This is an archived version of the Virtual Volunteering Project web site from January 2001.
The materials on the web site were written or compiled by Jayne Cravens.
The Virtual Volunteering Project has been discontinued.
The Virtual Volunteering Project web site IS NO LONGER UPDATED.
Email addresses associated with the Virtual Volunteering Project are no longer valid.
For any URL that no longer works, type the URL into archive.org.
For new materials regarding online volunteering, see
Jayne Cravens' web site (the section on volunteerism-related resources).
In answering this question, let's start with a question: how do you currently protect confidentiality, privacy, security of clients and volunteers among staff? You will use these same methods for volunteers, and you will adapt these methods for online situations.
Your legal obligations will also be a factor. For instance, your agency may be required by law to conduct certain screening procedures and background checks on volunteers, because of the nature of their work (such as working with children or visiting people in their homes). How do you screen these volunteers now? Could you adapt those methods for online application, or will you need to bring potential online volunteers onsite to go through your current screening process? You may be required to bond volunteers who will deal with financial records; in such cases, you must do the same thing with online volunteers as with those whom you see on site.
More than anything else, confidentiality is a training issue. Emphasize the importance of confidentiality at every opportunity. Put a statement about it into every volunteer job description. Add it to orientation materials. Say it in training. Be sure you explain clearly what you mean by "confidentiality." It is more than not revealing a client's name; it's not revealing any information that would allow someone to guess the identity of the individual involved. You can (and, in some cases, should) develop a specific pledge of confidentiality, noting that violation of this key principle is cause for dismissal. Ask every volunteer to sign it, by fax or postal mail (don't hesitate to use real paper and real stamps!)
In some cases, however, "confidentiality" is a smokescreen put up by staff resistant to volunteer involvement, on or offline. It can be paternalistic to feel that clients must be "protected" against volunteers who might gossip or somehow betray confidentiality (as though volunteers are more prone to such activity than staff).
If you really wonder how clients feel about their situation being shared with a volunteer, ask them! If the clients give permission (freely, without any sense that they have to say yes), then it's ok to share their identities with a volunteer.
The Internet provides many ways for clients and volunteers to remain anonymous when interacting with each other, and it may be appropriate for your agency to utilize one of these methods. An agency could (and many do):
To keep volunteers and clients anonymous, participants should not mention any 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, etc.
For more information, the Virtual Volunteering Project includes tips for Safety in Online Volunteering Programs. This is information and links to resources to help your agency create general safety guidelines for all online volunteering programs, suggestions and examples for those managing programs involving youth as online volunteers, and suggestions for bringing together youth and adult online volunteers.
Having said all of this, there is no reason to believe that online volunteers are any more prone to be predators than any other volunteer--and the number of people who actually pose a risk to clients is quite small. By all means, take reasonable and appropriate precautions, and set and strictly enforce policies about confidentiality and security, but then move on with the work.
If you have other questions and cannot find the answers on this web site, please contact us.
If you find this or any other Virtual Volunteering Project information helpful, or would like to add information based on your own experience, please contact us.
If you do use Virtual Volunteering Project materials in your own workshop or trainings, or republish materials in your own publications, please let us know, so that we can track how this information is disseminated.
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