Five lessons from the past about spontaneous volunteering in emergencies

The spread of coronavirus in the UK has seen a rapid rise in grassroots activities outside of official emergency responses – known as ‘spontaneous volunteering’. These are aimed at helping the most vulnerable and range from organised neighbourhood efforts such as Covid-19 Mutual Aid groups or smaller, informal actions like looking after a neighbour. We’ve seen them in different countries and settings such as the Christchurch earthquakes, the Grenfell Tower fire and in pandemic emergencies such as Ebola.

Here we explore five key lessons from research on past examples of spontaneous volunteering efforts.

Local knowledge and networks are crucial 

Spontaneous volunteering tends to happen when official responses aren’t meeting local needs which local volunteer knowledge can be essential to. We’ve seen community groups using volunteer knowledge of their communities, supported by local networks, which helps them to be more flexible, responsive and innovative. For example when local residents formed Grenfell United to represent survivors, the bereaved and their families on immediate needs like tenants’ rights, rehousing survivors and access to justice.

Digital technology and spontaneous volunteers

One way of applying local knowledge and networks described above is using digital technologies for volunteers to share information and coordinate activities. Spontaneous volunteering often makes increased use of digital technology to respond in real time. In past emergencies, social media played a crucial role in sharing information, asking for or offering help and managing volunteers. Platforms like Facebook benefit from an existing user base, culture of participation and expectations of fast action.

Collective strengths in emergency responses

Many emergency response organisations have been fearful about the independent nature of spontaneous volunteering. Some have criticised spontaneous volunteers as a drain on resources, often untrained who can disrupt and duplicate emergency efforts. In these situations, despite often being needed, spontaneous volunteers can find themselves unwanted.

Others have criticised when emergency response organisations have a ‘command and control’ attitude that ignores the efforts of those outside of its control – undermining the ability of emergency services to effectively respond. In Hurricane Katrina, nationally-led emergency responses were accused of being too bureaucratic, not addressing local government requests and overall being less responsive to urgent needs then met by spontaneous volunteers.

Overcoming this requires each side to recognise the different strengths others bring to emergency management.

A more coordinated approach

Some have argued for a culture shift within emergency responses towards a more coordinated approach including spontaneous volunteering.

Where official emergency responses and spontaneous volunteers coordinate their activities, they can make a real difference. For example, after the 1995 Kobe earthquake, emerging groups in one area formed the Nishinomiya Volunteer Network. This was created to work with city government on distributing food and goods, information gathering and being a liaison between survivors and government – avoiding previous duplication. Equally, proper dialogue can also help address issues like volunteer risk.

Better volunteer management processes

For emergency response staff and volunteer-involving organisations overseeing volunteering, introducing practical volunteering management processes throughout different emergency phases can maximise the efforts of spontaneous volunteers. This might involve:

  • ensuring registration processes connect volunteering with needs
  • assessing people according to their skills and experience
  • equipment
  • training and risk
  • clear responsibilities for coordinating and supervising volunteers.

During volunteering, simple communications channels such as social media strategies and a communications plan can help keep volunteers informed and their activities managed.

Learning from Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency put in place better emergency preparedness plans. Training local government managers in disaster management now focuses on reacting quickly and many now see the benefit of recruiting and using spontaneous volunteers. There is already a similar approach being used to recruit and organise coronavirus volunteers through NHS volunteer responders.

Further reading

Shaun Delaney writes about volunteers responding to coronavirus and using volunteering to build community resilience in emergencies. Charlie Gillies has also written a blog on how volunteers are getting involved in mutual aid and community support.

You can find more information on local groups on the Covid 19 Mutual Aid website.

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Oliver Chan Oliver is a researcher at NCVO, looking at the state of the volunteer sector and volunteering. Projects include the annual Almanac and reports exploring the changing nature of volunteering such as emerging employer, public service and family volunteering models, and government public service contracting with charities.

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