Volunteers Have Rights

More honor’d in the breach than the observance

As usual, Hamlet has it right – and he could have been speaking of volunteer rights.

The times are tough and volunteers are being hyper-actively recruited to take up the slack.  Volunteerism is a sacred cause.  High school kids, college interns, workplace teams and little old ladies are prime targets for nonprofits, schools, community organizations, health care providers – all hard-pressed organizations that need the boost in performance that volunteers can offer.  The literature overflows with pitches to potential volunteers who may, indeed, find fulfillment, learn skills, and make a real commitment to the common good.

After a couple of hard knocks in volunteer nirvana I began to see some imbalance in the “partnership” vision.  When I shared my concerns with friends and colleagues, I learned that I was not alone.  I proposed to write an expose on Volunteer Vulnerability.  With time, I realized there was a more positive and productive alternative.

That’s how I discovered a small pocket of literature devoted to volunteer rights.  Clearly, it’s an emerging theme.   The concern with volunteer rights may well stem from the fact that, though volunteerism is in, volunteer management as a profession is languishing.  A reminder that Minnesota once benefitted greatly from the Minnesota Office of Volunteer Services which would certainly have offered guidance on the topic.  The impact of cuts in volunteer management  is hitting the volunteers where it hurts – in their generous commitment to the cause.

Still the literature on volunteer rights that I’ve unearthed thus far assumes a solid and ethical management structure.  Though these well defined statements of volunteer rights may not hold up in less organized or ethical environments, the fact that there is a firm basis for acknowledging volunteer rights is a good reference.  The models are clear evidence that there is an issue on the table.  In the interests of organization effectiveness and volunteer retention thoughtful boards will take heed.

Though I have concentrated on nonprofit volunteerism, virtually all of the rights apply equally to student or other interns.  Several higher education institutions and agencies that depend on interns have formalized guidelines that explicate interns’ rights.

The themes incorporated in all of the statements of volunteer rights are consistent:

  • The right to be treated as co-workers
  • The right to know the ground rules of the organization
  • The right to a decent workplace and the tools to do the job
  • The right to speak and be heard
  • The right to respect as a person and as a team member

The following references do assume a management structure and an organization commitment to a volunteer program that meets the needs of both the organization and the volunteer.  Still, board and management consideration of volunteer rights cannot hurt the organization, the volunteer, or the relationship between the two:

Centre for Volunteer Rights (British) Volunteer Rights

Volunteer Rights and Responsibilities Washington University in St. Louis Community Service Office

Burning Life Volunteer Rights & Responsibilities

UC San Diego Volunteer Rights and Responsibilities

Volunteering England,  Volunteer Rights Inquiry


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