Spontaneous volunteering and volunteer motivations during natural disasters

November 2013

What was the purpose of the roundtable?

This was Volunteering Victoria’s fourth volunteering researcher / practitioner roundtable.  The purpose of the roundtable was for participants to discuss spontaneous volunteering and volunteer motivations during natural disasters; to introduce the upcoming book on volunteering; and to identify suitable topics for future roundtables.

Who attended?

A mix of 26 researchers and practitioners from across Victoria attended the roundtable, including participants from volunteer resource centres, volunteer-involving organisations, universities and the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission.  The roundtable was facilitated by Dr Marc Levy and Julia Bentley of Right Lane Consulting, and hosted by the Australian Red Cross.

What was discussed?

  • A panel discussion was held about spontaneous volunteering and volunteer motivations during natural disasters, in the light of the recent working paper by Jo Barraket et al. A copy of the paper is available here.
  • There were introductory comments from panellists Dr Jo Barraket (Queensland University of Technology), Dr Art Stukas (La Trobe University), Ms Ali Martin (Country Fire Authority) and Ms Angela Sutherland (Australian Red Cross) focussing on:
    • What motivates people to volunteer during natural disasters?
    • What role do relationships and networks play in recruiting and retaining volunteers?
    • How can we translate initial enthusiasm into sustained volunteering?
    • Does volunteering have therapeutic benefits for individual and community resilience?
    • What are the issues and challenges raised by spontaneous volunteering?
  • There was general discussion between panellists and participants about a range of issues, including:
  • how to deal with the large numbers of people who offer to volunteer spontaneously:

increase technological capacity to deal with the volume of phone calls and to record personal data; network with other agencies and government to manage the offers of help; pro-actively manage community expectations about what specific skills/experience/screening are required (e.g. via information on websites); obtain resourcing for communication strategies and liaison officers; and implement effective systems to mobilise ‘surge capacity’ during a disaster.

  • the tension between meeting the needs of victims and the needs of people who offer to volunteer (given that these groups often overlap):

– victims’ needs must take priority; need to assess the impact of calling for volunteers on agency resources; network with existing community groups to find volunteers who are already trained and screened; emerging volunteer groups (e.g. the ‘Mud Army’ in the Queensland floods) need to ensure their volunteers behave appropriately; there is a need to minimise risk to vulnerable victims; and there are concerns about the potential impact on people who have a negative experience when offering to volunteer.

  • the role of social media in spontaneous volunteering during disasters:

– some evidence of the use of social media in spontaneous volunteering; the Queensland Police got an award for this after the 2010-11 floods; the Facebook page for the Tasmania fires in January 2013 was effective for requesting specific resources like a generator; but there are practical problems when everyone is trying to log on at the same time or there is no electricity.

  • what else can people do to help, other than volunteering for frontline roles?

need to raise awareness about other ways that people can help in a disaster; better internal systems and links between agencies to redirect people to other suitable roles; need for better communication strategies; and consider channelling the urge to give ‘time’ into cash donations.

  • how do we know if the spontaneous volunteering has been effective?

– there is currently very little evidence available about this.


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