Disaster relief agencies might be heartened by the volunteer recruitment spikes they experience during moments of crisis, like the rolling bushfire disasters. But according to the data, those spikes are temporary. In other words, organizations relying on long-term resource gains from reliable volunteers will probably have to look elsewhere. Where to? The answer might surprise you.
So, what are the statisticians picking up? Well, from a bird’s eye view, the state of volunteerism actually seems pretty healthy. The volunteer rate in the U.S., for instance, stands at around a quarter of the total population, or 63 million people, according to BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics) data. That figure is only a few basis points down from the 29 percent that government statisticians recorded when they first started tracking rates of volunteerism back in the early 2000s.
Nor can the importance of those volunteers to the health of the economy and the mission of their nonprofit organizations be overstated, either. Some estimates show that volunteers contribute upwards of USD 150 billion in services.
But just look slightly below those topline numbers, and troubling trends start to emerge. For one, volunteer retention is a serious problem, according to academic research in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. After one year’s time, more than one-third of all volunteers stop showing up or donating their time to nonprofit organizations.
Further, the aging of volunteer populations is concerning, especially in rural communities. Rates of volunteerism tend to rise for people in their late 50s and 60s but drop spectacularly (sometimes by half) after that, according to research on volunteering and health of aging populations. There’s less research into shifts in the kind of volunteerism, but anecdotal data suggests that aging negatively impacts rates of disaster volunteerism, e.g. rural fire relief.
And those aren’t the the only serious management challenges facing volunteer-reliant organizations. Sharp recruitment spikes during moments of crisis might actually be by-products of the larger phenomenon of convergence, the mass movement or attempted movement towards a disaster site.
Sure, converging volunteers bring badly-needed skills, abilities, and manpower to relief efforts. However, as most incident managers will attest, those enthusiastic volunteers aren’t always an unalloyed good. Volunteer convergence can often “overwhelm the capacity” of organizations to efficiently manage their resources, ultimately harming the response effort; or, in the words of disaster response and risk management experts, Lauren Fernandez, Joseph Barbera, and Johan Van Dorp:
Spontaneous volunteers can actually hinder disaster response by creating health, safety, and security issues, distracting responders from their duties, and interfering with response operations. Volunteer efforts can be ineffective because organizations and management systems have not prepared for nor considered how to integrate the volunteer resources. As a result, response personnel are diverted from their primary duties to consider how spontaneous volunteers will be used, to create and assign tasks, to manage logistics related to volunteers, and to supervise actions.
The phenomenon isn’t exclusive to large-scale emergencies, either. Business-as-usual activities are affected, as well. Nonprofits have reported difficulty managing their volunteer populations, often citing the failure of volunteers to complete explicitly agreed-upon assignments. Clearly, the challenge for managers in effectively deploying available resources is to ensure that the volunteer (in question) has a proven track record of performing certain tasks within the organization’s established protocols.
So, then, what can be done to help? Strong resource management functionality in emergency and disaster response software can make the difference, especially resource assignment functionality that offers a unified way to manage the selection, assignment, dispatch, and rostering of people and assets.
Here, dispatchers and managers can define roles for each resource they need and requirements to fulfil those roles. And that’s not all: relevant functionality can also give managers the ability to easily find and rank candidates, communicate with and confirm those candidates, as well as create and manage rosters.
Finally, advanced technology can also add much-need intelligence to the selection of candidates by letting managers factor in role criteria, like resource capabilities, proximity to the event, or availability. Managers will also have the flexibility to choose whether a given criterion is essential or optional to candidate evaluation, with the system ranking candidates accordingly. To learn why intuitive functionality proves so vital to solving agencies’ volunteer reliability challenges, download our guide to Managing Disaster Volunteer Reliability.
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