Managing Spontaneous Volunteers in Times of Disaster

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Quick Facts

Publishing Organisation:
Covers Thematic
  • Unaffiliated volunteers Spontaneous or unaffiliated volunteers are individuals or groups that:</br>*arrive unsolicited at the scene of a disaster</br>*may or may not be a resident of the affected community</br>*may or may not possess skills necessary to respond to the current disaster</br>*are not associated with any part of the existing emergency management system </br></br>Source:
  • Target audience
  • Policy Makers local, national, and European agencies and institutes, public authorities, standardization bodies
  • Practitioners Practitioners is a target group in LINKS which comprises local, national and European disaster management organizations, civil protection agencies, first responders, NGOs, security networks...
  • Audience experience level
  • Intermediate Those who currently use social media to communicate with the public and have developed a draft social media strategy, even if this is not thoroughly documented or communicated across the organisation</br></br>Source:
  • Disaster Management Phase
  • Before Comprises 'Preparedness Phase' and 'Prevention Phase'</br></br>Preparedness action is carried out within the context of disaster risk management and aims to build the capacities needed to efficiently manage all types of emergencies and achieve orderly transitions from response to sustained recovery.</br></br>Source:</br></br>Prevention (i.e., disaster prevention) expresses the concept and intention to completely avoid potential adverse impacts of hazardous events.</br></br>Source:
  • During Also referred to as "Response Phase"</br></br>Actions taken directly before, during or immediately after a disaster in order to save lives, reduce health impacts, ensure public safety and meet the basic subsistence needs of the people affected.</br></br>Annotation: Disaster response is predominantly focused on immediate and short-term needs and is sometimes called disaster relief. Effective, efficient and timely response relies on disaster risk-informed preparedness measures, including the development of the response capacities of individuals, communities, organizations, countries and the international community.</br></br>Source:
  • After Also referred to as 'Recovery Phase'</br></br>The restoring or improving of livelihoods and health, as well as economic, physical, social, cultural and environmental assets, systems and activities, of a disaster-affected community or society, aligning with the principles of sustainable development and “build back better”, to avoid or reduce future disaster risk.</br></br>Source:
  • Synopsis

    These concepts of operation should serve as guidance in planning for and managing unaffiliated volunteers during all phases of emergency management. The intent is to provide recommendations on structure and process based on best practices in the field, while at the same time allowing flexibility for adaptation to specific local communities and various types of disasters. These recommendations are offered as a framework upon which to build local emergency management strategies related to unaffiliated volunteers.


    The management of unaffiliated, often spontaneous, volunteers in times of emergency is guided by the following principles and values:

    • Volunteering and Community Life
      • Volunteering is a valuable part of every healthy community. Volunteers come from all segments of society and often provide essential services.
      • Everyone has the potential to contribute strength and resources in times of emergency.
    • Consistent Terminology
      • When referring to volunteer involvement in emergency management, it is helpful to use consistent terminology. The following terms and definitions are recommended:
        • Affiliated volunteers are attached to a recognized voluntary or nonprofit organization and are trained for specific disaster response activities.
          • Their relationship with the organization precedes the immediate disaster, and they are invited by that organiza- tion to become involved in a particular aspect of emergency management.
        • Unaffiliated volunteers are not part of a recognized voluntary agency and often have no formal training in emergency response.
          • They are not officially invited to become involved but are motivated by a sudden desire to help others in times of trouble.
          • They come with a variety of skills.
          • They may come from within the affected area or from outside the area.
    • The Value of Affiliation
      • Ideally, all volunteers should be affiliated with an established organization and trained for specific disaster response activities.
      • However, the spontaneous nature of individual volunteering is inevitable; therefore it must be anticipated, planned for, and managed.
    • Volunteer Involvement in the Four Phases
      • There are valuable and appropriate roles for unaffiliated spontaneous volunteers in mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery – as well as in other areas of community need.
      • The response phase provides an opportunity to direct volunteers toward longer-term affiliation and community involvement.
    • Management Systems
      • Volunteers are a valuable resource when they are trained, assigned, and supervised within established emergency management systems.
      • Similar to donations management, an essential element of every emergency management plan is the clear designation of responsibility for the on-site coordination of unaffiliated volunteers.
      • The Volunteer Coordination Team (VCT) is the mechanism for ensuring the effective utilization of this human resource.
    • Shared Responsibility
      • The mobilization, management, and support of volunteers is primarily a responsibility of local government and nonprofit sector agencies, with support from the state level.
      • Specialized planning, information sharing, and a management structure are necessary to coordinate efforts and maximize the benefits of volunteer involvement.
    • Volunteer Expectations
      • Volunteers are successful participants in emergency management systems when they are flexible, self-sufficient, aware of risks, and willing to be coordinated by local emergency management experts.
      • Volunteers must accept the obligation to “do no harm.”
    • The Impact on Volunteers
      • The priority of volunteer activity is assistance to others. When this spontaneous activity is well managed, it also positively affects the volunteers themselves and thus contributes to the healing process of both individuals and the larger community.
    • Build on Existing Capacity
      • All communities include individuals and organizations that know how to mobilize and involve volunteers effectively.
      • Emergency management experts and VOAD partners are encouraged to identify and utilize all existing capacity for integrating unaffiliated volunteers.
    • Information Management
      • Clear, consistent, and timely communication is essential to successful management of unaffiliated volunteers.
      • A variety of opportunities and messages should be utilized in order to educate the public, minimize confusion, and clarify expectations.

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