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Why Volunteers Violate Boundaries (and What You Can Do to Stop It)

Melina Condren, Director of Engaging Organizations

We all know them. The volunteers who are always willing to go that extra mile. They give their time and their energy to the causes they believe in, and no matter what, they’re always willing to help out. If a client needs a friendly ear, they’ll listen. If someone needs a ride to a doctor’s appointment, they’ll drive. They go above and beyond… Beyond the boundaries of their role, that is.

In theory, this sounds great. A volunteer who’s willing to do everything in their power to help? Someone who’s going to do whatever it takes to support your cause? It sounds like a dream come true. But in reality, a volunteer who violates the boundaries of their role can cause a lot of problems for your clients, your organization, and for themselves.

More often than not, volunteers violate boundaries because they want to do everything they can to help. That means that if you want volunteers to stop violating boundaries, you need to make them understand that the best way for them to help is by fulfilling their role to the best of their abilities, not going beyond it.

  • If the volunteer crosses boundaries, is there an emotional or physical risk to themselves or to the client?
  • Would more training or expertise be necessary to fulfill extra duties safely or effectively?
  • If a volunteer “unofficially” helps out a client, is there a risk to the organization that could result in less capacity to deliver programs?

Make sure that volunteers know what damage could be done by going beyond the boundaries of their role.

Although letting them know about the risks is important, it may not be enough to stop a volunteer from doing a little bit more, when they feel like it’s necessary for the client’s well-being. The desire to help can be a powerful motivator. And because of that, you should also offer volunteers alternative ways of helping out when it seems like a client needs more support than the volunteer role can provide.

  • Is there a different program or a different person in your organization with the resources needed to be able to provide the support the client needs? Make sure your volunteers know about all your services, and where to send clients who need to use them.
  • If your organization can’t address the problem itself, is there another organization that can? Give your volunteers a list of places to refer clients when they need something you don’t offer.

Sometimes, problems might arise that are outside of the scope of what your volunteers are meant to do, but they won’t have anywhere else to refer the clients to. In these cases, it can be helpful to make sure your volunteers know that they can go to you, or a program supervisor, and try to find a soluntion together. Volunteers won’t feel as much need to go off on their own to help clients if they know that there’s a supervisor who is open to new ideas and wants to use volunteer feedback to improve services.

Your volunteers are no doubt wonderful people who have a huge capacity to do good. But they’re not the right people to do everything. If you help them understand why it’s important to stay within the boundaries of their role, give them the power to help clients find other sources of support when they’re needed, and empower them to come to you when they see an extra need so you can work it out together, you’ll soon have volunteers who are committed to doing what’s best for the clients, the organization and themselves—without going above and beyond their boundaries.

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