Tag Archives: volunteer

Re-creating offline excitement & a human touch online

Back in 1998, an effort that became the nonprofit Knowbility started a hackathon competition before such events were called hackathons. It was called the Accessibility Internet Rally, or AIR, and in one day, professional web designers and web design students volunteered their time to build web sites for nonprofits in Austin, Texas – web sites that are fully accessible to people with disabilities and people using assistive technologies. Designers were divided into teams, and each team had a nonprofit to build for. The teams were all on one floor of a training center that donated its space and computers for the event.

It was crazy, fun, exciting and, at times, silly. I was at that first competition, and at the events in 1999 and 2000, representing a partner organization, via the Virtual Volunteering Project. I helped greet and register every participant as they came in. I also ran through the hallways, into the training rooms, shouting deadlines, like “Two more hours! Just two more hours!”  We got donated food from a local Subway shop and various grocery stores, and teams wouldn’t take a lunch break, despite our pleas for them to do so – they’d run into the room, scarf, then run back to their computers, ready for more designing. Austin-area corporations donated their branded swag that they had leftover from conferences in the past, or that had old logos on them, and we were able to put together goodie bags of memo pads, pens, frisbees and more to hand out to all participants. The second year, several corporate teams returned – this time with custom t-shirts they had made for their team especially for the competition! The event was so energizing and fun that teams came back year after year.

I still use the crockpot that we used to provide nacho cheese for teams…

The AIR competition has continued, and is still awesome, but a few years ago, it became an entirely online competition. It’s now called OpenAIR. The event is not limited to Austin, Texas – it’s global! Instead of one day, teams now have five weeks to develop new accessible web sites for participating nonprofits – and the web sites are far more sophisticated than they were back in the 1990s. A team’s members are all onsite together, at the same company or in the same web design class, for the most part, but they aren’t in the same room with the other teams, nor the nonprofits they are supporting – all interaction among teams and clients is via phone, online conferencing, email and shared online spaces. Another big difference from those early years is that, now, most of the participating nonprofits already have web sites, so their material is already digitized – we don’t need to scan logos or photos anymore, because it’s already done.

It’s almost 20 years after that first AIR competition, and I’m back with Knowbility, this time as a consultant, in charge of recruiting nonprofits to participate and supporting them through the entire process. And I have a goal: to find ways to recreate that craziness and fun and excitement and personal touch from the offsite, in-person events of the past online.

I’m supposed to be the virtual volunteering expert. So this should be a piece of cake for me, right? Afterall, I have ideas for creating a personal experience for working with online volunteers in The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook. I’m using those recommendations, as well as looking through research I’ve curated about organizations working with online volunteers, information about virtual teams, remote teams, ework, telecommuting, etc., to come up with ideas… but I need more!

Here are my ideas so far:

  • Talk one-on-one with the nonprofits as much as possible live via phone or web conference. There could be as many as 45 nonprofits participating, and while there are plenty of tools to communicate en masse with the nonprofits, and I will use many such tools, I’m also committed to talking, in real time, with EACH nonprofit, one-on-one, both right after they sign up and as they need it through the process. If I’ve been clear in those mass communications – on the web site, on the intranet, in email, etc. – then we’re talking about a few minutes at time in real-time communications, not hours and hours. But those one-on-one meetings are, IMO, essential to restore that personal touch and personality to participation.
  • I’ll be asking each nonprofit to take a group photo of their staff holding a small 8 1/2 X 11” sign I will send them electronically, and that they will print out, that says something like “We’re in for #OpenAIR2018,” and then share via their various social media channels tagged with #OpenAir2018. And then Knowbility will share those photos as well via their social media channels, like Twitter and Facebook. That allows us to again see happy faces as a part of this event, and energize participants.
  • I’m going to do some short, private videos for nonprofit participants – maybe 5 minutes – very informal, just giving them updates about what’s going on or something they need to keep in mind, and with each one, having a joke of the week, or some theme (Star Wars, Halloween, nature, pets, basketball, whatever) – hoping that both the key message and the silliness will guarantee viewers and energize participants.
  • I’m going to have at least one live webinar, an “ask me anything” session, allowing nonprofits that have signed up to ask anything, “live”, and everyone in the webinars hearing my answers in real time. This is something PeaceCorps does periodically, and I really love how approachable it feels for participants.
  • I’m hoping the design teams and nonprofits, after they are matched together, will do some screen captures of their meetings together and share them with me, so we can share them with other teams to show each other what they look like when they are working together. Silly hats could be encouraged.
  • I’m going to ask the nonprofits to send something via postal mail to their design team. It can be a postcard of encouragement, a t-shirt from a previous event, a pen with their logo on it – just SOMETHING the web design team members can hold in a hand, something that represents the nonprofit in a personal way, something tangible, and something that didn’t have to be purchased or, if it did, was less than $2 and has something personal written on it by the nonprofit’s executive director or key contact (postcard!). If the NGO is, say, in Afghanistan, and has no way to send postal mail to the design team, I might ask them to send, via email, a recipe for a traditional Afghan dish, and ask the design team to share a photo of them enjoying the dish together.
  • I’m going to ask the design teams to send something via postal mail to their nonprofits. Same rules: it can be a postcard of encouragement, a t-shirt from a previous event, a pen with their logo on it – just SOMETHING the nonprofit staff can hold in their hands, something that represents the design team in a personal way, something tangible.

Those are my ideas for getting more fun and a human touch back into this competition. The challenge is to come up with things that are free, simple, worthwhile to spend the time on, that teams won’t see as a burden, and that nonprofits won’t see as a waste of time. If something can’t be all of those things, it’s not going to work!

So, there’s my challenge. What are YOUR ideas? Remember those restrictions:

  • free
  • simple
  • worthwhile
  • not burdensome
  • not a waste of time

Please put your fabulous ideas in the comments section!

And if you represent a nonprofit, non-governmental organization (NGO), charity, public school, or any other not-for-profit, mission-based organization anywhere in the world, I hope you will consider participating in OpenAIR. Your organization gets a new web site that is accessible for people with disabilities, people who want to donate to your organization, volunteer for it, support it or otherwise participate it in some way. Imagine how being a more welcoming organization online will look to your current supporters and to potential donors! The sooner you sign up, the sooner you can start preparing for the competition, and the more support you will get. Although the deadline for signing up isn’t until the end of this year, if you wait that long, you miss out on more than three months of support and preparation for the event!

Also see:

Related blogs:

Short-term deployments with Peace Corps & UNV

From February 2001 to February 2005, I worked at the headquarters of United Nations Volunteers, in Bonn, Germany. Sometimes, people outside the UN would say, upon learning where I worked, “Oh, you’re just a volunteer?”

My UNV colleagues would get this comment too, and would visibly bristle at the idea that anyone would think they were a volunteer!  They would quickly assure the person that they were not merely a volunteer – they were, in fact, a fully-paid staff person with a UNDP contract!

By contrast, here’s how I would answer such a comment:

Oh, no, I’m not a UN Volunteer. I don’t think I’m qualified to be a UN Volunteer. I would probably be turned away if I applied. International UN Volunteers are experts in their professional field, highly skilled and experienced. I’m just an employee at headquarters, and my role is to support UN volunteers out in the field, doing amazing things.

A UNV HQ colleague was with me once when I said that, and her eyes became huge when she heard my response. Later, she told me she’d never thought of UN Volunteers the way I had talked about them, and that it had never dawned her that, in fact, maybe she wasn’t qualified to be a UN Volunteer either.

I know of two UNV HQ staff, both my colleagues and dear friends, who decided to apply to become international UN Volunteers themselves, were accepted into the UNV roster, and were deployed for two years to a developing country. Both of these colleagues worked in ICT. After those in-the-field experiences, they went on to be employees at other UN agencies, and I thought it was a shame UNV hadn’t worked hard to entice them back to HQ, as they would have brought a much-needed perspective to headquarters.

As I was leaving UNV HQ, where I managed the UN Online Volunteering service and helped manage the United Nations Information Technology Services (UNITeS), I decided to apply as an international UNV myself. I decided that maybe I had acquired the qualifications at last to be a UNV. I was delighted when I was accepted into the UNV roster – the UNV staff that decided which applications to accept were in Cyprus, I had no personal relationship with them at all, and there was no policy (and still isn’t) on automatically accepting UNDP staff as UN Volunteers. I was available only for six-month assignments, however, and those were, and are, few and far between. I interviewed for two such assignments – and didn’t get either. Which should just go to show you how competitive the process to be a UNV is. I eventually got a six-month UNDP gig in Afghanistan, but it was as a consultant, not a UN Volunteer.

Now, at this time in my life, I can no longer do a full six-month assignment, so I doubt I’ll ever deploy as a UNV. When you read about me going to abroad for a UN gig now, it’s for less than four months – like in Ukraine – and, again, it’s as a UNDP contractor (which I love – great colleagues, fascinating work and the pay is good).

But there is this part of me that still really wants to go abroad as a volunteer.

So, for more than two years, I’ve been watching listings at the Peace Corps Response web site. This is a program by the Peace Corps that places highly-skilled volunteers in short-term assignments abroad, from four to 12 months. It’s open to US citizens. I’ve been looking for an appropriate four-month gig and, at long last, I’ve applied for a position. I think it fits my expertise perfectly. But I also know that this is a highly-competitive program, and I may not even make the interview round. Still, it was fascinating to go through part of the Peace Corps application process. I’ve also been a reference for a friend that applied for the regular Peace Corps, so I’ve seen that part of the online process as well.

Fingers crossed!

One last note: the Peace Corps Response program, the entire Peace Corps program, and all United States Agency for International Development (USAID), are under threat of severe cuts by the current Presidential administration in the USA, as well as by current Congressional leadership. I encourage you to write your US Congressional Representative, your US Senators, national media and your local media, and let them know what you think of these proposed cuts.

Also see:

 

What effective short-term international volunteering looks like

I’m not kind when it comes to discussions of pay-to-serve international volunteering. Most programs out there are voluntourism, focused on an unskilled volunteer paying to have a feel-good experience abroad, doing an activity that would be oh-so-much more effective by local people being paid to do it themselves, and spending just a few weeks somewhere – not at all enough time to make a sustainable, positive impact on local people or the environment. Voluntourism is primarily about the volunteer, not the people in the developing country, who would prefer to be paid to build a school for their children themselves, care for the community’s orphans themselves, help take care of local wildlife themselves, protect their own environment, etc.

That said, not all pay-to-serve programs are purely voluntourism: there are some terrific programs that require volunteers to pay their own way, such as Bpeace traveling business mentors and Humanist Service Corps (more on pay-to-serve programs I think are worthwhile here). There are also examples like this: students from the College of Engineering at Oregon State University going to Kenya to help a small village create a series of water projects to give them sustainable, ongoing access to clean water; the local Kenyan people benefitted from the project because they defined what they wanted, and they worked alongside the students so that they could take on more and more responsibilities themselves.

In contrast to pay-to-serve programs, there is the Peace Corps Response program, which is part of the Peace Corps, and that places highly-skilled volunteers in short-term assignments abroad, from four to 12 months. Participants do NOT pay to participate. It’s open to US citizens, and it represents what effective short-term international volunteering can look like: volunteering that’s focused on building the capacity of local people rather than just doing things for them.

In doing some research on the program, I found this terrific blog by Brenna Mickey, who did a four-month assignment in the Peace Corps Response program in Port Vila, Vanuatu, and whose experience represents what a short-term, effective volunteering experience can look like. It’s also a great example of what a tech-related volunteering gig can look like anywhere, at home or abroad. Her specific job title was web design and development consultant for the Ministry of Youth and Sports. Among other things, she worked

  • “as the project manager or product owner, creating a scope of work and requirements documents after meeting with stakeholders of the website, managing expectations and deliverables.”
  • “as an UX strategist, working with the department in the Ministry through card sorting, developing a site map together, sketching out wireframes and talking through user flows on our website.”
  • “not only as the designer of the site, but the developer as well. I taught myself a new content management system and dove in headfirst to writing responsive CSS and HTML5 instead of handing over my designs and CSS to the developers.”
  • “But most importantly, I worked as a teacher, making sure knowledge was transferred to my coworkers in Vanuatu during the web design process, including how to update the CMS after I left.”

Also, “I happened to be in town during another Peace Corps Volunteer’s project, which had been under development for more than two years. The SMART Sistas ICT Camp for Girls was a week-long camp where girls were brought to the capital and taught the fundamentals of informational technology. I was asked to teach an Intro to Web Design course during this camp.”

Please note that Peace Corps Response initiative, and the entire Peace Corps program, and all United States Agency for International Development (USAID), are under threat of severe budget cuts by the current Presidential administration in the USA, as well as by current Congressional leadership. I encourage you to write your US Congressional Representative, your US Senators, national media and your local media, and let them know what you think of these proposed cuts.

Also see:

UNESCO World Heritage Volunteers 2017 projects

World Heritage Volunteers (WHV) is a program by UNESCO, a United Nations agency, that helps create opportunities for young people to travel internationally or within their own countries and help preserve and support World Heritage sites. The 2017 campaign has been announced, with 51 youth action projects planned for 50 World Heritage properties from May through November 2017, in partnership with 46 organizations in 32 countries.

“From the Vajrayogini temples of Kathmandu Valley in Nepal to the 16th-Century Monasteries on the Slopes of Popocatepetl in Mexico, from the parks and gardens of Classical Weimar in Germany to the vertiginous peaks of Rwenzori Mountains National Park in Uganda, the local and international volunteers of the WHV 2017 will be involved in projects held at some of the most outstanding places in the world.”  The projects are in Africa, Asia, Pacific Island countries, Arab states, Latin America and Europe.

If you want to get involved in a WHV project, take a look at the 2017 project profiles here and contact directly the project organizer, who should get back to you with information on next steps. The project organizer’s contacts are in the project profiles.

It doesn’t say it anywhere that I can find on the WHV web site, but volunteers are responsible for paying and arranging all of their own international and in-country travel, for paying for their accommodations in-country, paying for all food and other in-country expenses, paying for their own insurance, etc. These are entirely volunteer positions, and no expenses are reimbursed and no stipends are paid. Some countries, like the USA, may offer tax deductions for international volunteering.

The World Heritage Volunteers Initiative is led by the UNESCO World Heritage Centre (WHC) in collaboration with the Coordinating Committee for International Voluntary Service (CCIVS), European Heritage Volunteers (as a branch of Open Houses) and Better World.

Also see:

Volunteering Abroad / Internationally

Ideas for Funding Your Volunteering Abroad Trip

2017 National Volunteer Weeks & Months

Energize, Inc. (Susan Ellis’ company) has compiled a list of designated volunteer weeks or months in 2017, mostly in English-speaking countries, when nonprofits, government agencies and others are supposed to honor volunteerism. These are celebrated annually:

Canada’s National Volunteer Week, April 23-29, 2017

USA’s National Volunteer Week, April 23-29, 2017

Australia’s National Volunteer Week, May 8-14, 2017

United Kingdom’s Volunteers’ Week, June 1-7, 2011

New Zealand’s National Volunteer Awareness Week, June 18-24, 2017

Singapore’s National Volunteer Month, December, 2017

During these weeks (and always!), remember to honor your online volunteers and to use the Internet to honor ALL volunteers, regardless of where service is performed. This resource can help, you do that, as can The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook.

There are also MANY days designated to encourage volunteer action. Energize has a terrific compilation of these as well on its web site. These are great days for creating one-time, short-term group volunteering activities, including one(-ish) day “tech” activities for volunteers, like hackathons and edit-a-thons.

Is there a Semana Nacional de Voluntarios in Mexico or Spain? Or Semaine Nationale des Bénévoles in France? If you know of other weeks meant to celebrate volunteers, let me know (please include a link to the official web site).

for volunteers: how to complain

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersI write a lot about dealing with problem volunteers – volunteers that are bullies (one of my most popular blogs ever), volunteers that are more focused on their vanity and selfies than service, (another super popular blog), entitlement volunteers (“you should just be glad I’m here!”), etc. But in response to some of these blogs, I’ve gotten comments from frustrated volunteers, and I’ve been asked some pointed questions, like:

what about when the problem is the volunteer manager’s lack of ability, or when the org is in need of upgrading capacity and the volunteers are the victims of that process?

Absolutely, not all community engagement problems are because of volunteers, and I would hate for anyone to think I’m saying that. I love volunteerism – I wouldn’t promote volunteer engagement and demand standards for such if I didn’t. All too often, people that want to volunteer are turned away by mismanagement, and people trying to volunteer are not properly supported. That deserves my sympathy and attention.

There are times when I’ve been a volunteer myself and I have been woefully mismanaged, I haven’t felt valued, I’ve felt ignored by the person that’s supposed to be supporting me, I was left to do all the work while the lead volunteer was a no-show, I was shut down when I tried to point out a problem or make a suggestion, etc. Maybe you, as a volunteer, have felt that too. Maybe you see problems with other volunteers that management doesn’t seem to see. Maybe you see inefficiency, even incompetence. Maybe you see things that have you worried about safety. Maybe you see violations of policy – or a need for a policy. Maybe you have a great idea that really could help dramatically – but the manager of volunteers turned you away.

How to complain, or make a suggestion for a management change, as a volunteer? And to whom? That’s trickier than it sounds. It depends on the nature of the complaint or suggestion, your relationship with the organization, your desired outcome, what’s best for those served by the organization, and more.

Absolutely, if you see or experience something dangerous while you are volunteering, something that could harm someone – or you suspect has harmed someone – document what you have witnessed or experienced: the date, the time, what you saw or heard, how it is dangerous, etc. Email this information to the person in charge of volunteers, the director of programs, perhaps even the executive director or anyone else within the organization you feel should know about it. Depending on the situation, you should also call those same people and tell them they should immediately read an email you have sent regarding a dangerous situation at the organization. Be ready to meet face-to-face to talk about the dangerous situation you have witnessed or experienced. Please don’t ever hesitate to report a suspected dangerous situation, where a client, volunteer, staff member or anyone could be, or has been, harmed.

If it’s a criminal situation regarding safety, such as harm to a child, I would also contact police, without waiting for permission from the organization. If I think a child or anyone is in physical danger, I’m going straight to the police, and if that costs me my volunteer position because the organization would have preferred I contact senior staff members first, so be it. When it comes to safety, I don’t mess around, I don’t hesitate, and the situation regarding Jerry Sandusky and Penn State a few years ago only intensified my feelings about this.

If you are being sexually, racially or culturally harassed, absolutely complain to your supervisor and his or her supervisor, in writing. Have dates, what was said or done and by whom, etc., and how you want the situation resolved. If your supervisor doesn’t act, contact his supervisor the same way, along with the date you first reported this to his or her subordinate.

For non-safety complaints – for complaints about inefficiency, lack of support, a situation mishandled, ongoing mismanagement, abrasive work styles, hurt feelings, etc.,  ask yourself this question: How is the situation or circumstances hurting the organization, volunteers, clients, public relations and/or the bottom line? Document answers to those questions. Be clear about what is happening, the dates of incidents, and, if possible, how it’s adversely affecting the organization, its clients, etc. Once you have this information clearly stated, ask for a meeting with the person in charge of supporting volunteers. You don’t have to present your written information – in fact, doing so may escalate emotions if you walk in with such a document and hand it over. Instead, you may want to keep the documents as just your own notes to speak from, at least at first. You want to stick to facts, like “When I showed up at the work site, there was no guidance on what I was supposed to do, in contrast to what you (or someone else) told me, and I just walked around for an hour not doing anything”, or “I was assured that the other volunteer had been trained, but when she got there, I realized she had not been briefed at all, and it really made the organization look poorly run to those in attendance” or “I have sent emails asking for guidance on these dates, and I have never gotten a response.” Avoid opinions, such as “the manager of volunteers is in need of upgrading her skills” or “I just really don’t like so-and-so’s style of working.” Opinions are subjective and easily dismissed, in contrast to dates and examples and descriptions of circumstances, what was said, what was done, etc. You want to preface complaints with “I’m concerned that…” or “I am worried that…” Make it clear that you aren’t there to just complain because of your hurt feelings – you are there to try to improve a situation that could be leading volunteers to leave, that could be making clients dissatisfied, even angry, that could be leading to a bad reputation for the organization in a specific neighborhood, that could lead to a negative review online, etc. Your goal is to stay fact-based and always emphasizing what’s best for the organization and all volunteers, not just you. Have in mind what you want as a result of this complaint: Volunteers to receive more immediate responses to their emails or phone calls? Volunteers to receive more information from the organization? Volunteers to receive more training? Someone in particular to be better supervised? Someone in particular to receive better training? Someone specifically to be dismissed? What would a resolution of this situation that you are reporting look like? Try to offer realistic ideas for solutions, if at all possible.

If you want to offer a suggestion about software you think the organization should be using, or a different way to support volunteers, such as training videos on YouTube, or a change in the minumum amount of hours volunteers need to give a month, or that the organization should better incorporate virtual volunteering, by all means, make the suggestion. You could make the suggestion verbally in a monthly meeting between volunteers and the staff supporting them, in an online community for volunteers at the organization, or in an email to the person in charge of managing volunteers. Think about how you would like to be approached if someone had an idea of how to do your work better, and do the same in making your suggestion. If you can show that this idea might save the organization money, definitely bring that up. Also think about what resources it would take to make this change: money? additional staff? time? training? Are you willing to commit to any of those needs to help make the change happen? It can be frustrating to make a suggestion for a simple change, like an additional sentence on a web page, or use of a particular keyword tag on Twitter, and never get a response, or be told it’s not possible to do. How you handle that frustration is up to you: Drop it? Try again in six months? Try again when management changes? Bring it up every time you get the opportunity? Leave the organization and try to volunteer elsewhere? Think about what would be best for the organization and those it serves by your actions first, and also what is best for you.

If you feel that you need to circumvent the person in charge of supporting volunteers and go to someone senior with your complaint or suggestion, you can certainly ask to meet with the head of programs or even the executive director, detailing the issues and being clear about why you are circumventing the manager of volunteers. However, know that it’s likely that the manager of volunteers will be angry with you or feel hurt by you for this circumvention, and your relationship with that person may be irreparably harmed. It may not be possible for you to continue to work together, and therefore, the organization may want you to leave rather than address the issue with the manager. You may decide that you can no longer enjoy your time there or that you would no longer be welcomed at the organization. I’m not urging you not to go to senior management if you feel that’s best for the organization – quite the contrary! I’m trying to be very realistic about what will happen if you do. Are you ready to put what’s best for the organization and those it serves above your desire to continue to volunteer with the program?

This is the point that I usually get asked, “But what are my rights as a volunteer?!” You have a right to be safe, to not be harassed, not to be harmed, not to be put into a situation where you feel harmed, not to be exploited, etc. But you have no right to be engaged as a volunteer. You have no right to have a volunteering experience that you love. An organization can dismiss a volunteer for any reason – or no reason at all. An organization is under no legal obligation to provide terrific volunteering experiences – or to involve volunteers at all. Some organizations value the input of volunteers very much, and others see volunteers as merely people willing to work for free and save the organization money. The organization may see dismissing you as a volunteer far easier than dealing with your complaint.

Please don’t think that because you have volunteered for 10 years at the organization while the manager of volunteers has been there for just a year or two that your opinion is somehow more important that hers or his. Also, it is very likely that complaining creates tension at the organization for you and others. Things may get worse before they get better. If you have visions of the manager of volunteers being put through a performance improvement plan, or dismissed, while you are celebrated for your complaints, think again. As a whistleblower, don’t be surprised if you feel coldness from others at the organization, even if your complaint was absolutely justified. You may want to leave and find another place to volunteer once investigations are complete – or even before. Whatever happens, don’t be a volunteer bully . The priority of any organization, and everyone who works there, including a volunteer that complains, should be the mission of that organization and those the organization serves. Nothing except for safety should be more important than that. Keep that in mind as the consequences unfold from your complaint and if your complaint means you will leave the organization.

Regardless of whether or not you complain to the organization, or make a suggestion for change, what might be best for you is finding another organization with which to volunteer. How you leave an organization is up to you: you can make a formal break with a meeting or an email, you can just stop signing up for tasks and disappear, or you can say you want to take a break and just never come back. Just please don’t abandon an assignment before you have completed it. I know a lot of managers of volunteers are reading this and thinking, “It’s so unfair to just leave without explanation!” To which I say: if a volunteer does that to you, maybe it’s because you don’t take complaints well. Maybe you don’t create an environment where a volunteer feels comfortable offering a complaint or suggestion. Volunteers will often show you as much respect and attention as you have shown them. If you want volunteers to tell you why they are leaving, ask them.

What if you are asked to leave an organization as a volunteer? First off: you aren’t alone! It happens. It happened to me! It can be hurtful to hear, “I just don’t think I can work with you anymore” or “I think it would be best if you found somewhere else to volunteer.” It’s entirely your decision at that point to complain, if you haven’t yet, to more senior management. All the previous rules apply: stay fact-based, have dates and descriptions of what was inappropriate or should have been a better experience, keep opinions to a minimum, and be clear about what the consequences could be for the organization if the situation is not addressed.

Should you, the disgruntled volunteer, blog about your negative experience, or write a Yelp review? I won’t tell you not to. What you need to consider is what is best for those served by the organization and what is best for you. If you truly feel that those served by the organization would be best served by your going public with your complaints, then that would be a valid justification for doing so. Otherwise – why would it be worth it? In the moment, it may make you feel great deriding an organization online via your blog or an online review, but if another organization where you want to volunteer reads that, or potential employers reads that, will it hurt you in some way? If you do it, be prepared for a call from a local media organization – they may want to do a story about your experience and investigate further. If you choose to do it, be fact-based – no opinions, no insults, no statements like “Stay away from this organization!” – and respect the confidentiality of clients.

You could even write a song about your frustration, as Dave Carroll did about his attempt to volunteer at his child’s school. I really do think Mr. Carroll was doing what he thought was best for the organization and the kids, and I hope authorities listened to what he was saying. I’d be happy to have him as a volunteer (with the hopes I would get a really nice song about his experience out of it).

I have blogged about negative experiences as a volunteer myself, but without naming the organization. As a consultant regarding nonprofit management, including volunteer engagement, I wanted to use these experiences to educate others, but I saw no point in naming the organization I was complaining about – in some cases, I made my feelings clear directly to the organization before I left, and in some cases, I just quietly disengaged – and they never called to ask me why I had stopped signing up for gigs. Here are some examples of my blogs about or inspired by my own bad experiences as a volunteer:

Some volunteers have become so frustrated that they’ve left a nonprofit and then started their own rival organization, and that’s fine too – though it’s easier said than done. Funders may be reluctant to support you if you are an organization born of anger.

When you leave an organization as a volunteer, you may want to let people know if they closely identify you as being a volunteer at that organization, if they might go to the organization looking for you, if a lot of your friends are also volunteers at the organization, etc. You may want to draft some messages for social media or to send out via email. These messages should be unemotional, with no accusations or blame at all. For instance, for Facebook, your message could be:

Yesterday was my last day at xxxnameoforganizationxxx. Very proud of all I did there. On to a new volunteering adventure! I can be reached at xxxemailaddressorphonenumberxxx.

The policies of the organization may prevent you from staying in contact with clients after you leave. Respect those policies if that’s the case. If clients do get in contact with you, think very carefully about what you are going to say to them, if the relationship is proper to continue, etc. Regardless of official policy, you are ethically bound to make it clear to them, if they contact you, that you are not affiliated with the organization anymore, that you are not a volunteer with the organization anymore, that you do not represent the organization anymore, etc. If volunteers want to discuss their experiences with you after you leave, make sure you continue to adhere to those confidentiality policies, and absolutely speak up and say, “I really don’t feel comfortable talking about this, because I think it’s a violation of the organization’s confidentiality policy.” Let the question what is best for the people served by this organization guide you in any communications and relationships with clients, volunteers and staff of an organization you have left.

How do you talk on your résumé or online profile about an organization where you volunteered but, in the end, you had an uncomfortable or frustrating experience? The same that you would regarding an employment situation that didn’t work out: you list it only if it was a long-term gig, or if you accomplished something at the organization that you are really proud of and that could not be denied by the organization. If you are proud of your work and feel comfortable sharing it, list the name of the organization and your accomplishments or duties at that organization and the time frame for such. Otherwise, leave it off. If you are asked in an interview for volunteering elsewhere, “Why did you leave that organization?”, you can say, “I was ready for a new volunteering opportunity at a different organization. It was time.” You could say, “My work approach wasn’t a good fit/was no longer a good fit for the organization’s work culture.” Be ready, in an interview, to talk about that work approach. For instance: “I believe in being very forthcoming and asking questions in staff meetings. My previous supervisor interpreted my questions as criticisms.” If honestly talking about your work style, a style you are unwilling to change, removes you from the running for a volunteering gig, then be glad you were up front about it before you were hired. That said, in an interview for volunteering elsewhere, you can ask some tough questions of your own, like “What is moral like here among your volunteers?” and “How do you handle complaints from volunteers? Can you give me an example of that process?” and “Do you regularly get new volunteers? Do they stay long? When they leave, why do they leave?”

Should you sue if you are fired as a volunteer? There are two scenarios where you might want to sue: (1) when you can prove that you have been financially and/or physically harmed by the organization’s actions, or inactions, regarding your volunteering. If you have been sexually, racially or culturally harassed while volunteering, and you do not feel the organization responded the way they should, you could explore bringing a suit, but think about what you want as a result of the suit: a court-ordered, public apology? a court-ordered training for all staff and volunteers to prevent this in the future? Money for yourself? And remember that your name will become public, and there may be media coverage of your suit – this can affect your future employment, not just your future volunteer engagement. (2) when you can prove that you weren’t a volunteer but were, in fact, an employee who wasn’t paid. In a small number of cases the UK and in the USA, the courts have found that a volunteer was actually an employee or a contractor who should have been paid, and the volunteer won back wages.

One last thing: when a volunteering situation ends in anger or sadness, take time to mourn and to let any raw emotions heal. You may need to cry. You may need to spend some time being angry. That’s absolutely fine and completely normal. Make time to do that. If you have a very trusted friend or two you can talk to, that would be good to be around and talk to about how you are feeling, do so. Definitely stay off social media at such times.

This is a lot to consider. I’ve tried to be realistic and think about a variety of scenarios. If I’ve missed one, or your want to ask an additional question or make an additional point, I hope you will comment below.

Also see:

Creating a Speak-up Culture in the Workplace

Safety of volunteers contributes to a shelter closing

Keeping volunteers safe – & keeping everyone safe with volunteers

A grassroots group or nonprofit org = disorganization?

VA: a culture of fear, silence & misplaced priorities

Excuses, excuses

2017 National Summit on Volunteer Engagement Leadership

The Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA) is going to host the first national conference in the USA in more than a decade for people in charge of supporting and involving volunteers. The 2017 National Summit on Volunteer Engagement Leadership will be
July 26 – 28, 2017 in St. Paul, Minnesota. If you want to present at the conference (presenters are NOT paid), your proposal is due November 30, 2016. Please review the Request for Proposal Instructions before submitting a proposal.

Registration to attend the conference will open February 1, 2017.

It’s great that someone is attempting to have a national conference for managers of volunteers – it hasn’t happened in the USA since 2005. Back in 2006, the Association for Volunteer Administration (AVA), the national association of managers of volunteers, went under, due to financial mismanagement. With it went the annual national conference, the largest event in the world focused on the people and systems needed to support and involve volunteers, and event that helped elevate conversations about volunteerism beyond people-that-work-for-free-are-so-nice. The loss of AVA and its annual conference hurt not just managers of volunteers, but all volunteerism – there was no one who was championing the people in charge of creating tasks for volunteers and supporting volunteers in those tasks, and there was no one advocating for the resources those people need to do those jobs. I believe it’s why it’s been so hard to refute claims that the best way to measure volunteer value is by giving a monetary value to service hours, and why, in this era where everything is about community engagement, managers of volunteers at nonprofits have been largely left out of the conversation.

I would love to attend but, unfortunately, I don’t have the funds. If you would like to sponsor part or all of my flight or accommodation costs, please contact me ASAP at jc@coyotecommunications.com (as the deadline for presentation proposals is Nov. 30, I need ot hear from you before then!).

And on a side note: if someone doesn’t update the Wikipedia page for the Association for Leaders in Volunteer Engagement (ALIVE) with citations OTHER than the ALIVE web site, the page is going to get deleted. I’ve donated a LOT of time to updating volunteering-associated pages on Wikipedia – it’s time for others to step in.

Some Truths About Volunteer Retention

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersI’ve been trying to draft a blog about volunteer retention… and then read the latest update from Susan Ellis and Energize, Inc. and her article said it better than I can say it myself. This is reposted online with permission from Susan:

SOME TRUTHS ABOUT VOLUNTEER RETENTION

Schools used to focus on the 3 Rs (reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic), but in volunteer management we have the 2 Rs: recruitment and retention. I can’t tell you how often I’ve been asked to speak on both in a single session! Apart from this request minimizing what it takes to do all the critical tasks of volunteer management, the real problem is that recruitment and retention do not mirror each other.

You can do activities to recruit volunteers, interview them, train them, etc. But you cannot spend Tuesday mornings “retaining” them. Retention happens when everything else is going right. It is an outcome, not a task.

One of the problems with retention is defining it. People often ask me what a “good rate” of retention is, as though there is some external standard for all volunteer programs. Of course there is no such thing.

The desire to measure effective retention is tied to the fervent wish that volunteers might stay forever! Turnover has to be anticipated and planned for (and I might mention that there is lots of turnover among employees, too). How realistic are your expectations for the length of time volunteers will remain with your organization?

Some volunteers leave because things have changed in their own lives…and you had nothing to do with it. People get married, have babies, move away, change jobs, become ill – that’s life. The only thing you can do is leave the door open for a possible return. A volunteer who is forced to leave for external reasons may be willing to remain involved as a trainer of new volunteers, as an on-call substitute in a pinch, or at least as a reader of your newsletter. If the person is moving to another city, might you refer them to a counterpart program in the new location?

Here are some thoughts to ponder:

  • Retention can only be defined in relation to the commitment made by each volunteer at the start of service. So your recordkeeping system should show the amount of time the volunteer promised during the interview and then, if the person stays to that point, you have “retained” them! Anything afterwards is additional.
  • Do you clearly state the minimum commitment that is needed from a volunteer to make the training period worthwhile or to be able to make a difference to the client or cause? (This may be a different amount of time for each volunteer position.) Then, when you interview applicants, do you discuss anticipated length of stay? If neither of these things happen, how can you possibly know what volunteers intend to do in terms of longevity?
  • If a lot of volunteers leave in the first months of their work, it’s a symptom that what they expected and what they experienced did not match. Recruiting and interviewing are the start of the retention process!
  • Is there a pattern to when and from where volunteers drop off? Does one unit seem to keep people happy for a long time while another unit has a revolving door of new recruits? Analyze why and problem solve the situation.
  • Who is staying? Are you keeping long-time volunteers or the best volunteers? These may not be the same people! Again, assess what is going on. If newer recruits or people with top skills seem to become disenchanted with the program, why? How can you re-commit them?

The list of reasons why people volunteer in the first place is very long. After time, however, the reasons volunteers remain committed to your organization distills down to four factors:

  • The work they are doing is visibly meaningful
  • They feel appreciated for their service
  • They continue to learn and grow
  • They enjoy it
  • Quite simple, really – and the outcome of a welcoming, well-run volunteer program.

This outstanding blog content comes from Susan J. Ellis, President of Energize, Inc. More of Susan’s wisdom via her amazing books and services. It is HIGHLY recommended you subscribe to Energize Inc.’s FREE Monthly Volunteer Management E-mail Update for more great stuff!

That moment when you totally change your mind about volunteer engagement

wizardAn email I received a few days ago. I’ve changed it a bit to hide the identity of the author:

I want to thank you, sincerely, for challenging me to think about my understanding of volunteering. You really got me thinking. I had a 3.5 hour drive ahead of me last night, and the discussions around mandated community service and volunteerism kept rolling around in my mind. In my current role, I haven’t really had to think about court mandated service as volunteering and from personal experience, I don’t know if those mandated, would consider themselves volunteers? I am trying to resolve this, for my own benefit at this stage, and I am finding it quite difficult! I intend on mulling this over a bit more. I trying to consider the benefits/detriment of either belief…. Challenged? Yes!

I love making people uncomfortable about volunteer engagement. I love challenging oh-so-solid notions about who is and isn’t a volunteer, the value of volunteering, and why people volunteer. Why? Because volunteer engagement is so much bigger than just, “We’ve got work to do. Let’s get some good-hearted people to do it for free!”, and I so want this mentality to change!

The results of this? I’ve made people angry. I’ve made people tear up. Some people have double-downed on their oh-so-rigid definitions. But most, while challenged, have also been inspired. They don’t all come to the exact same conclusions as me regarding volunteer engagement and its value, but they definitely broaden their original ideas.

I remember my big ah ha moment regarding volunteer engagement, via an event by Triumph motorcycles. And my blog, Should the NFL involve volunteers for the Super Bowl?, talks further about why I changed my mind about volunteers supporting for-profit settings, in certain situations.

Want me to challenge your organization? Complete details about my consulting services.

Also see:

Have you ever changed your mind?

Volunteer manager Fight Club

Missed opportunity with #volunteers: “No one ever asked me for my name. They didn’t have a sign in sheet.”

Kentucky politicians think volunteers are free

Seal_of_KentuckyKentucky’s governor, Matt Bevin, a Republican, is working to end kynect, the state’s widely-lauded health insurance exchange and one of the most successful under the federal Affordable Health Care Act. His proposal will transition enrollees to the federal health insurance exchange. His new health care plan would also require “able-bodied” adults on the plan and without jobs to take a job training course, get regular job counseling, or do community service for nonprofit organizations.

Last week, administration representatives were asked at a committee meeting by Kentucky State Representative Mary Lou Marzian, a Democrat, if any state funding had been allocated to support the cost of background checks for volunteers required to do community service. The answer was that “any nonprofit that chooses to conduct background checks would need to cover the costs.” In other words, the state government will require community service of certain people, and expects nonprofits to accommodate these people with volunteering opportunities, but will not cover any of the costs associated with screening the people, let alone the substantial costs of training and supervising them.

There was also a concern voiced at the meeting about volunteers being asked to cover the cost of their own background check; many organizations do require this, and the people being required to do community service in order to keep their health insurance will largely represent people with low incomes. This issue was identified by Kentucky State Senator Julie Raque Adams, a Republican, as a “red herring;” Adams asserted that many organizations don’t really need criminal background checks, and she based this assertion on her children’s volunteer experiences.

All of the aforementioned information was related by the Kentucky Nonprofit Network via their Facebook page and an article in The Interior Journal, serving Lincoln County, Kentucky.

Senator Adams’ comments about background checks, and those of representatives of the governor’s office, are deeply disturbing, showing a woeful lack of understanding of volunteer engagement and risk management, one that is similar to the US Congress. As noted by the Kentucky Nonprofit Network:

The perception of societal benefit and an overwhelming need for volunteers by the sector seemed to outweigh any recognition of the realities of the true costs of managing a volunteer program (or influx of volunteer requests) – supervision, management, support, background checks (including the reality that this isn’t a luxury – it may be required to protect vulnerable populations), etc. Perhaps this is true – is there a dire need for volunteers?

The network is asking this question via Facebook – and so far, no nonprofits are saying, “Hurrah! An influx of volunteers! Just what we needed!”

It’s obvious that the Governor’s office did not do any research regarding nonprofits in the state and their needs regarding volunteers, and certainly no research regarding the substantial costs associated with involving volunteers.

In addition, K.J. Owens of Louisville won applause from the overflow crowd in Frankfort at a public hearing regarding the proposal when he said the plan “seems motivated by the concern that poor people are defective morally . . . that poor people just aren’t trying hard enough. The people on Medicaid are in no more need of moral guidance than the governor and the people on the governor’s staff.”

On a different but equally disturbing note, Bevin’s proposal also would eliminate dental and vision coverage now included in Medicaid Several other speakers expressed the same concern about excluding dental benefits in a state with some of the worst oral health in the nation, including one of the highest rates of adults with no teeth.

More information about the proposal, as well as a platform to comment on this proposal to the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, can be found via the website chfs.ky.gov, and I call on all nonprofits back in my home state, all volunteers for those nonprofits, and anyone who cares about this issue, to give feedback via this state web site!

Congrats to the Kentucky Nonprofit Network for focusing on this issue. That’s what state agencies should be doing, and too many do not. It will be interesting to see if AL!VE (Association of Leaders in Volunteer Engagement) will address this issue at all. This is a big deal, and nonprofits all over the country, not just in Kentucky, need to pay attention!

Let’s hope Bevin doesn’t get any ideas from the U.K.’s disasterous Big Society efforts from a few year’s back (UK as in United Kingdom, not the University of Kentucky…).

Update: August 14, 2016 letter to Deputy Chief of Staff Office of the Governor, Matthew G. Bevin from Danielle Clore, Executive Director/CEO, Kentucky Nonprofit Network. It asks very tough questions about this proposal – which have not yet been answered.

Volunteers are NOT free.