November 10, 2009




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*Certified Volunteer Administrator


Spontaneous Volunteer Management in a Disaster


[Feb 6 2009]


According to the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA):

"The use of volunteers has proven critical to emergency management. Both
individual volunteers and established volunteer groups offer a wealth of skills
and resources that can be used prior to, during, and after an emergency.
Mobilizing the private sector can add significantly to emergency management
programs. As an emergency management professional, your ability to work with
volunteers before, during, and after an emergency can literally affect the lives
and well being of the local citizenry. Volunteers can impact – for better or worse
– the ability of response agencies to do their jobs and can make a difference in
how quickly the community is able to respond to and recover from a disaster."


While every disaster presents new issues, new response parameters and requires unique adaptations to previous response scenarios, there are two constants for every large-scale disaster: stuff – and people – show up.

During times of crisis, it is a natural for people to want to either donate material goods and services, or their time, to help. While these are well meant and needed contributions, they can present a secondary crisis for a nonprofit or governmental agency that has not adequately planned to address them.

Preplanning a response to these issues allows an organization to avoid having to refocus its efforts toward processing a large volume of volunteers later on.


Kathy Heick, Associate Executive Director, Volunteer Center of North Texas, notes that “During a disaster, volunteers are a critical component to a successful response effort and assist in easing staff limitations.”

Emergency planning is essential for every agency, even those with no direct response initiatives, as during the recovery phase, most community organizations experience an increase in client intake and service delivery.

During the two days following a disaster, volunteers begin looking for ways to help those impacted by the event. Volunteers will begin making phone calls and web searches to determine the areas of greatest need where they feel that they can have an impact.

Organizations need to determine how they will process a large number of individuals rather quickly. For example, this requires an abbreviated application process that is paper-based. While on-line application processes are convenient, organizations need to be prepared to process them should there be an interruption of power, phone or Internet services.

While many individuals will attempt to directly contact organizations, there is another large sector of the population who come to the disaster site to offer their services. Maintaining volunteer registration tables at the site continues to be the best way to integrate volunteers into your program and direct them to various volunteer opportunities. This also frees the primary responders to focus on the relief efforts. As volunteer skills are entered into a database, they can be referred to departments as their constantly changing and often specific needs arise.

As volunteers are placed, managing spontaneous volunteers requires sensitivity from staff. Disaster relief workers operate under stressful situations and often suffer high fatigue levels. Tempers can be short and frustrations high. Given these conditions, it can be difficult for a well rested, relatively calm volunteer to integrate into a chaotic environment. Staff members need to remain aware of their current emotional and psychological state of mind so that they can respond in a professional manner. Volunteer management professionals also have to keep an eye on dedicated volunteers as they can develop the same stress and fatigue levels.

Usually, there are qualified individuals who can provide critical incident stress counseling services on site for volunteers and staff. Concerned citizens always want to do their best and have an impact but consideration should also be given to their safety and health.

Communication engages in the mission and programs of your organization and helps
volunteers feel that they are part of the larger response effort. Weekly emails provide information about arising needs, variations in the situation and policy or procedural changes.

Also, if there are delays in placing volunteers due to shifting agency needs, regular
communication can help people to understand the dynamics of a situation and skills they may be able to volunteer. By constantly providing information about the organization’s mission, programs and on going volunteer opportunities, people will begin to have a broader understanding of the agency’s culture, and professional focus giving you an opportunity to integrate them into the existing volunteer program.

As the disaster-related needs lessen, regular communication continues to play an important role in retaining the volunteers. Offering the ability for volunteers to opt out of the email list allows individuals who are not committed to your specific cause to withdraw and find more suitable ongoing opportunities. On the other hand, it allows your organization to draw interested individuals into your regular programs.

Disasters can have an enormous impact on communities. Nonprofit and governmental organizations need to understand and plan for the impact a disaster can have on their ability to serve their clients. By creating a plan to address some of the issues related to these unusual circumstances, organizations can ensure that they direct the many helpful hands to people who need them most.








A. Celeste Sauls-Marks serves as the Director, Govt Relations and Emergency Management at the Volunteer Center of North Texas (VCNT).


As the ServiceWorks! Director, she developed an innovative volunteer program for the City of Dallas. Most recently, she served as the Volunteer Coordinator on the City of Dallas Hurricane Operations Command Staff. During the Katrina and Rita
hurricane response efforts, VCNT registered and referred 9,000 individuals and groups to volunteer opportunities that aided evacuees. They also provided spontaneous volunteer management at the Dallas Convention Center and Reunion

Ms. Sauls-Marks is a frequent speaker to many groups including the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, US Dressage Federation, Texas Association of Museums, and Tejas Girl Scout Council, to name a few.


She is a past president of the Dallas Association of Directors of Volunteers and serves on the Participant Advisory Board of the Great American Bake Sale, a program of Share Our Strength. She chaired the Volunteer Committee for the American Association of Museums Annual Conference (2002). She is actively involved as a continuing committee chair and speaker for the Volunteer Management Conference held each year in North Texas.


Her passions for volunteerism and community involvement have been the driving force of her career in the non-profit sector.

Ms. Sauls-Marks lives in Dallas, Texas with her husband Michael and their fourlegged children: Spencer, Leda, Ming, and Percy.








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