Tag Archives: support

Volunteering, by itself, isn’t enough to save the world

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteers

Like so many communities across the USA, the town where I live has many, many homeless people: people, including children, who are couch surfing, living in cars, sleeping in public spaces or sleeping in shelters, because they have no space of their own. There is a patchwork of organizations trying to help them with basic, immediate needs, and I attended a presentation by one of the organizations trying to offer temporary shelter – and by temporary, I mean both temporary for people that will stay there and temporary in their own existence. One of the slides in her presentation had a list of all of the many things different agencies were doing to assist the homeless. But there was also this warning on the slide: None of which will go to preventing or ending homelessness. And that included the temporary shelter her organization was providing, and all of the volunteers helping in such.  

In Houston, we’ve seen all sorts of people volunteering to help people get to temporary shelters, to feed people in those shelters, to evacuate people from their flood ravaged homes and cars, to get animals to safety, and on and on. And that’s not just nice, that’s necessary, and I’m so grateful that I live in a country where people are so willing to donate their time. But volunteers could not do this alone, and eventually, disaster-response volunteers are going to go home, and there are going to be thousands of homeless people and animals who are going to need ongoing, continuing assistance, even as volunteers leave the area.

I love volunteerism, and I don’t trust nonprofits that don’t involve such. I think volunteers are critical for nonprofits, schools and government agencies – and not for saving money. I am passionate about the critical role volunteers can play in a range of issues and services. Again, they aren’t just nice – they are necessary.

However, I also believe we need more than only – solely – volunteers to keep schools open and of high quality, to keep water clean, to keep hike and bike trails safe, to help the homeless, to address drug abuse, to give children the safety nets they need to navigate their life into adulthood, to promote the arts, to address youth violence, to respond to disasters, and on and on. Full-time, fully funded experts are needed. Initiatives solely, completely dedicated to certain issues are needed – and these initiatives must have funding. I have been begging nonprofits and schools, for years, to tell government officials and corporate philanthropy folks explicitly that, while volunteers are great, money is ALSO needed, to meet the needs of the community. We cannot do all that needs to be done in our spare time, donating just a few hours a month. The last time I was fully on this soapbox on my blog was in 2011, regarding the UK’s “Big Society” movement.

I have often gotten a very cold reception because I don’t embrace the idea that serious community and environmental issues can be fully addressed by people giving a few hours whenever they might have some time to spare, as volunteers. I’ve even been accused of being anti-volunteer, which, given the amount of time and effort I give to promoting volunteer engagement and best practices for such, is ridiculous.

In July 2000, The New York Times published “The Vanity of Volunteerism,” by Sara Mosle. She taught public school for three years, and after she left that profession, mentored four of her former students for a few years. She writes about her experience in her Times’ piece and weaves into her account statistics and feedback about the growing expectation of the US government for volunteers to fill in the gaps in service left by the federal government withdrawing support for nonprofits, state governments and government social services. She quotes people and sources that note that the need for social services was increasing at the time, but donations and government financing didn’t increase, and volunteering wasn’t enough to fill the gaps. She also talks about the negative consequences for clients of nonprofits, schools and social service agencies of more and more people engaging in episodic volunteering – what we now call offline microvolunteering – instead of long-term, high-responsibility traditional volunteering.

The piece also references the Presidents’ Summit on America’s Future in Philadelphia, a three-day event that was aimed at boosting volunteerism and community service efforts across the USA. President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, former Presidents George Bush, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter and retired Gen. Colin Powell all participated. I blogged about the 20th anniversary of that summit earlier this year.

Below is an excerpt from the 2000 New York Times article. Sara Mosle was singing the same song as me back in 2000, and I think her article’s statements, and the circumstances of nonprofits, need to be revisited. Note: the piece refers to Impact Online, and that is the original name of what is now VolunteerMatch. Also, the bolded text is my emphasis, not the article’s:


For more than a decade, politicians and civic leaders have been looking to volunteers like me to take over the government’s role in providing vital services to the poor. Although the movement arguably began in 1988 with the candidate George Bush’s invocation of ”a thousand points of light” as a response to Reagan-era cutbacks in social spending, it has been embraced by the current Democratic administration, which has continued those cutbacks, and culminated in the 1997 President’s Summit for America’s Future in Philadelphia, where President Clinton and Gen. Colin Powell touted the power of volunteerism. Now George W. Bush has picked up his father’s theme of ”a kinder, gentler” America by pushing ”charitable choice” — the provision in the 1996 welfare reform bill that allows faith-based organizations to contract with government to provide social services to the poor. (Al Gore supports it, too, though less vigorously.)

”Compassionate conservatives” would probably claim that I am the kind of ”caring adult” who can transform the lives of disadvantaged kids more effectively than any government program. I’m all for volunteering, but I would disagree. While I don’t doubt that I have had some positive effects on my kids’ lives — studies show that mentoring can reduce dropout rates and drug use among teenagers — they have mostly been of the ”boosting self-esteem” variety that conservatives, in other contexts, usually disdain. Besides, I’m not a very good volunteer. To work, mentoring has to be performed consistently, over a sustained period of time and preferably one on one. For the first couple of years, I saw my kids as often as twice a week. But now I’m lucky if I see them once a month, and I almost never see them individually. In their lives, I’m less a caring adult than a random one. And my failure is representative.

Although 55 percent of Americans reported that they volunteered at some point in 1998 — a 7 percent rise over 1995 — this jump does little more than recover ground that was lost in the early 1990’s and represents just a 1 percent increase over 1989. Moreover, the total number of hours that people are giving has actually declined. ”It’s a new trend,” says Sara Melendez, the president of Independent Sector, which compiled this data. ”People are volunteering, but when they do, it’s more of a one-shot deal — half a day one Saturday, instead of once a week for x number of weeks.” Overall, Americans donated 400 million fewer hours in 1998 than they did in 1995.

Consequently, while Powell has made recruiting 100,000 new mentors a top priority of America’s Promise, his volunteer outfit, there is little evidence that people are sufficiently answering his call. In New York, for instance, Big Brothers/Big Sisters receives just 4,000 inquiries each year from potential mentors. Of these, two-thirds never follow up once they learn they have to commit to seeing their kids at least twice a month. Another 700 lose interest after the initial training session or are eliminated through the program’s rigorous screening process. Only 600 people ever become mentors — this in a city with more than one million schoolchildren — and nationally, the program has a waiting list of some 50,000 kids.

To help nonprofits cope with this new unreliable work force, groups like Impact Online and New York Cares have sprung up that act like temp agencies, matching the interests (and busy schedules) of what might be called the impulse volunteer — someone with an urge to give but only a few hours to kill — with openings, arranged by time slot and geographical location. But this Filofax approach to giving often robs volunteerism of the very thing that was supposed to recommend it over government in the first place — namely, the personal connection that develops when you regularly visit, say, the same homebound AIDS patient.

And in a volunteer’s market, not every need has a buyer. ”People will come in and do a project — a school painting, a school wiring — and think they’ve done a good service and go away,” says Paul Clolery, editor of The NonProfit Times. ”But it’s not the type of traditional, week-in and week-out volunteering that a lot of organizations really need.”…

The experience of Meals on Wheels in Dallas is typical. It can’t find enough volunteers to commit to even a few hours a month to help deliver meals to the city’s elderly shut-ins. ”People can’t get away during the middle of the day,” says Helen Bruant, the program’s director. ”So, they ask, ‘Why don’t you deliver in the evenings?’ Well, we looked at that. But for a lot of our clients, this is their only meal. They eat half at lunch and save the other half for dinner. Plus, it’s not good for the elderly to eat a big meal at the end of the day.” Therefore, the program must hire 30 percent of its drivers. Even paying people, Bruant cannot find enough help. ”We can’t compete with McDonald’s,” she says…” Yet, if anything, the need is increasing. ”The aged population has grown by leaps and bounds in the last decade,” Bruant says, ”but giving and government financing haven’t increased.”

As a result, the heads of some of the most reputable nonprofits — the United Way, the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities — have reported that they can’t keep up with rising demand for their services. ”We’re having to turn people away, or ration portions, to stretch supplies,” says Deborah Leff, the president of America’s Second Harvest, the nation’s largest network of soup kitchens. And while charitable giving is up sharply, the growth has not kept pace with reductions in government aid to the poor. ”People have replaced some of it with volunteering, some of it with cash, but not all of it,” says Richard Steinberg, a professor of economics at the joint campus of Indiana and Purdue Universities in Indianapolis…

end of excerpt

September 14, 2017 update: wow, someone must have been inspired by my blog:
Bill Gates: Don’t expect charities to pick up the bill for Trump’s sweeping aid cuts.

Also see:

Request to all those training re: volunteer management

Are you teaching a volunteer management 101 class, where you talk about the basics of successfully managing volunteers?

Are you going to teach a workshop on how to identify tasks for volunteers?

Are you going to teach a workshop on how to recruit volunteers?

Are you going to teach a workshop on how to keep volunteers engaged/volunteer retainment?

Are you going to teach a workshop on how to recognize/honor volunteers?

If you said yes to any of these questions, then here’s a thought. Actually, it’s a very strong suggestion: you absolutely should include virtual volunteering, whether or not you ever say the phrase virtual volunteering. You absolutely should talk about how to use the Internet – email, a web site, social media, third-party web sites – in each and every aspect of those basics of volunteer management. No exceptions. No excuses.

Consider this: no high-quality marketing workshop about event promotion would not talk about the Internet. No high-quality HR seminar or webinar would talk about worker recruitment and not talk about the Internet. No high-quality management class about better-supporting large numbers of employees in their work would not talk about digital networking tools. So why do those that work with volunteers settle for volunteer management workshops, even on the most basic subject, that don’t integrate into the class the Internet use regarding supporting and involving volunteers?

I hear a lot of excuses for consultants and other workshop leaders who don’t talk about Internet tools in a course regarding the management of volunteers:

  • The volunteer managers I’m working with don’t work with volunteers that use the Internet or text messing
  • The volunteer managers I’m working with are at organizations focused on the arts or the environment or animals or homelessness and therefore don’t need to talk about the Internet or text messaging
  • There’s a separate workshop for talking about digital tools
  • The volunteer managers I’m working with have volunteers that are over 55

ARGH! Not one of those excuses is valid for not integrating talk of the Internet throughout any volunteer workshop addressing basic topics like recruitment, retainment, task identification, etc. NOT ONE. In fact, I think anyone who attends a workshop on working with volunteers, especially a volunteer management 101 course, whether hosted by a volunteer center, a nonprofit support center, or a college or university, whether online or onsite, should ask for at least a partial refund if virtual volunteering is not fully integrated into the course (it’s either not mentioned at all or is briefly mentioned at the end of the class). There is NO excuse for this, it shows a lack of competency on the part of the workshop leader and it’s time to demand better!

As Susan Ellis and I note in The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, virtual volunteering should not be a separate topic amid discussions about volunteer engagement and management. Instead, virtual volunteering needs to be fully integrated into all such discussions and trainings. No more segregation at the end of the book or workshop! The consequences of not integrating Internet use into volunteer management 101 workshops? It ill-prepares people for working with volunteers. It also immediately contributes to the stereotype that nonprofits are out-of-touch and old-fashioned.

vvbooklittleWe called it The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook not because we don’t think there will be more to say about virtual volunteering in the future, not because we don’t think there will be new developments on the subject, but because we really hope it’s the last book focused only on virtual volunteering, because we hope all books written about working with volunteers, whether in general or regarding a very specific part of the management of volunteers, like mentoring or risk management or recruitment or board member support or whatever, will now fully integrate the use of the Internet/digital tools in their suggestions. We hope that every workshop on any aspect of volunteer management, and every certificate regarding the management of volunteers, will fully integrate the various uses of the Internet in their suggestions. There’s no excuse not to!

Initial feedback on UNV plan to integrate volunteerism in development

United Nations Volunteers has proposed a plan to further integrate volunteering in peace and development action. UNV is now collecting feedback on the Zero Draft to revise it before submission to the UN General Assembly in 2015.

I’m still digesting the report, but at first read, the two recommendations that got me the most excited/agitated:

  • Strengthen the evidence base for the impact of volunteerism through concerted research…


  • Exchange practices in the areas of volunteer management, safety and security, innovative approaches such as online volunteering, inclusion of marginalized…

Regarding the research recommendation – hurrah! Research is so needed, particularly regarding what works, and what doesn’t, in

  • engaging groups of volunteers onsite in one-time, just show up activities – not just park cleanups, but hackathons and edit-a-thons
  • involving youth as volunteers,
  • involving teams of volunteers online
  • microvolunteering online
  • involving volunteers from other countries (organizations wanting to or expecting to host such volunteers need guidance on assignment development, necessary support for volunteers, training for those that will work with such volunteers, etc.)
  • measuring the impact of non-traditional volunteer engagement, such as hackathons and edit-a-thons, group volunteering, and episodic/microvolunteering (online or onsite), on the participating volunteers, on the organizations they support, on the causes they support, and on the communities in general
  • involving volunteers that represent a range of cultures and languages in group volunteering, online volunteering (particularly in teams), and traditional volunteering (commitment of more than just a few days, with a set time and place to be regularly)
  • recruiting volunteers from among ethnic and religious minority groups and creating a welcoming environment for such
  • using volunteering as a way to build cultural understanding among different religious, ethnic, economic or age groups
  • the costs of involving volunteers (because, of course, volunteers are never cost free; there are costs associated with engagement them)

I hope there can also be a promotion of the growing body of research regarding online volunteering  / virtual volunteering.

Regarding the volunteer management recommendation: I’m even more excited about that than the research recommendation. Without more promotion of the necessary systems and practices needed to support and engage volunteers, no other action recommended in this plan will work – every other recommendation will be doomed to failure. For too long, campaigns have focused on encouraging people to volunteer, rather than helping organizations to involve volunteers. I’ve been recommending this action since I first became involve in UNV back in February 2001, while directing the UN’s Online Volunteering Service and managing the online components of the United Nations Information Technology Service (UNITeS). I can’t take the credit for it finally being a priority, however.

That said, I STRONGLY disagree with the suggestion from the report that, as a part of the promotion of volunteer management, that we:

Advocate for the implementation of  the methods suggested in the ILO  Manual for Volunteerism  measurement; Member States to integrate the ILO  methodology in their household surveys.

The ILO Manual has NOT been agreed to as the measurement of volunteerism by most volunteer-involving organizations. Far from it; the ILO manual uses the old-fashioned, highly controversial method of measuring volunteerism by assigning a monetary value to volunteer hours. This kind of measurement for the value of volunteerism is something that has caused a tremendous backlash from unions and other working people, who see this as fuel for corporations and governments to say to nonprofits and non-governmental organizations, “Cut paid staff and replace them with volunteers.” Did UNV learn NOTHING from the backlash from the UK’s “Big Society” push which used a similar measurement for the value of volunteers?

There are much better ways to measure the value of volunteers. It’s time for UNV to promote those more modern ways.

Also, volunteers as are not free, I would have liked to have seen this statement explicitly in the report. It would have been nice to see an explicit statement saying, “Corporations and governments have to be prepared to help fund organizations in the engagement of volunteers.”

I’ll be reading the report more thoroughly in the coming days and formally responding via UNV’s mechanism for such. I encourage you to do the same.

Growing backlash against volunteerism?

I first learned of people being against volunteerism back in 1997, when a three-day bipartisan presidential summit aimed at boosting volunteerism and community service efforts across the USA kicked off in Philadelphia.  I was directing the Virtual Volunteering Project at the time. There were arguments from both the far-right and the far-left, and I did my best to compile them. When I would bring up these arguments at various volunteerism conferences or on online groups, my colleagues usually just scoffed – it’s just extremists, it’s not something we need to worry about. 

Since then, I’ve kept an eye on these arguments against volunteerism, because I feel strongly that the arguments must be addressed. Organizations recruiting volunteers need to have these arguments in mind when they are crafting recruitment messages and when they are talking about the value of volunteers. When organizations ignore these arguments against volunteerism, or deny them, they end up with dysfunctional volunteer engagement programs, lack of support for volunteer engagement and, sometimes, very pad PR.

This came to mind over the weekend when I saw this comment in a friend’s Facebook feed:

I’d rather find the means of capitalization and pay people to do the work at hand than to bother with the volunteer work ethic or ability. I was never more personally insulted than as the president of the board of my church.

If you are talking about volunteer involvement as a way to save money, and volunteer contributions in terms of monetary value, then you are part of the problem – you are creating the fuel for these political arguments against volunteerism. And if you are not asking volunteers why they are leaving your organization, and addressing those reasons, you are creating ex-volunteers who are sharing their views with friends and colleagues and further creating a bad image not just for your organization, but for volunteering as a whole.

My other blogs and web pages on this controversy:

Note that the links within some blogs may not work, as I moved all of my blogs from Posterous to WordPress a few months ago, and it broke all of the internal links. Also, some web pages on other organization’s sites have moved since I linked to such, and I either don’t know or haven’t been able to find a new location for the material.

Nonprofits still struggling

An interesting note, per my last blog about my most popular blogs in 2012: even those weren’t as popular as an entry from December 2011: Survival Strategies for Nonprofits. Visitor numbers for that blog just keep getting higher and higher.

It doesn’t take much to know why: nonprofits, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other mission-based organizations are struggling. The recession is ending for much of the economy, but I think it will take another five years before nonprofits get to focus on expanding and experimenting again – not just surviving.

Also see:

Survival Strategies for Nonprofits , a guide for nonprofits facing critical budget shortfalls.

Volunteer Engagement the Roller Derby Way

logoSunday, I did an intensive, advanced training (as opposed to an introductory/basic training) for representatives from the roller derby leagues in Portland (the Rose City Rollers) and Seattle (Rat City Rollers) regarding volunteer management. These leagues involve several hundred volunteers – and have done so, quite effectively, for a few years now. Volunteers don’t just help at games; women’s roller derby has a particular focus on empowering women and girls, and most meets include fundraising components for a charity, which means volunteers are engaged in a huge range of activities.

But the rapid growth of these leagues – which shows no signs of abating – means that they don’t always have the procedures and policies in place to handle volunteer management challenges as they arise, or even how to identify issues long before they become bigger problems for the organizations. I hope that my training helped them to be able to access the resources they need to deal with specialized volunteer recruitment, board recruitment, volunteer conflict, keeping volunteers motivated, tracking volunteer information and contributions, and anticipate and address issues regarding volunteer engagement long before such becomes a program killer.

But with a staff made up of paid employees and volunteers, most of whom have NO training in working with volunteers, these leagues have done a remarkable job of engaging volunteers already.

What are people at these roller derby organizations doing that many traditional organizations that involve volunteers are not?

  • They have organizational-wide commitments to volunteers being satisfied with their experiences. Supporting and honoring volunteers is EVERYONE’S job. It never dawned on them that this should be just one person’s job at an organization, or that an employee could refuse to work with volunteers.
  • All staff work with volunteers. ALL STAFF. That means all staff — every paid person and all volunteers — create assignments for volunteers and/or work with volunteers. That means, even though there were just two organizations represented at this training, I wasn’t speaking to just two people: the designated volunteer coordinators. Instead, I was also talking to paid staff, volunteer staff, players, event volunteers, committee chairs, skating officials and on and on.
  • It never dawned on them to value volunteers purely by an hourly monetary amount, and some of them were actually offended by the idea. They acknowledge that it’s sometimes necessary for a grant application, but otherwise, they have much better reasons for saying they involve volunteers, and why volunteers are necessary to the organization.
  • They use every Internet tool and software tool they can find to work with and support volunteers – the value of such is obvious to them, with no need for a virtual volunteering workshop to convince them (as is with most traditional organizations).
  • Volunteers go to the same meetings as employees, and take leadership roles in coordinating events, reaching out to sponsors, selling merchandise, and representing the organization. You can’t tell who is or isn’t a volunteer just by a person’s title!
  • They didn’t blink over the phrase, “If a task can be done by a human, it can be done by a volunteer.” When I use that statement in a training for traditional organizations, there is often an uproar (which is why I use it – how I love stirring things up!). The Roller Derby reps reaction: “yes, and?”
  • They don’t look for ways to thank volunteers with regards to mugs and pins, or posters that say things like, “Volunteers are our angels!” They know what their volunteers want: real, sincere appreciation that permeates the organization, that doesn’t happen just on a volunteer appreciation luncheon that, at many other organizations, the board nor the Executive Director would even bother attending.
  • While they want to be great at handling conflict among staff, including volunteers, they completely accept that conflict and criticisms happen and have no fear of such (most orgs I work with want to know how to prevent all conflict and criticism).
  • They embrace the idea of most volunteers joining up because they want to have fun. They don’t think that’s a bad idea for volunteering.
  • They have an organization that welcomes people of all ages and all walks of life, and these organizations could probably lead their own workshop on how to creating a welcoming environment for teen volunteers, LGBT volunteers, low-income volunteers, homeless volunteers, volunteers with disabilities and various other groups that are under-represented at so many other organizations. It’s a workshop I would LOVE to attend!
  • Not once did I ever hear, “Oh, we’re not allowed to do that.” I hear that at least twice during presentations to other organizations. Not that these organizations don’t know and follow rules, like how to screen and supervise volunteers that will work with teens – but when it comes to ideas about new ways to work with volunteers, they never come from a place of fear.
  • They laughed heartily at my story of a certain online discussion group for volunteer managers in the USA that shall remain nameless having constant discussions about where to find examples of forms and policies (“Don’t they know how to use Google?”) or how to ban volunteers that have tattoos (I can’t repeat what was said re: this).

I got this gig because I did a presentation earlier this year for the Northwest Oregon Volunteer Administrators Association (NOVAA) on trends in volunteer engagement. NOVAA serves the greater Portland metropolitan area, including Vancouver, Washington. Afterwards, a woman came up, handed me a card, lauded me for my presentation and said, “You are soooo roller derby.”

As I learned from attending two match nights, roller derby players leave everything on the track during a game, and I left everything in that conference room for this training on Sunday; I have never been more exhausted after a training, so determined was I to win these folks over and point them to the resources they need to be even more successful at engaging with volunteers. And one of my favorite comments afterwards was this:

“Srsly, this was awesome. I have a very low tolerance for BS facilitated meetings about hypothetical nonsense. This was none of that.”

Almost made me want to cry… a high compliment, indeed.

If you are putting together a volunteer management conference, listen up: I’m happy to train, and I really hope you will invite me to do so. But invite someone from a roller derby league too – I recommend the Portland league in particular, of course. Because it’s long overdue for these conferences to get a shake up. And I think roller derby may be just the org to do it!

I have seen the future of volunteer engagement and IT’S ROLLER DERBY.

Here’s a photo on Facebook that sums up just what an amazing experience matches can be, btw.

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.

Do departments at your org hate each other?

I once had lunch with a friend of a friend who worked at a very large, well-known company in Silicon Valley. She worked in the marketing department, and had been charged to create policies and activities around employee volunteering, product donations to nonprofits and schools, financial grants to nonprofits and schools, and all other philanthropic activities the company untertook, or wanted to undertake. Since I had run such a program at a Fortune 500 company in Silicon Valley back in the early 1990s, she wanted advice.

My advice was, more or less, this:

You’ve got this great resource already at your company, I’ve no doubt: it’s called the BNA Index. Your human resources department or your corporate library has it. It’s a series of notebooks that has samples of just about any policy or procedure you can think of. It’s frequently updated. I used its samples as models for the policies we developed at such-and-such company for all of our philanthropic activities. It’s awesome! 

(note: BNA stands for Bureau of National Affairs, the early name of what is now Bloomberg BNA).

She smiled in a wow-that-is-totally-not-helpful way, and said, firmly, “The marketing department is in charge of our philanthropy activities, NOT the HR department. HR would really like to be in charge of it. So I’m not going to them. That’s out of the question.”

I gently pointed out that she didn’t have to tell the HR department why she wanted to see the BNA Index – just that she wanted to look up a policy. And that I didn’t see how telling HR staff what she was looking up would somehow give them the power to take the activity away from her. That just made her – well, kind of hysterical. The rest of the lunch was super awkward and we haven’t spoken since.

I wish I could say departments not getting along is unusual, but it’s not: I find this story again and again from people that work for corporations, as well as people that work with government agencies or nonprofits. I’ve encountered it at many organizations where I’ve worked as well. The siege mentality that so many individual departments have is unhealthy to the organization and counter productive to everything that organization is trying to accomplish.

I’ve always wondered: are executive directors of these organiations aware that departments within their own agency are refusing to work with each other? Not one to mince words, I have brought up such circumstances in meetings: “That’s a great idea. Do you think the IT department will support us though, because based on such-and-such incident, I’m not sure they will help out with this.” Awkward silence follows… but what’s funny is that the department in question is then usually shamed into helping because their past non-support has been talked about so openly and officially.

I look at fellow employees as my customers. They have needs, and part of my job is to support those needs. In any position, I look at the requests of fellow staff members as priorities, and I treat them as I would like to be treated. It’s but one of my many wacky approaches to working.

I’ve also suggested at several organizations that staff performance reviews include rankings of all departments by all other departments:

  • are the staff charged with evaluation providing your department the data it needs in a timely manner?
  • is the IT department supporting you with the tools and resources you need to meet your department’s goals in support of the organization’s mission?
  • on a scale of 1 – 10, with 10 being an absolutely perfect score, how would you rate the customer service of the human resources department?

I’ve been turned down every time…

Are you brave enough to explore how well employees, volunteers and consultants, grouped by department, get along with each other?

A missed opportunity with volunteers

A colleague recently told me that she and a group of co-workers arranged to go to a nonprofit thrift store for one day and help the organization sort through computer donations. She and her colleagues had a great time:

“It was super fun!”, she said. “I got to sort through equipment, to tear apart computers, to take a hammer to outdated computers. We had a great time!” But she added, “No one ever asked me for my name. They didn’t have a sign in sheet. They didn’t capture any of my information. And I have no idea what all this work that I did means to them.”

I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. Again.

These volunteers merely got work done. This nonprofit merely got free labor. Nothing more.

Here was a great opportunity for this nonprofit organization to make connections that could lead to more volunteering, more volunteers, more awareness of its work and new financial donations! Here was an opportunity for these volunteers to learn about all that this nonprofit does, that it’s not just a thrift store but, in fact, a job training organization. A rich, longer-term, meaningful relationship could have been created.

Instead, the nonprofit just got some work done, and the volunteers had fun for a day. There is more to volunteer engagement than that – even for onsite episodic or microvolunteering volunteering like this, with just a few hours of work no requirement for future commitment.

I have no idea what all this work that I did means to them.

That comment in particular is the one that hurts me to the core as a volunteer management advocate.

Here’s what should have happened:

  • There should have been a sign in sheet for the volunteers. The names, postal mailing addresses, phone numbers and email addresses of every participant should have been captured. This isn’t just to create a way to followup with volunteers later for further volunteering or fundraising; it’s to mitigate risk, to have a recourse in case volunteers damage property, hurt someone, or engage in inappropriate activity. It also says to volunteers, “You are more than just bodies doing work to us. You are people. We recognize that.”
  • Someone from the organization should have taken photos of volunteers in action, and asked for a group photo as well. The photos should have been posted to Flickr with recognition of the volunteers, either by their names or by the company they were representing. Some of the photos should have ended up on the organization’s web site as well. Photos could have been tweeted during the work as it was happening. Posting photos is a great, easy, cheap way to thank volunteers, to entice others to volunteer, and to say to everyone, “We are a nonprofit that is doing things!.”
  • Someone from the organization should have emailed each of the volunteers the day after the event, thanking each person for his or her service, noting why the service was of value to the organization, and telling the person how he or she could volunteer again in the future. The email should also have invited each person to subscribe to an email newsletter or follow the organization on Twitter or “like” the organization on Facebook – something that would allow the person to stay connected to the organization, know about new volunteering opportunities, etc. The email should have also invited each volunteer to opt-in to receiving postal mail from the organization.
  • Local TV stations should have gotten an email or fax from the nonprofit an hour before volunteers arrived, saying, “Hey, here’s a great video opportunity for you…” TV stations are often scrambling for video the the evening news cast. Someone taking a hammer to a computer would have ended up on a local news station for sure!

That’s volunteer engagement / community engagement 101. That’s not extra work – that’s what any organization should already be doing with volunteers that are going to show up for just an hour, or just half a day, or just one day. If an organization can’t do that, should they be involving volunteers at all? I don’t think so.

Also see

How to Get Rid of Volunteers – My own volunteering horror story. One of the most popular blogs I’ve ever published.

Creating One-Time, Short-Term Group Volunteering Activities
Details on not just what groups of volunteers can do in a two-hour, half-day or all-day event, but also just how much an organization or program will need to do to prepare a site for group volunteering.

Keeping Volunteer Information Up-to-Date
Suggestions on how to keep volunteer information up-to-date, with the goal of getting the information your organization needs with minimal effort on your part.

Required Volunteer Information on Your Web Site
If your organization or department involves volunteers, or wants to, there are certain things your organization or department must have on its web site – no excuses! To not have this information says that your organization or department takes volunteers for granted, does not value volunteers beyond money saved in salaries, or is not really ready to involve volunteers.

Mission statements for your volunteer engagement
(Saying WHY your organization or department involves volunteers!)
In addition to carefully crafting the way you talk about the value of volunteers, your organization should also consider creating a mission statement for your organization’s volunteer engagement, to guide employees in how they think about volunteers, to guide current volunteers in thinking about their role and value at the organization, and to show potential volunteers the kind of culture they can expect at your organization regarding volunteers.


Basic Fund-Raising for Small NGOs/Civil Society in the Developing World

Some of the most frequently asked questions (FAQs) to online forums for community-based organizations (CBOs) in developing countries, whatever the subject, are regarding funding.

In addition, the first impulse of many small non-governmental organizations (NGOs) seeking funding is to request the contact information for possible funders, and once they find the name of any company they think gives grants to NGOs, these NGOs often write immediately to the company with a desperate please for funds. This approach often harms the NGO, rather than garnering any support at all. Not only do these please rarely attract funding, they can turn funding sources against the NGO altogether.

After seeing these questions and messages again and again over several years (I’ve been on the Internet since about 1994) I drafted a list of basic tips for fund-raising for small NGOs – it was 15 pages long. Now, years later, it has evolved into 31 pages. It is a PDF file.

The document is meant to provide very basic guidelines for small NGOs in the developing world regarding fund-raising and adhering to the basic principles of good governance, and to point to other resources. By small NGOs, I mean organizations that may have only one paid staff member, or are run entirely by volunteers; and may or may not have official recognition by the government. These organizations are extremely limited in their resources, and are often in unstable environments and/or serving profoundly poor populations. Certainly medium-sized NGOs could use it as well – organizations that may have two or three paid staff members.

Please note that this document is NOT written for nonprofits serving the “developed” world — organizations serving communities in North America, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand or Japan would probably not find this document particularly helpful, as it has been prepared to make recommendations relevant for nonprofits serving in a developing country.

This document is also not for organizations that send volunteers into developing countries to work. This document will not help you fund the trips of such volunteers. If you are such a volunteer-sending organization, see funding your volunteering trip abroad and fund raising for a cause or organization for more helpful information.



It is, instead, a set of guidelines on how to prepare an organization in a developing country to be attractive to donors, how to search for potential donors and how to approach such potential donors.

The document includes:

  • A list of activities an NGO should NEVER do regarding fund-raising
    (& how I know if an NGO has actually read this document!)
  • How to network among various sectors in your country and establish credibility to insure fund-raising success
  • The absolute essential preparations to solicit donations, both locally and from international NGOs working in your geographic area
  • Establishing credibility and a reputation of integrity, transparency and accountability
  • How to find donors that would be interested in your NGO and how to make contact with them
  • A warning about fund-raising scams
  • Online resources for detailed tips on writing funding proposals
  • Suggestions regarding volunteers in other countries fund-raising on your NGO’s behalf (new chapter added October 2011)
  • Online resources for further information

Once you have received this document, please do NOT distribute the document via a web site or on an online discussion group without my written permission. I frequently update the document, and want to ensure people are getting the most recent version.

Here is the web page for more regarding: Basic Fund-Raising for Small NGOs/Civil Societ in the Developing World, including how to access the document.