Tag Archives: volunteer management

OPB & Congress Think Volunteers are Free

It’s bad enough that more than 30 miles of dirt trails and primitive roads in Deschutes National Forest in Oregon were deliberately wrecked in 2014 by unsupervised volunteers who were supposed to be doing necessary, environmentally-appropriate trail maintenance, causing more than $200,000 in damage and who, according to this story on OPB News, are still being allowed to do trail maintenance.

But the comments in the OPB story by politicians and others about the role of volunteers has my blood boiling, not to mention that OPB did not call any volunteer management experts, such as those that are a part of the Northwest Oregon Volunteer Administrators Association , to find an Oregon-based professional manager of volunteers to talk to, to find out about the vast amount of volunteer management resources and expertise that could help make things better and about the very high standards of various volunteer engagement programs. Or call Susan Ellis, the world’s foremost trainer and publisher regarding the management and support of volunteers. Or ME, right here in Oregon and registered on the OPB Public Insight Network to offer commentary regarding volunteer engagement!

The National Forest System Trails Stewardship Act, sponsored by Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyoming, has been proposed recently in the USA Congress. It would strongly encourage government agencies to increase volunteer involvement in trail maintenance, but it doesn’t include funding for agency oversight of volunteers – it doesn’t include any money for volunteer management, for recruiting volunteers, screening them, supervising them, etc. Why does it lack such funding? Well, U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Oregon, a co-sponsor of the act, in his comment to OPB, shows exactly why:

“We don’t have the resources at the federal level to maintain these trails. And yet there’s a group of volunteers out there willing to do the work.”

Could you hear the unspoken “for free” at the end of Walden’s sentence? I could! In short: We have all this work to do. Let’s get some people to work for free to do it. That is a great summation of the National Forest System Trails Stewardship Act. And as any seasoned manager of volunteers or trainer knows, that’s a JOKE we frequently tell at conferences and workshops when trying to show what bad volunteer management looks like. Because NO ONE volunteers for that reason, and because of the implication that volunteers are free – and we know volunteers are NEVER free. Someone has to pay for the volunteers to be appropriately recruited, screened, trained, supervised and supported – otherwise, you end up with tragic consequences similar to what happened in Deschutes National Forest- or worse.

That’s the crux of all these stories from OPB about what happened in Oregon and about this pending bill: volunteers save money! That’s why they are involved!

Here’s a proposal for those managing public lands, and something OPB should consider in future stories about any volunteer engagement, good or bad, at any agency: maybe volunteers are actually the best people to undertake certain activities, like running campgrounds, teaching about Leave No Trace principles and staffing the front desks of ranger stations, not because they are unpaid, but because such involvement allows members of the public to experience first-hand how public lands are administered and how to support the public in experiencing them. Or because of the particular passion or approach volunteers bring to the task that paid employees might not. Or because members of the public might like interacting with a volunteer, rather than someone paid to be there. Or because volunteer involvement is per an organization’s commitment to create opportunities for the community to participate in the org’s work and offer feedback that isn’t financially-based (they aren’t being paid) and endorse the importance of public lands through their investment of time. Say volunteer involvement is part of an organization’s commitment to both transparency and in creating opportunities for community investment in its work. Involve volunteers because it allows people to be involved in the administration and enjoyment of public lands without having to give up whatever they do professionally. Those are reasons that INSPIRE people to volunteer – not, “we have all this work to do, please come do it.”

Emphasizing the money saved in involving unpaid staff also tends to create hostilities with paid staff, who are often angry at the idea of volunteers being involved in order to eliminate paid positions (and they SHOULD be angry at such comments!). The links at the end of this blog explore this and other dangers in emphasizing that the primary reason to involve volunteers is because they aren’t paid.

Instead, organizations that administer public lands should create a mission statement for your volunteer engagement that has NOTHING to do with saving money. And learn to talk about the value of volunteer engagement. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t involve dollar figures.

Oh, but wait, there’s more…. there’s the comments in the story from Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, a national watchdog organization. First up from him:

“Relying on volunteers, as well-intentioned as they are, doesn’t always yield good results.”

The implication, of course, is that volunteers are unreliable, can’t be trusted, are incompetent, etc., and that paychecks are magical and make people better workers – thus, only paid employees can do such work properly! Here’s what the quote SHOULD say, to be accurate:

Relying on untrained, unsupervised volunteers, as well-intentioned as they are, doesn’t always yield good results.

And we could substitute the phrase “paid employees” for “volunteers,” and the new sentence would be accurate as well.

Mr. Stahl also made my head explode with his outrageous statement:

“it would be nice if we could hold volunteers to high standards, for even acceptable ones, but you get what you pay for.”

What an insult to every volunteer firefighter, every volunteer emergency rescue person, every Peace Corps member, and every other volunteer out there that goes through hours and hours and hours of training, over many weeks, even months, often right alongside professionals, to master the skills necessary to do their very serious, even dangerous work. These volunteers are held to high standards – and volunteers who can’t meet those standards are FIRED. They are removed from service, just like a paid employee. That loud “bam” you heard if you were listening to the OPB story in Oregon? It was me, hitting the table in front of me out of outrage over this shameful, insulting statement. My dog is still terrified of me over that.

Kevin Larkin, district ranger for the Bend-Fort Rock Ranger District in the Deschutes National Forest, had to learn of the vital importance of the basics of volunteer management the hard way. He says now, “It’s not as simple as welcoming a volunteer through the door, handing that person a shovel and saying, ‘Go do good work. There’s direction, guidance and attention that’s needed.”

Oh, Mr. Larkin, there are vasts amounts of resources that could have helped you manage and support these volunteers right from the get go. Some resources are free. Many aren’t, but they cost much, much less than $200,000. I wish you had known about them, and I wish you had the funding to tap into them – the books, the workshops, the conferences… even university-level certificate programs on managing volunteers.

Congress must realize volunteers aren’t free, and that there will be financial costs in involving volunteers in trail maintenance on US public lands – and that they are going to have to fund those costs. Otherwise, we’re going to have much bigger bills in terms of trail damage – and worse. I’ve created this petition at Change.org, calling on the bill’s co-sponsors to amend the act so that it provides the resources necessary for this increased volunteer engagement on public lands to be successful. If you are in the USA, or you are a USA citizen abroad, please read over the petition, consider signing it, and share it with your network!

And OPB: next time you are doing a story about volunteers, please call me, or the Northwest Oregon Volunteer Administrators Association, to find a volunteerism expert to comment on your story, give you guidance, etc.

Also see Volunteers trying to help on their own, a blog about how DIY “trail improvements” by unsanctioned, unsupervised volunteers are causing serious damage to a nature preserve, and what to do if you discover that an official volunteer of your organization is doing activities in the name of your organization but outside of the approval of your program.

For more on the subject of the value of volunteer or community engagement:

Research: Immunity under the Volunteer Protection Act (USA)

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing work of volunteersVolume 6, Issue 1 (Apr 2015) of the Nonprofit Policy Forum features research by Patricia Groble and Jeffrey L. Brudney, “When Good Intentions Go Wrong: Immunity under the Volunteer Protection Act.” It’s research about a law in the USA. The abstract says:

The Volunteer Protection Act (VPA) was enacted in 1997 to encourage volunteerism by protecting individuals from liability for their negligent actions while volunteering. Proponents intended to provide legal safeguards for volunteers, whom they claimed were deterred from volunteering by fears of liability. Little attention has been paid to this legislation since its enactment, however. This article examines the implementation and interpretation of the VPA through the lens of case law to determine whether the act has had its intended effects for volunteers. Our analysis of all court cases in which the VPA has been cited shows that volunteers are at risk for lawsuits over a variety of actions during the course of their volunteer activities. This analysis also demonstrates that although volunteers can avail themselves of the VPA’s protection, their success in invoking this defense is mixed.

A must read for managers of volunteers… however, it’s cost-prohibitive for most of them: the article costs $42.00 / 30,00 € / £23.00 to access (the entire issue of the journal is $235.00 / 172,00 € / £129.00. I’ll be heading to my local library to see if I can access it through them (I suspect I’ll have to schlep 100 minutes by mass transit one-way, all the way to downtown Portland via the bus and train to read it, in order to read it). The Nonprofit Policy Forum is an international journal that publishes original research and analysis on public policy issues and the public policy process related to the work of nonprofit organizations.

Also see: List of

List of research and evaluations of virtual volunteering, as a practice in general or focused on specific projects (much of the research is free to access).

Me in Europe in Fall 2014

Happy New Year! (and Happy birthday, Elvis!)

I’ll be in Germany in the Fall of 2014 for a visit of a few weeks. I’ll make a trip to Barcelona, Spain as well for a long weekend in that time. I’m not sure if this will be in September or October.

I would love to combine my trip with presenting or consulting! I’m willing to go wherever German wings or any discount airline flies from Cologne (Köln) or Frankfurt Am Rhein, or wherever I can take a train in 5 hours or less, provided your organization covers airfare/train fare and accommodations. That means I’m willing to travel just about anywhere in Europe: England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, Poland, Turkey, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria – and more!

I will do an onsite consultation or presentation pro bono, provided your organization covers all travel and accommodation expenses! 

Right now, my dates are flexible; if an organization really wants me to come in October then that’s when I would come to Germany.  My flexibility will change, however, around April 2014, when I have to make a decision about my dates.

More about me.

More about my consulting services.

More about my training areas.

Interested? Email me at jc @ coyotecommunications.com with what you have in mind.

Thank you, Portland metro area

While updating my web site last week, I realized that I have done FAR more training here in the Portland, Oregon metro area since moving here in Fall 2009 than I did in Austin, Texas while living there from 1996 through 2000 – in fact, it was rare I presented in Austin, or the rest of Texas, when it was my home. It was a shock to realize this – I consider Austin my spiritual home, and get misty eyed at the sweet memories of living there. But, indeed, the greater metropolitan Portland area has been much kinder to me, professionally speaking.

So I want to give credit where credit is due: thank you, PDX! And a long overdue thank you to the people and organizations who have made this happen:

Here’s more information about the training I provide (both onsite and online training!).

I’m been quite hard on Portland since moving here – but the reality is that it’s a community that has believed in me. And I am oh-so-grateful for that support!

How TechSoup Helped Keep My Skills Sharp

Among the various topics I train on is volunteer engagement
– how to create opportunities for a variety of different kinds of volunteers (short-term, long-term, teens, university students, highly-skilled professionals donating their work pro bono, onsite, online, etc.), how to recruit different kinds of volunteers, how to measure success in a volunteer program, virtual volunteering, how to build the capacity of staff to involve volunteers, etc.

How do I keep my volunteer management skills and knowledge up-to-date so I know what the heck to say in a training or a blog? In addition to reading, reading, reading – not just materials specific to volunteer engagement, but also materials regarding telecommuting / work shifting, team-building, project management, human resources management, conflict resolution – I also volunteer frequently volunteer myself, and I try to have regular experiences as a manager of volunteers.

For five months – ending this week – I’ve been the interim online forum community manager for TechSoup. I approach online community management as volunteer management, and the TechSoup Community Forum is a perfect example of that: online community members are volunteers. They contribute time and expertise, and they aren’t paid for it. It’s the community manager’s role to:

  • encourage their participation,
  • create opportunities for their participation,
  • acknowledge their contributions and their feedback in a meaningful way, and
  • promote their accomplishments and feedback within the organization, making sure their contributions are valued within the organization, across departments and staff hierarchies.

It’s easier said than done, particularly when in an interim, part-time role: I don’t want to create any systems that the permanent person will inherit and hate. I don’t want to start a bunch of processes that the permanent person will decide aren’t what he or she really wants, and when done away with, leave people feeling like their time has been wasted. In an interim, part-time role, sometimes the best thing you can do is identify what the permanent, full-time person will need to focus on – although that can feel like, “Hi, here’s all the problems I found, good luck!”

These kinds of experiences provide the kind of reality check I need in order to stay sharp regarding volunteer management training. How can I blog, or get up in front of a room full of people in charge of volunteer engagement at nonprofits, NGOs, government agencies, schools and other mission-based organizations, and make lots of recommendations about volunteer engagement that I haven’t tested myself – and tested relatively recently?

This experience has challenged me on a lot of levels, as all these experiences do. It’s sent me running to re-read materials about working with highly-skilled, high-responsibility volunteers and how to deal with conflict online. But the experience has also confirmed a lot of what I’ve been writing about and training on, particularly about the importance of

  • written task descriptions for ALL volunteers, and ensuring expectations are understood
  • having an end date for EVERY volunteer role / assignment, and giving volunteers that are approaching that end date the opportunity to renew their role for a set amount of time (creating a new end date) or to withdraw from the role altogether
  • having various staff people work with/listen to volunteers, not just the volunteer manager
  • involving volunteers in the organization’s decision-making in some meaningful way (even if final decisions are not in their hands)
  • continuously cultivating new volunteers for leadership roles
  • encouraging long-term volunteers to change roles, even temporarily
  • encouraging long-term, high-responsibility volunteers to take breaks from their roles every few years
  • lots and lots of communication – including telling volunteers in high-responsibility roles what YOU are doing every week!

I could go on and on as well about what I’ve learned in this experience about remote staffing, remote management, workshifting/telecommuting, virtual teams, time management, staff time budgeting and project management! You can never know-it-all on those subjects…

As I review my experience over the last five months, a lot is on my mind:

  • what I would have done differently had I known I would be in the role for five months instead of three months, or had I been full-time instead of part-time, had I known a bit more about the overall mood and outlook of the volunteers when I started.
  • what I did that worked, and what didn’t.

It’s important to review that for yourself, even if you are in a permanent volunteer management position – do you do that for yourself after ever major project, or at least twice a year? You should! You can’t improve without that kind of assessment.

I’ve been involved with TechSoup since the early 1990s, when it was called CompuMentor and was focused on matching IT volunteers with nonprofits – I started off as a client, and most of my experience has been as a volunteer. It’s been fascinating to see the organization from this different point-of-view, as a paid consultant. In fact, this experience has renewed my desire to continuing volunteering to moderate one of the TechSoup Community Forum branches! Thanks, TechSoup, not just for the paycheck, but for the incredible learning experience!

On a related note, here’s a profile of Exhale’s new strategy of turning over more decision-making and responsibilities to its leadership volunteers. Volunteers are capable of leadership roles, and this is a good example of that. It’s not always appropriate in every situation, it’s not always best for every organization, and I’m not at all commenting on my experience with TechSoup by posting this – rather, I’m trying to counter some comments I’ve seen online lately along the lines of, “But that role is too important for just a volunteer!.” I share this as a great example of an organization making a conscious choice to put volunteers in charge because the organization has realized it’s what’s best for the organization. If anything, this link is a comment for GIRL SCOUTS OF THE USA. And that’s another blog some other time…

Also see: Knowledge transfer – it’s more than a buzz phrase

Tags: project, program, programme, volunteer, volunteers, volunteering, engagement, involvement, management, community, stakeholders, charities, charity, NGOs, non-governmental, organizations, nonprofit, civil, society

PSU Volunteer Management courses have started!

Erin Barnhart has put together a “Volunteerism and Volunteer Management” course for Portland State University, and I’m thrilled to be teaching one of the modules! I’ll join her and Kathleen Joy of Oregon Volunteers to present a series of intensive classes focused on those who work with volunteers in any capacity – or those that want to.

This comprehensive course will cover topics ranging from core competencies and emerging trends and tools for building and sustaining a successful volunteer program, to understanding the broad-reaching impacts of volunteer service and effective volunteer management, to engaging individuals in innovative and accessible ways to serve in their local neighborhoods, via their computers and smartphones, and in communities across the globe.

Unlike a lot of other volunteer management courses, this course will full integrate online tools into all discussions (not just a module at the end), and will discuss the international volunteering scene.

This course is comprised of four all-day sessions: 9 am – 4:30 pm on four Wednesdays, June 22, 29, July 6 and July 13. It can be taken non-credit or for-credit. If you missed registering for this summer, contact Sharon Hasenjaeger at PSU Institute for Nonprofit Management, (503) 725-8221 or hasenjs@pdx.edu, to express interest in a future course. Grad students register for PA592 CRN 82727 through the PSU website. Noncredit students register thru the INPM office, using this noncredit registration form. Tuition is $495 for non-credit enrollment. Graduate credit is $945 plus $41 fee.

I love teaching. I try to give my workshops a lively, audience-oriented feel. I use case studies to illustrate points, focus on both what’s happening now and what is trending, encourage a lot of student participation, and develop activities that get class participants designing strategies they can use immediately. My goal in any training is to give participants a base on which to further build and improve long after a class is over. My schedule fills up very quickly. Contact me and let me know what kind of training you might have in mind!



With Volunteers, See No Evil?

There are a lot of people out there who are offended at the idea of standards or policies for volunteers – like asking a candidate for volunteering to go through a screening interview or to make a work plan to show how many hours a new volunteer will commit each week or month. Or requiring volunteers to submit a progress report each week or month. Or having rules for volunteers and suspending volunteers who violate those rules.

But you should accept anyone who wants to help! they tell me in my workshops or on online message boards. I’m a volunteer & you should just be GRATEFUL I’m here!

Or they say something along the lines of this that I heard from someone I asked about how safety is maintained at their community computer center: Our patrons are all members-of-a-certain-religion-I-won’t-name-here, so we can trust them and there is no need to worry they will do something inappropriate. Yeah, because members of a religion are super-trustworthy, especially around children…

One volunteer manager told me that she would never have standards for the volunteers at her agency: our volunteers would be offended and leave if you gave them rules to follow – and really, they are working for free, shouldn’t that be enough?

Volunteers are not super-human. They are not automatically good, without any bad intentions or temptations. They may, indeed, have wonderful hearts and want to help people – and they may also be really tempted by that cash box you leave open on the bottom shelf. Volunteers are merely human, no matter what their age, no matter what their professed value system, and therefore, volunteers come with all the usual human short-comings.

If you involve volunteers, you owe it to your nonprofit organization, your NGO, your agency, your program — whatever — as well as your clients and your fellow staff members, to ensure that everyone is focused on the mission of your organization and that you have procedures in place to keep everyone safe and resources in place. Should your organization or program — and your clients — settle for anything less?!

I was reminded of this while listening to an episode of This American Life this weekend: it’s called See No Evil, and you can listen to it for free on the This American Life web site. The description for the episode says,

When things are awkward or uncomfortable or distressing, a lot of times it’s easier to not think about it. This week we have stories of people pretending that everything is okay and ignoring the awful stuff that’s staring them straight in the face. Including a story of deceit and intrigue involving commemorative spoons from the Kennedy Center.

The story that got my attention in particular was Act Three: “I Worked at the Kennedy Center and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt.” The description says:

In the 1970s, Dave Kestenbaum’s cousin Dan Weiss got promoted from stocker to gift shop manager at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC. It was a good job… except for the fact that the place was bleeding cash because of apparent embezzlement. The gift shop staff? Almost all senior citizen volunteers.

Listen to the story, and then offer comments below here on my blog. And, no, I’m not singling out senior citizen volunteers, and I’ll delete any comment that implies or says that I am. Those volunteers could have been ANY age and the results would have been the same.