Judy Esmond | Maintaining Leadership Focus in Volunteer Emergency Organizations

Courtesy of ‘First Response’ – the newsletter of the Volunteer Ambulance Officers Association of Tasmania |


1) Volunteer agencies need to increase their awareness of the value of time in the lives of volunteers. They have to realise that the events, exercises, meetings, and training will not be seen as time-wasters. Gatherings have to be carefully planned so that participants can
recognise that their time spent was worthwhile.

2) The long-term volunteer is slowly being replaced by the ʺfly-by- nightʺ volunteer who is with us for a short time, and then has to leave due to competing commitments. Agencies could perhaps look at recognising and rewarding long service volunteers.

3) Introducing different levels of service to incorporate differing amounts of time, training, and volunteer commitment can help to provide time-strapped volunteers with involvement options. Can some larger tasks be broken down into smaller tasks? Can some
tasks and authority be delegated so as to spread the load and prevent burn-out?

4) Volunteers are naturally generous, but Leaders need to realise that they have another life apart from volunteering.


1) Studies have shown that the average volunteer loses nearly $1,000 each year because they choose to be a volunteer. Agencies need to provide an easy process for claiming out-of-pocket expenses. Sometimes it’s just too difficult to bother; after all, ʺitʹs only a couple of dollarsʺ. One of the most significant costs these days is the cost of fuel and vehicle used when travelling to training and other meetings. Volunteers should be well
informed regarding the claiming process.

2) Increased recognition and contribution by State and Federal Governments in the form of taxation credits, rebates, GST offsets, and deductions. This should be
widely publicised and would provide an element of encouragement to be a volunteer. The recommendation by Osborne to provide taxation concessions for volunteers has been rejected by the Federal Government because of the difficulty involved with its management, so there is a need for further development here.

Agencies should be diligent in seeking out and applying for any Government subsidies, funding, and financial assistance. ʺSmall Equipment Grantsʺ are publicised from time to time, and these provide an excellent strategy to acquire equipment required by the
Agency to fulfil its role.


1) Training is related to TIME, and some volunteers are unable to avail themselves of the training opportunities that are presented by the volunteer agency. Lack of training equates to decreased level of commitment and interest in the role. Arrange training out of work time or give volunteers other options for attending.

2) Recognise prior learning and previously acquired skills. This can reduce the amount of training time for some volunteers, as well as showing the volunteer that their previously acquired skills and learning is a useful asset. QUESTION: What might be an impact of that?
ANSWER: The volunteer might be made to feel more valuable to the volunteer Agency.

3) Some volunteers feel there is not enough training. When ʺhurricanes hardly ever happenʺ, training and exercises are the next best thing. For some, being trained has an added benefit by enhancing their employability prospects.

4) Training for training’s sake can be boring and will drive volunteers back home. Training needs to be interesting and relevant leaving participants with the impression that they have benefited by attending.

5) Facilitators need to be qualified and capable of delivering. The quality of the trainer can make all the difference. In volunteer organisations, the trainer is almost always a volunteer, but that is not a reason to sacrifice quality; in fact, it is even more important than in business because participants don’t have to attend. Hence, ʺTrain the Trainerʺ programs should be developed and made available to all who need or want them.

6) Utilise different training options; face-to- face instruction used to be the only way, but now we have web-based training, inter-active PC programs, training packages, correspondence, email, video conferencing, etc. These are all technology based training strategies limited only by imagination. These options could assist in reducing the burnout of trainers as well as reducing accommodation and travel costs.

Another recommendation that was presented to the Australian Emergency Management Committee (AEMC) by the Volunteer Action Plan Reference Group was to develop alternative learning approaches for EM volunteers. And so, over the next 12 months, a pilot training program will be developed using flexible learning approaches and tools, including eLearning, that will help to ease time pressures and training commitments on EM


1) Recognise and utilise individual skills and abilities in volunteers. Asking a teacher or instructor to conduct training, or a secretary to organise relevant paperwork, and a fix-it-man to maintain equipment is, if they are willing, getting them to do things they are good at.

2) When presenting certificates, ID photos, awards – do it in front of a wider audience, such as a church or community organisation. Get someone to take photos; select one of the better photos, wrap a story around it, and submit it as a news item to the local newspaper.
Get it published in the in-house journal if your organisation has one. Post it to your web-site, and any other publicity media that might be available.

3) Try to get your team involved in local fetes, gala days, ticker-parades – especially following a disaster. This allows the general community an opportunity to
recognise the existence of your organisation, and its need in the community.

4) Recognise the different levels of commitment in the team. Team Leaders should have some sort of badge that indicates their leadership status. Team Members, at the least, should have a photo ID that they are not ashamed to wear. Regional Leaders and Coordinators should be supplied with Business Cards, and so on.

5) Recognise and award long service. Make the first award 5 years, then 10, 15, 20, 30, etc.

6) Leaders should develop the habit of giving praise, and patting on the back as the opportunities are presented, and ensuring that as wide an audience as possible
witnesses it.

7) Help the public to recognise your volunteers by having ʺVOLUNTEERʺ embroidered or stamped on their uniforms, tabards, etc so the assumption is not made they are being paid to provide the service.


1) Leaders should ensure that every step is made to make a newbie welcome. A ʺfather – figureʺ (utilising specific skills and abilities) can take the newbie under his or her wing for the first two or three meetings; making them feel at home and instil a sense of belonging. It is a common fact that if a newbie hasn’t made a friend within the first seven weeks, there is a strong possibility they won’t hang around much after that.

2) Home in on the skills, talents, abilities, attributes, etc of the newcomer and begin to utilize them ASAP.

3) If membership or team spirit appears to be waning, perhaps a change of leadership is needed? Leaders who hold the post for long periods can generate staleness. Fresh blood often introduces a fresh approach.

4) Provide Leadership training to ensure that the option of changing leadership is viable.

5) When paid workers and volunteers are working together, it is important that paid workers don’t start bragging in the presence of volunteers about how much overtime and other benefits they may be entitled to working at odd hours through the DR process.

6) Consider a range of recruitment options. Dr Esmond, in a report back in 2002 explains that recruiting will have better success if you target your market. If you want a
particular group based on culture, gender, profession, trade, or age, don’t use the same recruiting technique in the belief that ʺone size fits all”, but vary your recruitment strategies appropriately.


Youth Participation: Develop a national strategy to enhance youth engagement and participation in the EM volunteer sector.

• According to ABS (2000), young people represent the bulk of volunteer new recruits.

• Some organisations have a tendency to be inflexible in their processes and structure to cater for young people.

• Young people are volunteering in ways that are different to the “traditionalʺ volunteer, & have different expectations of what they will take out of volunteering.

• EM organisations would benefit from a greater understanding of what needs to be done to offer young people better opportunities for engagement.

Legal issues: Undertake a comparative review of insurance and legal protections for EM volunteers in the different jurisdictions with a view to identifying any legal issues that may inhibit their attraction and retention. Work through AEMC to improve national consistency in the level of coverage and protection afforded and alleviate any volunteer concerns in relation to this.

• Previous studies suggest that volunteers are becoming increasingly concerned about the prospect of some type of legal action being taken against them, as individuals, as a result of their volunteer actions.

• A number of peak volunteer organisations confirm these findings and predict that it will become a greater barrier as society becomes increasingly litigious.

• Many EM organisations have their own legislation that offers some sort of protection from liability.

• Each state also has its own legislation that protects volunteers from personal civil liability in regard to an act or omission done or made by a volunteer in good faith when doing community work.

• At present, the onus is on the volunteer to prove that they acted in ʺgood faithʺ if legal action is taken.

Employer recognition: Develop a national volunteer employer recognition scheme to formally recognise and reward the support of employers of EM volunteers (including self-employed volunteers).

• By formerly recognising and rewarding employers (and self-employed volunteers) it is considered that a stronger community and industry support will result in an increase in RETENTION of volunteer numbers.

Available information: Develop a national information portal, clearing house, or other means of collecting, analysing, and disseminating research and information on EM volunteer issues.

Spontaneous volunteers: Develop national guidelines to harness the assistance offered by spontaneous volunteers into a more regular volunteer commitment.

• It is a well-established phenomenon that people converge towards disaster scenes, often wanting to assist with response and recovery.

• These people are referred to as ‘spontaneousʹ or ‘emergentʹ volunteers, and it is recognised that they can fill skills and personnel gaps within the responding
organisations. However, to try and organise spontaneous volunteers when the team is up to its eyeballs with emergency operations, is to invite problems.

• If not properly managed, spontaneous volunteers can expose themselves and others to significant risk. Spontaneous volunteers currently represent a huge untapped and under-utilised resource, but it is recognised that their management involves huge logistic issues.

Further Reading

• The Australian Emergency Management Institute (AEMI) Library has a number of publications on each of these issues, and some specifically written by Dr Esmond.
• COUNT ME IN! 501 Ideas on recruiting Volunteers. This article was presented at the EMA Volunteer Leadership course, held in April 2010 and attended by Leslie Blackburn.