Managing Unaffiliated Volunteers in Times of Disaster


Successful management of large numbers of spontaneous volunteers in the wake of an emergency is best accomplished with intensive planning and preparation. According to senior leadership and operations experts from the volunteer and emergency management communities, planning for the effective use of volunteers in disaster situations has to happen both within individual volunteer programs and across all sectors of a community's emergency response system (Managing Spontaneous Volunteers, 2005). This practice offers tips to guide the planning process for managing volunteers before, during, and after an emergency or disaster situation occurs. The tips will help integrate and fully utilize volunteers, so that those most in need during times of disaster will receive more effective service.


Volunteers make a positive difference in times of emergency and disaster; however, oftentimes emergency responders and volunteer managers report that directing large numbers of unaffiliated volunteers who arrive at disaster sites presents both a boon and a challenge to aid efforts.


  1. Effective practices for managing volunteers before, during, and after a disaster include:
  2. Before disaster strikes, answer the questions: "How should volunteers get involved?" and "How should volunteers NOT get involved?" 
  3. Divert spontaneous volunteers away from the disaster scene to more appropriate roles.
  4. Ensure as few volunteers as possible are unaffiliated with the recognized emergency response volunteer programs.
  5. Decide which phases of disaster response the volunteers with your program are most suited to help with. Disaster planning involves planning for preparation, prevention, response, and recovery. Decide if your volunteers are best suited to deal with the immediate, intermediate, or long-term impact of disasters. For example:
  • It's extremely important to help unaffiliated volunteers know who to call to find out where and how they are needed when disaster strikes. Make sure your volunteers have access to online discussions, e-alerts, or other people or places that can spread the message before, during, and after disaster strikes.
  • Can your volunteers help someone deal with eviction notices? Ongoing mental health issues? Some communities have created Human Services Coalitions whose role is to help with the long-term needs that arise after a disaster.
  • Some communities have formed interfaith or multi-cultural councils to help ease tensions. Decide if this is something your volunteers could participate in.Long-term impacts of disaster may require volunteers to adapt to changing needs of survivors.
  1. Make sure your program has its own emergency preparedness plan relating to continuation of services and what roles staff and volunteers play during a disaster. See a sample emergency preparedness & response plan. Questions to consider when developing an emergency preparedness plan include:
  • Can the program be run from someone's home or another building off site?
  • Is there an offsite backup for the program's database?
  • Do volunteers and staff know how to contact each other in an emergency?
  1. Find out who has been designated the central clearinghouse for collecting and assigning volunteer positions in times of disaster. Often, local Volunteer Centers are designated as the central clearinghouse. Find a Volunteer Center in your area.
  2. Encourage volunteers to contact the designated clearinghouse during times of disaster for information on volunteer opportunities; then make sure your agency is listed with the clearinghouse as a source of volunteers or as an agency that can offer additional help.
  3. Make sure your central disaster volunteer coordinating agency knows what your program does and what specialized services or skills your volunteers could provide in the event of a disaster. For example:
  • Literacy program volunteers could help victims fill out forms.
  • Community clubs or churches could loan their facilities for emergency shelters.
  1. Provide clients with contact information for the central coordinating agency so that they can find their way to your program.
  2. Brainstorm ways to help clients in times of need.
  3. Communicate your program's emergency plan to volunteers, staff, clients, and vendors. Some ways to do this include: 
  • Share information about the emergency plan at a staff and volunteer retreat.
  • Keep a hard copy of the plan in a central location in your agency's office.
  • Create a simple flyer of the plan to be handed out to all new and current volunteers, staff, clients, and vendors.
  • Refer volunteers to the plan during volunteer orientations.
  1. Prepare a list of referrals to mental health counseling services in the event that volunteers and staff become stressed by what they see and experience while volunteering.
  2. Prepare your volunteers today by:


These tips are excerpted from discussions held at forums, seminars, and conferences on volunteerism attended by staff at the Points of Light Institute (formerly the Points of Light Foundation) and collected in their newsletterTo the Point (2002, July/August). One event in particular — the National Leadership Forum on Disaster Volunteerism — was held April 2002 after the events of September 11 illustrated the need for better planning. At this forum, the participants established that effectively managing volunteers during emergency or disaster periods leads to greater likelihood of effective service to people who need help the most (Managing Spontaneous Volunteers, 2005). Forum participants represented over 45 organizations including leadership and operations experts from the volunteer and emergency management communities, Volunteer Centers, firefighters, local government emergency management staff, and those with years of hands-on experience.

For more information:

WebsitePoints of Light Institute

Citations:  Points of Light Foundation. (2002, July/August). To the Point. Washington, DC: Author.

Points of Light Foundation, with National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster & UPS Foundation. (2005). Managing spontaneous volunteers in times of disaster: The synergy of structure and good intentions. Washington, DC: Author.


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