By Erica Morse
Publisher, Victims News Online
Updated 10:45am CST, December 5th, 2012
“Volunteers are unpaid not because they are worthless, but because they are priceless.” ~ Author Unknown
It is a statement we (the volunteers) see and hear often; but is it true? While the sentiment is touching, there are many who feel otherwise. And in today’s world of high unemployment rates and “fiscal cliff” discussions, is it a fair statement?
Victims News Online reached out to several volunteers — and some came to us — to discuss this taboo topic, and what it means to the people donating their time.
When someone becomes passionate about a cause, often times, it’s due to a personal experience. Many who volunteer their time in the arena(s) of missing/murdered persons do so because they’ve had a loved one who disappeared or was murdered. They have suffered unimaginable pain, have walked in shoes worn by few, and now choose to give back to those who assisted them when they needed it.
However, with today’s economy and high unemployment rates, some traditional job-seekers have found themselves with too much free time, and nothing to do. While some are college students trying to earn credit in their respective field(s) of study, others are stay-at-home parents who want to do something “meaningful”. And yet another group is comprised of out-of-work individuals who choose to fill the gaps in their resumes with goodwill deeds while still seeking paid employment in the work force.
No matter what a person’s motive is for volunteering, should there be expectations attached to their service? Some feel there are; and some of the people we talked to feel it’s getting out of control.
Several volunteers have approached Victims News Online with complaints about the way they’re treated, seeking assistance with how to handle these tricky situations. Some have produced abusive e-mails, text messages, and voice mails where threats are made if a volunteer refuses to cooperate with a “team leader.” Others yet have voiced frustrations about being on call “24/7”, and treated as though they are expected to be available at all times, if needed, by those in charge. And others yet, have described nasty scenarios of public humiliation which occurred after that volunteer chose to resign his/her service.
If a person chooses to join a team or volunteer with that group, does that mean the team leader “owns them?” No. Team leaders do not have the legal right to tell an unpaid volunteer how many hours they must donate, what they can and cannot say publicly, and how their time should be spent. Conversely, if the team leader feels a specific volunteer is not “playing by their rules,” they should discuss the plausibility of dividing early on, as feelings will get hurt along the way. The volunteers we spoke with have described receiving insulting e-mails after-the-fact, berating them for their actions throughout their length of service. “Nothing is more frustrating than learning I’ve spent the last year trying to help a team, only to learn they’ve thought I was worthless all along,” one volunteer told Victims News Online. “If they really felt I was a horrible person this entire time, why did they call at all hours, insisting I do the work?”
Actions have consequences; and so do words. And in the volunteer world, there is nothing worse than dedicating one’s time to someone else’s cause, only to find out in the end you were used. While seldom discussed, volunteers often times do incur expenses out of their own pockets, and to be unpaid — and unappreciated — leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth.
One volunteer shared horrific e-mails from a team leader — showing a months-long pattern of harassment and attacks. Yet another tells us horror stories of trying to provide answers to families, while being scolded by her team leader that she was not allowed to speak on behalf of the organization. And in a third scenario, one feels she was thrown “under the bus” over a fundraising disagreement, and that she took the fall for someone else’s actions.
One advocate we spoke with has offered to take on any volunteers who feel they have been undervalued or under-appreciated. “If there is someone out there who wants to help and has had a bad experience, our team is more than willing to test that person out, to see if he/she would be a good fit for our team,” the advocate stated. “I never want anyone to walk away from the opportunity to help another, simply because they’ve had one bad experience.”
When someone chooses to donate time to the cause of another, that person should expect to be treated with respect and honesty, and expectations should be discussed up-front. Conversely, if a volunteer feels he/she is being taken advantage of, that person should consider separating sooner rather than later. However, no matter what the reasons for the division of a team, those who choose to volunteer their services should never have to face public repercussions for deciding to walk away.
In the end, it is the families of the victims who suffer the most. Bonds are formed, trust is developed; and when a team suffers a change, everyone loses. But the families should always have somewhere to go, and someone to talk to who will offer help. If we don’t keep in mind the reasons “why” we volunteer, then we forget why the volunteers are so necessary in the first place. As law enforcement agencies continue to face budget-crisis, under-staffing issues, and lack of resources, volunteers are needed more than ever. And as the old adage goes, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
If you are a volunteer looking to join a team, please contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org. We will put you in contact with organizations who have volunteer openings currently available.