In the days and weeks following the 2009 bushfires over 20,000 people put up their hands to help those people and communities whose lives had been devastated by bushfires. However, without the right systems in place to process the offers of help, including allocating people to organisations, matching their skills with the needs of impacted communities, or overseeing their efforts, the good will of these ‘spontaneous volunteers’ was lost.
‘Spontaneous volunteers’ offer enormous opportunity, capacity and diverse skills which can be valuable following an emergency. Short-term volunteers—even just a single day—can assist in basic support roles such as general clean-up, logistics or administrative support, as well as in a professional or skills-based capacity.
For example, after the Christchurch earthquake in 2010 hundreds of university students formed the Student Volunteer Army and together shovelled 65,000 tonnes of liquefaction to clear properties.
‘Spontaneous volunteers’ are largely motivated by an emotional response to emergencies – perhaps a simple need to help others, personal connection to the affected community, or a way of giving back in return for past support they have received. They usually present in the first few days after an emergency, when organisations are fully focused on the critical task of helping those affected and therefore cannot spare the resources to effectively register or deploy these new volunteers.
However, if spontaneous offers of assistance are received and recorded in a way that makes volunteers feel valued, their help can then be called upon weeks or months later when most needed. Capturing searchable data about volunteers’ location, availability and skills means they can be offered convenient and appropriate opportunities, which are more likely to be rewarding and result in the wellbeing benefits associated with volunteering. National Volunteer Week’s recent theme of ‘Give Happy, Live Happy’ promoted these well-documented benefits, including a sense of happiness and fulfilment, positive social connections, better mental health, and even physical benefits like sleeping better and living longer.
Positive volunteering experiences are also more likely to encourage repeat volunteering. The opportunity to build relationships with new volunteers is especially valuable for organisations experiencing a decline in their traditional volunteer base.
To ensure meaningful and productive volunteering experiences, the demand for volunteers must be driven by the needs of affected communities. However, in line with good practice and the National Standards for Volunteer Involvement, this demand should be facilitated by organisations which have the required capabilities, structures and legal protections in place to effectively host and manage volunteers. Emergencies can pose risky environments, so health and safety training, supervision and relevant insurances are essential to minimise risks of injury to or accidental damage by volunteers.
Much of this risk management can be streamlined for quick and easy implementation in emergencies, through a little preparation and planning before an emergency strikes.
This desire not to see goodwill squandered after the next (inevitable) emergency that confronts Victoria has driven the creation of HelpOUT, a new tool to register offers of help and match volunteers to the specific needs of organisations assisting communities impacted by an emergency.
The program will operate alongside another Volunteering Victoria initiative, the Managers of Spontaneous Emergency Volunteers (MSEV) program. This initiative is building an army of experienced volunteer managers who can be deployed through local governments to help coordinate ‘spontaneous volunteers’ immediately after an emergency. Participants are given basic emergency management and Psychological First Aid training.
If spontaneous offers of assistance are received and recorded in a way that makes volunteers feel valued, their help can then be called upon weeks or months later when most needed
By taking on this coordination and linking role—that is, informing volunteers and supporting organisations— Volunteering Victoria is hoping to reduce the additional demands well-intentioned ‘spontaneous volunteers’ place on communities and organisations during emergencies.
The role of non-traditional volunteers in emergency management – including those who present spontaneously and may not have training in emergency management – is increasingly being recognised and reframed with a greater focus on diversity and inclusion. Victoria’s emergency management reform agenda acknowledges the challenges agencies face in sustaining their traditional volunteer workforce as contemporary society moves towards more flexible volunteering.
This new emergency management paradigm also places far greater emphasis on the role communities play in building their own resilience.
We are not undertaking this work in a vacuum. Nationally, we have seen the inevitable presence and unique role of ‘spontaneous volunteers’ recognised in the Spontaneous Volunteering Strategy, along with principles for effective coordination to benefit affected communities, organisations, and the volunteers themselves. This policy and strategy work is also strengthened by the Bushfire & Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre’s Out of Uniform research program which is building a valuable evidence base around how non-traditional volunteers can contribute effectively to emergency management.
Communities are best able to survive (and thrive) during emergencies when everybody works together, and people’s skills and harnessed to the maximum benefit. ■
HelpOUT is being piloted in partnership with Volunteering Geelong in the G21 region which covers greater Geelong and the surf coast). Over the next two years HelpOUT and MSEV will roll-out further across Victoria in collaboration with state and local governments, emergency management agencies and non-profit organisations.
Volunteering Victoria is also integrating these two discrete projects into a single service offering. Anyone wanting to find out more, or register as a HelpOUT volunteer, should visit www.volunteeringvictoria.org.au/helpout or contact (03) 8327 8560.
The development, pilot and expansion of HelpOUT and MSEV are currently funded through the Australian and Victorian Governments’ Natural Disaster Resilience Grants Scheme. Volunteering Victoria is now working with Emergency Management Victoria and the Victorian Government to ensure these world-class services are sustained beyond the project funding period.
Header image: ABC Adelaide/Brett Williamson.