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Uncivil Society: Questions for Leaders of Volunteer Engagement

Uncivil Society: Questions for Leaders of Volunteer Engagement

Two people talking angrily to another person

As we slowly continue to transition from the pandemic, we are seeing increased and open demonstrations of anger, rudeness and other uncivil behaviours.[i] These go even further beyond the norm than those we have seen in societies around the world over the last two years[ii] and certainly beyond what we would typically anticipate experiencing pre-COVID.  

While the past few years has exposed radically diverging fault lines among people around racial discrimination, other forms of prejudice and political beliefs, this new ‘pandemic rage’ seems to be affecting everyone no matter where you stand. Moreover, it seems that the consequences of outbursts and bad behaviour are increasing in their intensity. People are losing jobs for their actions in their community, often despite being off duty.

In reflecting on these social changes, we think some fundamental questions are raised for Leaders of Volunteer Engagement:

How far can and should our organizations go to protect volunteers?

How do we create a safe environment for volunteering?

Where volunteers have to deal with incivility from members of the public (while asking for proof of vaccination, mask wearing, hand washing, etc.) — or even during interactions between volunteers and staff or volunteer-to-volunteer — is one side of the equation.

As many of us had to grapple with for the first time these last two years, where is the line beyond which we, as an organization, refuse to accept responsibility for the safety of a volunteer and choose to not have them active, even if they are willing? During the pandemic, the primary safety issue was physical well-being related to the Coronavirus. Does that become different when it’s emotional or psychological safety? Additionally, it begs the question: To what degree should we expect to both protect and censure volunteers if their behaviour doesn’t align with organizational values?

It’s one of the basic tenants of Volunteer Engagement that volunteering is a pillar of a healthy, democratic society. It is exactly the exposure and mixing of people in a community, and the diversity of beliefs they each bring, that strengthens the ties of community and builds the fabric of a strong and functional society. Where does a Leader of Volunteer Engagement’s professional responsibilities begin and end in this regard?

How far can and should we go in screening and setting behavioural expectations of volunteers and the consequences put in place for stepping over those lines?

If we become aware of a volunteer acting in ways that reflect poorly on the organisation, how should we respond and what standing do we have to take action?

What does this mean for our role in potentially controlling situations and people beyond what we and others may think we have the right to do?

How much of a volunteer’s life can an organization reasonably expect to have oversight or influence over?

Depending on the values and behavioural policies of your organization, should volunteer screening include things like reviews of anti-vax/pro-vax stances on an applicant’s social media accounts?

If employees can lose their jobs for what they do outside their jobs, should volunteers as well?

At the heart of all this, we must also question "To what end?".  We have already acknowledged that we strengthen community through volunteering by recognizing and appreciating differences. Would we be undermining this by keeping community members apart rather than bringing them together?

At what point do we take on the role of "morality police" with volunteers, and to what degree?

When organizations take a stand on an issue, the repercussions can often be felt most quickly and acutely by the Leader of Volunteer Engagement. Publicly drawing a line in the sand can sometimes backfire and for others it may be an avenue to recruit people who’ve never considered supporting your organization before.

We must also ask ourselves, "Is this the next evolution of ‘cancel culture’?"  If volunteering is a human right, how flexible should we be around behaviours and values?

The relationship between a volunteer and organization has long been understood as an ‘exchange’, with many researchers using the Social Exchange Theory to understand both the give and take by both parties. Today, where reputation and censure is so easily built or lost online, the stakes of who is seen as representing or being affiliated with your organization have never been higher. It begs the question, does affiliation with an organization by a volunteer mean giving that organization a measure of control over one’s actions and beliefs?

If volunteers are embroiled in a public scandal, we are aware of some organizations with volunteer policies that ask them to step back from volunteering so as not to detract from the organization’s mission. That may be one way to straddle the line without making a firm decision one way or the other.

For those who do veer into making a firm decision on the side of forcing volunteers to step back temporarily or permanently — just as employers have done with employees in such situations — what is the legal and more implication of such decision?

Finally, if your organization is going to enforce alignment with its values, should it be held more to account when it doesn’t live up to them? What would this look like and would it only be punished in the court of public opinion, or should there be more firm oversight? Does going down this road simply create more divisions amongst people instead of finding more areas of commonality?


It’s not the purpose of this Points of View to answer any of these questions or to argue for or against one or the other. Our role is to help you to ask the best questions so we can all continue to provide the leadership and support to both our organizations and the volunteers who partner with us. Ironically, this is a perfect example of an ethical dilemma, where we are balancing right against right.

As such, we could argue there is no one right answer, only the most ‘right’ answer for you and your organization. However, it does speak to the most profound question we continue to articulate: What is our place and purpose as Leaders of Volunteer Engagement and do we choose to be active agents in shaping the world, or passive administrators of organizational policy?

To whom are we most accountable and how are our professional choices and actions contributing to or against an increasingly uncivil society?

To add or view comments

Fri, 04/22/2022

One of the most popular blogs I ever wrote is The volunteer as bully = the toxic volunteer. It still regularly gets a LOT of viewers. I wrote it after realizing how many managers of volunteers felt powerless to deal with disruptive volunteers, belittling volunteers, hostile volunteers, etc. These managers felt that they were under tremendous pressure by senior management to be nice, cooperative, neutral and oh-so-tolerant at all times. In two workshops I've facilitated, managers have CRIED as they told others how they felt about volunteers they termed "bullies". And this was all years before COVID.

In addition, a healthy nonprofit is not one that never has conflict and where debates never happen. A nonprofit that claims all staff get along and there are no challenges is delusional or lying. It's unrealistic to expect a manager of volunteers to keep absolutely every volunteer happy all the time. 

Every manager of volunteers has a right to try to create a culture of respect in the program they manager - and that includes saying no to certain behaviors and, therefore, certain volunteers.

No one - not managers of volunteers, not anyone - should have to tolerate behavior that is profoundly disrespectful, let alone potentially dangerous, to an organization's client or reputation or other volunteers, onsite or online. 

If having written policies that encourage all staff - employees, consultants and volunteers - to treat all staff, clients and community members with respect, courtesy and dignity in the course of work on behalf of the organization, to promote a respectful culture in all of your actions as a part of the program, to make efforts to understand and honor different cultures and experiences, etc., makes a potential volunteer balk and they feel like these "rules" are too restrictive to their "freedoms", I would tell them our organization is probably not for them and wish them well - and be grateful that I very likely prevented a problem down the road. 

I also like to remind volunteers that they are under no obligation to "friend" each other on Facebook, to remember that when people are on Facebook they are speaking as themselves, not on behalf of the organization, etc. And it's why I do not ever set up a group for volunteers on Facebook - they can start really blurring the lines between a person's volunteering persona and private life. 

I write a lot about online activities leading to volunteer (and employee) reprimands and dismissals on TechSoup. Here are some examples from various organizations over the years.