July 17, 2017; Belfast Telegraph
Nonprofits should understand that they have many co-owners. Among them, you’ll find volunteers, who often know portions of the organization’s work as well as any stakeholder and who feel that their investments of time and passion vest them with some say in the organization’s future, particularly as it concerns them.
NPQ has, over the years, seen a number of nonprofits come up against their longtime volunteer groups. The pattern generally includes a long period of benign neglect, during which time the volunteers often self-organize. Then, the powers that be come down on them from on high because someone decides their goals do not align. And while dismissing longtime dedicated volunteers has always been a very bad look, the act of doing so is now much more public.
In Northern Ireland, Autism NI is forcibly attempting to disband the Mid Ulster Volunteer Support Group Committee, citing a “complete breakdown in the relationship of trust and confidence.” Volunteers claimed the move has left around 500 families in the area without much-needed help, support, and advice.
Margaret Love, chairwoman of the volunteer support group, said that the relationship between the volunteers and the charity board suffered after volunteers voiced their concerns about a set of new rules Autism NI was trying to impose on its volunteers with no consultation:
Instead of addressing our concerns and questions, they terminated our committee. In a letter to me, they said there has been a complete breakdown in the relationship of trust and confidence between the support group and the charity board and its staff.
Around 500 families are served by the local branch. We were available 24/7 for families who needed support or advice. We could give that support because we all have children on the spectrum. Now, if a family needs help at 9pm at night, I don’t know what they are going to do.
Autism NI said it “recognizes the commitment Mid Ulster Support Group Committee has given to the charity and local autism community…unfortunately, in recent months the relationship with the Support Group Committee has broken down and it is with regret that the Board of the Charity has dissolved the current committee. The Board would like to thank outgoing committee members, and assure families that they will continue to receive the Charity’s full support going forward.”
“This is the thanks we get after years of volunteer work.” Love said, pointing out that the volunteers were the primary contacts for five families in the area, “The central board don’t know the needs of the local families like we do.”
Patsy McGlone, the member of the legislative assembly for the Social Democratic and Labour Party in the area, has accused Autism NI of using a “sledgehammer approach” towards its own volunteers.
“The local community and these volunteers have provided incredible support for local families for many years. They have displayed deep commitment to helping parents and children who have autism in the family…It is unfortunate it has come to this, and I hope Autism NI tries to resolve this situation,” he said.
Of course, there are ways to avoid this kind of brand-brutalizing public scenario, but they involve treating volunteers as valuable and thoughtful partners who need as much if not more attention than any other resource.—Ruth McCambridge