In mediation we trust: time to stop devaluing our services as mediators

valuing mediation servicesI recently stumbled across “Mediators help in neighborly dog disputes“, an article in USA Today extolling the virtues of mediation to resolve tricky neighborhood conflicts.

Although I suppose we should welcome the publicity, the article did our profession no favors, creating the impression that mediation is largely a free service, one that non-profit mediation programs and their staff of unpaid volunteers willingly provide – a perception apparently confirmed by the National Association for Community Mediation spokesperson the reporter spoke with.

Let me say first that I have nothing but respect and admiration for the work that non-profit community mediation programs do and their willingness to go where angels fear to tread.

But why is it that such a highly visible segment of mediation services is routinely provided by unpaid volunteers? In what other field are trained professionals continually expected to provide services for little or no remuneration – by the courts, by the public, and by our own kind? When will pro bono work become the laudable contribution that mediators make in their spare time and not the expected norm, the default? When are we going to start insisting that our work has value and merits compensation? When are we going to start acting like we truly believe those things?

How about right now?

12 responses to “In mediation we trust: time to stop devaluing our services as mediators

  1. Isn’t the first step, almost always, on the road to professionalism a general certification of skills?

  2. I am on the verge of withdrawing from the local small claims court program because I feel it gives the impression that you have stated – that mediators toil in cramped closet-like conference rooms and mediate $500 rent disputes and assorted miscellany.

  3. Chris, I don’t blame you. Sad to say though there are no doubt many eager to take your place. We are our own worst enemy.

    Michael, not sure I agree that certification is the first step toward professionalism for mediators. For mediators there have already been numerous steps toward professionalism – evidenced by the degree to which mediation has been institutionalized, the large number of associations for ADR professionals at local and national levels, the numerous standards of conduct developed, and the advanced degree programs in dispute resolution. Those are all the indicia of professionalism. Yet none of those things has made a whit of difference when it comes to valuing our services. I don’t think that even certification will matter – if by certification you mean formal credentialing or licensing by a state body, not the private “certification” that private organizations like ACR have proposed. That might help, and it might go a long way toward convincing the rest of the world that our services have value, but in the end it’s a cultural thing – the big change must come to hearts and minds, including, perhaps especially, within the mediation community.

  4. Yes, I meant licensing by a state body and the usual monopoly tricks therein performed.

  5. I am doing research on community mediation centers for my master’s degree, so this topic is of special interest to me. It is indeed the norm that mediators are not paid at community mediation centers, but it seems few are asking why.

    (BTW, your link to “National Association for Community Mediation” in this post sends readers in an unexpected direction.)

  6. To speak from a community mediator perspective – our agency’s mission is to provide conflict resolution services to our community regardless of ability to pay. We do charge on a sliding scale based on income, but our fees are significantly lower than someone in a private practice because we are largely grant subsidized. I have heard, many times, that people feel that providing mediation services for a small fee or free devalues our profession.

    That’s difficult for me to hear. I hope that every time myself, a member or my staff, or one of our volunteers represents our agency (and our field) in the community it demonstrates how valuable all of our services are. I believe that providing low cost-services serves a portion of the population that, if we didn’t exist, would go without mediation rather than hire a private mediator. This is both for community mediations and mediations in small claims court. Thinking of our client base, I do not see our agency seeing a lot of clients that might otherwise go to a private mediator. There are other highly skilled professions (medicine, law, etc.) where its professionals provide low cost or pro-bono services without devaluing the profession. Why are we different? I know that I definitely sometimes feel devalued by my communities (legal / mediation) by the fact that I’m a community mediator.

    Abigail, to answer your question, I imagine that we use volunteers for the reason that many non-profits use volunteers (Meals on Wheels, public libraries, etc.). We’re a tiny non-profit doing a lot of work. We would not be able to provide the services that we provide if all of our work was done by salaried staff. At the same time we provide mentoring and training to new mediators as well as a place of gathering, community, mentoring and reflection to experienced mediators.

    In looking at the article, it looks like the writer went to the NAFCM website to do a little research on community mediation, and that’s where the authors got the NAFCM info. I feel that this harkens back to, a little, the evaluative / facilitative discussion. It depends on what you’re looking for and consumer education could be much better. What would people think of the article if it mentioned many different types of mediation services – talking to a private practice mediator about a personal injury mediation, another about a divorce mediation, and another about mediating corporate contracts in addition to the info about community mediation?

  7. And what’s funny that even priced at free, would-be clients are often scarce at these community mediation centers, with the demand to mediate frequently outpacing the supply of willing disputants. And what’s more, because free services aren’t valued, parties are often cavalier about making appointments for mediation and then just not showing up.

  8. Victoria, as usual, you provide invaluable insights and sound wisdom. I’m always glad when you take time to comment. Thanks for your stout defense of community mediation programs.

    Let me say that my own roots are in community mediation. For many years I have volunteered with community mediation programs, served on their boards of directors, and provided pro bono services through them. This is a part of the mediation community I know well, and if in any way I devalued the work that community mediation programs do and all that they achieve, I am truly sorry. The community mediation programs I have served with provide services, thanks to funding and grants, to the poor, the disenfranchised – to those without resources and access to the corridors of power. That’s good work, noble work, and we should be grateful to those who serve social justice in that way. I salute your program, Victoria, and others like it that care passionately about the neighborhoods they serve.

    However, here’s the problem that I see — and I don’t lay it at the doorstep of community mediators by any means, although I think that everyone in our field needs to consider their own contributions.

    First, courts and other institutions all too often expect community mediation programs to provide services for free. Here in Massachusetts, community mediation programs receive a pittance from the courts to provide services built on the shoulders of unpaid volunteers. These small sums of money are supposed to cover administrative costs, paying wages for grossly underpaid case coordinators and program directors. Even though mediation programs provide valuable service to the courts, particularly in high-caseload areas like small claims, the court shamefully underpays them. In fact, there’s an administrative rule here in Massachusetts that no fee can be charged for small claims mediation services.

    As far as I know, no other professional service provider in the Massachusetts courts — not the parenting coordinators, not the guardians ad litem — are denied compensation in the way that volunteer mediators are. When the courts a few months ago in Massachusetts told mediation programs that they would not be getting any more money because of the budget shortfall, did the community mediation programs around the commonwealth go out on strike? Nope. Most of them continued to provide services. Houston, we have a problem.

    I’m not saying either that we should abandon the use of volunteers. You’re right of course that we depend upon them in many sectors – from services for elders to homeless shelters. But our profession does this differently from every other profession. In other professions, like medicine or law, there are clear career paths, and people get paid for what they do. They provide pro bono services in their spare time, to give back to their communities. For those professions, pro bono is the noble contribution, not the expected, usual way of doing things. In mediation, we do exactly the opposite.

    There’s also a problem with public perception. I have met too many people who think of mediators as simply volunteers, not as professionals in their own right. Articles like this one, in USA Today, simply contribute to the misconception. Victoria, I agree, we do need more effort on public education – more information, greater awareness, for everyone.

  9. By the way, here’s a post on Twitter I happened across that conveys the mediator’s dilemma all too well:

    working at a dispute resolution center and trying to figure out how to get paid for actual mediation

  10. This is a problem that must be addressed – that in many instances mediation is being provided by volunteers rather than pro-bono. I think it’s one of the key reasons that mediation is not flourishing as it should, and is not being practiced as rigorously as it should. We mediators keep avoiding it and it is hurting us. (Ironic isn’t it that we avoid it)

    I agree with the principles that both Diane and Victoria, and I think we need to rethink the model based on those principles. Somehow we need to convene a group to think this through and make some proposals.

  11. Carol Stewart

    The issues around public perceptions of volunteers are not unique to mediation by any means. Managers of volunteer programs struggle with this all the time. Many people continue to devalue volunteer workers, assuming that they lack skills if they are doing more than stuffing envelopes. At the same time, baby boomers are flooding the volunteer work force, looking for substantial work where they can use their experience, perhaps learn some interesting new skills and meet new people, all the while making a contribution to their community – and taking time off for travel whenever the opportunity comes along. (I very much look forward to joining this group in a few years.) As a program director for a community mediation center, I have more difficulty keeping highly qualified volunteers involved than I do recruiting.
    For the public, unless asked, I refer to our mediators as mediators, and save that volunteer label for fundors and others who need to know how we do what we do. I am not withholding that information. It is clearly stated in our program materials but the focus needs to be on the work, not the label.
    In the meantime, I understand but do get just a bit irritated at times by the double hesitation in some segments of the dispute resolution world toward our mediators – a mediator, but not an attorney and a volunteer!

  12. I think that as more studies are done that perform a cost-benefit analysis for community mediation services, then community mediation services should be able to leverage more funding sources. In Maryland, we provide re-entry mediation for prisoners that are about to be released back into the community & those folks with whom they will be interacting post-release, and the studies show a demonstrated reduction in recidivism (around 25% reduction where 3 mediation sessions are held). Similar studies are going to done for court-ordered diversion to mediation for second degree assaults between family members and for small claims civil court. Does mediation of neighborhood disputes result in less calls to the police department? All these things can be measured and valued. As the evidence starts to mount, I think we will see more paid professional mediators on staff. I do not see a big profit for private mediators when the participants are as economically challenged as most of the participants in these scenarios are. Like social workers, this will always be an “underpaid” profession precisely because it attracts idealistically motivated people who are more concerned about making a difference than making a buck. Those mediators who can work with clients that have money and privacy — i.e. mediators of commercial disputes, divorces, trusts & estates disputes — will be able to be paid at a level somewhere between an attorney and a psychologist. That’s how I look at it. I am a volunteer community mediator and a practicing attorney.