Reconciling Volunteerism, Community-Building, Boundaries, and Risk

Fence made of garden tools
By HOerwin56 from Pixabay

I think a lot about the relationship between volunteerism and community. It is easy to see volunteerism as an extension of community. But sometimes I wonder if we need volunteerism because we have a deficit of community. Or that volunteerism is a way that we outsource community to institutions like nonprofits or government agencies. It has me reflecting on whether (or when) volunteering has become a proxy, or stand in, for community—and what the implications are for organizations that attempt to cultivate community through service opportunities.

Boundaries in Volunteerism Versus Boundaries in Community

Volunteering through organizations is often defined by its boundaries: the geographical location, roles, tasks, volunteer qualifications, length of service, registration process, and more. When we professionalize volunteerism, we make boundaries explicit so volunteers and staff know what to expect. These expectations are critical to fostering a quality service experience for everyone involved.

However, this formalization and naming of boundaries can create barriers, too. For example, the process of navigating boundaries feels too cumbersome or job-like for some volunteer prospects. They lament, “I just want to help”. Boundaries also might omit prospects whose qualifications are different from the organization’s typical volunteers.

On the flip side, the creation of boundaries may serve as a barrier to how staff imagine volunteer involvement. They struggle to envision new volunteer roles, such as virtual or pro bono opportunities. These roles not only lack precedent, they lack clear boundaries—and the control that boundaries offer.

We can contrast boundaries in volunteerism to the boundaries that occur in community, which are more amorphous and porous. When I act as a member of a community, the experience is more fluid than serving as a formal volunteer. If I see a need, I can attempt to address it without asking for permission. I don’t have to find the ‘right’ person to talk to about it. I do not have to gain entry. Expectations may exist, but they are less likely to be formally expressed. 

Bounding Risk, Bounding Reward

Of course, one of the reasons we establish boundaries is to mitigate risk. These boundaries are important because so much of our work is with people who could be harmed. Boundaries create a safer space for participants, volunteers, and organizations.

However, these same boundaries can inadvertently create barriers to more authentic community. Protocols govern where relationships begin and end and what behavior is appropriate within them. They restrain harmful actions as well as kind actions.

Transportation Program for Seniors

We can take a look at a volunteer transportation program as an example. An organization vets, orients, and trains volunteer drivers to transport program participants to appointments and commitments. The host organization coordinates all drivers, participants, and rides.

Now, let’s say a driver hits if off with a rider. They enjoy each other’s company. The driver learns about other needs of the rider and offers to support her. The driver might drop off groceries or stop by to visit outside of the program. The rider might make her famous banana bread to share. The pair might exchange phone numbers and call to check in on each other and have a chat.

Red flag
Red flag
By OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

If you are the coordinator of this program, this is the point where red flags start waving, and bells and whistles go off. All sorts of things could go wrong in this scenario and these things could put the driver, rider, and organization at risk financially, physically, and legally. These risks are significant. When we establish boundaries in our programs, it is an attempt to mitigate these risks.

Paradoxically, these boundaries serve as impediments to all sorts of things that could go right, too. A young volunteer driver whose relatives live across the country might gain a sense of family. A lonely rider might feel less isolated because she can connect outside of the home with someone whose company she enjoys. And just as participants may prefer a volunteer driver over a paid staff driver, wouldn’t it be nice to have a ride from a friend instead of a volunteer? The service becomes an entry point to a genuine friendship and a small spark of community.

A Recipe for Disaster?

I have hesitated to write about this topic because I do not want to suggest that we abandon boundaries and risk management strategies nor the health, safety, and well-being they are intended to safeguard. I also don’t want to create a false binary of strict risk management versus a free-for-all approach. However, many of us are trying to cultivate community within our programs or organizations. Others are working to foster community beyond our organizations. Therefore, it’s important to wrestle with these questions and issues, so we can be intentional in our efforts.

Guiding Questions

So, how might we craft guiding principles for this work? What questions support our efforts in community building?

  • If part of our organization’s work is to build community, how does volunteering support that goal? What are the benefits and limitations of volunteering?
  • In what ways do our community-building efforts help or hinder our broader goal to be inclusive and equitable?
  • When we identify community building through volunteerism as one of our organizational goals, what do we mean by that? Are we building community between volunteers, the community and the organization, volunteers and program participants, volunteers and staff? All of the above? How do the risks and rewards change by audience?
  • What kind of practices do we need to support community building through volunteerism?
  • What is gained and lost by making boundaries for volunteering clear? Who do these boundaries include and exclude?
  • What is gained and lost by creating procedures to manage risk?
  • Who should be involved in asking and answering these questions? Staff? Board members? Program participants? Volunteers? Legal counsel? Regulatory bodies?
  • Could we create ground rules or guiding principles for relationships that form through volunteering? How do we reduce risk and increase connection?
  • What adjustments do we need to make to our approach to community building during COVID-19 or other emergencies?
How It Looks In Practice

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to these issues. An organization that serves kids who have been abused will require different strategies for risk management than an organization that facilitates beach clean ups and recycling programs. Here are brief examples of how two nonprofits dove into these issues in a very intentional and values-based way.

Youth Sports Organization

A community-based organization offering sports programming to neighborhood youth was all about community involvement. Lots of people were coming and going all the time…adults, youth participants, and participant family members. It made for a rich mix of interactions. However, as the organization grew, the staff and volunteer leadership no longer knew everyone by sight and were concerned by the risk that entailed. They valued participant safety and high interaction with the community. In response, they designed procedures and systems to keep track of everyone who was on site, created a screening and training process for regular volunteers, and ensured youth supervision was in place for interactions with community members who were not volunteers.

Urban Community Center

A large community center had several programs ranging from daily lunch for seniors and a bustling pre-school to fitness classes and social services. The executive director (ED) wanted to intentionally blur lines between the roles traditionally found in nonprofits because communities have blurred roles. Her belief was that everyone had something to give and something to receive, and she didn’t want giving or receiving to be defined by a role such as staff or client.

As a result, the community center encouraged participation across roles and programs. Lunch volunteers worked out at the gym. Staff members’ kids attended the pre-school. Social service participants volunteered in the art program. Community members designed and led an advocacy program.

Each program had processes to vet, train, and support volunteers that were appropriate to the role and length of service. They also stood firm on boundaries that were determined by what was best for their clients, participants, and staff. Eventually, that meant telling the big foundation in town ‘no’ on some types of service that it wanted for donors and requiring advance notice on other service opportunities. Maintaining boundaries honored the dignity and needs of the participants being served and ensured staff had sufficient time to plan events that were meaningful and needed. Ultimately, these boundaries created better volunteer experiences as well.

Your Turn

How does your team approach community building and risk? Share your lessons learned, experiences, and thoughts in the comments.

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