Bad Seeds

There are tens of thousands of great nonprofits in the VolunteerMatch family, but every so often we get a bad seed.

To be a nonprofit is more than just a tax status, it’s also a promise – a promise to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. And one of the amazing things that happens when you make a pledge to improve the world is that other folks want to be involved.

They want to give their time and money to help out. They believe in you.

So bad seeds are bad news. Recently I found a bad seed within our membership, and I was inspired to share a few thoughts about it.

Here at VolunteerMatch these miscreants reveal their hand in their listings.

One common scam involves trading “community service” credits for cash. Another involves asking for exorbitant fees to participate in a volunteer program — fees that are competely out of line with the costs associated with the program. Yet another scam involves producing a service event strictly for the purpose of pitching an audience of would-be volunteers on making a donation instead.

Talk about bait and switch.

Of course, nonprofit misdeeds are old news these days, and watchdogs like Charity Navigator’s Ken Berger have been particularly vocal in their efforts to raise awareness about the needs for better ethics and more transparency in the independent sector.

But while most of the stories you’ll read in the media are about well-known organizations acting badly, we actually see more instances of small organizations peddling scams — and that makes them harder to police.

While we definitely review organizations when they first join VolunteerMatch, it’s been a long time since we stopped checking out every listing in our system. Indeed, as we grew in popularity in the early 2000s, this kind of detailed vetting became impossible for our small team. With more than 58,000 active listings in our system right now, and new ones entering by the hundreds every day, we could never keep up.

So the system we use today is a compromise. Organizations can post what they wish, but if we become aware (or are informed of) a likely violation of our Terms of Use, we’ll pursue those cases aggressively to protect our users.

We also launched reviews functionality in 2008 to create pathways for volunteers to talk about their experiences in service. Today there are more than 5,300 such reviews, and lots of those writers are sharing mixed opinions about volunteer organizations.

When bad seeds are allowed to flourish, the real victim is volunteering itself. Regardless of the cause issue, for change to happen communities need to be willing to invest both time and money. That willingness is destroyed when nonprofits scam volunteers. And the damage done is not just to the organization or to the cause, but to the idea of involvement overall.

For organizations with flawed volunteer programs, the truth will sting. For the bad seeds, it will hurt badly. But when the pain fades, it will be time to build an authentic engagement program that members of the community will want to take part in.

(Photo: Martin LaBar/Flickr )

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