Safety in Online Volunteering Programs

Most people have a fun, safe trip on the information superhighway. While the vast majority of online experiences are positive, there is a dark side to cyberspace: individuals who attempt to exploit children, women and others through the Internet; programmers who create computer viruses that can be transmitted via e-mail and can disable a software program or an entire computer system; and materials on the Internet that are adult-oriented and not appropriate for children.

Fear of exploitation and abuse, or fear of exposure to sexually-explicit material, shouldn't be factors that prevent an agency from engaging in virtual volunteering, nor should these be reasons for parents to prevent children from engaging in online community service opportunities. There are several simple measures an agency can employ to ensure the safety of all participants in a virtual volunteering program. Online safety suggestions offered here are based on practices by other agencies involving children and volunteers via the Internet, and guidelines by various organizations concerned with children and Internet safety.

Just as with face-to-face volunteering programs, a virtual volunteering program needs to have safeguards in place to protect everyone involved, and ensure participants safety and privacy. A virtual volunteering program can bring volunteers together with staff only, or with other volunteers and clients of an agency. It is up to the sponsoring agency to decide who will interact with online volunteers.

It is suggested that agencies pattern online volunteering interactions after their existing offline, face-to-face volunteering activities and experiences. If your agency staff does not have experience with managing programs involving mentoring, tutoring, coaching or other face-to-face volunteering activities, your agency is probably not ready to engage in such activities via the Internet.

We encourage organizations not to approach their online safety guidelines from a fear-based reaction; a culture of fear can lead to so much distrust that it defeats the purpose and benefits of an online volunteering program. There is risk in any volunteering program, online or face-to-face. Exercising common sense, adapting your existing offline prevention systems to cyberspace, following the law and establishing good tracking of volunteer activities and supervision of interactions are the best online safety measures.

The following materials are not a substitute for legal advice. Laws concerning youth, at-risk populations and privacy vary significantly from state to state and apply differently to different organizations and activities. Please consult a qualified legal professional about the laws surrounding your particular situation.

Developing Safety Guidelines

An agency's online safety program should have four goals:

  • Protection of participants' privacy and personal information (participants can be staff, volunteers, clients, parents, etc.)
  • Screening out people who would abuse or exploit participants or the computer systems they use
  • Preventing opportunities for abuse or exploitation of participants
  • Protection of youth from inappropriate online materials or information

It is up to you, the sponsoring agency, to decide who will interact with online volunteers. It is suggested that you pattern your online volunteering interactions after your offline, face-to-face volunteering activities. Virtual volunteering can bring volunteers together with just your staff, or with other volunteers and your clients. Remember: Volunteers who work with children are subject to the same police/reference checks as in offline situations. Before bringing adults and children together in any service situation, on or offline, contact your local police department about the laws in your state or province regarding screening people who work with vulnerable populations.

Establishing a Code of Conduct

Just as you do with offline volunteers and staff, you need to establish and communicate a code of conduct and other guidelines for online volunteers. Some suggestions for safety-related areas to cover in your code:

  • Confidentiality
    Does your organization have a policy about forwarding e-mail messages? Or about volunteers talking to each other, to staff, or to people outside the organization regarding their activities at your organization?
  • Screening/Background Checks
    What is done initially? What other checks may be performed later? How will these checks affect a volunteer's role? What kinds of questions must be answered as part of the screening process, of both potential participants and their references?
  • Representing the Organization
    Can volunteers send e-mail or post to newsgroups on behalf of your organization? Can they input your information to third party web sites, such as Yahoo or VolunteerMatch? Should anything they send out or input be reviewed by a staff person?
  • Inappropriate Communications, Activities, and E-Mails
    What should a volunteer do if he or she is contacted by someone from outside of your organization in an inappropriate way? What should this person do if they encounter pornographic material while doing online research for your organization? What should the volunteer do if they encounter something they think is illegal online? What should a volunteer do if they observe another volunteer, staff person, or client engaging in illegal or inappropriate online activity?

The former Virtual Volunteering Project developed a code of conduct suited to its particular circumstances. Other organizations have even stricter rules regarding online volunteer safety and conduct, because of the nature of the agency's mission and because volunteers will have greater access to each other and to clients. Organizations should consider their own culture, the nature of their mission and volunteer assignments, their online volunteer screening process, etc. in adopting such rules for conduct:

  • Some organizations advise online volunteers to never tell anyone personal information (where they live or work, their phone number, their full name). Some organizations even have a special e-mail or bulletin board alias system, where no real e-mail addresses are used, and only the forum moderator knows what alias goes with what e-mail address. These stricter systems are usually used for online interactions involving children, or for people discussing a particularly sensitive, personal subject matter.

    At the very least, volunteers should be advised to be very extremely careful about any offers that involve another volunteer coming to a meeting or having someone visit their house. If your agency has a policy against such meetings, make sure this is clearly communicated to your volunteers.
  • Some organizations tell their online volunteers never to meet anyone in person they have met online, even in conjunction with their online volunteering, except at agency-sponsored events.
  • People online may not be who they seem, even online volunteers, and sometimes both volunteers and volunteer managers need to be reminded of this. They should also remember that everything online may not be true.
  • Everyone should know to notify someone at your organization if they encounter inappropriate situations as a participant in your online program -- if someone violates your codes of conduct, encourages an illegal activity to other participants, or engages in online harassment. And you should have plans of action for any of those situations, rare though they will be.

Youth-Adult Interaction

  • All online interactions between youth and adults should be archived.
  • Youth and adults should receive detailed guidelines before interactions take place about what is not acceptable in online exchanges. Reminders should be sent out as well about these guidelines.
  • Parents should know their children are participating in this online program. Provide parents with a written overview of the program, your systems for online safety, and the benefits of the program. Some organizations require written parental approval, or for parents to sign off that they have reviewed the information.
  • Have a system for youth to report inappropriate communications. Remind them of this system.
  • Detail and communicate to online volunteers how they should handle inappropriate communications and crisis situations, such as talk of suicide or criminal activity by the youth they are mentoring or tutoring online.
  • If volunteers have been interviewed face-to-face by the agency and undergone a criminal and personal background check , and if your agency allows one-to-one unsupervised interactions with young people in face-to-face situations (such as the system used by Big Brothers/Big Sisters), your agency should be safe to allow these online volunteers to work one-to-one with young people, with direct access to each child's e-mail address and no filtering and approval system before e-mails are forwarded to children. For many programs, however, this is not an appropriate option.

Screening Online Volunteers

If the volunteers are going to be working directly with children, it is strongly suggested that you conduct criminal background checks and face-to-face interviews with people who are going to volunteer with children online.

Volunteers who work with children are subject to the same police/reference checks as in offline situations. Before bringing adults and children together in any service situation, on or offline, contact your local police department about the laws in your state or province regarding screening people who work with vulnerable populations. Also, contact your local Directors of Volunteers in Agencies (DOVIA) to find out about the situations in which these laws apply. For instance, It is usually not required to do criminal background checks of volunteers who work with groups of children in staff-supervised settings, if the volunteers will never be working one-on-one with a child, or if they will never be alone with the children without a staff member present and witnessing all activity.

Generally, the more public a program setting, the lower the risk is for youth by adult volunteers. However, many non-Internet-based programs, such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters, bring adults and youth together safely in one-to-one situations, utilizing best practices around screening, training and supervision together with opportunities for a volunteer to build trust with the youth in his or her charge. Establishing these one-to-one, trusting relationships is an important part of their program's mission, but they also make sure they have the resources necessary to be vigilant in screening and checking up on volunteers.

If you are expanding an existing face-to-face mentoring program to include online communications, involving only those mentors who have been involved with your face-to-face program, you probably already have the necessary safeguards in place that will prevent abuse from happening online. Even so, it is recommended that your agency develop a way for all online communications between adult volunteers and youth to be supervised by a volunteer leader or staff member. You will want to let volunteers, youth and their parents know that this supervision is taking place, your organization's policy for what constitutes inappropriate online behavior, and what your organization will do if inappropriate online behavior is exhibited. If online exchanges between adult volunteers and youth are archived, you should notify volunteers, youth and their parents regarding who will (and won't) have access to these archives.

Protecting Identities

Some agencies that bring youth and adults together online, in groups or in one-to-one situations, do so in a way that allows participants to remain anonymous when interacting with each other. It may be appropriate for your agency to utilize one of these methods. Recommendations:

  • Require adult volunteers and youth to each have a special e-mail address to be used exclusively for their work with each other, one that does not reveal personal information, such as last names. This e-mail address should not be registered in any way that can be traced to a real world identity, such as the "Member Profile" on AOL, or linking it off a personal Web page. If this becomes a common practice at your agency, make sure someone has a record of what e-mail address goes with what volunteer or client.
  • Set up a group e-mail mailing list that allows participants to post under a screen name or alias, and hides actual e-mail addresses. As always, make sure someone at your agency has a record of what screen name or alias goes with what volunteer or youth.
  • Require all volunteer and youth interactions to take place via a private online chat room, where participants use screen names or aliases to communicate with each other (these screen names should not be first and last names). Again, make sure someone at your agency has a record of what screen name or alias goes with what volunteer or client.
  • Explore programs that will allow users to send and receive e-mail to each other, without being able to see each other's actual e-mail address; this can be done through programs for purchase, or by setting up a script using Perl.

To keep volunteers and clients anonymous, participants should not mention personal information in their online interactions that could allow someone to trace their identity, such as their real names, e-mail addresses, web sites, postal addresses, schools they attend or companies they work for, and so on. This ensures that adults and youth cannot contact each other outside of a supervised online dicussion system operated and observed by the agency, and that no inappropriate behavior can take place in one-to-one communications.

As mentioned earlier, volunteers, youth and their parents should be fully aware of any supervision taking place regarding online exchanges, your organization's policy in what constitutes inappropriate online behavior, and what your organization will do if inappropriate online behavior is exhibited. Also, if online exchanges between adult volunteers and youth are archived, volunteers, youth and their parents should be aware of who will (and won't) have access to these archives.