Boundaries: Cover Your A$$ and Consider Your Capacity
Updated: May 4
I live in a Toronto neighbourhood called Willowdale. I have lived in this same neighbourhood since I moved to Toronto a decade ago.
I love this neighbourhood- the restaurants, the four grocery stores within a 15-minute walk, the world's best F45 franchise, an impactful community garden, fellow volunteers and #fitfam who have become close friends... So, a little over a year ago when one of the most violent incidents in Canadian history occurred here, I was devastated for my community, and I wasn't alone.
Thousands of neighbours poured into the streets to remember the victims, to comfort one another, and to declare #TorontoStrong. Community Organizer Lily Cheng stepped up and quickly took a leadership role to start We Love Willowdale ("a movement that began in the aftermath of the Yonge Street Tragedy. It is a movement that continues as we seek to serve our neighbours.") I remember the day of the vigil: I shook the Prime Minister's hand, I pat a horse, and I hugged neighbours wearing bright blue We Love Willowdale shirts.
That was one of the group's first projects: organizing to help the community grieve. Since then, they have fundraised to provide summer camp activities to neighbourhood children from low-income families. Then, COVID-19 happened and they organized to lead the Willowdale Covid Response Network.
Right now, We Love Willowdale mostly engages volunteers to deliver groceries, medications, and other essentials. They are considering engaging volunteers to support friendly check-ins to isolated people by phone, and have facilitated other connections for and between neighbours like providing handyman services. Lily reached out to me for some advice and it led to a great conversation on setting boundaries.
So here comes the boring stuff about policy and procedure... We Love Willowdale had done pretty well in making sure to C.Y.A., in other words, Cover Your A$$:
They clearly stated on their website that giving or receiving help means taking a risk with COVID-19.
They specified that they are "limited in what [they] can offer... may not be able to meet all requests... will do [their] best with [their] capacity."
They had volunteer guidelines around good hygiene practices, protecting yourself (both from COVID-19 and other dangers that come with trusting relative strangers), and confidentiality.
In their volunteer-sign up form, they asked for the candidates to acknowledge the volunteer guidelines (required question).
During our conversation, I recommended that Lily put in a few more disclaimers around legalities, consulting a lawyer if she knew one. Because, We Love Willowdale will have success in achieving their mission based on trust, transparency, and reputation. Also, because there isn't a board leading this initiative, no board liability insurance, no incorporation, and no charitable status, if $h*t happens, Lily could end up with at least a minor headache. Thanks for taking that advice Lily; I hope you will never have to use the enhanced legal information you've put onto the website and made more visible.
As a primary hub in our neighbourhood for those wanting to give and receive help during this time, We Love Willowdale has been approached with unexpected requests from multiple individuals and groups. Of course, they want to help as best as they can no matter what the request.
One of the things I learned early on as a leader of volunteers is that volunteering has to be the right fit, for both sides! I asked Lily what she would say if a young person called and said that they'd like to work as a nurse in the future, so they would like to volunteer to give insulin to people living with diabetes in the neighbourhood by going into their homes and giving injections. Obviously she knew that this wasn't appropriate and that even though this young person wants to give their time, We Love Willowdale doesn't have the capacity to receive this gift. We talked a bit about how to redirect volunteers to find a better fit for their skills, experience and goals...
Then we drifted back to why I felt that Lily had to step back and see the bigger picture: what is We Love Willowdale's mission moving forward? What supporter capacity is available? What is her personal capacity as a leader of this group, while also being a leader at her church, and a mum of two little ones who also need homeschooling right now? Mission drift is real and dangerous.
I referenced the Urgent/ Important Matrix and recommended that Lily focus right now on what is most important and most urgent: flattening the curve and making sure our community members have the essentials they need. I recommended that when COVID-19 dies down, Lily should take more time to think about the organization's mission and her personal capacity as a leader. For now, I recommended that Lily delegate more tasks so her capacity can be used most efficiently.
Which leads me to a tool that helps grassroots leaders both C.Y.A. and consider their capacities: the role description, a key step in Volunteer Canada's 10 Steps of Screening.
In my opinion, a good volunteer role description, at minimum:
Outlines expectations for both sides.
Does not read like a wish list.
Does not read like a task list.
Connects the role to how it supports the overall organization.
Never reads "other duties as assigned".
If and when a volunteer crosses boundaries, leaders of volunteers should refer back to role descriptions, volunteer guidelines/ handbooks, and any other agreements (e.g. code of conduct) to explain how boundaries were crossed. Volunteer role descriptions inherently outline the scope of a role. If a volunteer goes beyond the scope of their role, you can refer to the role description to re-focus their intent and behaviours. Or, refer to the role description to explain why the role and/or their volunteer participation is no longer a good fit.
In terms of helping grassroots leaders delegate certain tasks, writing a good role description helps. This forces them to think through:
1) What tasks need to be done (urgent/ important)?
2) What tasks are engaging and would make part of an impactful role?
3) What are the timelines for those tasks?
4) What training is required?
5) Who will give that training? And very likely: If I am giving that training, what else do I need to delegate?
6) What makes volunteering for this organization in this role so special (special enough to choose to do this instead of watching Gilmore Girls again)?
This also helps the grassroots leader prepare for releasing some oversight, especially in areas where they have particular expertise. With respect to releasing oversight, my best advice is around giving volunteers baby steps: start with projects where failure is not fatal. Founder's Syndrome is very real; I encourage all grassroots groups leaders to heed expert advice and, among other things: "take time to self-reflect", "figure out your exit strategy" because I bet you want the organization to live longer than you, and "transition well" so your team and eventual successors are set up for success.
This feels like a natural place to end, but I'll leave you with the sections I put in every role description I personally create:
Qualities and skills
Benefits and impact