill expert roles. In fact, they actually DO all of these things already, all over the USA and all over the world. What the vast majority volunteers usually cannot do is provide 40 hours a week of service, even 20 hours a week, to an organization, week-after-week – they can’t afford it! Many roles at a nonprofit, non-governmental organization or charity require a person to staff a role full-time, or even part-time, 20 hours a week, week after week – and that means, to keep that role staffed at all times, the agency must pay someone. Many roles at nonprofits, NGOs, charities, schools, etc., require someone to have a great deal of training and experience in order to do the role that needs to be done, and most people that have the training and experience necessary for such roles have such because it is related to their career, their paid work, and they got the certification or degree(s) necessary for such for their paid work.

I don’t believe in involving volunteers to save money – I believe an organization should create volunteering opportunities primarily because they believe a volunteer would be the best person for that particular role, just as an organization reserves certain roles specifically for paid staff, and you make those decisions based on a myriad of criteria. I also believe that one needs to tread carefully when asking an economically challenged community, one with a very high unemployment rate and people struggling to pay for the basic necessities of life, to donate their time to keep a nonprofit afloat.

So, how much time and responsibility may you ask of a volunteer? What’s reasonable?

That is a question that is frequently asked. And there are no easy answers. It can vary from organization to organization, from community to community.

There are communities that are well-served by entirely volunteer fire stations, with enough well-trained, constantly trained volunteers always on-call to respond to any fire or other emergency. But in those same communities there might be a cold-weather shelter for the homeless and the nonprofit running such is struggling to find over-night volunteers to manage the facility for 6-8 hours at a time. Why does one group have a waiting list of people that want to volunteer while another in the same community, with less requirements for training and less of a time commitment each month, struggle?

There can be all sorts of reasons why one organization can easily attract volunteers to high-intensity, high-responsibility, high-commitment roles, and another cannot:

  • One role may look fun, exciting, interesting and even heroic, while another may look difficult, scary, even depressing.
  • One role may look like it could help the volunteer in his or her career or university studies, while another may just look like a lot of work for no pay.
  • One role may look like the challenges would be uplifting, while another may look like it would be disheartening.
  • One role may seem like you get a lot of community recognition, that you are frequently thanked, while another may be rather thankless.
  • One role may look like it would be fun, at least some of the time, while another may look daunting and soul-draining.
  • One organization may be targeting a particular social or economic group that has the financial safety net and family structure (child care) to be able to afford to volunteer, while another organization may be targeting a group that can’t afford to do unpaid work (they are already caregivers, they have child care needs, etc.).

If you are having trouble attracting volunteers, you need to look at a lot of things:

  • Is it easy to know just from looking at your web site what volunteers do, the different roles, the time commitment, the training requirements, and how to sign up?
  • When someone calls or emails about volunteering, or submits an application, do they get an immediate reply regarding next steps? In fact, do they get info at all, or does someone take their name and say someone will get back to them and then, most of the time, no one ever does?
  • Are your next steps for volunteering with your organization something that the volunteer can get started on in a few days? In several weeks? In a few months? The further away the next step, the more likely the volunteer candidate won’t follow through.
  • Do you need to alter the volunteer role so that a volunteer would get more out of it, in terms of training, career-development, university class credit, or personal fulfillment? Is there anything you can do to make the role more fun?
  • Can the people you are trying to recruit as volunteers afford to volunteer – to work for free? Do they have child care responsibilities that are preventing them from helping?
  • Could you make the time commitment less for volunteers? Could you try to recruit more volunteers for shorter shifts, for instance, instead of fewer volunteers for longer shifts?
  • Does the task seem especially intimidating or daunting? Could you make it less so, by reducing the time commitment the volunteer would have to make, or by guaranteeing that there is a seasoned volunteer or employee always with the new volunteer? Or by taking away the tasks in the role that are the most intimidating and giving them to paid staff? Or by better assuring candidates that they will be fully trained before they are put into potentially challenging situations?
  • Are you asking too much from volunteers in terms of a time commitment, training and the responsibilities they will undertake as unpaid staff? Do you need to convert such roles into paid positions, in order to better attract the people that can make the time and emotional commitment to the role?

This is yet another blog that was inspired by my own real-life moments – two, in fact: one from a nonprofit that felt I was being inappropriate for disagreeing with them that their work is too high-risk for volunteers, and another from a situation that is happening in my own community regarding volunteer recruitment. It was supposed to be two blogs – but they seem so closely related, I put them together.

Also see:

Magical paychecks

I’m on a lot of online communities, most focused on nonprofits in some way. And recently, on one of them, someone posted this:

I need to have some kind of porn blocker software on the computers at our office, since volunteers have access to the computers.


Yes, that’s right: while employees, because of their paychecks, aren’t at all inclined to do anything inappropriate on work computers, volunteers, who are unpaid, just can’t stay away from online pornography.


I’ve heard people at nonprofit organizations talk about extensive training and supervision for volunteers regarding confidentiality, working with children and working with money, who then balk when I suggest exactly the same training and supervision is needed for paid employees.

Paychecks are NOT magical! A paycheck doesn’t make someone more knowledgeable than a volunteer, more experienced, more trustworthy, more respectable nor safer.

I love a paycheck as much as anyone! But it doesn’t give me super powers.

More about working with volunteers.

Sound off re employees & volunteers appropriate behavior online

I found this article today: How to Handle an Employee’s Controversial Online Behavior – it’s from 2010, but it still works – the graphic is awesome!

I also have my own thoughts on the subject: How to Handle Online Criticism, written especially for nonprofits, NGOs and other mission-based organizations.

On a related note, there are three threads on TechSoup regarding social media that so beg your participation:

Social Media Policies in the Workplace

Instant Messaging policy

Reporting to an Executive Director re social media

Would love to read more comments on these TechSoup threads! How does your nonprofit, government agency, charity, non-governmental agency or other mission-based organization handle all of these various aspects of social media/online activities?

Excuses, excuses

Here’s a conversation I had this week as a member of a certain city’s citizen’s committee regarding bicyclists and pedestrians:

Me: “I’d like for this link to the state agency name redacted web site to added to this web page on the city’s site. I’ve sent two emails requesting it, but no one has responded.”

City representative: “We don’t have money in the budget to do that.”

Me: “You don’t have the money to add a link to a web page?!?”

City Rep: “Actually, it’s because the decision makers need to review that change first.”

Me: “Okay, who are the ‘decision makers’?”

City Rep: “Oh, we don’t have a policy yet on how those decisions will be made.”


This is also a perfect illustration of the change of mentality that’s needed for effective online communications. Using web pages and social media has nothing to do with budgets or policies – it has to do with mindsets.

Fear-based management – it’s a customer service KILLER.

volunteer managers: you are NOT psychic!

A colleague recently posted that this was one of the things that makes a great volunteer manager: going with your gut feeling.

UGH! Dislike!

In my trainings, I say just the opposite: do NOT assume your gut is telling you the truth.  

NEVER let your gut be your guide to decision-making.

I’ve had volunteer managers tell me that their gut reaciton to applicants to volunteer is their primary guide to keeping “bad” people out of their program. And, so, I remind them of all of the many people who had no negative gut feeling about clergy, coaches or youth group leaders before or while those people abused children. And of all many people who did not have a negative gut feeling about that boyfriend, spouse, family member or friend who, after years of knowing each other, turned out to be a liar, a cheat – even a killer.

Everyone in the Penn State/Second Mile scandal went with their gut instead of following good policy and procedures. Look where it got them!

Linda Graff once told me that one of the most chilling things you will ever do is sit in a courtroom and watch all of the many people ready to testify on behalf of their husbands, wives, sons, daughters, neighbors, co-workers, etc. – oh, no, that person could NOT do the things you have accused him/her of. It’s impossible. I KNOW this person. I don’t care what your evidence says – I know in my soul he/she is a good person. Those people’s guts told them one thing – and despite the facts, they prefer to listen to their gut.

I have almost let my gut feeling turn volunteers applicant away — and those people have turned out to be some of my best volunteers. What I was actually doing was hearing my prejudices: about age, about culture, or about education (or lack their of). And I was honest enough to explore that and admit to it.

I have had people tell me, after working together for a couple of months, “You know, my first impression of you was insert-negative-comment-here. You have turned out not at all to be that way.” And I thank them for NOT going with their gut!

I’ve had endless numbers of volunteer managers tell me that their gut reaction to virtual volunteering is NO WAY IS THAT SOMETHING MY ORGANIZATION SHOULD DO.

In the course of my job, I never let my gut make decisions for me. Ever. Yes, my gut reaction might lead me in a direction, but if my gut is telling me something in the work place, such as don’t accept that person as a volunteer or that new idea just isn’t worth trying, I don’t make a decision based on that – I do more investigating and questioning. When it comes to effectively supporting and engaging volunteers, I need facts. Why am I having that feeling that such-and-such isn’t a good volunteer? Is it that he is being evasive in his answers? Is it that she seems too good to be true? Is it that he looks like an ex-boyfriend? When I start answering those questions honestly for myself, I either come to the concrete, fact-based reason I don’t want the person as a volunteer or I have to accept that my reluctance is more about prejudice than reality.

Volunteer managers: you are not psychic. There are no such things as psychics. Listen to your gut, but do NOT let it make your decisions, and if you haven’t said in the last three months, “Wow, my gut was wrong about that!” then you are NOT being honest with yourself!

Also see:

Dangerous Instincts: How Gut Feelings Betray Us by retired FBI profiler Mary Ellen O’Toole (with co-author Alisa Bowman)

Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths & Total Nonsense: Profiting from Evidence-Based Management by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton

Beyond Police Checks: The Definitive Volunteer & Employee Screening Guidebook by Linda L. Graff


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.