Part 1: Don’t let institutional guilt drag down your virtual organization

Making fake wood
I made fake wood out of paper and plastic for a summer

Institutional Guilt: you know it when you see it

You may have experienced institutional guilt directly, and you’ve likely seen this on TV. Remember the cop show where the new recruit, still wet behind the ears, with a new house, a young wife and a family member (usually a child or a parent) who has a horribly expensive medical condition; this new recruit, who has every need for some extra money is standing near his locker when his sergeant claps him on the shoulder and hands him an envelope. “This is your cut,” he says, and walks away, leaving the recruit to either take the money or buck the system. So the rest of the movie all about how the organization is rotten at the core, which is exactly what institutional guilt does.

I experienced institutional guilt when I was working at a chemical factory on the Tacoma waterfront during the summer of 1972. (The above photo, taken in 1971, is like one of the machines I worked for that summer. The fake wood grain on the paper is called “Mediterranean Oak.” I sort of remember the guy in the photo, he was the chemical engineer on staff.  Source: Tacoma Public Library.) One night, during the graveyard shift, I noticed that someone had opened up a pipe into a storm drain, a pipe which was always supposed to be sealed and only emptied into drums labeled appropriately for their toxic content. I mentioned this to the crew chief and he asked me if the inspector was there. Of course not, the inspector went home at 5.

The next time I was on a day shift, I told the plant supervisor that the pipe was left open at night, and all the extremely nasty chemicals were being discharged directly into Commencement Bay. He looked like I had told him I saw him microwave a kitten. This was information he did not want to hear, but he reacted like it was something he already knew. He told me to get back to work, and retreated into his office. I don’t remember ever speaking to him again. Then again, I don’t think I ever worked the day shift again. I never trusted the company after that, and I developed a reputation for not following orders to do certain things that others would do. Plenty of people there had new houses and young spouses and kids with expensive medical bills, and didn’t ask many questions.

I would suggest that other employees didn’t trust the company either. Almost daily they were asked to do tasks that were explicitly prohibited by policies posted on the bulletin board. They could be fired for any of these infractions, or they could make a complaint about their supervisors at any time. There was plenty of guilt to go around. This was a company that paid union wages for manual labor, so there was a steady supply of workers. This was fortunate for the company, as there was a steady turnover of employees.

Institutional guilt happens when values and vision, and policies and processes are routinely broken. The routine creates an alternative policy, a counter-value, which becomes the operational norm for the organization. As this new policy and its values cannot be spoken of, it is almost impervious to change. “Rotten at the core” is a good analogy here. For a virtual organization this situation will lead to almost certain failure; volunteers and staff will flee. Those that remain do so for suspect reasons.

The routines that include institutional guilt are a subset of what Rice and Cooper (2010) call “unusual routines.” These are dysfunctional outcomes of flawed communication practices (and other sources). There is no organizational structure that can prevent these entirely, and there are practices available, however expensive (e.g., firing all the staff and starting over) to repair unusual routines. Double-loop governance and the communication practices that this supports and promotes can preempt institutional guilt in several ways. I will be outlining these in the next blog.

How have you experienced institutional guilt? What is your story?

 Coming next: Part 2: Immunize your virtual organization from institutional guilt


Rice, R. E. & Cooper, S. (2010).  Organizations and unusual routines: A systems analysis of dysfunctional feedback processes.  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Volunteers or staff: Who is holding up your virtual organization?

Getting the right mix of staff and volunteers for a virtual organization is a crucial task for sustainability. The key is to take limited resources (if you have unlimited resources, call me) and invest these in directions that bring the best return for all.

What are volunteers good for? Many a community organizer has had moments when the answer to this is all too clear. Thankfully, those moments do pass. Volunteers are the heart of a virtual organization. Keeping this organ alive and well is job one for staff. Volunteers bring skills, vision, energy, and passion to the organization. They tend to do so in short-term increments. They need to know their efforts are valuable. This knowledge prompts them to stay engaged. Through the serial engagement of many volunteers, certain activities are maintained: governance, oversight, incremental work on infrastructure, a supply of new ideas, and, yes, occasional sidetracks. Nobody can sell your organization to donors and new partners better than volunteers. And nobody can grow your organization over time and on budget like volunteers.

What is your staff good for? Staff are the backbone of any virtual organization. They keep it on track and guide its fortunes. They have responsibility for those tasks that volunteers should not be asked to perform (more about this soon). They also have responsibility to keep volunteers engaged. They do the thank-less work and get paid for this. But that doesn’t mean the organization doesn’t owe them a heap of thanks. Still, they are professionals, and need to step up an take charge when the need arises. Generically, the work of staff falls into two buckets: everyday necessary tasks and putting out fires. Volunteers should not be asked to perform these types of work. Staff run the events on the organization’s calendar; they manage the web-presence, the accounting, the teleconferences, and a hundred day-to-day activities. They facilitate volunteer efforts. And, when the website is hacked, or the projector bulb burns out, they fix it.

Volunteers get called in to plan and direct new activities and articulate new goals. Ideally, they are given a say (not just a voice) in the organization’s operational budget. Because they do the planning and determine the budget, it’s only fair that they do some of the work. They can be tasked to scope out any new work required by a new goal and to build new capabilities to meet this. Then they either do the work, or determine that the job is too big for them to accomplish. When the volunteers are done with their efforts, the outcomes are passed back to staff to incorporate into the organization’s operational inventory. Sometimes the outcomes are not fully ready to use (having been built by volunteers). Staff might need to hire an outside expert to polish the work. Note: this person should be fully “outside” and not a community member. Never hire a community member as a consultant to fix another community member’s volunteered contribution.

When the job is too big, volunteers might ask for some support (more often they just stop answering emails). There are many ways to support volunteers. Paying them is the least valuable, as this transforms them into non-volunteers. There are several descriptions of the negative impacts of paying volunteers. Basically you are pissing in your own soup. Other means of support are always better: find them assistants (pay for interns), pay their travel, pay for hardware and software when required, and, if nothing else works, add staff to help. Sometimes, this might mean making a skilled volunteer a “fellow” for a short period of time. This move should include a community vote, including an open call for the fellow position within the community. The community is tasked to help staff fill a temporary (less than a year) need from within their ranks. By this, the “fellow” can be paid for a time and then return to the ranks of the volunteer community.

Remember that volunteers need to know their efforts are valuable. The organization needs to build and maintain recognition systems for volunteers. These include online and in-person awards. The three motivations for engagement are money, love, and glory. When it comes to volunteers, if you are stingy with the glory, don’t expect any love. And when you let the community add to their own glory, then you can stand back and watch new leaders emerge and know your virtual organization is healthy and growing.

Image Credit: Used on CC license. Photographer: Leo Reynolds on Flickr