Disaster Volunteering 101

For the past several weeks, cable news networks have broadcasted an almost surreal depiction of Joplin, Missouri and the devastation communities face in the wake of some of the most severe weather our nation has witnessed since hurricane Katrina.  I can't help but stare at still images of demolished homes, debris, and destruction, while news anchors narrate how residents and nonprofits are supporting their communities in a difficult time. 

Like the response to the Joplin tornadoes, some of the largest philanthropic campaigns are in response to major disasters (both natural and manmade).  In the aftermath of September 11th, the Haitian and Japanese earthquakes, tsunami in Asia, and many others, we have seen the practice of charity in action.

We are a giving people, particularly when we can see the direct impact of our donations or if we could easily picture ourselves in a similar situation.  Natural disasters typically highlight the best features of nonprofit response organizations.  We see some of the most powerful marketing campaigns, rapid deployment of volunteers, and the implementation of years of training from loyal staff and volunteers.  Donations spike, and large influxes of prospective volunteers arrive, inspired by the tragic events and yearning make a direct impact any way they can. (The graphic below was taken from a Washington Post article on disaster relief giving.)

In such a circumstance, it is the responsibility of nonprofit professionals to effectively manage the mass interest in their response efforts and to increase the capacity for involvement.  For volunteer managers, it can be difficult to articulate such a message to the media, especially when the main push of a disaster response charity in a catastrophe is toward donations.  Generating public awareness during disasters has plagued both governmental agencies and nonprofit organizations for decades.  Most people buy into the misconception that in a disaster situation, nonprofits need volunteers, trained or otherwise.

The recent events in Joplin are certainly no exception.  Hundreds of untrained professionals flooded the immediate area, without accommodations, long term plans for sustenance or hygiene.  Without a check-in procedure or volunteer plan, spontaneous helpers consumed resources donated for victims, muddled rescue operations, and eventually absorbed volunteer positions in lieu of trained personnel.  Charities and government organizations like FEMA ultimately begged citizens on their social media pages not to travel to Joplin unannounced, hoping to volunteer.  It may seem like common sense not to venture off into a disaster-stricken area without a plan for something as simple as clean water, but that doesn’t stop compelled people who haven’t been properly educated about disaster volunteering.

Commonly referred to as spontaneous volunteerism, the unpredicted arrival of a few to several hundred volunteers can hinder more than it helps.  Many disaster prone communities develop emergency response plans that account for spontaneous volunteerism, even going as far as to train these volunteers in impromptu resource and training centers, but this all costs time and money.  Here are few additional issues presented by spontaneous volunteers and why, no matter how compelling the situation may be, we should leave the responding to trained professionals.

  •  Time spent calling and speaking with untrained prospective volunteers takes away from the work trained nonprofit disaster response professionals are trying to accomplish.
  •  If you arrive spontaneously at a disaster scene, you are placing yourself in the same danger that the disaster victims face.  In Haiti, mosquitos and humidity lent itself to the spread of disease, while shortages of clean water made the situation increasingly direr.  Volunteers who arrive without foresight as to transportation, meals, medical care, training, etc. ultimately put themselves at risk and take away from the resources that are supposed to be going to the victims.  The victims need to eat, but you’re there too – one meal you eat is a meal that won’t be there for a victim.  Communities fund and plan for disaster response based on their population, and migration of spontaneous volunteers results in added expenses for an already disaster stricken area.
  • If you are not trained, there may not be resources to train you.  You may waste your own resources in making the trip and could be asked to return home.

So how can you help in the wake of a disaster?


I wholeheartedly discourage spontaneous volunteering unless organizations are requesting them, but many charities need the extra staff.  Even if larger organizations aren’t requesting additional volunteer support, smaller organizations might be in need of extra hands, especially if you have a special skill (language, carpentry, etc.).  Contact local agencies or branches of charities whose missions relate to the disaster.  Remember, not all organizations participating will receive media coverage, so resource websites like volunteermatch can pair your skills with the community’s needs.

Prepare yourself as a Volunteer

If you are interested in responding in the wake of a disaster, taking a few training courses (some are online and most are free) can make a world of difference to organizations in need. Even the Federal Emergency Response Agency offers courses on disaster response and crisis management.

Know your Community

Another way to get involved is to find out if your community has a disaster response plan.  The larger the city, the greater the likelihood that the infrastructure-dependent agencies have put together a comprehensive plan.  That being said, many small towns and communities have not, leaving them reliant on nonprofit organizations and FEMA to assist.  Contacting your local government will provide you with a great deal of information about the community’s readiness preparation, and can set your mind at ease knowing there are safety measures in place.  If you live in a smaller area that may not be ready, en email or phone call to the city council could be the best five minutes you’ve ever spent.

Know your Family

If your community has a disaster readiness plan, the next step is to create a disaster preparedness kit for your family.  Do you have valuable documents copied or secured somewhere offsite in case of an emergency?  Do you have the essentials in your home readily accessible and easy to locate in a disaster?

Think Big Picture

Long after the media stops covering the disaster, communities will continue to rebuild and need assistance.  As the recovery process continues, participating charities will transition, and the needs will fluctuate.  If a year after the disaster you are better suited financially to contribute, it is more than likely relief efforts will still need your support. 


Energize, Inc. maintains a great list of organizations training for disaster response.

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