Tag Archives: volunteering

Great reasons to involve LOCAL volunteer firefighters

It seems that, per the union for professional firefighters stance against volunteers in firefighting or any emergency response roles, a lot of fire stations are phasing out volunteers in these frontline roles. I’m seeing more and more stations across the USA scaling back the involvement and/or role of volunteers, allowing volunteers only in non-emergency-response roles, if at all: rolling hoses and cleaning equipment after a call, serving food and drinks to career firefighters at or after a call, staffing fundraising events, setting up for or cleaning up after events, etc. Those support roles to frontline responders are super important, and many volunteers are happy to fill them. But there are a lot of other people that want to volunteer in emergency response roles, and they are willing to go through extensive training, right alongside career firefighters, to do it. Unfortunately, there seem to be less and less opportunities for such people.

In addition, I’m also seeing fire stations that are still involving volunteers in first responder roles recruiting for volunteers only or primarily among people that want to become career firefighters and that see volunteer firefighting as a path to that. As with career firefighters, such volunteers are often from outside the town or city where they will serve, maybe far outside. They don’t stick around for long, because they are looking for a paid job: they leave the station after just a year or two for paid work elsewhere. That means such a fire station is forever recruiting and training volunteers to replace those that leave.

Career firefighters are not better than volunteer firefighters, volunteer firefighters are not better than career firefighters, and neither should be a threat to the other. Rather, these two kinds of first responders, working side-by-side, can make emergency management and risk prevention all the more powerful than just one kind or the other staffing a station.

Here are great reasons to recruit and involve local volunteer firefighters, even if a station is partially or primarily staffed by career firefighters, reasons that shouldn’t feel threatening to career firefighters:

  • Local volunteers live in the community or neighborhood, and that means they will often know things about residents, businesses, streets and locations that career firefighters that don’t live in the town or area may not know. This can be helpful, even vital, when responding to certain calls.
  • Local volunteers live in the community, and that means they can be more readily available to back up on-duty staff during an emergency than off-duty career firefighters that live outside of the town or city and have to travel several miles, even more than an hour, to staff a station when all the on-shift responders are on a call.
  • Local volunteers represent local community investment in the fire station and local support for career firefighters, many – and sometimes, most – of whom do not live in the community. Local volunteers demonstrate a kind of community endorsement as powerful as financial support.
  • Local volunteers can provide much-needed continuance and knowledge in a fire station with a high turnover of career firefighters.
  • Local volunteers aren’t career firefighters, and those that don’t have career firefighting aspirations can be a more neutral voice when making the case for a maintenance or increase in funding for a fire station or for a new strategy. They do not have a financial or career interest in funding or expansion, for instance, and that makes their voice incredibly powerful when advocating to elected officials and community members that may be voting on such a measure.
  • Local volunteers aren’t career firefighters, and those don’t have career firefighting aspirations can be a more neutral voice when addressing problems and complaints within or about a fire station, since they will not suffer financial consequences from speaking out about issues that need to be addressed. The key here is the phrase can be – does your station empower and encourage local volunteers to provide frank feedback about what they see and experience? Do you have a speak-up culture?
  • Local volunteers may end up serving on a citizen committee that advises government or even run for local office, and having a firefighter advocate in such a role can be greatly beneficial to all firefighting, fire prevention and emergency response in a community.

What are other great reasons to involve local volunteers in fire stations? What other scenarios, beyond fire stations, are good to have volunteers and career professionals working side-by-side? Please share in the comments.

And on a related note, here are four groups of questions every fire station should be asking itself:

  • If we involve career firefighters, how long are they staying, on average? Why are they leaving? Do we need to change how we recruit, manage or support career firefighters to reduce turnover? What are the costs associated with recruiting and training a new career firefighter?
  • If we involve volunteer firefighters in first responder roles, how long are they staying, on average? Why are volunteers leaving? Do we need to change how we recruit, manage or support volunteer firefighters to reduce turnover? What are the costs associated with recruiting and training a new volunteer firefighter?
  • How does the local community perceive the engagement of volunteer firefighters in first responder roles? If our station is scaling back or eliminating volunteers in these roles, how aware is the public of this change, and what are their feelings about it?
  • Does our web site have clear information about why we involve volunteers in emergency response? Are we limiting ourselves to recruiting only those people who have career aspirations and want to volunteer as a pathway to that career, or do we also have language that also encourages local people with no career firefighting aspirations to volunteer?

Also see:

Mission statements for your volunteer engagement
(Saying WHY your organization or department involves volunteers)

New online resources to help recruit volunteer firefighters

Volunteers needed, but are they wanted?

why you can’t find/keep volunteer firefighters

Making certain volunteers feel unwelcomed because of your language

pro vs. volunteer firefighters

Fire station turns away volunteers – & how it could be different

International Association of Fire Fighters is anti-volunteer

History & Evaluation of UNV’s Early Years

Whilst trying to make a list of all of the Executive Coordinators of the United Nations Volunteers program since UNV began in 1970, to update UNV’s profile on Wikipedia, I found quite a delicious document from 1974, which provides the most detailed history of the origins of the UNV program that I have ever read – origins I don’t think most people are aware of, including most staff at UNV – as well as an evaluation of UNV’s first three years of operation.

Some things have changed quite a lot at UNV since this document was published – but some have stayed the same.

The article is The Platonic Acorn: A Case Study of the United Nations Volunteer. It’s by Robert A. Pastor who, at the time of this paper’s publication in 1974, was a graduate student at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Pastor was a former Peace Corps volunteer who went on to many high-profile international endeavors: he was a member of the National Security Council Staff during the administration of President Jimmy Carter, he was associated with various universities, and also served as a Senior Fellow at the Carter Center, where he established the programs on Latin America and the Caribbean, democracy and election-monitoring, and Chinese village elections. He died of colon cancer in 2014.

His paper about the first years of UNV was published in the journal International Organization, published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the International Organization Foundation. This article appeared in Volume 28, Issue 3 July 1974, pp. 375-397, and it’s accessible online, for free, from JSTOR. The Abstract for his paper:

This article presents both a history and an administrative analysis of the United Nations Volunteers, an international organization established by a General Assembly resolution in December 1970. The hope that the new organization would presage a new era of multinational volunteerism has proven groundless. In seeking to explain the ineffectiveness of the UN Volunteers, I look inside the organization and find that it has little or no control over its six principal functions. This extreme decentralization of responsibility is then explained not by a static description of the institutional but by focusing on the dynamic process by which state and transnational actors exercised influence during the different stages of the organization’s establishment and development. Those actors whose autonomy was most jeopardized by a new volunteer organization were most active in defining and limiting the scope of its operations. The relative lobbying advantages of state and transnational actors meshed with bureaucratic and budgetary constraints to ensure an enfeebled organization.

Whew!

Pastor is very critical of UNV’s recruitment and placement processes in particular, as it slowed volunteer placement to a crawl. The problem was that, in the 1970s, each stage in the UNV selection process was managed by a different organization in a different location, resulting in 11 different stages between the volunteer-involving organization and the applicant. As a result, as of March 1973, UNV had filled just 93 posts from approximately 400 requests. In addition, 85 percent of volunteers were from least developed countries (LDCs). Then, it was seen as a problem, because the program was supposed to be “universal”, with a significant number of young volunteers from industrialized countries:

The organizational process also helps to explain why there is such a high percentage of volunteers from LDCs, and may help predict why this is likely to continue. Many applicants from LDCs view the UNV as a step into the UN civil service, and thus they are willing to tolerate longer delays than their counterparts in the developed world who generally view volunteer service as precisely that. The result, that LCD volunteers currently count for nearly half of all volunteers, is a bit ironic since one of the original purposes of volunteerism was to exploit the skill surplus of the developed countries.

I have no idea what the timeline is now between the creation of a UNV assignment and placement of a person into that assignment, but mentalities regarding people from developing countries as UNV has greatly changed: UNV now prides itself on a high percentage of volunteers from developed countries, the idea being that it is a reflection of south-to-south cooperation. The average age of UNVs has also increased, from people in their 20s when the program started to 38 now – a program originally designed to channel the energies of youth has become something quite different.

Another criticism by Pastor is that “Although volunteers are supposed to work directly with host country people, they find themselves working with and accountable only to foreign experts.” In the last few years, UNV has focused on its capacity to be a low-cost staffing solution for UN agencies, so this criticism could still be made – and may become a greater issue.

Pastor questions UNV’s ability at the time to fulfill specialized requests for volunteers, and suspects the level of specialization requested is much higher than what is actually necessary. He provides imaginary, outrageous examples of such requests, such as for a “French-speaking sand dune fixation expert.” He says, “Assuming that these specialists exist, the likelihood of finding one who would volunteer is negligible, while the price of the search is exorbitant.” Pastor’s paper was written more than two decades before the Internet became widely used in the USA, and then grew exponentially globally; recruitment of highly-specialized candidates for volunteering is now easy for most situations, and the number of applicants for these assignments shows an abundance of experts willing to take on such volunteering roles.

Another criticism in the document is if the UNV program was, in fact, a volunteer program because of the “high professional calibre” of volunteers – meaning the degree of expertise of the volunteers somehow makes them not really volunteers anymore. He notes that UNV “insists on selling its product as an inexpensive substitute for experts.” Since then, thankfully, the understanding of the word volunteer has changed, and it does not mean amateur, unskilled, or inexperienced. But for UNV now, in 2017, what does volunteer mean? In the USA, a person is a volunteer at a nonprofit or other mission-based organization if he or she is not paid by that agency for services rendered. In fact, the federal agency in charge of regulating labor has strict guidelines on who may be called a volunteer – and who may not. As UNVs, especially national UNVs from the same country where they are serving, receive excellent compensation, called a stipend rather than a salary, what makes them a volunteer? That I cannot answer.

Pastor’s review of UNV is a fascinating document which offers a lot of challenging questions about UNV – and some of these questions, IMO, need to be asked again.  I’m so sorry I can’t thank him for his paper, and talk with him about how UNV has evolved. I would have loved to hear what he thought of the Online Volunteering service in particular, which I think meets many of the goals originally set out for UNV but not realized.

In the course of my research, I also found the book The Role and Status of International Humanitarian Volunteers and Organization: The Rights and Duty to Humanitarian Assistance by Yves Beigbeder, ISBN 0-7923-1190-6. It was published in 1991, and from the pages available on Google, it seems to also have some scathing analysis of UNV’s performance up to that date. It’s hard to find information about the author; there’s scant information online about him, though he seems to be a prolific writer. Online, it says he served at the Nuremberg Tribunal in 1946 and had a “long career in UN organizations as a senior official.” Beigbeder’s book is hard to get hold of; it is offered online for about $100, well beyond the budgets for most folks interested in evaluating volunteer placement agencies (and beyond my own budget as well).

In the book, Beigbeder says that the UNDP Governing Council asked the UNV administrator to undertake a review of the UNV program in 1986 and in 1987. The report was a mixed bag on UNV performance at that time: it was noted that, in Yemen, “UNVs are quickly operational, less demanding in support services and more adaptive to difficult, harsh and isolated working conditions than other technical assistance staff.” But In Papua New Guinea, results were good and bad. “When UNVs have not done well, the cause was either poor project design, noninvolvement by supervisors in developing the job description, job duties imprecise or modified after the arrival of the UNV, wrong selection, or language deficiencies.” All of those can still be problems with UNV assignments – or for any international placement organization, for that matter. Addressing those problems is an ongoing issue.

Finally, my search also lead me to the self-published book Not Only a Refugee: An American UN Volunteer in the Philippines by Eleanor Grogg Stewart, about her time in the early 1980s, specifically in and around 1982, when she worked in a refugee camp. Several pages from her book are available on books.google.com. It’s detailed account of the early days of UNV, as well as trying to navigate UN bureaucracy.

It’s a shame that early accounts and evaluations of nonprofit organizations, international aid agencies, government programs and other mission-based entities are forgotten. It’s so interesting to read how much has changed, how much has improved – and how far we still have to go. How can we know if we’re making a difference if we aren’t looking at what our agencies promised in the past?

One final note: On 31 May, 2017, the Executive Board of UNDP, UNFPA and UNOPS convened in New York to discuss the findings of an independent evaluation of the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) programme and UNV’s new Strategic Framework goals and objectives for 2018-2021. Here is a press release about the meeting, which says Nina Retzlaff is the independent evaluator of the UNV Strategic Framework 2014-2017 and that she elaborated on key points and early findings from her evaluation at the New York meeting, noting that there was a high level of satisfaction from UN partners on the work of UN Volunteers and that “91% of UN partners confirm UNV responds to their needs, [and that] 92% of the UN Volunteers report a satisfactory experience.” She also said that “UNV’s programmatic niche is in Youth and Volunteer Infrastructure.” I would love to read the evaluation but, cannot find out if it’s even been finished, let alone published. It would be fascinating to read how it compares to these earlier aassessments.

Also see:

The harm of orphanage voluntourism (& wildlife voluntourism as well)

You see the posts on the subreddit regarding volunteerism, on Craigslist, on Quora, on LinkedIn groups, etc.:

Come provide care, love and attention to orphans! Help provide daily care to these orphans, help prepare meals, help watch over them, help with homework, participate in playtime activities, and be a child’s best friend in Africa… You’ll also be the shining light for the children and bring about a fresh and positive energy in the orphanage. You’ll also play the role of a friend and mentor to the children, turning them into confident individuals capable of believing in themselves. The love and attention that these children get from volunteers will uplift their spirits and put a smile on their faces.

Those are all actual statements combined from two different sites that sell volunteer trips to help orphans.

Think about it: these organizations are claiming that foreigners, who may or may not be appropriate to be around children, who may or may not have any experience working with children, who may not even speak the local language, should come interact with orphans, and that an ever-changing group of foreign volunteers, coming in for a few days or weeks at a time, can somehow transform the lives of vulnerable children. Or wildlife. The only thing those foreign volunteers need is the ability to pay all of their transportation, accommodation costs, and program fees to the trip organizer. No criminal background check, no verifiable, needed skills – just money and will.

There are so many Westerners ready to pay big bucks for these feel-good experiences and all the selfies they can take with third world children that many NGOs have popped up with fake orphanages: the children have parents, but the parents are given small fees by the NGOs for their kids to pretend to be orphans for foreigners.

Friends-International, with the backing of UNICEF, has launched this campaign to end what is known as orphanage tourism. This is from their web site:

Voluntourism can be a program that invites tourists (for a specific fee, or through an NGO directly recruiting), to volunteer at an organization. In most cases, these organizations do not require candidates to have relevant qualifications or previous work experience in social work or childcare. At worst, some organizations do not require or conduct proper background checks of volunteers before placing them in direct contact with children.

And then there is this incendiary report by South African and British academics that focuses on “orphan tourism” in southern Africa and reveals just how destructive these programs can be to local people, especially children. From the report:

The term ‘AIDS orphan tourism’, describes tourist activities consisting of short-term travel to facilities, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa, that involve volunteering as caregivers for ‘AIDS orphans’. Well-to-do tourists enrol for several weeks at a time to build schools, clean and restore river banks, ring birds and other useful activities in mostly poor but exotic settings… Well-to-do tourists enrol for several weeks at a time to build schools, clean and restore river banks, ring birds and other useful activities in mostly poor but exotic settings. AIDS orphan tourism has become a niche market, contributing to the growth of the tourism industry…

As in other countries undergoing social or other changes, non-family residential group care (orphanages) in southern Africa has expanded, perversely driven by the availability of funds for such facilities, and the glamour that media personalities have brought to setting them up. However, many orphanages are not registered with welfare authorities as required by law, and most face funding uncertainties and high staff turnover, making them unstable rather than secure environments for children. Moreover, children taken in by orphanages are usually from desperately poor families rather than orphans – the case of David Banda in Malawi is a case in point.

There is also this May 16, 2016 report from The Guardian that volunteers from the west are fueling the growth of orphanages in Uganda. Voluntourism has been linked to damaging local economies and commodifying vulnerable children. It also can perpetuate harmful stereotypes about the so-called “third world”, while also promoting neo-colonialistic attitudes. There’s also this blog from a person who paid to volunteer in an orphanage, and realized just how unethical it was.

A legitimate NGO serving orphans would never solicit come-one-come-all-as-long-as-you-can-pay volunteers via a general web site like Quora. Rather, they would have a proper, detailed Terms of Reference posted to credible humanitarian recruitment sites, like ReliefWeb or DevelopEx. That post for volunteers would detail the education and experience the volunteer would need to have and details on how the volunteers’ credibility would be investigated. And for legitimate programs, not every applicant would be accepted just because they’ve got the money to pay to the program organizer; in fact, many applicants would be turned away because they lack the necessary skills.

In short: unless a program overseas is recruiting volunteers who have many years of experience working with children, certifications, references and criminal background checks, has a web site that details how its programs are evaluated to show impact of their programs, and has endorsements by well-known international organizations,  stay away from the program. And don’t be Savior Barbie.

As for supposed conservation volunteering in another country: why would legitimate wildlife sanctuaries allow untrained foreigners to work directly with wild(ish) animals for a few weeks? No credible zoo in the USA would ever do that. The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee doesn’t let volunteers interact with the elephants! Before you rush off to an animal sanctuary in a foreign country, do a tremendous amount of research to make sure this is truly a sanctuary, not a place that goes out and captures baby animals so that tourists will pay to care for them and have photos with them.

Update: a voluntourism / orphan tourism company is trying to fight back via Reddit.

July 17, 2017 update: Charities and voluntourism fuelling ‘orphanage crisis’ in Haiti, says NGO. At least 30,000 children live in privately-run orphanages in Haiti, but an estimated 80% of the children living in these facilities are not actually orphaned: they have one or more living parent, and almost all have other relatives, according to the Haitian government.

Also see:

National Summit on Volunteer Engagement Leadership, July 26-28, 2017

Registration is now open for the 2017 National Summit on Volunteer Engagement Leadership, July 26 – 28, 2017 in St. Paul, Minnesota. The Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA) is hosting the first national conference in the USA in more than a decade for people in charge of supporting and involving volunteers. This will also be the first time in more than a decade the profession’s most well-known thought leaders, authors, and trainers will be together in one place.

The Summit will offer more than 100 workshops to increase knowledge and skills regarding the management of volunteers. There will also be plenaries and group discussions to determine how to build a new national presence for leaders of volunteer engagement, tackle the issues that affect this profession, and ultimately increase the community impact of the volunteers engaged. There will also be special sessions focusing on grant makers and other philanthropic organizations which support volunteer engagement with funding, providing a unique opportunity for funders and nonprofit leaders alike to learn more about each other’s perspectives, approaches to collaboration, and challenges.

With the budgets of so many nonprofits and community-focused government programs on the chopping block, I hope this conference will also talk about how to advocate for those programs to voters and legislators.

It’s really wonderful 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.

And, as I said the last time I blogged about this conference: 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.

5 ideas erróneas que personas tienen sobre lo que implica hacer un voluntariado internacional

5 ideas erróneas que muchas personas tienen sobre lo que implica hacer un voluntariado internacional

A lo mejor la imagen de voluntarios internacional jugando fútbol con niños en África, construyendo una escuela, cocinando con las mujeres de una aldea o dando clases a una comunidad. Pareciera que la participación de una voluntarios en un proyecto en que se lleva a cabo en países en vías de desarrollo, lograra grandes y duraderas transformaciones, pero no es así. Este artículo presenta 5 ideas erróneas que muchas personas tienen sobre lo que implica hacer un voluntariado internacional. Esta información es de Hacesfalta. No hay un mejor lugar para encontrar información sobre todo tipos de voluntariado que Hacesfalta. Si usted está interesado en voluntariado internacional o micro voluntariado, este es el sitio para usted.

(Perhaps you picture the image of international volunteers playing soccer with children in Africa, building a school, cooking with the women of a village or teaching a community. It may seem that this kind of participation of volunteers in a project in developing countries will achieve great and lasting transformations, but it is not so. This article presents five misconceptions that many people have about what it means to volunteer internationally. This information is from Hacesfalta. There is no better place to find information in Spanish on all types of volunteering than Hacesfalta. If you are interested in international volunteering or micro volunteering, and you are a Spanish speaker, this is the place for you.)

And for my resources on this subject, in English:

  • Volunteering Abroad / Internationally: a Reality Check
    A review of the four different types of volunteering abroad programs, and how to improve your profile to be chosen by highly-competitive programs, such as the PeaceCorps.
  • transire benefaciendo: “to travel along while doing good.”
    Advice for those wanting to make their travel more than sight-seeing and shopping. This may be a better, cheaper option for you if you want to have an international experience and make a difference in some way.
  • Volunteering Abroad / Internationally: a Reality Check
    A review of the four different types of volunteering abroad programs, and how to improve your profile to be chosen by highly-competitive programs, such as the PeaceCorps.
  • Ideas for Funding Your Volunteering Abroad Trip
    If you need to raise money to pay for a short-term volunteering gig abroad, here are realistic ways to do so. Also has advice on how to choose a credible program.
  • Vetting Organizations in Other Countries
    A resource that can help you evaluate volunteer-placement organizations that charge you for your placement as a volunteer, as well as for people interested in partnering or supporting an organization abroad but wanting to know it’s a credible organization, that it’s not some sort of scam, or an ‘organization’ of just one person.
  • The realities of voluntourism: use with caution
    Voluntourism is really awful and really good. I’m totally against it and I support it. Confused yet? This opinion piece is my attempt to explain why voluntourism sometimes works and why, very often, it’s dreadful.
  • Volunteering To Help After Major Disasters
    Whenever a disaster strikes, hundreds — even thousands — of citizens in the USA start contacting various organizations in an effort to try to volunteer onsite at the disaster site. But what many of these people don’t realize is that spontaneous volunteers with no training and no affiliation can actually cause more problems than they alleviate in a disaster situation, particularly regarding disaster locations far from their home. If you want to be a part of the mobilization for a future disaster, here are tips to help you get into “the system,” get training, and be in a position to make a real difference.
  • Tax credits for volunteering (for residents of the USA) – includes information on tax deductions for volunteering abroad

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

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

Welcoming immigrants as volunteers at your organization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Here are more resources from other organizations:

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

Here are my own resources on related topics:

A grassroots group or nonprofit org = disorganization?

logoThree comments I received or read in the last few weeks via email or social media:

As a nonprofit, we can’t always make updates and changes to our web site quickly…

As an all-volunteer organization, we won’t be able to do much marketing for this event…

We haven’t replied to people that have posted on Facebook saying that they want to volunteer because we’re an all-volunteer movement and we’re progressing methodically…

Being a nonprofit, or being an all-volunteer organization, or being a grassroots group organizing a march, has nothing to do with a group or organization’s ability to:

  • make simple changes to its web site
  • market an event
  • provide quality customer service
  • have an up-to-date list of the board of directors or senior staff on the web site
  • say on the web site what volunteers do at the organization and how to express interest in volunteering
  • say on the web site what the organization needs in terms of volunteer support
  • respond to emails in a timely manner
  • refer all phone calls and emails to the appropriate person immediately
  • quickly reply to every person who wants to volunteer, even with a simple message that says “you will hear from us in the next two weeks with next steps”

Legitimate reasons for not doing those things is because the organization or group:

  • is suddenly and severely understaffed (mass staff walk out, mass layoffs…)
  • has other immediate, urgent priorities in that specific moment (building burning down, death of a client, etc.)
  • is inefficient
  • is disorganized

If you have ever wondered why so many people from the for-profit sector think nonprofits are incompetent, that people that work at nonprofits aren’t experts, this is why: because we use our nonprofit status, or our volunteer staffing, as an excuse for not being able to do the basics of customer service, management and marketing.

My reaction to someone who says As a nonprofit, we can’t always make updates and changes to our web site quickly… or As an all-volunteer organization, we won’t be able to do much marketing for this event… is this: maybe you should dissolve your organization, or seek new leadership for your organization and its programs. And my reaction to anyone that says their group doesn’t have time to respond quickly to every person that expresses interest in volunteering is this: in fact, you don’t have to involve volunteers at all, and you should say so.

Yes, I’m talking to all you folks organizing marches as well.

When you get an email from someone asking why certain information isn’t on your web site, or why you aren’t updating your Facebook page, or why your nonprofit wasn’t represented at some event, here’s an idea: apologize to the person for not having the information or activity that you should have had, tell that person you are currently understaffed, and ask if he or she would be interested in volunteering with the organization to help you correct this. For instance:

Thanks so much for the email noting that we haven’t updated our Facebook page for four months, and haven’t posted any information about our upcoming event. Our marketing manager is currently on maternity leave, and we are looking for a volunteer to help us with social media management for the next four months. Would you be interested in helping us? 

Or

Thank you for writing about your frustration about trying to volunteer with your organization. People that want to volunteer with us deserve a quick response to their expressions of interest. Would you like to help us do that? Would you be interested in volunteering to help us quickly respond to people that want to volunteer?

Yes, I know, I wrote a similar blog back in 2012.

Also see:

Involving volunteers: a cop out for paying staff?

Nurses in the Philippines are angry. They are being forced to work for free, or for a stipend on which they cannot live, while the hospitals where they are working call them “volunteers.” Some hospitals are even charging nurses for their “volunteer” work experience. Thousands of graduate nurses are paying hospitals and working for months without salaries under the guise of “training,” so the nurses can gain work experience and have an improved chance of being employed as a regular staff eventually. As a result of this exploitation, nurses have filed cases against four hospitals through the Philippines Department of Labor and Employment – National Labor Relations Commission in February and March. Nurses have also sought the help of a Philippines political party, the Ang Nars Party, which has been using its Facebook page to highlight their campaign against what they are calling “false volunteerism”. (Thanks, oh-so-awesome DJ Cronin, for the heads up about this situation!)

You can read more about this situation at the Nursing News, March 2, 2017, but be warned: this is a click-bait site, packed with advertising banners and in-text advertising links.

I am, of course, outraged about this situation in the Philippines. It’s the same outrage that prompted me to call on the United Nations to defend its involvement of full-time, unpaid interns. It’s not only horrible that these nurses are being exploited; these kinds of actions create campaigns opposed to some or all volunteering (unpaid work). No doubt the hospitals in the Philippines have happily talked about the value of volunteering only in terms of money saved in not paying staff, just as ILO, the Johns Hopkins University Center for Civil Society Studies, UNV, and others have encouraged them to do.  The result of this exploitation will be a further backlash against all volunteering in hospitals in the Philippines – and beyond. The fight against unpaid internships hurts volunteering. And all of this is because so many organizations see volunteers only as a way to not pay staff, to save money.

If you do not have a  written statement that explains explicitly why your organization reserves certain tasks / assignments / roles for volunteers, including unpaid interns, and that statement has NOTHING to do with not having enough money to pay staff, then you have no business involving volunteers, or unpaid interns, or whatever it is you want to call people you aren’t paying for work.

Good luck to the nurses in the Philippines. And good luck to hospitals in justifying future engagement of volunteers after making so many enemies to the term.

Also see: