|Susan's Tip of the Month: Question Authority
The job of legal, financial, insurance, and IT staff and advisors is to listen to what we need and want to do and then help us to find the best and appropriate ways in which to do it.
Unfortunately, in the real world, these experts too often instead are the "no" people. They tell us what we can't do rather than support our objectives. Further, they do not expect their prohibitions to be questioned, let alone challenged. But respect your own expertise in volunteer engagement do not simply accept a "you can't do that" response.
In assessing prohibitions, it's important to identify the fundamental issue: Does the organization want to engage volunteers in the most meaningful ways to serve clients and achieve its mission? And, therefore, what are the consequences of not permitting some volunteer activity? Often a knowledgeable discussion - focused on finding a way to support volunteering rather than avoiding assumed high risk - might affect the final determination.
Many pronouncements by legal or human resources (HR) staff about what volunteers can or can't do misinterpret the law (such as the Fair Labor Standards Act in the United States) - they act on what they think is the law without any further research.
It's probably true that every single activity that someone does somewhere for pay, someone else does somewhere as a volunteer. So how can there be a fixed rule clearly delineating paid from volunteer work? It's situational, and therefore a legal or HR staffer ought to consider each proposed volunteer role on its own merits.
Your strategy should be to question someone who quotes the FLSA or any other law as an obstacle to volunteer involvement. Ask for the documentation on which the legal or HR person based their reply (a great way to see if they actually did any research at all). You can also talk to a Department of Labor representative directly or find examples of common practice in other organizations similar to yours.
Risk, Liability and Insurance as Smokescreens
The low probability of a worst-case scenario occurring should not overshadow the majority of times an activity will bring positive results without danger. Everything we do in life carries some risk - we all make daily decisions about which risks we are willing to accept. For organizations, the question is not "might we be sued?" It's "if we were sued, can we defend our actions?" Or, again, "are the consequences of not providing this service worse than doing it and accepting the risk?"
Unfortunately, this reasonable approach is not often used in planning for volunteers. Maybe the real question here is: "Do we value the impact of volunteer services enough to plan safe and sound ways to do what we really feel ought to be done for our clients - even if it means paying for insurance, too?"
Those who propose volunteer initiatives ought to hold their ground, asking: "So if you think what I've just proposed is wrong, help me find another way to accomplish these goals."
Webmasters are knowledgeable about software and technology, but they should not make final decisions about site content or determine communication priorities. If a Webmaster resists keeping the pages about volunteering current, won't post an application form, or won't do something requested to support volunteers, discover the true reason for resistance. Is the request technically difficult or is it a lack of time amid other demands? If the volunteer program simply ranks low in the sequence of the Webmaster's priorities, top management can insist that time be allocated to volunteer office requests.
Note that it is possible to recruit a skilled volunteer who can create or maintain the requested volunteer-related Web pages (following official templates) and give them to the Webmaster for simple posting to the site. This gives the Webmaster legitimate control of the Web site but removes all the common barriers of "this sort of updating is just too time consuming."
The Common Denominators
In all these cases, some key strategies apply:
- Assume lack of education about volunteer-related issues/precedence, despite the appearance of great specialized knowledge. Too few lawyers and other advisors even recognize how complex the subject of volunteering is. It seems very simple. It rarely is.
- Don't be afraid to challenge a turn-down or turn-away. Ask pointed questions, both to teach the other person about the complexity of volunteering and also to learn more about how decisions are reached.
- Use outside resources. Not everyone wants to be the first to do something, but few people want to be the last, either. If the expert consultant thinks this is your own pie-in-the-sky idea, it's easy to dismiss it. But if you show how this same practice has been proven elsewhere, it's harder to say no without some clear reason.
- Involve volunteers as co-advocates. Sometimes legal and risk management experts can't envision that volunteers would be willing to do something. Prove them wrong.
Many knee-jerk negative responses can be turned into solid support for effective volunteer service.