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Representing the Interests of the Community: What Happens When Volunteers Take Their Roles Seriously

Representing the Interests of the Community: What Happens When Volunteers Take Their Roles Seriously

On March 5th, Steve was having his morning coffee, watching the MSNBC television coverage of the US Congressional Hearing on Walter Reed Army Medical Center’s problems in providing adequate treatment to veterans of the Iraq War. One of the commentators was Washington Post reporter Dana Priest, who first broke the Walter Reed story.1 What caught Steve’s attention was her offhand comment that the paper first learned about the issues at Walter Reed from a tip by a person volunteering there.

Later in the coverage, there were additional news reports about the growing scandal, coming in from Army hospitals and VA medical centers around the United States. One of the most prominent of these was from Madigan Army Medical Center, coincidentally located about 20 miles from Steve’s house in Washington state. In this instance, the founder of Operation Homefront2, a volunteer group that assists military families, reported that Madigan had problems similar to those at Walter Reed. "We have concerns about Madigan, including the condition of the rooms," said Meredith Leyva, founder of Operation Homefront and wife of an active-duty Navy officer.

Similar stories, many of them featuring volunteers in military hospitals, have since surfaced on a daily basis. And you can bet that whenever a newspaper or television story quotes a volunteer criticizing a hospital’s care, it’s not going to be pleasant for the typical Director of Volunteer Services.

Representing the Community

When we talk about the role of volunteers in organizations, we often cite the notion that volunteers are there not just to serve the interests of the organization but to also represent the interests of the greater community. In this dual role, volunteers help hold charitable organizations and government agencies accountable to the community.

Most organizations, however, probably devote little thought to what might happen if their volunteers were to take this responsibility seriously. A small number might well view this as their worst nightmare come true, since there is a good chance that what the volunteers report to the community does not reflect well upon the organization and its management.

The assumption that people volunteer only for organizations they love is contradicted by the number of volunteers who feel their service “protects” clients from the institution or the system.  Consider volunteers working in nursing homes, courts and corrections, AIDS projects, and others. Susan is fond of striking terror into the hearts of workshop attendees who say that “volunteers are great public relations” by asking, “And are you sure they‘re saying good things about you?”

So we thought we’d use this Points of View to talk about this issue: What should a volunteer manager do to prepare both volunteers and the organization for situations where volunteers witness and go public with reports of problems?

Helping Volunteers Deal with Problem Situations
First, accept the fact that volunteers are going to see things that happen in your organization, both good and bad. And the law of averages predicts that sometime, somewhere, something will occur that might upset or concern a volunteer – as it might concern an employee, a client, or a visitor. Mistakes can be made or a crisis can erupt in even the most outstanding organizations. The explanations and tips that follow therefore apply to everyone without implying that an organization has major problems.

However, volunteers may see the forest for the trees more clearly than administrators or paid staff, recognizing through their volunteer experience that an organization or system is in serious trouble (as was the case with the VA hospitals). They may feel like advocates for the clients or consumers, who are most often victimized by lack of resources or poor management.

As you consider our suggestions, honestly assess whether volunteers are inappropriately going public with isolated issues or are courageously blowing the whistle on a situation that deserves public scrutiny. In both cases, your bosses will want you to “control” volunteers, but your actions ought to be influenced by the truth.

1. Understand why volunteers become whistle-blowers.
If volunteers go public with complaints, one of the first things to recognize is that the behavior of the volunteer is well-intentioned and probably meant to be helpful. It is usually not intended as an attack on the institution and is almost never intended as an attack on the paid frontline staff. Commonly, in fact, volunteers are dissatisfied with problems that are of equal concern to paid staff but are seemingly beyond the capacity of paid staff to resolve. If you read through the comments made by Meredith Leyva of Operation Homefront, you will find that she blames all the problems on a lack of adequate funding by Congress, which she thinks has led both to inadequate repair of facilities at Madigan and to a loss of the caseworkers who could provide assistance to veterans.

Oddly enough, it is usually the most motivated volunteers who are most likely to publicly complain. They are driven by high levels of frustration created through seeing the cause that they care about and the clients they care for seeming to “fail.”3

Here is where volunteers have an edge. They can take a risk to go to the press, or a funder, or a legislator, because such an action is not going to result in losing a job and the rent money. Granted, only a few special volunteers will be bold, aggressive, or unafraid of causing a furor. But these volunteers can be independent activists – and donors or voters – and therefore can speak out more freely than an employee ever could.

2.  Provide channels for discussion and complaints – and make sure these treat volunteer concerns with respect.
Frustration builds when it has no channel for expression. If volunteers feel they have no opportunity to express their dissatisfaction within the structure of the organization, they are more likely to express it elsewhere. Or, if they have tried reporting their concerns or offering their suggestions and feel these have been ignored or rejected, they may feel that they have no choice but to go outside the organization to get something done.

Every volunteer program should have both formal and informal channels for volunteers to give their opinions on how things are going in the organization. Such systems are equally important for learning what is successful as for learning what is problematic! Volunteers are more likely to share concerns if they can also say what is going right.

Some easy ways to create feedback channels include:

  • Find regular opportunities to ask volunteers about problems they may see or any frustrations with what is happening in the organization. Do this during supervisory meetings, or evaluation and feedback discussions.
  • Create volunteer “peer discussion” groups in which volunteers can talk freely to other volunteers about their feelings and difficulties. Allow them to submit minutes or reports from such meetings to you and/or the administration.
  •  Establish a “suggestion box” system through which volunteers can offer comments and ideas, both by name and anonymously.
  •  Periodically survey volunteers on their reactions and experiences.

Of course, it isn’t enough to simply ask for input, although that will (for a time) reduce the level of frustration. The first thing to do is acknowledge the feelings volunteers express, whether or not you think their concerns are appropriate. This is what they perceive. If they are right and a situation is negative, affirm that and move quickly into dealing with it rather than complaining about it.

3. Act on legitimate concerns or explain why you cannot. As the leader of volunteers, you must be willing to mediate when volunteers have legitimate complaints – especially if these center on the clients or public you serve. Each situation will need a specific strategy, but you want to demonstrate your willingness to take action to support the volunteers’ viewpoint. You are the frontline of showing volunteers that the organization is responsive to them.

Some actions you can take:

  • Research and report the facts.
  • Arrange a meeting with the paid staff directly responsible for resolving the matter.
  • Help volunteers write a statement of their concern, with some suggested solutions.

Paying attention to the substance of the issues doesn’t necessarily mean resolving them. You might instead:

  • Explain to volunteers why things are being done the way that they are, especially if this is based on factors outside the control of the organization (funding levels, imposed administrative rules and regulations, etc.).
  • Reinforce the intent of the organization to do the best it can in helping clients.
  • Enlist volunteers on task forces that find ways to make the best of the bad situation.

Key to this process is not making the mistake of viewing the comments of the volunteers as an “attack.” This will simply drive them underground and ultimately increase the frustration of dedicated volunteers.

4. Make sure volunteers have correct information.
Volunteers are somewhat more likely to get their facts wrong occasionally, not because they are careless, but because they may lack complete information.

In the Madigan Army Hospital example, Operation Homefront first complained about asbestos problems in some of the rooms and later had to retract that statement when it became apparent that this applied only to an older section at Madigan which was no longer being used by patients. The new building at Madigan scored a perfect 100 by the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Health Care.

Having regular proactive communication with volunteers allows the volunteer resources manager the opportunity to make sure that good information is being circulated, and to make the case for why the organization is operating responsibly.

Rather than viewing vehicles such as volunteer newsletters simply as ways of providing cheerful good news and PR, also view them as a way to explain some of the harsh realities (“warts and all”) faced by the organization.  It’s not, after all, as though volunteers don’t have some idea of what the problems are – but they may not fully understand the entire situation.

If the organization is the center of negative media attention, ask key administrators to meet in person to brief volunteers. Acknowledge that reporters might try to question volunteers and that it’s imperative for volunteers to know: 1) how to fend off unreasonable questions; 2) to whom the reporter should be referred for more expertise; and 3) how to respond with short, key facts.

5. Build problem scenarios into orientation and training.
Volunteers who face difficult or out-of-the-ordinary situations sometimes have trouble coping. This, of course, leads to further frustration and occasionally the kind of outburst that makes for an interesting newspaper article.

The best way to counter this is to ensure that orientation and training sessions explain some of the difficulties volunteers will encounter, assist volunteers in doing the best work they can under the circumstances, and deal with the guilt they may feel if they are not successful. Dedicated volunteers find it very hard to watch the suffering of those they are attempting to help, even when they logically know that not every client can always be assisted or “saved.” Helping volunteers deal with this psychological burden is an important goal of orientation and training.

Obviously, the training should also deal with what a volunteer should and shouldn’t do when they encounter such a frustrating experience or an inquisitive newspaper reporter. It should also provide constructive alternatives for problem-solving inside the organization without running off to initiate contact with the press.

6. Have a follow-up communication plan when disaster strikes.
The volunteer program manager should have a plan for what to do if a volunteer does publicly express dissatisfaction with the organization. This should include:

  • Arrange a meeting with the volunteer to allow him or her to formally express views to the organization and its leadership.
  • Organize a forum for other volunteers to hear about and discuss the situation freely.
  • Provide timely updates on what is happening to improve the situation.

7. Plan to transform service into advocacy, when necessary. Too many organizations value volunteers solely for their hearts and hands – not for their brains and mouths! Yet, channeled properly, volunteers can be incredibly effective advocates for the organization. Smart executives understand that volunteers are always private citizens who, in fact, are sometimes more credible as voices of concern than are paid staff. If the organization has come to the end of its options − to obtain the resources it needs, the legislation required, or sufficient public attention to its cause − perhaps volunteers should be asked to “go public” and shine a spotlight on what is wrong.

The key is “no surprises.”  Volunteers should begin by attempting to problem-solve within the organization, using whistle blowing only as a last resort. The organization should recognize that volunteers are not blindfolded or gagged and therefore will see – and talk about – problems. If such observations are welcomed and acted upon, the organization improves and frustrations do not build, or volunteers can be helped to understand and accept the constraints of the situation.


1Read the original Washington Post article.

2 See Operation Homefront “provides emergency assistance and morale to our troops, to the families they leave behind, and to wounded warriors when they return home. A nonprofit 501(c)3 founded after September 11, Operation Homefront leads more than 2,500 volunteers in 26 chapters nationwide.”

3You can read more about this phenomenon in an article Steve wrote a while back entitled “Why Good Volunteers Do Bad Things” at

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