Tag Archives: social

Welcoming immigrants as volunteers at your organization

Disclaimer: this is not legal advice. I am not a lawyer. Any activity incurs risk. The author (me) assumes no responsibility for the use of information contained within this document.

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteers
Volunteer engagement is so much more than getting work done
: it allows the community to see, first hand, what a nonprofit or other mission-based organization or program does, it allows a nonprofit or government program to cultivate relationships with certain demographic groups it might not otherwise, it creates stronger ties between a program and the community, and it can contribute to community cohesion, bringing together different segments of a population in a setting that can help build relationships and understanding.

All of these reasons for engaging volunteers are why it’s a good idea for mission-based programs to explore ways to welcome residents who are immigrants as volunteers. You are missing out on a tremendous amount of talent and energy if you are excluding immigrants as volunteers, and such exclusion contributes to community divisions.

Immigrants might be long-term residents of a neighborhood or community, but they can feel on the margins of such, for a range of reasons. They often have children in the local school system, work in a local job, attend a local community of faith, pay taxes, are affected by the same social, political, economic and environmental issues as other residents, etc., but may not feel included or welcomed to volunteer in their communities. Just like other people, immigrants care about children, the environment, people with disabilities, safety, local prosperity, animals and more in the places where they live.

There is no law preventing an immigrant from volunteering with nonprofit organizations in the USA, and most local government agencies, including public schools, also aren’t prohibited by law from involving immigrants as volunteers. This is in contrast to federal agencies, where there are some prohibitions (more on that later).

Here are ways to make your organization more welcoming for immigrants living in your community. Note that this is USA-specific information, and, again, note that rules regarding volunteer screening and engagement can be different for nonprofit organizations versus federal agencies:

If your nonprofit organization or local government agency currently says on its web site or in other material that a volunteer must be a citizen of the USA, reconsider that requirement. Such a requirement excludes green card holders – legal permanent residents – among others. Why would you exclude green card holders from volunteering as, say, volunteer firefighters or tutors in the local school system? Think carefully about why you have certain citizenship or legal residency requirements for volunteers, and unless you can come up with a specific reason for this requirement – for instance, some roles require a multi-state criminal background check because the volunteer would be working with children or other vulnerable populations – consider changing that protocol.

According to this web site from the USA National Park Service, citizens of countries other than the USA are eligible to participate in federally-sponsored volunteer programs only if they are accepted for one of the Exchange Visitor Program categories through a designated sponsoring organization that is certified by the U.S. Department of State. Individuals who are not USA citizens but reside in here may volunteer with a federal agency if they are a lawful permanent residents (green card holders); or if they are non-immigrant aliens with F-1 or J-1 visa status, who are bona fide students residing in the USA to pursue a course of study at a recognized, approved institution of education. Again, these are rules for volunteering with federal agencies, NOT with local government agencies, like public schools, nor with nonprofit organizations.

Also, note that the US military allows certain undocumented immigrants to serve.

If your organization requires volunteers to provide documentation to prove their identity, then state on your web site and in orientations for new volunteers that, at least for some volunteering roles, this could be a driver’s license or passport from any country, not just the USA. You could also ask for a consular identification card, which is issued by some governments to their citizens who are living in foreign countries (they are not certifications of legal residence within foreign countries). If you require proof of a local residence and a local mailing address, ask for a utility bill or housing lease. You can also ask for references from employers or officials of the person’s community of faith. It is possible to do criminal background checks on immigrants without social security numbers: even with just a person’s name and date of birth, many county and state criminal databases will indicate if any applicant has had any prior arrests or convictions. Make it clear to applicants if you are going to do this with their information (submit it to local law enforcement). You may want to check with the law enforcement agency that does your criminal background checks to ask them about their policy for working with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE); many law enforcement agencies will not turn over any information to ICE without a court order, and if they have this stated policy (these days, it will be on their web site if they have this policy), you can let your volunteer applicants know.

Some organizations, such as public schools, require that volunteers provide social security numbers so that a particular type of criminal background check can be conducted, and in many cases, that requirement cannot change because it is required by a state law. But what can change is volunteer roles that are offered. Could you create volunteer roles that don’t require a criminal background check, because a volunteer is never alone with children or other vulnerable populations? For instance, nonprofits that do beach cleanups don’t do criminal background checks of the participating volunteers, nor ask for their social security numbers. Habitat for Humanity does not ask for this information for volunteers participating in house building. Nonprofit theaters and performing arts centers rarely do criminal background checks on volunteer ushers, who show people to their seats before a performance. Could you create such volunteering tasks that don’t require criminal background checks, because the volunteers are always in groups, never one-on-one with a volunteer, client, member of the public, etc.? For instance, in a public school, you could set the rule that only volunteers with a social security number and valid state ID would be allowed unsupervised access to children, for such activities as tutoring and to chaperone field trips, but allow other volunteers without social security numbers (but are vetted in other ways) to create murals or help at in-classroom parties.

(and remember that keeping children and other vulnerable populations safe requires MUCH more than a criminal background check – see this resource for more information)

No matter what form of identification you ask for, state clearly on your web site and in your orientation for new volunteers that you will not sell, trade or give this information to any other agency, that only your human resources staff and head of the organization will have access to this information (no other staff should be able to go through volunteer – or paid staff – files), and that you will not give these records to any law enforcement agency without a court order. Also clearly state that you will not voluntarily release personally identifiable data or information to any law enforcement agency, and will not release information that may be used to ascertain an individual’s religion, ethnicity or race, unless for a law enforcement purpose unrelated to the enforcement of a civil immigration law and only with a court order – or with the volunteer’s permission. Explain your photo release policy carefully, and give all volunteers the right to ask that a photo of themselves be removed from your web site.

Note in your communications with new volunteer applicants that no staff member at your organization shall grant ICE or border patrol agents access to your facilities for investigative interviews or other investigative purposes without a court order. You may want to put this statement on your web site as well.

Except when compelled by a law or a specific written policy, there’s no reason for an organization to inquire into the immigration or citizenship status of anyone. Talk to all employees, consultants and volunteers about what they should and should not ask of each other – not just immigration status, but also things like income, property holdings, health conditions (“Are you disabled?!”), etc.

Consider posting a sign such as the one below at your entrance and in your lobby, to make it clear you welcome all people to inquire about volunteering, about client services, etc.:

A group of volunteers supporting the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina was assigned to find a way undocumented immigrant parents could volunteer in their schools. This article is about their struggle and this article is about what they finally ended up doing.

My only other caution regarding involving immigrants as volunteers would be involving such in unpaid internships. An unpaid internship is volunteering, just as virtual volunteering, skilled volunteering, pro bono services, microvolunteering, episodic volunteering, group volunteering and all the other forms of donated, unpaid service are. But internships are full-time experiences and meant specifically to give someone on-the-job training for eventual paid work. The US Department of Labor is concerned both with the protection of jobs for United States citizens, and views internships as jobs, even those at nonprofits.

On a different note: A federal judge granted class-action status to a lawsuit filed in 2014 claiming thousands of detained immigrants were forced to work for $1 a day or nothing at all while in custody of ICE at Denver Contract Detention Facility. The forced labor could be considered a violation of federal anti-slavery laws, according to the Washington PostJaqueline Stevens, head of Northwestern University’s Deportation Research Clinic, said the Denver facility violated the federal standards of volunteer work programs in which many detainees are required to participate. Stevens’ research prompted the original lawsuit. “Just slapping the word ‘volunteer’ in front of ‘work program’ doesn’t exempt the prison firm from paying legally mandated wages any more than McDonald’s can use ‘volunteer’ senior citizens and pay them Big Macs,” Stevens told the Washington Post.

October 14, 2017 addition: If your nonprofit organization says a prayer before meetings or events, says the Pledge of Allegiance to the USA flag, has trainings where recruits run behind a USA flag and chant, etc., and you want to be a more welcoming organization to both immigrants and people of a variety of religious and non-religious practices and political beliefs, you should reconsider those activities as official parts of your organization’s activities. If you are a religiously-affiliated organization, and state this as a part of your mission, then religious practices as a part of your organization’s activities are to be expected. If your organization is focused on patriotism or loyalty to the USA, and state this as a part of your mission, then nationalistic practices as a part of your organization’s activities are to be expected (remember:the US military allows certain undocumented immigrants to serve, and those service men and women most certainly run behind a USA flag – and know that expectation going in!). But if you don’t have such statements in your mission statement, and if you want to be a welcoming organization to a diversity of people, you need to rethink these religious and nationalistic activities – they might feel affirming to you and might give you pride regarding your own religion, beliefs or country affiliation, but they might feel exclusionary, uncomfortable – even xenophobia – to others, such as people who are from other countries and, while legal residents of the USA, aren’t citizens, people who are of a religion that disallows such ceremonial activities, people who are of a religion different than that from which the prayer comes, people who are not religious, people who have had negative experiences with nationalistic agendas, and on and on. See Making certain volunteers feel unwelcomed because of your language and Do you welcome people with your language? for more on the subject of being welcoming organization.

Here are more resources from other organizations regarding immigrants as volunteers:

  • National Volunteer Week: How Much Do Immigrants Volunteer? “Volunteering has long been shown to bring stability to neighborhoods and increase the level of cohesion and bonding among friends and neighbors. In communities with large immigrant populations, these are particularly desirable attributes, and places like New York City have already increased efforts to incorporate immigrants into social and political volunteerism… Our analysis produced some interesting takeaways that can help advocates and community leaders inspire more immigrants to join organizations—and, in turn, get more out of their participation.” From the New American Economy Action Fund
  • Increasing Knowledge Related to the Experiences of Undocumented Immigrants in Public Schools. This article describes the experiences of school personnel working with undocumented immigrants in public schools and the opinions and attitudes of school personnel. It was published in Educational Leadership and Administration: Teaching and Program Development, Volume 24, January 2013, ISSN 1532-0723 © 2013 California Association of Professors of Educational Administration
  • Parental Involvement in Schools. “Students with parents who are involved in their school tend to have fewer behavioral problems and better academic performance, and are more likely to complete high school than students whose parents are not involved in their school. Positive effects of parental involvement have been demonstrated at both the elementary and secondary levels across several studies, with the largest effects often occurring at the elementary level. A recent meta-analysis showed that parental involvement in school life was more strongly associated with high academic performance for middle schoolers than helping with homework. Involvement allows parents to monitor school and classroom activities, and to coordinate their efforts with teachers to encourage acceptable classroom behavior and ensure that the child completes schoolwork. Teachers of students with highly involved parents tend to give greater attention to those students, and they are more likely to identify at earlier stages problems that might inhibit student learning. Parental involvement in school, and positive parent-teacher interactions, have also been found to positively affect teachers’ self-perception and job satisfaction.”

October 18, 2017 update: The Daily Mail in the UK has an article about volunteering by asylum seekers in Italy and how the practice has been both praised and panned. Some see it as an opportunity for asylum seekers to do something positive and break with boredom, some see it as exploitation of asylum seekers, and some see it as stealing paid jobs, because the asylum seekers are doing for free what people in Italy are usually paid for. Susan Ellis and Rob Jackson do a great job of exploring the issue in depth. My own thoughts: Just picking up trash together – but never interacting with local people – doesn’t help much in terms of integration of refugees. Couldn’t there be a volunteering action that brings together both local people and refugees? I am sympathetic to labor unions – there are politicians who will look for a way for volunteers to do what paid people are doing, so that they can cut funding – it does happen. But surely there are plenty of things refugees-as-volunteers can do that paid people aren’t doing? I can look around my own community right now and see all sorts of things refugees could so as volunteers that no one is being paid to do and that would most certainly help them integrate right here in this small Oregon town – I would imagine Italy could do the same.

Update December 1, 2017Young refugees keen to volunteer in Australia

Here are more of my resources on related topics:

volunteer engagement to promote social cohesion, prevent extremism?

social cohesionThere will be a conference in Brussels, Belgium on 13 October 2016 regarding the possible role of volunteer engagement in promoting inclusion and preventing extremism.

Examples from across Europe and beyond, such as from South Africa, Colombia and Algeria, will be reviewed to explore ways that volunteerism has contributed to building trust and social cohesion. The conference will also discuss elements and factors that are essential for success in such endeavors. The examples will be included in a publication that “will offer analysis of the challenges faced in Europe concerning social inclusion and the risks of extremism from different belief groups and explain how the volunteer projects contribute to addressing these issues.”

The conference is being promoted by the European Volunteer Centre (CEV), supported by the European Commission. The event will be organised in the framework of the Slovak Presidency of the Council of the European Union and with the support of London House and Team London (European Volunteering Capital 2016).

There are lots of ways for an organization that involves volunteers to be thinking about inclusiveness in its volunteer engagement, even if social cohesion or community building isn’t explicitly stated in its mission. For instance:

Also see these related resources:

What do NGOs understand that USA nonprofits don’t?

Last week, I got to be a part of the program for a group visiting Portland through the US State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). It was the fourth time I’ve gotten to be a part of the program over the years – the first time was in Austin, Texas, back in the 1990s. This time, visitors were from Egypt, Afghanistan, Liberia, Tunisia, Latvia, Greece, Mexico, El Salvador, Morocco, South Africa, Cameroon, the Philippines, Ethiopia, and more.

Talking with leaders of NGOs from all over the world is incredibly energizing – for me, it feels like coming home. Many are stunned that I’ve been to their countries – or that I even know where their countries are, what language they speak there, etc., in contrast to so many people in the USA. I’m sorry to sound the snob, but my fellow citizens are notorious worldwide for our ignorance about the rest of the planet, and not even having a passport, and I’m proud to be in contrast to that stereotype.

(just last week, I had to explain to a very close friend what the European Union was – she’s a very intelligent person, but if none of the news outlets ever mention the EU, how would she know what it is?).

This time with the IVLP, I was part of a small group of members from the Northwest Oregon Volunteer Administrators Association (NOVAA); instead of a traditional workshop, we divided up and each spent time with three people, for 20 minutes, talking about volunteer engagement, and would switch to a new group every 20 minutes. It allowed me to get one-on-one time with more than half the NGO representatives, and that’s always delightful. Many of the problems they face regarding volunteer engagement are the same as anywhere: trouble mainitaining volunteer motivation, volunteers not finishing assignments, too many volunteers one day and not enough another, etc. I hope they found my references helpful – hard to address everything in just 20 minutes!

One moment for me that I particularly loved: how integral social media is for many of these NGOs in working with volunteers. I loved hearing about all the ways they recruit, interact with and support volunteers using various social media tools, reaching volunteers via their phones as much, if not more, than via their computers – all said that, for the most part, email is dead for their young volunteers (people under 40) altogether. These NGOs haven’t needed workshops or conferences to convince them these tools are valuable; they’ve seen their value immediately. When I told them just how many nonprofits here in the USA refuse to use Facebook, Twitter, or other social media tools to work with volunteers, about how, if nonprofits here do decide to use such, they often give social media responsibilities to interns and senior management stays away from such, and how often I’ve had hostile reactions to the tech practices that these NGOs, by contrast, have fully embraced, they were floored. And they laughed. A lot. And when I told them that, in Oregon, in the supposedly oh-so-tech-savvy Portland area, I have had women younger than me say, “Oh, I don’t have email, so send that to my husband’s/daughter’s address, and he/she will print it out for me to read,” their jaws dropped.

True, many of these NGOs aren’t recruiting ethnic minorities, religious minorities and other marginalized groups as volunteers in their countries – and don’t see why they should have to make volunteering more accessible to such. They don’t see who they might be leaving out as volunteers by totally abandoning offline recruitment and support methods. In short, their volunteer engagement is not perfect and needs to further modernized, especially in terms of being inclusive – but what they are doing in terms of leveraging networked technologies in recruiting, involving and supporting volunteers is far, far ahead of what most nonprofits are doing in the USA. And all I can say is: WELL DONE. And keep teaching me!

Another big emphasis for these NGOs in particular is involving young people as volunteers – young people who are unemployed or under-employed, people under 40 with some education but who cannot find jobs. These NGOs see volunteer engagement with young people as a way not only to build the skills of those young people so that they can get jobs – or even start their own businesses – but also to give these young people a sense of civic responsibility and community connection beyond protesting in the streets. I was happy to help address some of these ideas in my very limited conversations, and welcomed their online inquiries so I can send them to further resources.

And, finally, I apologize to the guys from West Africa who were offended I hadn’t been to any of their countries yet (I’m trying!), and if the guy from the Philippines does not send me the photo he took of myself and the guy from Afghanistan wearing the cowboy that he bought in Texas, with both of us making the “hook ’em horns” sign, I will be DEVASTATED.

POSTSCRIPT: Not devastated.

For more information about my training.

Also see:

Before you create that online profile… do you want to keep it?

Each time you create a profile on any service — Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Twitter, whatever – you have to use an email address for that profile.

Choose that email address carefully, because it could determine whether or not you get to keep that profile once you leave your organization or agency.

More and more, staff members across organizations – not just the marketing department – are creating online profiles and participating in online groups and social media as a part of their work. An organization’s IT staff might be participating on the TechSoup Community to talk about their approaches to choosing hardware or tools to ensure system security. An agency’s human resources staff may be on an online community for other HR managers, to discuss the latest legislation and court rulings affecting the workplace. An agency’s program director may be on Facebook and Twitter to interact with people participating the agency’s services, classes, whatever.

When that staff member leaves the organization or agency, the tech waters can get quite muddy over who owns those online profiles. Often, it’s not the content of the profile that determines who owns such – it’s what email address was used to register that profile.

If there is any chance you will want to keep any online profile after you leave an organization, don’t register that profile using your organization’s email address.

In an article by Society for Human Resource Management, entitled, Ownership of Social Media Accounts Should Be Clarified in Agreements, Jim Thomas, an attorney with Minor & Brown in Denver (whose No Funny Lawyers Blog has been listed as one of the top 25 U.S. business law blogs according to LexisNexis) offers advice regarding company ownership of employee online activities. He notes in that article:

The clearest case for employer ownership will be an employee who uses other employees to maintain his or her accounts,” Thomas stated. “Beyond that, indicators will be use of employer e-mail addresses, employer standardized or coordinated formats (this is what your page should look like) or approaches to social media (coordinated campaigns); employer-provided photos and/or content; employer-provided passwords or passwords that are shared with the employer; employees who are allowed to use employer computers to use social media during working hours. Not that any one of these or even all of them will be dispositive.

The best advice is to have frank conversations with your supervisor, and to get clear policies from senior management, regarding who owns employee social media activities, and how accounts will be handled if you depart the organization. And you will have to have more such conversations and agreements every time your supervisor or senior staff changes, if policies aren’t in writing.

My Twitter Lists

One of the things I really like about Twitter is that I don’t have to follow absolutely everyone whose tweets I might be interested in reading at some point; 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.

I make my Twitter lists public – anyone can see them. I’m also sharing them below – I thought you might like to see what they are, either to find someone you should be following, to subscribe to any of these lists or maybe to finally get you on Twitter at long last.

People and organizations that tweet about Afghanistan. I’ll always care about Afghanistan…

Aid work & Dev
Organizations working development, aid and humanitarian response in developing/transitional countries.

Corporate social responsibility and social entrepreneurship, including pro bono help

My professional and volunteering colleagues (if you aren’t on this list, and we’ve worked together at some point in some way, and you are on Twitter, please let me know!)

Info & orgs in Spain & Latin America, or any site I follow that tweets in español, all related to some subject I follow (aid work and development, tech4good/ICT4D, tourism for good, CSR, FOSS, etc.)

Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) – vendors, distributors, volunteers and advocates.

International NGOs
Major international non-governmental organizations I’m particularly interested in.

Nonprofit associations
City, state & regional nonprofit associations in the USA.

Portland, Oregon & Pacifc Northwest Tweeters I follow.

Tech4Good ICT4D
Also #nptech, apps for good. Organizations and individuals engaged in activities that use computer, software and Internet technology to help individuals, communities and the environment.

Organizations promoting tourism for good, or tourism for development.

Women & Girls Empowerment
Orgs & tweeters re women & girls empowerment/rights

Vol Research
Research regarding volunteerism and/or community engagement

Volunteerism non-English
Volunteer info & orgs that do not tweet English (but tweet in Spanish, French, Portuguese, or anything I can sorta kinda figure out)

For Volunteers
If you want to / are a volunteer. If you tweet about your volunteering activities, the things you do as a volunteer, contact me and let me know. If you are an organization focused primarily on volunteers (you have developed a web site or app to help people find volunteering opportunities, for instance), let me know.

Volunteer recruit/manage
For those that work with volunteers – for managers of volunteers, and for organizations that regularly tweet regarding their volunteers.

Promoting or researching the concept of volunteers/community help.

If you want to be on any of these lists, please contact me. And if you are interested in the subjects I am, or want to know what I’m up to, I hope you will follow me on Twitter!

Why Your Organization Probably Doesn’t Need A Facebook Page

An excellent blog: Why Your Company Probably Doesn’t Need A Facebook Page

I completely agree. And I think it’s true for many nonprofits, NGOs, community agenices and other organizations as well.

Shocked? Don’t be. Facebook is a great, appropriate outreach / engagement tool for many organizations – and a complete waste of time for others, as this blog explores.

Consider this: maybe all of your volunteers are on Facebook – but they don’t want to mix their Facebook activities with their volunteering. Offline, I don’t always feel comfortable talking about what I do as a volunteer at work with colleagues, or when I’m socializing with friends – perhaps I feel the same way online.

Having a booth at the local county fair might be a great way to create awareness about whatever issue your nonprofit is concerned with, or as a way to recruit volunteers – and might be a complete waste of time for others.

Same for putting an ad in the local newspaper.

Same for doing a PSA on a local radio station.

Same for putting a billboard up on a highway.

How do you know which outreach or engagement tool is right for your organization? Through knowing your potential audiences, through observing online activities by other organizations similar to your organization or also serving a similar community, and through asking your current clients, donors and volunteers how they heard about your organization and how they do or don’t want to use social media with your organization. Through experimenting. Through trial and error.

That said, if you are on Facebook, and want to use Facebook as a way to learn about effective volunteer / community engagement, about nonprofit / NGO management, about aid and development, or about my work, I would love for you to like my Facebook page. But it’s worth noting that a LOT of my friends haven’t done this, because they don’t like mixing work and fun (and they see their Facebook activities as purely for fun).

And if you are on Twitter, and want to use it for those similar reasons, I would love for you to follow me on Twitter. But, again, a LOT of my friends haven’t done this, because they don’t like mixing work and fun (and they see their Twitter activities as purely for fun).

January 5, 2017 update

I still believe 90% of this blog – and the blogs I link to in this blog. My only change is this: your nonprofit does need a page on Facebook, just to “own” your organization’s online real estate – the name of your organization on Facebook. This will mean people can find you on Facebook –  yes, they are probably looking for you, and are angry when they cannot find you – and it will also prevent someone else from creating a page for your organization without your knowledge. But if you aren’t going to publish a status update on Facebook at least once a week, if you aren’t going to mark “like” on every single comment made on your status updates, if you aren’t going to respond to questions and criticisms made on your status updates, then say so: publish a status update that says your organization does not regularly update its Facebook status update, and the best way to know what your organization is up to is… what? Check the web site regularly? Follow you on Twitter instead? Also, publish your email address in that one-and-only status update, and note that it’s the best way to reach you. Finally, set your privacy settings so that no one can post on your Facebook page, and so that if anyone mentions your organization on their own Facebook status update it doesn’t show up on your page.

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.

LinkedIn for Nonprofits? The Good & Bad

I love LinkedIn. It’s how I stay connected with so many of the colleagues I’ve worked with or presented with over the years, or people whose work I am intensely familiar with (and who know a great deal about my work as well).

What’s kept LinkedIn so valuable for me is that I don’t connect to just anyone on LinkedIn; I reserve my connections there for real colleagues – employees or volunteers, doesn’t matter – and treat their contact information there as oh-so-precious. It’s my online address book for current and former co-workers. If it went away, I’d be lost, as it’s my professional address book and my way to know who is where.

I appreciate all my LinkedIn colleagues who gateway their Twitter feeds to their LinkedIn status – that way, I can more easily catch up with what they are up to without having to subscribe to their Twitter feeds.

I tolerate LinkedIn groups. They are clunky: hard to navigate, bury discussions, make it hard to see who else is a member, and are severely limited (you are limited in how many discussions you can actually join). But worst of all, the content seems to be mostly pleas for employment, rather than substantive discussions/debates. YahooGroups is a MUCH better platform for discussion – easier to use, more features, allows much more control by individual members in terms of how they receive messages, and many of the groups are rich in content.

I would love it if more organizations would put their events in the LinkedIn event feature. Then everyone who is attending – including those who are presenting – could show via LinkedIn that they are attending, which is then seen by everyone they follow, and which then might lead to even greater attendance.

I appreciate that LinkedIn has a section for users to input their volunteer experience. But I don’t use it. Why? Because whether or not I was paid to head a project, manage other people, facilitate an online event or represent an organization shouldn’t matter in terms of my profile; the nature of that work, that accomplishment, that leadership should be what’s most important. Why should some of the best work I’ve done be segregated elsewhere on my profile merely because I wasn’t paid to do it?

Is LinkedIn of use for nonprofits and NGOs? Of course! In addition to what I’ve said above, it’s also a great way to review new people you are connecting with elsewhere – on Facebook, that you meet at this or that reception or read about in a newspaper article and think, hey, that might be a a great candidate for our marketing position (paid or volunteer – doesn’t matter!), or as a possible board member.  

But a word of advice: never email someone you have never met with an invitation to be a board member at your organization, no matter how great their profile is on LinkedIn. You need to make sure this person is going to be a good match at your organization before you offer him or her a leadership role, and that takes interviews and reference checks.

Should you use LinkedIn as I do? Maybe. Maybe not. My point with all of the above isn’t so much to say, use it like me, but to say: think strategically about how you use it, at least review all of the various features, and test many of them for yourself as well, to see if they are worthwhile for YOU, specifically.

Also see:

Pro Bono / In-Kind / Donated Services for Mission-Based Organizations:
When, Why & How?

Short-term assignments for tech volunteers

An Afghan strategy shows my conversion to Twitter

When Twitter got started several years ago, it was a tool meant to be used via text messaging on your cell phone. That meant that, every time you got a message via Twitter, your phone vibrated or made a sound.

And that’s why I stayed away from it. That’s way, way more information I want via cell phone text messaging. And I wasn’t the only one that felt that way: I talked to nonprofits who told me they were abandoning their Twitter feeds in those early days because their volunteers and other supporters were complaining: we do NOT want this many text messages from you.

But just as Facebook went from being primarily an online dating tool for university students to an online social networking tool for everyone, Twitter has become a way for people to send and receive very targeted information – because it’s accessed primarily via a web browser or cell phone app rather than cell phone text messaging. Now, unlike its early days, Twitter reminds me so much of USENET newsgroups, the online communities that preceded the web and launched me into cyberspace (back in the 1990s, I checked my newsgroups before email!).

I hadn’t realized how far my conversion to Twitter was until I was midway through creating a strategy last weekend regarding Twitter use for an Afghanistan government ministry initiative. I never would have written this strategy two years ago!

And my point is: you have to be ready to revisit online tools. What may not be right for you now may be right for you in a couple of years. And what you are using now may be replaced by something better.

It’s annoying, I know: right after I had fully invested in an online profile on MySpace, including a blog focused specifically on youth volunteer engagement, people started abandoning MySpace in droves for Facebook. All that time and effort, down the drain… but I’m sure organizations that fully invested in their America Online profiles and communities back in the 1990s felt the same way when the World Wide Web really took off.

In case you are wondering: why did I recommend that an Afghan government initiative adopt Twitter?

  • Afghan government ministries have trouble thinking of their web sites as something that needs to change daily, even hourly. Adding a Twitter feed on the home page and other key web pages of this initiative will automatically make its web site dynamic – updated with every Tweet.
  • This government initiative needs to communicate much more effectively with current donors and international donors – and many of those international agencies and foreign government offices are very active Twitter users. They will still send their reports and meeting invitations, but now, they will also give very short, regular updates – and that’s just what the donors want.
  • This initiative needs urgently to communicate better with the press. And the press in Afghanistan is really tired of press conferences and 10 page press releases.
  • This initiative needs to learn to say why it’s great (and it is) in 140 characters or less. Afghan government workers are some of the most verbose writers you will ever encounter. I attribute that to a combination of Persian poetic roots and United Nations training. I’m hoping Twitter use will contribute to them writing more effective messages in all of their communications.
  • The initiative staff needs to read what is being said about its work beyond local newspapers, if they want to know what international donors are thinking.

My goal with the strategy is to get the staff at this initiative up and using Twitter as soon as possible, and to keep their use as effective and worthwhile. So my strategy included:

  • What to write as the program’s Twitter user name – and why.
  • The wording for the program’s Twitter bio – and why those specific words were important (word choice is important, so that people looking for certain key words will find their profile).
  • The Twitter feeds for this initiative to follow, at least at first, and why (which I hope will guide the staff regarding future follow choices). It’s about 200 Twitter feeds – and, yes, I carefully chose each of them.
  • Exactly what to do during their first 48 hours on Twitter.
  • Tweets for the first five days.
  • What to tweet after those first five days.
  • Tags to use, and not to use – and why.
  • Best days to tweet (best days are NOT Thursday afternoons, Fridays or Saturdays, which are the Afghan weekend), as well as best times of day (late morning is best to reach Europe, late afternoon is best to reach North America).
  • Tips for avoiding bad PR on Twitter (how to be supportive of the nation and the government without getting political, the importance of keeping personal info off the Twitter feed like “here are photos from my vacation in India!”, choosing whom to follow, etc.).
  • Why it’s important to check to see who has mentioned the agency on Twitter, and how to find direct messages on Twitter.
  • What activity is public on Twitter (pretty much everything!).

I spent about an hour dreaming up example Tweets for almost each advice item above. That was fun. It involved poppies.

What about communicating with Afghan citizens? That certainly will happen too with this Twitter feed, with affluent Afghans, even if that’s not the primary purpose of the Tweets. While cell phone permeation is shockingly high in Afghanistan, even among farmers and ranchers (Bloomberg News, April 2010), I doubt many will follow via cell phone text messaging – and the numbers are still relatively small (because of literacy and remoteness). Should the ministry create a separate Twitter feed to reach those farmers and ranchers specifically via text messages? Maybe! But first, this ministry needs to use Twitter with donors and the press, IMO, so they can hone their messaging skills. And when they’re ready, I hope I get to help with other strategies as well.

Will this government ministry go for it and start using Twitter? If they do, I will announce it on my own Twitter feed. Stay tuned…

Benefitting from Internet Use Requires a Change in Mindset

Ever since reading the Cluetrain Manefesto back in the 1990s, I’ve known that embracing the Internet as an interactive tool – not an online brochure or a press release distribution system – takes a changed mindset. Same for online volunteering – the key to success is a changed mindset that thinks about volunteers very differently than free labor that comes in, does things no one else wants to do and leaves.

On that note is this excellent blog about “strategic digital communication” – it’s tips are of value for all nonprofits, NGOs, government agencies and other community-focused organization, not just arts organizations.

So if you think you might be ready to re-build your website, stop. Think about digitally engaging your constituents instead. And if you’ve hired a website redesign shop or a technology shop, put them on hold: you need to work with a digital communications firm instead.

Or, if not a digital communications firm – which many of the nonprofits I work with could never possibly afford – start bringing together volunteers and clients and asking them how they use the Internet for fun, for their work, and regarding subjects that are essential to them. And thinking about what activities online outreach should inspire/launch/grow.