The Noggin Blog

What to Do About Disaster Fatigue in Your Volunteer Ranks?

Posted by The Brain on Jul 14, 2020 12:11:05 PM

With the double-whammy of COVID-19 and a hyper-active weather season, volunteer disaster relief agencies already have enough on their plate. But the rapid increase in the number and severity of disasters is causing a worrying new phenomenon in volunteer management.

That trend is disaster fatigue. What is it, and how to plan for it this coming severe weather season?

First diagnosed among volunteers in the U.S., disaster fatigue means exactly what it sounds like – the fundamental altruism that guides volunteers getting stretched to the breaking point. We see that altruism manifested in times of disaster, when volunteers and other resources descend on the disaster zone, in what’s called convergence.

Some have even likened convergence to a “mass assault,” congestion in the disaster zone, due to a rapid accumulation of people and physical resources. If it’s sufficiently severe, that congestion might even impede initial response and early recovery efforts.

What, then, if the same large-scale disasters keep happening, in relatively quick succession? Then, of course, human altruism gets pushed to the limit. And a new volunteer pattern emerges.

Sure, volunteers might arrive. They won’t come, however, with the same intensity and force as historical experience would suggest. And that’s precisely the pattern volunteer organisations in the flood-prone state of Texas began observing, even before the pandemic struck.

We’ve seen indications of disaster fatigue in broader patterns of charitable giving. But it is the potential for resource scarcity during specific disasters that has volunteer organisations concerned.

And even if this particular pattern hasn’t been documented outside of the U.S., the fact that long-term volunteer populations around the world skew elderly, the demographic most at risk of severe COVID-19 infection, suggests that resource management will remain an agenda item for most disaster relief organisations for the foreseeable future.

The phenomenon isn’t exclusive to large-scale emergencies, either. Business-as-usual activities are affected, as well. Nonprofits have reported difficulty managing existing volunteer populations, who after all have competing priorities, 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 digital emergency response software systems 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 thorny volunteer challenges, download our guide to Managing Disaster Volunteer Reliability.

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Topics: Emergency Management, Emergency Response, Emergency Management Newsletter

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