Tag Archives: volunteers

A plea to USA nonprofits for the next four years (& beyond):

speak upAttention nonprofits: stop believing that you automatically have some kind of magical, wonderful reputation because you “do good.”

Your organization’s future over the next four years depends on your organization rapidly becoming a much, much better advocate for its work as well as the work of the entire mission-based sector.

Over the next four years (and beyond):

Please dramatically improve how you communicate why your organization is necessary. Define it well, and say it repeatedly, in a variety of ways – in press releases, on your web site, in every speech you make, on your Facebook page, etc. Ask the spouses and partners of people that work and volunteer for your organization, people who have NOT volunteered or worked there themselves, to come in for coffee and donuts and a short discussion – and ask them why your organization exists, why it is necessary. Be prepared for them to have no specifics, just a possible, general idea. Use their feedback to create a plan to improve your communications, internally and externally, and to make sure it is clear to anyone and everyone why your organization is necessary. Make it a priority for the next four years to constantly and dramatically improve communication about what your organization does and WHY it exists.

Please dramatically improve how you communicate as to why there is poverty, or domestic violence, or homelessness, or unemployment, or a need for live theater, or whatever it is your nonprofit is concerned with addressing. Please don’t just ask for help for an issue without explicitly saying why the issue exists. And please say so more than once. This is another good opportunity for a focus group to find out just how much you need to improve regarding your messaging. This should also be a top priority.

If your organization does not address a critical humanitarian issue, then you must be even more explicit about why your mission is important. You cannot assume people know why a theater organization, a dance organization, a community choir, an art museum, a history museum, a chalk art festival, a historical society, a cultural festival, etc. is important to a community. Have hard numbers ready, in terms of economic impact, on what your organization contributes to your city or county. Have data on the impact of performing arts on health, school grades, crime, and any other quality of life issue and think of ways to get that data out there, repeatedly, via your web site, social media, press interviews, and on and on.

Make sure your volunteers know why your organization is necessary, even volunteers doing just one-time gigs or micro volunteering, and including your board of directors. Every volunteer, even those coming in for just a few hours as part of a group effort, must be given at least a short introduction to why your organization exists. All volunteers, past and present, microtasking volunteers and long-term volunteers, should be invited to public events. You must turn volunteers into advocates for your organization and nonprofits in general to their friends, family and colleagues.

Please correct volunteers and donors, even very large donors, who misspeak about your mission, or why the issue exists that you are trying to address. For instance, if your nonprofit helps the homeless, and a donor says that people are homeless because they are lazy and do not want to work, correct him and her. Make a list of myths about the issue you address, and the counters to those myths, and go over those myths with all staff, all board members, all leadership volunteers, and all long-term volunteers, at the very least.

If your budget is going to be cut because of actions by the President and Congress, you owe it to your community and to all you serve to say so. And you owe it to those same people to say how these cuts are going to affect your programs and, in turn, the community and those you serve. If cuts are going to hurt your clients, say so. This isn’t being political – this is being factual.

Stop talking about volunteer value primarily in terms of their hourly monetary value. When you do that, you justify a government saying, “Cut your paid staff and just get volunteers to do that work.” Governments HAVE done this, and it’s very likely the incoming USA federal government will do it too, and that this thinking will trickle down to state governments as well. When you talk about volunteer value primarily in terms of an hourly monetary value, you are saying that their PRIMARY value is that they work for free.

Use your web site to be absolutely transparent about who runs your organization, what it does, how much money is in its budget, where the money comes from and how it spends the money it gets. AND KEEP IT UPDATED. And be proud of it – no apologies for paying competitive salaries, for having offices that have adequate parking and lighting, for having clean offices, etc.

Make sure politicians know and appreciate your organization. Have a representative from your organization at every local public meeting by your state’s US Congressional Representatives and US Senators, and send those officials press releases about your organization’s accomplishments and impact. Invite representatives from their offices to every public event you have. Here is more advice on how to get a Congressperson to listen to you, which notes that posts to social media are largely ineffective because they are so easy to ignore, that paper letters are more effective than email, and that phone calls RULE. You need to do similar outreach with your state legislative representatives and senators – in fact, they should be much easier to meet with, in-person. Go in front of your local city council at least once a year to speak during the public comment: announce a new program, remind the council of something you are doing, tell them what a budget cut is going to do in terms of how it will affect your clients, etc. You have about two minutes: use it.

Make sure the nearest weekly and daily newspapers, and the nearest CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox affiliate TV stations know why your organization exists, what it accomplishes, and the underlying issues it addresses. And when they get a story wrong about the causes of homelessness, addiction, unemployment, domestic violence, poverty, etc., CALL THEM and SAY SO. Volunteers can help you monitor the media and look for opportunities for correction.

During the 2016 election, a worldwide audience, not just the USA, heard repeated disparaging remarks by the two main Presidential candidates about each other’s philanthropic bodies. Regardless of the truth or not of their attacks, many people have been left with the impression that all philanthropy – all nonprofits, all charities, all NGOs – is corrupt and conducted primarily with the goal of achieving more power and a good public image, rather than a genuine desire to improve people’s lives, improve communities or help the environment. Every nonprofit has to keep that in mind as it looks at the financial information on its web site and annual report, as well as in addressing the aforementioned communication issues.

Henry Berman said, in an article for an article for The Chronicle of Philanthropy, “We must tell our stories and the stories of those who benefit from our philanthropy, lest we allow the unchecked rhetoric of the campaign trail to define who we are, what we accomplish, and how we operate.” I couldn’t agree more.

You will not have your nonprofit status revoked for doing any of the above. Do not let anyone threaten such a thing. The aforementioned is all mission-based work. You aren’t endorsing a politician or a political party, and you are not directing people on how to vote, things that are strictly forbidden for 501 (c) (3) nonprofits.

Also see

“Every nonprofit organization and nonprofit cause or mission that relies on federal regulation, executive orders, or other non-legislative approaches to implementation is at risk of profound change or elimination when Donald Trump takes office in January.” An excellent warning from the Nonprofit Quarterly.

It’s Day One of the Trump Era: Let’s Defend Philanthropy

How Will Trump Presidency Affect Humanitarian Aid & Development?

My consulting services (I can help you with your communications strategies!)

January 6, 2017 u update: Forbes has this excellent article on how corporations should have a crisis communications response in case Trump attacks them. It is a step-by-step guide on what that planning should look like. Have a look and think about how your nonprofit or government agency should create a similar guide for your mission-based initiative. If your mission has a focus on LBGTQ people, on helping immigrants, or helping women access abortion services, or is affiliated in any way with the Clinton Foundation, or has any Islamic affiliation, or works to help refugees, or has any other focus “relevant to the president elect’s hobbyhorses,” your organization REALLY needs to read this Forbes article.

Volunteers Along Immigrant & Refugee Journey

refugeesLast year, e-Volunteerism, a publication by Energize, Inc. and Susan Ellis, featured an article about volunteers at the front lines of the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe, and how their impassioned scramble to help—though often inefficient and always insufficient—nonetheless addressed grave needs and sent a message to governments to respond. But the images of these orange-vested volunteers, often entirely self-funded and pulling refugees from boats and greeting them with blankets on Mediterranean shores, represent just a fraction of the diverse volunteer sector that serves the needs of immigrants and refugees worldwide. And these borders and shorelines are not the end of the journey; for the immigrants and refugees, they are where new journeys begin. While some immigrants’ first steps inside a country are more perilous than others, even immigrants who arrive safely at an airport are still plunged into uncertainty and vulnerability. Settling into a new life, a new job, new customs, a new language, and the new experience of being a racial, ethnic, or religious minority can often be a more daunting journey than getting to the country in the first place.

A new e-Volunteerism Voices article by Kerry Martin explores how volunteers engage with immigrants and refugees at every stage of their journey. It focuses on the current situation in the USA (which has relevant implications for other countries) by assessing the nature of volunteer services for three distinct groups: 1) refugees formally resettled through government and other authorized organizations; 2) recent immigrants (non-refugees) who are undocumented, at risk of losing their immigration status, or in need of support due to poverty, exploitation, abuse, etc.; and 3) refugees unrecognized by the U.S. and not formally resettled, primarily those fleeing from gang violence in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.

The full article is available to subscribers of e-Volunteerism and it’s worth subscribing to read this article!

Also see:

Reality Check: Volunteering Abroad / Internationally

Funding Your Volunteering Abroad Trip (& where to find credible volunteering abroad/work abroad programs)

How to Pursue a Career with the United Nations or Other International Humanitarian or Development Organizations, Including Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)

Vanity Volunteering: all about the volunteer

20 Years Ago: The Virtual Volunteering Project

vvlogoThe Virtual Volunteering Project officially launched 20 years ago this month. It was the first attempt by anyone, anywhere, to research online volunteer service and document what works, and what doesn’t. I directed the initiative at its launch – and now, two decades later, I’m in a mood to reflect.

The Virtual Volunteering Project was the brainchild of Steve Glikbarg and Cindy Shove, co-founders of Impact Online (what became VolunteerMatch). In fact, Glikbarg probably originally coined the phrase virtual volunteering, back in the mid or even early 1990s. In its first two years, the Virtual Volunteering Project was funded primarily with the support of the James Irvine Foundation. Additional support in this first phase of the Project came from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Morino Institute and the Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation. The Charles A. Dana Center, a research institute at the University of Texas at Austin, hosted the Project for most of its life.

How did I start on the road to becoming a virtual volunteering expert? In 1995, while working at Joint Venture: Silicon Valley, the two volunteer interns I’d taken on to build web sites for all of the initiatives we were managing said they would prefer to build the sites on their own computers back on campus, rather than at our office, because their computers were better and it was more convenient for them. They would bring their work to me on disks when they were finished. What a great idea! It worked out very well – they got to work on their own schedule, from their homes, on better computers, and I got what I needed. So I offered the option of working remotely part of the time, even most of the time, to every volunteer I recruited after that at Joint Venture. The next year, Cindy contacted me about running a new virtual volunteering initiative she and Steve had just gotten funded. “What’s ‘virtual volunteering?'” I asked. “It’s what you’ve been doing with your volunteers and talking about on USENET!” she replied.

The Virtual Volunteering Project officially launched in December 1996. It was quite rough at first; the vast majority of the programs that involved volunteers donating some or all of their time online never used the phrase virtual volunteering. In fact, that’s still true today! I remember thinking in those first several weeks that most online volunteers would be 20 something men living in Silicon Valley; imagine my surprise to find out, rather quickly, that most online volunteers were women living all over the USA – and beyond! I was also stunned at how quickly I found more than 100 virtual volunteering initiatives, most of which didn’t know about each other. With the help of online and onsite volunteers myself, I researched virtual volunteering activities, created and continually updated web pages about it, and marketed what I was learning, via both traditional press releases and frequent posts to various online discussion groups. I also involved online volunteers myself – more than 300 over more than four years. As a result, I was invited to speak at a lot of conferences and was quoted in a lot of traditional press, like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

I left the Virtual Volunteering Project in Janaury 2001, to prepare for my move to Germany to work for the United Nations to run the virtual volunteering component of NetAid, which became the stand-alone Online Volunteering service. I got that UN job because of my online activities, including participation in various online communities. In subsequent UN and international work, even when the focus isn’t virtual volunteering but, say, communications, I’ve found a way to inject at least a little virtual volunteering capacity building and involvement into the work.

Now, it’s 20 years after the launch of the Virtual Volunteering Project, which is archived here. Not much has changed in terms of best practices in virtual volunteering, the practices that make virtual volunteering effective for nonprofits, NGOs, government programs, schools and more, though there’s lots of new jargon now in the mix: micro volunteering, crowdsourcing, digital volunteering, the Cloud, etc.

vvbooklittle The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, by Susan J. Ellis and myself, is our attempt to document all these best practices over the more than three decades virtual volunteering has been happening, in a comprehensive, detailed way, so that the collective knowledge can be used with the latest digital engagement initiatives to help people volunteer, advocate for causes they care about, connect with communities and make a difference. It’s a tool primarily for organizations, but there’s also information for online volunteers themselves. It’s available both in traditional print form and in digital version. Thanks to everyone who has purchased it so far! Bonus points if you can find the sci fi/fan girl references in the book…

Also see:

Early History of Nonprofits & the Internet

Al Gore Campaign Pioneered Virtual Volunteering

Lessons on effective, valuable online communities – from the 1990s

Online volunteers created a music festival in St. Louis

Updated: research regarding virtual volunteering

How did volunteers impact the 2016 USA Presidential election?

social cohesionIn 2012, I knew that President Obama was going to be re-elected because of the number of people volunteering for his campaign was far, far more than the Mitt Romney campaign. And I was right.

Four years later, I thought, like most everyone, that Secretary Hillary Clinton was going to win because, like President Obama, she had a far superior official deployment of volunteers, and management of such, than the Donald Trump campaign. She did, indeed, win the popular vote, garnering more than two million more votes than Trump and also receiving more votes than any person in the history of the USA for President except for President Obama. But she lost the election because of the USA’s archaic electoral college rules. Even with that popular vote win, however, the race was far, far closer than I ever expected, given the massive difference in volunteer numbers for the two campaigns.

PBS profiled the gap in the number of Trump volunteers versus those of the Clinton campaign in August, noting “the Trump campaign faces a jaw-dropping gap in the ground game: Hillary Clinton currently has more than three times the number of campaign offices in critical states than does Donald Trump.” As of Aug. 30, Clinton had 291 offices in 15 battleground states, compared to just 88 for Trump. Clinton was using a refined version of the data-driven, on-the-ground volunteering machine that won two elections for Barack Obama. “Trump, on the other hand, insists he does not need traditional campaign tactics to win the election, pointing to his overwhelming nomination victory achieved with a relatively small team and little spending.”

Then, in early November, FoxNews.com noted that, while Trump had far, far fewer official offices and official volunteers than Clinton, he had people acting entirely independently on behalf of his campaign, “an army of volunteers who began boosting his ground game, in some cases, before the professionals got heavily involved.” The outlet “talked to volunteers in five western states who were among Trump’s main source of on-the-ground support at a time when neither the Trump campaign nor the RNC had dedicated staff.” These volunteers were calling friends, hosting campaign parties, posting signs, sharing information on social media and registering voters, entirely on their own, with no official direction.

Volunteers who officially signed up for Donald Trump’s campaign, to help with phone banking, had to sign a lengthy, jargon-filled nondisclosure agreement that would prevent them from saying anything bad about the GOP nominee, his family, companies or products for the rest of their lives. You can see the entire contract here and highlights of the most outrageous parts of the agreement here. By contrast, Hillary Clinton’s campaign didn’t require phone bank volunteers to sign any sort of agreement – which was probably a big factor in her having far more official volunteers. And also by contrast, unofficial volunteers for Trump also never signed any agreement, and there was no organization counting them in the official volunteer rolls – they took their campaign action ideas from each other, not the campaign.

The reality is that this election was not won by volunteers nor volunteer management. In fact, a headline of one of my earlier blogs, Volunteers are more important than social media in Presidential elections, has been proven wrong by this election, as my blog before the one you are reading now details. Social media DID win this election. It proved an ideal vehicle for promoting misinformation and generating fear and excitement that turned into action. As I noted in my last blog, BuzzFeed reported that fake news stories about the USA Presidential election this year generated more engagement on Facebook than the top election stories from 19 major news outlets COMBINED – that included major news outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, and NBC News, and on and on. And the majority of these fake news stories did NOT come from any campaign operatives; rather, they came from a man in Los Angeles who originally built fake news sites as a way to expose the extreme right, a plan that most certainly did NOT work. And these fake stories, most of which promoted Trump for President and made false claims regarding Hillary Clinton, were shared by millions of people via social media – independent, passionate volunteers who believed them.

What does this mean for the future of volunteer engagement in Presidential elections? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Also see: Al Gore Campaign Pioneered Virtual Volunteering

To Do List the Day After the USA election

The USA Presidental election is over in the USA at last. While not everyone is happy with the results, everyone is happy that it is over. It feels like it’s been going on for two years or more!!

This Presidential election has been contentious, controversial and very, very heated. I wrote in another blog about mistrust being rampant in so many communities in the USA and elsewhere, but the reality is that, fueled by this election, mistrust has seeped into organizations and families all over the USA: friendships have dissolved, many people aren’t speaking to various family members, and employees and volunteers may also not be speaking to each other because of what’s been said and done in this election, perceptions of the candidates and perceptions of the candidates’ supporters.

Strong feelings about the election and the issues it raised can poison workplace congeniality, kill employee and staff motivation and drive the exit of employees and volunteers you really didn’t want to lose. Maybe some of this has already happened at your nonprofit or government agency. You may need to do a number of things over many months to ease tensions, heal hurt feelings, reinforce your policies regarding workplace behavior and culture, and make sure everyone understands that the mission of your organization is always the priority while acting in an official capacity as an employee or volunteer.

You could:

  • Encourage departments to organize lunch together one day every other week, or do this for your entire organization if staff numbers are small, for a few months. You could introduce non-work topics for each lunchtime: recommendations for binge-watching, best classic black and white movies, predictions about March Madness, etc. Or have lunchtime trivia contests. The goal is to create fun, friendly, non-political conversations and help employees and volunteers again see each other as real people with real feelings. You don’t have to say why you are doing this – just do it.
  • Have a simple, fun contest for staff. For instance, ask them to bring in photos of themselves as babies or very young children, or in a Halloween costume, put the photos on the bulletin board in a common area and ask people to say who they think each person is. Or staff can bring in photos of pets they have, or have had, and staff can guess what animal belongs to what staff member. Or have a weekly staff award, like most tenacious, or most congenial, or person with a work situation that would make the best reality show. The winner could get a gift card. Again, this creates fun, friendly, non-political conversations and help employees and volunteers again see each other as real people.
  • Consider posting appropriate quotes in the break room that encourage humanity and kindness. For instance, from Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address: Let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations. Or this quote from Carlos P. Romulo: Brotherhood is the very price and condition of man’s survival.
  • Organize several activities over the course of coming weeks that will remind staff and volunteers of the mission of your organization, such as a Q & A with frontline or program staff, a video of clients talking about the difference the organization makes, etc. This is good advice anytime, not just after a contentious election.
  • Remind staff in various ways that, at your organization, people matter, and in the workplace, we need to take care of each other, we need to have each other’s back. Cite individuals in front of all staff that have demonstrated this, or any teamwork, in some way. Have a brainstorming session on what kinds of words your staff would like, ideally, to be able to say about their workplace culture.
  • Note in an all-staff meeting that your organization’s staff has the right and responsibility to ensure that the work environment is free of hostility aimed at employees, consultants, volunteers or clients because of protected classification, such as race or gender, and that there are federal and state laws that prohibit hostile work environments on the basis of sex, race and religion. It’s better to do this in-person, in a conversational tone than a memo, as it feels less like a cold command, but certainly, you can also send out a written memo as a reminder of what you discussed in a recent meeting on this topic.
  • Remind staff – employees and volunteers – that, in the workplace, political discussions should never interfere with work, should be avoided with clients, and among staff, should never be allowed to devolve into debates over race, national origin, gender roles or religion, as such talk could be construed as creating a hostile work environment, even by someone not participating in such debates but just hearing such. Remind staff that such discussions should not happen in the workplace and, instead, should happen outside of the organization. This may require a written memo to drive home the point if things are getting out of hand.
  • Immediately take aside any employee, consultant or volunteer who seems to be crossing the line regarding political comments and remind them in specific terms what they have said that is inappropriate and in violation of your policies. Take appropriate action for repeat offensives, including dismissal.
  • If your organization, as a part of its mission, is focused on issues that came up frequently in the election, such as marriage, immigration, refugees, veterans, safety, government transparency, women’s health, insurance coverage, etc., make sure all staff, including non-program staff, know where the organization stands on these issues and knows how to properly refer any questions or criticisms of such.
  • Be absolutely strict on senior staff demonstrating the behavior they want out of subordinates and volunteers in all of the above. If they aren’t walking the talk, all of the aforementioned is for naught.
  • Be prepared to say goodbye to employees, consultants or volunteers who cannot let go of hostility about the election and are letting such affect their work and the work place.
  • Welcome questions or discussions from staff about any of the above.

If you try anything at your organization, or are struggling with staff cohesion, share your experience in the comments below.

Also see For Nonprofit Organizations: How to Handle Online Criticism.

Al Gore Campaign Pioneered Virtual Volunteering

algoreweblaunch
Back in 2000, when Al Gore ran for President of the USA, his campaign championed virtual volunteering, including microvolunteering, by recruiting online volunteers to help online with his election efforts. I was getting ready to leave the Virtual Volunteering Project at the time, to work for UNDP/UNV in Germany, and was not able to document these pioneering efforts at the time. I remembered this effort recently, per the current (and seemingly never-ending) Presidential campaign in the USA, and went digging on archive.org to find the original materials from that campaign regarding this work with online volunteers. They are worth looking at – they are still an excellent example of how to clarify expectations for a virtual volunteering role, something I emphasize again and again in The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook. They also show that virtual volunteering, including microvlunteering, is NOT a new idea.

He even had an “app” for people with personal digital assistants (PDAs), the precursor to the smart phone.

Somewhere on the archived Gore-for-President site is also a mention of either online volunteering or virtual volunteering, but I can’t find it anymore…

And by the way: Al Gore never claimed he invented the Internet. But he was most certainly one of the visionaries responsible for helping to bring it into being, by fostering its development in a legislative sense.

Also see:

Volunteers are more important than social media in Presidential elections

A volunteerism blog, not a political one

Why I still don’t like “International Volunteer Manager’s Day”

logoNovember 5 is celebrated by some as International Volunteer Manager’s Day. And I’m not fond of it. I’ve said so in conversations, and in a post on OzVPM back in October 2009 . But I wanted to revisit why I’m not fond of it.

I call it “hug-your-volunteer-manager” day. I compare it to Mother’s Day.  And I don’t mean that as a compliment. 

Mother’s Day didn’t transform mothers’ lives. It didn’t elevate the status of mothers. It didn’t improve maternal health. It didn’t make women want to become mothers. It wasn’t transformative regarding how society thought about mothers. That’s what the founder of Mother’s Day wanted, and instead, she saw the day become a commercial celebration, a day of sweetness, but not substance. In fact, the person who led the campaign to adopt Mother’s Day in the USA later regretted it because of how empty and commercial the celebration was, in contrary to her intentions, and even filed a lawsuit to stop a Mother’s Day Festival.

Maybe I would be more attracted to the day if it was a day less about cute memes and inspiring quotes and was, instead, devoted to encouraging people that are in charge of the engagement of volunteers to:

  • go to their supervisors and ask for salary and budget increases
  • put themselves on the agenda to address their organization’s board of directors regarding the importance of quality volunteer support and ask for a larger budget for this support
  • write their local newspapers and blog in response to whatever the latest volunteerism campaign is (because there is ALWAYS one going on somewhere), debunking myths like “volunteers are free” and talking about why volunteer management is essential to such a campaign’s success (and writing the campaign leaders as well)
  • have a meeting with the person responsible for the annual report to present a proposal regarding how the contributions of volunteers will be noted in the next annual report, and absolutely refuse for that information to be presented in terms of money
  • launch a new, updated, detailed section of the organization’s web site that gives volunteers as high a profile as donors, and ensure that the link to “support us” doesn’t just link to a page on how to make a cash donation
  • use social media to promote the impact of volunteers at the organization, or to assert volunteers aren’t cost-free, or to push back against those that want us to value volunteers primarily in terms of money saved by not paying staff
  • develop an action plan for the next year with concrete actions to elevate the role of volunteers and volunteer management within the organization (the board, the staff, partner organizations, etc.)
  • present a strategy to expand the engagement of volunteers at the organization
  • present a strategy for training staff to work better with volunteers, create more assignments, etc.
  • vow to never, ever write another Facebook post or blog or online discussion comment whining about how overworked and underpaid they are – or at least not to write one for six months.

No pins. No mugs. No flowers. No posters. No t-shirts. No buttons. No badges. No memes. Not for this day. Instead, concrete, even provocative, action, by managers of volunteers – real activism – to elevate respect for their roles and their work, to increase the recognition of the vital importance of volunteerism specialists, so much so that people choose it as a career. To be transformative regarding how society thought about volunteer engagement and those in charge of such.

Gossip’s toll in your workplace

gossipBack in March 2010, an article (registration may be required for access) in Workplace.com highlighted a study in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography regarding workplace gossip. It reviewed how rumors among employees about a company can dilute authority, can poison workplace congeniality and contribute to staff turnover, all of which can cause harm an organization without ever becoming public (external to the organization). The study is focused on paid employees, but, of course, its findings are important to nonprofits and volunteers as well. The study’s author, sociologist Tim Hallett, calls such gossip “reputational warfare,” and says that once a bad reputation has been solidified, justified or not, it usually sticks — often with negative consequences for the entire organization.

Employees and volunteers will always talk internally about how things are going at an organization, what they think the future holds, what obstacles they see facing the country, etc. There’s nothing wrong with that. But a misunderstanding, a small fear, an unanswered question or an observation by someone uninformed about a situation can turn conversations into negative gossip, layout the foundation for mistrust, conflict, and negative public relations.

Don’t try to stop conversations about the internal workings of an organization – those conversations can be important informal training for new staff and help you discover and address issues before they become full-blown problems. But do work to make sure conversations by staff – employees, consultants and volunteers – are fact-based and within the bounds of your confidentiality policies, and work continually to create a culture where employees and volunteers share their fears, questions and suppositions early with supervisors, without fear of retribution for merely expressing a fear or asking a question.

Gossip tends to crop up when there are voids in communication. Therefore, address fears, questions and suppositions quickly and regularly. Filling the void with information — about possible office relocation, promotions, layoffs, firings, conflicts with funders or partners, budget shortfalls, etc. If a situation must be kept confidential and can’t be shared with employees, consultants and/or volunteers — for instance, the reasons why a staff person was fired — then explain why such information is kept confidential, in such a way that employees realize that you will honor their personnel issues, positive or negative, in a confidential manner as well. If the information could be damaging to the organization if released too early, then say so, explicitly. If you should have released the information sooner internally, apologize to staff and talk about what you will be doing to ensure that information is not withheld again — or ask them how they would have liked the situation to have been handled.

If you don’t want to commit anything or everything to writing, such as in a company-wide memo, then meet individually with staff and volunteers, have the executive director or a senior manager address individual department meetings, and have all-staff meetings. Give employees multiple opportunities to ask questions and voice concerns about rumors that they have heard.

But how do you know gossip is happening? By having trusting relationships across the organization – including across an organization’s hierarchy. That comes from regular conversations, formal and informal, and by showing explicitly how feedback from staff is heard, how suggestions from volunteers does influence the organization, etc. And building trust would take several more blogs to explore…

In short, you must create a culture of faith and trust among your paid staff and volunteers in each other and in the organizational leadership in order to prevent damaging gossip. It’s much easier to create and sustain such a culture than it is to try to overcome “reputational warfare.”

Also see For Nonprofit Organizations: How to Handle Online Criticism.

Research Explaining How Websites Encourage Volunteering & Philanthropy

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersMost practitioners in volunteer management and community engagement don’t have time to review academic literature to see if there might be information that’s helpful in their work – and even if they do have time, academic language can be inaccessible for non-academics. I try to read as much as I can and then summarize and pass on the information that can help practitioners in their work, or even just give them ammunition for a project or funding proposal.

Below are links to two academic papers that are worth at least a skim by anyone trying to use web sites to encourage philanthropy, including volunteering. The reference lists at the end of each papers are gold mines of research for further reading:

Persuasion in Prosocial Domains: Explaining the Persuasive Affordances of Volunteering
by Peter Slattery, Patrick Finnegan and Lesley Land, all three of the Australian School of Business, UNSW Australia, and Richard Vidgen of Hull University Business School, University of Hull, UK. Presented at the Twenty Second European Conference on Information Systems, Tel Aviv, 2014.

Abstract: As technology becomes increasingly pervasive and invasive, it increasingly facilitates and instigates behaviour. Prosocial behaviours, such as volunteering, activism and philanthropy, are activities that are considered to be particularly beneficial to others. Prosocial behaviours are important within IS as: (i) they are encouraged by IS stakeholders including volunteering organisations and charities, and; (ii) they contribute to tackling social issues. However, while information technology is poised to become increasingly important for facilitating prosocial behaviour, little is known about how digital artefacts can encourage it. To address this research gap, this study seeks to explain how website features persuade in prosocial online contexts. The study uses the Repertory Grid Technique (RGT) to examine individuals’ experiences of persuasion on live volunteering websites. The analysis reveals that ease of use, trust, and creating positive emotion are important factors in persuading users to volunteer.

Examining How Perceptions of Websites Encourage Prosocial Behaviour
by Peter Slattery, Patrick Finnegan and Richard Vidgen of Australian School of Business, UNSW Australia. Presented at the Thirty Seventh International Conference on Information Systems, Dublin 2016.

Abstract: Organisations are increasingly reliant on information and communications technology (ICT) to encourage prosocial behaviour (i.e., volunteering, philanthropy and activism). However, little is known about how to use ICT to encourage prosocial behaviour. Given this research gap, the objective of this study is to outline and test a research model that assesses the role of specific perceptions of websites in encouraging prosocial behaviour. To do this, we review the literature to derive a theoretical model of relevant perceptions. We then test the extent to which this model can predict participants’ volunteering and philanthropic behaviour subsequent to their usage of a website that encourages prosocial behaviour. The findings are expected to contribute by (i) giving insights into how perceptions of websites encourage prosocial behaviour, (ii) explaining the roles of negative and positive affect in ICT domains, and (iii) developing a “persuasiveness of website scale” to help IS researchers to measure this construct.

In addition, Mr. Slattery’s 2016 PhD thesis is Explaining How Websites Are Used to Encourage Volunteering and Philanthropy. The thesis restricted from public access until March 2018, but some of its research is repeated in the aforementioned papers.

Also see this list of research and evaluations of virtual volunteering, as a practice in general or focused on specific projects, on the Virtual Volunteering wiki.

Volunteering & social cohesion in a post Brexit world

social cohesionOn 15 September, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) National Volunteering Forum met in Manchester, England to talk about the potential implications of Brexit for volunteering, and to discuss evidence and real life examples demonstrating the role that volunteering can play in improving social cohesion. The slides from the event are shared online, and the associated tweets, here.

The tweets are SO worth reading, a mix of comments said at the forum and comments from people following online. GREAT questions and comments that will give you pause, because you shouldn’t think of obstacles to social cohesion as just a British phenomena: all over Europe, as well as the USA, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Mexico, and on and on, societies are struggling with divided socio-political landscapes. Emotions are running high, driving nationalist movements and, often, racist and xenophobia movements as well. In many places, neighbors aren’t talking to neighbors because of differences in politics, religion, language, values and more.

As I note in my paper “Internet-mediated Volunteering in the EU: Its history, prevalence, and approaches and how it relates to employability and social inclusion” for the European Commission in 2014, researchers for vInspired, in exploring the contribution of volunteering to employability for young people, found that volunteering contributed to young people’s feeling of social inclusion:

  • Volunteering helped young people to develop their networks and mix with a more diverse social group. It also increased their ability to work within and across authority structures. This suggests that providing volunteering opportunities to a wide range of young people will help to break-down social barriers and lead to greater community cohesion and personal well- being.
  • The positive contribution made by young people to the organisations and communities with which they were involved, helped to overcome the negative stereotypes often applied to them, and improved perceptions of young people amongst adults such as staff, volunteers and service users.
  • Many young people are currently in a precarious economic position with the high level of youth unemployment, and some commentators are warning of a lost generation. Helping young people to stay connected to society and their communities, to develop leadership and employability skills that will shape their future, is one of the most urgent and critical tasks of the next decade.

As I note in that paper, this and other research demonstrates that volunteering can play a crucial role in building the personal resilience and capabilities that young people need to prosper in the work place and in society in general.

However, garnering those benefits from volunteering, as well as using it to encourage social cohesion, multi-cultural understanding, reconciliation, etc., is a tall order giving the current landscape in many countries:

  • War and dire economic circumstances are driving immigration at a historic rate, with desperate people seeking to migrate to more peaceful, prosperous countries, straining resources and emotions of those living in areas immigrants want to travel through or to.
  • Different ethnic, socio-economic and religious groups, among others, are clashing over everything from perceived threats to their culture and values to police relations to access to jobs to perceptions of crime rates and quality of life compared to the past.
  • Certain people are being excluded from participating fully in the societies where they reside, or from receiving the same employment, educational, societal and other benefits others in that society may receive. These people feel they are marginalized, that they have limited access to decision-making bodies, various institutions and employment.
  • Some people’s religious and ethical values clash with public social and working life, where others that have different ethical values also socialize and work. Not everyone embraces ideas of free expression, equality for all humans in all aspects of life (employment, education, marriage, etc.), democracy, non-traditional roles for women, and the value of diversity and inclusiveness. When these people are living in a society that insists on these values, by practice and laws, hostilities can arise, with ideas of tolerance and multicultural understanding clashing with deeply held beliefs and legal practices regarding human rights.
  • Change is rampant and is frightening to many people, particularly when economic situations are fragile, or perceived as such. People are hearing different languages than the one they have grown up with, they are seeing people dressing in a way that’s different than what they believe should be the cultural norm, and technology is rapidly changing employment, education and how services are delivered. The popularity of a restaurant serving food that isn’t perceived as indigenous or is perceived as being from a country local people don’t like, a poster in a church that isn’t in the official or unofficial national language,  a woman not wearing what local people believe she should be wearing – all of these acts can be perceived by a community as a threat to their local culture and values, and lead to hostilities.

The result of all of this is people feeling more and more powerless over the decisions and forces that affect their day to day lives. Fear and uncertainty is sweeping many communities, misinformation is rampant, and everything in the environment feels politicized. Many communities are becoming more segregated, with people choosing to live and socialize with people they perceive as like them in terms of culture and values, and choosing to stay away from festivals, neighborhoods, even restaurants where they believe a different culture prevails.

Can volunteering help bridge divides, increase understanding, reduce hostilities and nurture respect and social cohesion? Certainly there are organizations and researchers that think so:

What’s lacking is research showing that these efforts have, indeed, lead to multi-cultural understanding, a lessening of hostilities, etc. 

In my paper about Internet-mediated volunteering in EU countries, I identified challenges to promoting online volunteering as a pathway to social inclusion, and I believe it is, in fact, the biggest challenge for ANY volunteering as a pathway to social inclusion: resistance to including social inclusion goals into current volunteer engagement at an organization. In other words, most managers of volunteers don’t want to make social inclusion a part of their goals for volunteer engagement. Most organizations that involve volunteers have no stated reason relating to contributing to greater social inclusion for volunteers. They may not see the benefits of adapting their volunteer engagement to contribute to such. They may not have the expertise in how to do this. And they may not have the resources needed to build their expertise to do this. Agencies may resist adapting volunteer engagement schemes to include a social inclusion element, for fear of it draining resources or focus from their primary missions which may have nothing to do with social inclusion. In short: any effort to leverage volunteering as a path to greater social cohesion has to include money to pay for training of those in charge of volunteering engagement at various agencies. Otherwise, such efforts will, every likely, be doomed to failure.

Also see:

Managers of volunteers & resistance to diversity – my blog about comments that are generated when a discussion breaks out about diversifying volunteering ranks.

This lesson plan from the University of Nebraska Extension office, “Engaging Intergenerational Volunteers“, offers practical tips on having volunteers from a variety of age groups working together, as does this how-to guide from Bridges Together.

The Victoria Volunteering Portal (Australia) offers an excellent free guide on encouraging diversity among volunteer ranks.

I also offer my own free guide on Recruiting Local Volunteers To Increase Diversity Among the Ranks.