Dear Nonprofiteer, Is that my job?

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I volunteer at a community center in downtown [city name omitted to protect the innocent, if any]. Our agency’s been around for years, but the building is brand-new and pretty high-profile. People come in to use the computers, read the paper, or just sit in a comfortable environment for a few minutes. (We hope that while they’re there, they notice all the services we provide and ask about the ones they might need.) We’re not intended to be a drop-in center for the homeless, but certainly a number of homeless people have discovered us. In keeping with the mission, volunteers are taught to be welcoming to people and not try to hustle them out–unless and until they disturb others. To remind us of our responsibility to be welcoming and open, we describe the people who use our center not as patrons or clients but as guests.

I’ve encountered two situations where I’ve thought that what needed to happen was for someone to be escorted from the building–one where a guest was making unwanted sexual advances to the person seated next to him, and one where a guest had spent my entire (4-hour) shift on the computer, ignoring other guests who were waiting. But when I asked the Volunteer Coordinator who I should call in these circumstances, she looked blank and then said, “Why don’t you deal with it yourself?”

I was a public-school teacher before I retired, so I know about the complexities of dealing with people who are acting out in a public place. At school, we had a number we could call to connect us immediately to the front office, which in turn immediately contacted security. We didn’t expect teachers, much less volunteers (teachers’ aides and the like), to strong-arm those who wouldn’t behave.

Am I just being prissy, or should my agency have a plan for dealing with difficult guests other than “Let the volunteers wing it”?

Signed, No Rent-A-Cop

Dear No Rent:

Your agency should absolutely have not merely a plan but a professional (or several) to deal with guests of the type you describe. Even assuming the agency has no concern for the safety or well-being of volunteers (which your story, unfortunately, suggests), it ought to protect itself against liability claims that may arise from turfing someone; and the only way to do that is to have the evictions done by people who know how to be firm without being brutal. If our society didn’t think that was a job for professionals, we wouldn’t have police forces.

Most likely the need to deal with problem guests was simply one of many things that didn’t get anticipated when your agency moved into “brand-new and pretty high-profile” digs. It’s one thing to run an agency more or less anonymously, where the only way to find clients is to conduct targeted outreach to the type of people you’re trying to serve; it’s another to hang out a big sign in the middle of downtown saying “Walk in and see whether we can help you.” When your offices are small and private, “security” means “locking the door;” once they’re big and public, it means contingency plans, and people to execute them.

What can you do to make the agency aware of its new duties in this regard? Start by taking a quick informal poll of your fellow volunteers. Collect a few more anecdotes of the type you’ve shared here, and confirm that none of you is equipped or willing to perform guard duty. (This transforms the situation from the complaint of a single volunteer to an alert about a systemic issue.)

Then write up what you’ve heard and experienced, outlining your concerns and pointing out that your volunteer training (“Be welcoming!”) is incompatible with security-guard duty. Send this report not to the Volunteer Coordinator but to her boss, the Executive Director. Incorporate suggestions from your own experience: that all volunteers be given a single number to call; that the receptionist who gets these calls be instructed to call the police at once. You might also suggest that the agency contact the public library and ask to see its security plans: every library has had to determine how to balance its commitment to open access with the need to maintain safety and security.

You’ll probably hear moaning and groaning about how the agency can’t afford security guards; this is not your problem. If the agency had built a building and neglected to budget for electricity to light it, it would not have the option of operating the building in the dark. If it built a building and neglected to budget to keep it safe, it doesn’t have the option of operating it dangerously.

The best way to get this point across is viscerally. If over the course of the next few weeks (a reasonable amount of time to allow the agency to hire security or ask for additional police assistance) you encounter another situation requiring a guest to be escorted from the building, call the Volunteer Coordinator and tell her to remove the offending guest. (If she refuses, leave your post immediately.) Nothing gets across the difficulty of eviction like conducting an actual eviction. Once she’s had to do it, the Volunteer Coordinator will never again wonder why you refuse to. Mark the Nonprofiteer’s words: the VC will be in the ED’s office waving your letter around and demanding action before sunset.

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One Response to “Dear Nonprofiteer, Is that my job?”

  1. Allan Benamer Says:

    That agency needs to be a lot more proactive in dealing with security situations. It would be smart for the agency to give conflict de-escalation training to its work force and then work out a plan to resolve issues up to and including having full-time security staff. I would also recommend changing the layout of the room so that direct eye contact between clients would be hard to achieve.

    I would also recommend cameras and a DVR so that the agency would be protected if anything really bad happens.

    I used to work at the Coalition for the Homeless in NYC so those were some of the measures we took in order to deal with our homeless population. For the vast majority of the homeless, they’re pretty nice people but there’s a tiny minority who may be disruptive. You need to have a plan in place for them.

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