Wednesday, December 5, 2012

What about after disaster volunteers

As we move into a new world of volunteerism I find myself redefining how I view volunteers.  Don't get me wrong I love volunteers, and think they are a strong ally in the disaster response and recovery.  My need to have background checks is based on the sector I work in (Mass Care and/or Medical Facilities).  

But in Sandy there have been many wonderful examples of volunteers stepping up and helping.  After all that is what we all want; for people to step up and take responsibility for their recovery, but the issue is how to responsibly utilize them. There has to be a system in place to accomplish the mission.
Things a systematic plan will do:
·       utilize volunteers time well- limit the standing around doing nothing
·       Not doing double work - systematic coverage of the area, doing recovery in logical order
·       Working in a way that helps the most people - how can we get to the people who need help the most

So here is the problem, as I see it.
Organizations that have a mission and work with volunteers on a regular basis have a plan (for the most part).  The Red Cross for sheltering. MRC for medical care in shelters. CERT for community work.  But all of these organizations have a process for training and processing folks.

So who is responsible for the people who muck out houses? Who put furniture into dumpsters? Who set up feeding kitchens or coffee stops? Donation centers as in the article below.
And then how do we end and move back to normalcy?  I think that is a different article.  
So unanswered questions:
  1. Should the government try to provide structure for volunteers in the settings of this article?
  2. Should Local VOAD(COAD) take a more active role in the beginning of the recovery (being prepared to set up during the end of response? 
  3. Is there another answer?  I don't think I have it, but someone does


Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Unknown Volunteer

Sandy has provided us many lessons, in many different areas of disaster response, most of the lessons are not new, just reinforcement of the ones we know and are working on.  Lets look at one I have written about before and will again.  

As our climate changes (and it is) we will have more disasters caused by weather, with that knowledge, more people should join professional volunteer organizations and get trained BEFORE something happens.

As this article points out many people were turned away! Volunteers Flock to Disaster Areas, Overwhelming City Relief Centers Those people think why, I drove all the way here to help.  And bless you for wanting to help.

Now look at it from our side:
  • We don't know who you are (background check, professional license) 
  • We don't know what you are trained for (didn't get trained before hand)
  • You don't know who we are
 We want to train you, and provide you and the people you are helping the best help we can.

"You can't afford the time to go to training before hand, because your too busy." But you aren't too busy to self deploy to a disaster zone? If you can't afford a weekend or two to train in advance, how committed are you really?  Now don't get me wrong, I think volunteers are wonderful and give greatly of their time and knowledge, but we need to get organized before.

Okay if that doesn't get your attention, think about this. In order to process & train volunteers during an event we have to take some of our most experienced volunteers off the line to do this.

Yes there are times and tasks that may not require huge sums of training, but help out all of the volunteer managers out there who are toiling nights and weekends to get volunteers signed up, checked and trained so we will be ready for the next Disaster.

Below is a place to start. Commit to being trained and ready before the next disaster strikes, and when will that be? We don't know that's why you need to do something Now!

PS: if you don't listen to me listen the President and Gov. Christie  //


Saturday, September 1, 2012


 I have been too busy volunteering to write about volunteering last month!

 But upon my return I dug into a project that had been hanging over my head, which is the topic today.  

In January we moved our volunteer group from an Access Database (we did all the work) to an online State Database (volunteer has to do work).  And my Corps dropped from 470 to 300.  This didn't happen quickly, but the change required my volunteers to go online and build their profile, most did, many didn't.  We used a multi-pronged attack to get people to move; email, Facebook, Phone calls and a little cajoling.  

But in the end, some folks opted out.  For me this was sad on several levels:
·      The work they did to qualify (online IS 100 & 700)
·      The work we did to get them on board (Background checks, lots of paperwork)
·      The loss of their skills for little things and the “big one”

Yesterday I went into the cabinets and pulled the files of those people who left. (We color code the files based on type of volunteer – Red = Medical, Blue = EMT, Green = Behavioral Health and Yellow = support). Man, when I got done the stacks of colors was very depressing, and I moved between wanting to go knock on their doors and try to explain why they were making a mistake to a little bit of anger.

So what now? Well I am going to send them an invite to join ESAR VHP a lesser level of commitment, but a win for us if there is a big one. 

And I just have to move on, but take a few minutes to make sure I am doing everything in power to keep my volunteers involved and happy.
PS: I'm back up to 375!

Saturday, August 11, 2012

What to do without disasters

 So you have a great program, great volunteers, they are all background checked and NIMS compliant, now what?
If you run a disaster volunteer (the title of this blog) program, you know that often you are left waiting, waiting, waiting for something to happen.  I know its a bit of perverse thing to do; but thats a different blog post.
My co-workers and volunteers often hear me say "volunteers don't join us to sit on a database, they volunteer to do!"
 There are some certainties that having active volunteers will fulfill.The WHY!
  • Active volunteers are happier and stay with programs longer
  • Active volunteers tell their friend what they do (think free advertising)
  • Active volunteers get noticed when they are doing (Think free advertising)
  • Active volunteers can help move your mission/program forward
Another certainty is you will have to work more to keep volunteers busy; it takes work to find, schedule, supervise and get things for them to do.  So now for some ideas:

MRC (Medical Reserve Corps)
  • Providing health checks at community fairs (tailor what you check to the audience)
  • Augmenting the Public Health mission - whatever you can do to help
  • Preparedness training for vulnerable populations in your area
  • Training
    • Red Cross shelter training
    • First Aid training
    • AED training
    • Cultural competency training
    • Radiological training/briefing
    • HAM radio (for warning and notifications)
CERT (Community Emergency Response Team)
  • Teaching Preparedness training for the community (vulnerable pops, kids, etc.)
  • First Aid
  • Shelter Training
  •  Community education (excuse me, did you know you live in a flood plain?)
  • Other ideas - Here
  • Pet sheltering training
Volunteer Fire Fighters
  • Teach Fire education in schools
  • Teach Fire education with vulnerable populations
  • Inspection and education (while they may not be able to do official inspections, they can augment your current program)
I know that some of these suggestions may not work (cost, law/rules/unions, interest, etc.)
I know I missed some ideas (please give me input and I'll add to the list allowing everyone to benefit from our collective wisdom)
And most of all I listed only three types of disaster volunteers, you are welcome to add to my list.

Thanks for reading

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Volunteer your way into a job

The article below highlights points that work in volunteering your way into a job.

I am often asked how I got into Emergency Management (and I think its the most often answer given by others).  I volunteered !

I began volunteering with the American Red Cross to give back to my community, the more I volunteered, the more I became very interested in the Emergency Management field.  After about a year and a half, A job came open and I was encouraged to interview for it; and as they say "everything else is history' But how!

Was I already trained in emergency management ? Nope? What did I do?
  1. I asked what did they need! And then did it!
  2. I showed up when I said I would/on time (like a job)!
  3. I asked to take on leadership and help!
  4. When I saw a need I spoke up and offered help!
  5. And once I got the position I dove in and made sure they knew they made a good choice.

I love my field of Emergency Management and enjoy talking to folks making the change and trying to figure out how to get in.

disaster dave

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Volunteering - From Russia with Love

(please excuse all the hyperlinks, but this is very interesting)

Earlier this month their was a little blip in the news about a flood in Russia that killed over 170 folks .  While that is a terrible event (and I'm not going to get involved in what the government knew/did).  But I do want to say a few things about Russian volunteerism in the wake of this flood.
As I have read the stories over the last week and looked at the pictures, I see the same issues we have here and see encouraging movement from the government to recognize and protect the volunteers.

First the donation management- see here:
Unlike in the US,  the volunteers seem to have a shortage of cars to transport the donations.  they are  staging the donations on the street.  Wow! Just take a stroll through the pictures then come back; I'll wait. In some pictures you see trash bags of clothes? In others neatly wrapped food and items in boxes.  Do I think they ended up with stuff they didn't need ? Yes, its part of the response. Where are the trucks? Why are they talking only about cars? Is there no business involvement?

And now the volunteer response - watch here:
This is a true spontaneous volunteer response, notice the tents in the background set up with care and some thought.  Someone is in charge.  Why have all of these volunteers showed up to help? Remember regardless of what we think Russia is not a totally free country.  But it seems that the internet has given rise to allowing volunteers to coordinate a response.  So things I can't tell from the news clippings; feeding plans?  Latrine facilities ? Fuel for all the vehicles - who paid? Can the volunteers keep their political messages out of it while helping? 
Some volunteers have been jailed for breaking into meetings to charge the government with a cover up (not a good thing to do in Russia).

Help from the Government read here
There is a plan making it through the Federation Council to help volunteers with transport, meals and accommodations; but only if decided in advance.  Sounds like time for some Non Profits to step in and organize.

So what can we learn, or is this just interesting to watch?  Both :)
Even with all the years we have in volunteers in disasters we still have the same problems with donation management and spontaneous volunteers. Wedding dresses and people who show up without any support.

How can he help ourselves? Plan. Read. Learn from others mistakes.

Thanks for reading,keep your eye on this story as it continues to unfold

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Mentorship = program survivability

(Note to my boss when you read this- no I am not interviewing :) ) 

As your program grows you have the responsibility to make sure it survives & thrives.  If you don't the program will probably fail since you are the only one to know how to run it.
So two things you should be doing:
  1. Internal mentor- You should have someone internal to your organization (Boss, employee, ??) you can train on the processes that make your program run effectively.  And of course you have an internal document written that lists and explains all of the processes (with passwords & ID) that make your program run.
  2. Internal Volunteer Leadership- You should also be developing a few volunteers from your program who can help keep things running effectively should you move on to another job.  Maybe they understand how you run events, training & recruiting (all external facing) and can help the person in #1 above keep the program moving forward.
If you have not done either of these things you are short changing your volunteers who are depending on the you & the program.  And if you are in the disaster space, that means you are letting down the community you support. Take these steps today to make sure your program survives & thrives:
  • Map out your processes- list steps & who the connection is at that step
  • List all website links utilized with sign in information
  • Take these two documents to you boss and talk about succession planning (he/she will thank you)
  • Look at volunteers in your organization wanting to help - plan how to utilize them more fully
These steps will make you and your boss sleep better


Saturday, June 9, 2012

Volunteer Manager = Project Manager

So in case I haven’t said it yet, planning is paramount in your job as a volunteer manager.  If you don’t take the time to plan, you will fall into one of three categories:
1.      You spend all your time recruiting because you are losing them as fast as you find them
2.      You spend all your time with the volunteers because you aren’t setting them up for success
3.      You are clueless and think all those names you haven’t touched in ages are attached to people who will actually show up when you need them most

You have several jobs as a Disaster Volunteer manager; you might even say you are a project manager:
1.      You have to recruit volunteers
  • Putting up posters
  • Presentations
  • Facebook
  • Interviews with the media
  • Always talking up your unit

2.      You have to process the paperwork for those volunteers (and answer questions, and orient them to the unit)
  • Signatures
  •  Background checks
  • Testing
  • Files

3.      You have Manage their files and them
  • You have some type of filing system
  • Some type of checklist to make sure everything is done
  • Reporting to someone

4.      You have to find and often conduct training for them, disaster volunteers need training and exercising to be ready
  • Training whether it’s on-line of in person takes time, to set up and conduct (and then you have to document they were there)

5.      And if you want to keep them you have to find appropriate and fulfilling assignments for them; I think this is the most difficult and time consuming
  •  Find the event
  • Set it up
  • Ask for volunteers from your volunteers
  • Set up the schedule, where to go, when to be there
  • Check up on them, thank them in person 
  •  And of course when it’s over the reports, document their files, etc.

However, if you are doing things correctly you will be the volunteer manager who can:

  • Spend their time meeting your volunteers for coffee on Saturday mornings
  • Accompanying them on projects and watching with pride as they do their thing
  • Work on other projects (you probably have other things to do)

Treat your work like a project, breaking it into smaller pieces and see how fast you will accomplish things and how effective you will become.


Thursday, June 7, 2012

Seize the moment

So often I am involved in conversations about  my favorite nightmare- Spontaneous volunteers! Yes they are a reality of the disaster scene and in many cases useful.  But lets suppose our spontaneous volunteer plan worked perfectly and now we are winding down the disaster and have 1,000 Spontaneous volunteer cards... Can we convert any of these folks into registered volunteers (you will need less next time)
So here are some things that have worked for me:
  • After all is calm, set up a potluck have everyone bring something; your organization can spring for drinks (water, soft drinks.etc) 
  • Once you have RSVP's invite everyone to e-mail pictures they took during the event (everyone has a smart phone) Then ask your PIO for any photos they took or can find of volunteers in action.
  • Set up a slide show of disaster pictures to run on the wall during the event.
  • Make thank you certificates for each volunteer (even those that didn't RSVP, you can mail them)
Once the evening (or weekend lunch) arrives, greet everyone at the door and welcome them.  Introduce them to someone else, then ask them to introduce themselves around.
  • Invite everyone to line up for food, serve themselves and sit and enjoy, (not too many tables so they have to sit together).
  • Show the slide show, everyone likes to see themselves. It will cause conversation
  • After dinner/lunch , introduce the disaster, the scope, what your organization (with their help) accomplished, how many people they helped, etc.
  • Hand out certificates, thank them again
  • Explain whats next, how much work their is to do the get ready for the next one
  • Invite them to stay on as full time volunteers
  • make sure everyone has the volunteer manager as well as the supervising managers email addresses.

We did this after Hurricane Gustav @ the Red Cross and had a very good conversion of volunteers.  Write something like this into your plan.  What to do after the calm!

disaster_ dave

Sunday, June 3, 2012

High turnover rate of volunteers or are you bleeding volunteers

So you have come up with a plan and gone out and spent countless weekends and evenings talking up your organization and your volunteer pool is growing, but no one is showing up  for events or answering your email (hint: volunteers very seldom tell you they left, they just fade away).  When you think about losing volunteers, and you think about all the time you spent getting them. Sigh.
So what happened?
A study in Volunteering in America points to many things that cause you to bleed volunteers and you have to stop them cold.  There are many, lets just tackle a few:
Organizations try to fit a round peg in a square hole - When you bring a disaster volunteer into your organization, I am sure you have job descriptions made out for all positions.  Utilize these job descriptions to help your volunteer find the right fit for them, also consider their physical ability, education and skills for the job. You both need to agree that it is the right fit.  If you force them into the wrong position they will quietly leave.  It doesn’t mean to make special job for them stick to your plan.

The volunteers weren’t invited to do things - Volunteers don’t join to sit on a database, especially in the disaster world, they join to DO!  Invite the volunteers to come and help out, no matter what the event.  I talked in an earlier section about why I conduct orientation in person, it is the time when I personally invite them to help and be involved.  In my organization we use email for our first reach to fill positions, and I always write in a casual style and make the volunteer feel as if I am talking directly to them.  While I have hundreds of volunteers I want each to feel I am talking to them.

Volunteering takes too much time - A big mistake is not to be ready for the volunteer when they show up.  When I started in volunteer management I had a manager who utilized volunteers I got for him.  I noticed that he sat around for over an hour shooting the breeze with this group when they came in.  It came to pass that the volunteers where frustrated, while they liked the manager, they felt like they were being wasted, they didn’t come to talk they came to work.   So I worked with the manager to help him understand what he was wasting.  Helped him stack up tasks and have them ready when the group showed up, a few minutes of chit chat and I would point at my watch and he would send them out.  These three guys were some of the most productive volunteers I ever saw.  The manager eventually moved to emailing the tasks out to the volunteers ahead of time and often times they went straight to the assignment location instead of the office first.

Organizations do not take effective volunteer management practices - It is important to not only plan a recruiting plan, but also a plan to utilize your disaster volunteers.  It is more important and this is harder than finding them.

In the end you have to take the time and the effort to be involved with your volunteers. You have to talk to them, get to know them and spend time moving them in the direction you want.  Building a volunteer pool that is effective is not like collecting things.  You can’t just stack them up and wait.


Saturday, May 26, 2012

Face to Face Orientation

Orientation- (An orientation, as to guide one in adjusting to new surroundings, employment,activity or the like) 

While I love technology and am on Twitter, Facebook and of course Blogs nothing can replace a face to face interaction. Seeing each others physical outline, the timbre of their voice, the inflections when they speak showing humor or distaste, the look in their eye as they make a point. 
Orientation of new volunteers in my opinion is too important to be left to a video (or old school - sitting at a desk reading a orientation manual) that they may or may not watch. It is not only orientation to the volunteer organization, but an orientation of you for them and them for you. During the orientation for my unit I introduce myself to each person as they come in for the evening. Once we start I outline the evening on a slide then the next slide simply says: In 5 minutes or less tell us: 
  • Your name 
  • why you are here 
  • whether you are a medical or support volunteer 
  • What city you live in (my MRC covers 2,000 sq miles with 39 cities) 
And of course I lead by example and answer the questions and for the second question I tell them "Its my job and the best part of my job". As each person finishes their introduction i say "thank you" or "welcome" and look at the next person.  This is one of the most important parts of the evening because it makes connections!
Then I spend the next hour and a half covering how we as an organization got here what their place in the organization is. What we expect from them and what they can expect from us (actually I ask these questions out loud to get their reactions and weave them into the answers.) I talk about what we have done; what we hope to do with their help. And always preparedness! Then for the third time that night I tell them what they must do to complete processing (online FEMA Training). 
Lastly, I thank them and send them on their way.
 Seems like a lot of work after an already long day, but its worth it. Why? By time the evening is over, I have a room of 10-15 people that I know, who know me and because they are in the room with me and not on the other side of a glass screen they know I love my job and what WE are building together. 
But one more thing they can't get at home...They are now connected (even just a little bit) with 10-15 people who think like they do and feel part of something bigger than themselves. Thoughts?

Thursday, May 17, 2012


There are two things I want to say about the title of this article.   

1. If you have done everything right there may come a time when you think “If we weren’t so picky maybe we would have more volunteers”.  DON’T do it.  Remember back in “turnaround” you sat down with leadership and made decisions about what you needed to require to take in volunteers?
You needed Background checks so you were sure you had good people – a background check is cheaper than a lawsuit for not checking. 
You required IS100 & IS700 so everyone had a common operating language and understanding.
Stay the course, if you start cutting corners, you will end up with a mish-mash of folks with different qualifications, and once they talk and find out there is no standard, the good ones will be gone.

2. Work with your volunteers to figure out what parts of your mission they are excited about, and go there first.  You need to build excitement and satisfaction among your volunteers, this will lead to them talking about the great things they are doing. This will bring in more volunteers.  At this point you may get request to do things that are not your mission or that you may not have volunteers interested in doing. Don’t do it.  Many of us have a wide range of skills and tasks in our groups, but again if it’s too far out of your main mission say no.

These two steps will keep your volunteer group focused and on track to succeed.


Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Turn Around II

I received some questions and request for an expansion of this topic, so here goes!
The first thing to do (after recognizing there's an issue) is to make a plan.
Think of the categories that you have to audit; these are what I think are the defined areas:
1.     Planning
2.     System & Material Review
3.     Gathering constituent opinions
4.     Analyzing the data
5.     Developing an action plan to make improvements

1.    PlanningWrite a plan and validate it with others in your chain of command and some trusted volunteers. Set a time line, and stick to it.  This is important without a time line you could get mired in minutia and never finish.
2.     System & Material review is pretty simple:
a.     Recruiting - Look back at the recruiting that has happened; where/ how much time spent/ how many applicants did you get (Hint: if you don’t ask new applicants where they heard about you they won’t tell you)
b.     On-boarding process (application through your filing system) – What does the application process look like? How do you file their paperwork? How do you make sure you have it all? Is it secured? This is also where you look at compliance? Are they trained to the correct level?
c.      Orientation- how do they know they belong? What are they part of?  There is a big push to do online orientations the volunteer can watch from home. I do not like that, I want to look at my new volunteers, I want them to see that I care about them and am invested in them.
d.     Drill/Exercise/Training - What types of training is being offered? What type do the volunteers want?  What is missing? How do you keep them in the fold and not have them disappear. More on this later
3.     Ask the volunteers – use something like survey monkey. Ask them a mix of rated questions and open ended questions. Don’t worry about what they say, it’s about the program not you.
4.     Now the hard part- analyze the information – what does it say?  You really want to come up with answer to issues; below is an example issue from my turn around.
Multiple documentation pieces missing from hard copy files
Utilize the volunteer appreciation to catch these up
A new paper checklist was developed and matched to each file. This will be used in the future in order to keep all files correct

    5. Fix it. Take the information you have collected and write a timed turn around plan. make sure you fix the front of the program first. No sense adding to the problem.
You probably have a lot of data, compose it into an executive report and present it (probably in PP) to your managers and the rest of your department.  It is important that everyone know what you have to do to turn around the program.

It can be done, I took over a program that was only about 100 volunteers and dormant and in 2 years grew it to 400 volunteers and last year our volunteers served over 1,200 hours just on Public Health missions.
Go get em

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The turn around

This is the blog post I hesitate to write, but need to.  The big question is what if I take over a volunteer program that is broken? The answer is fix it.  If you are in the enviable position of taking over and fixing a program, mark yourself lucky.  It is one of the most fun and fulfilling times of your volunteer management career.
So first -Slow down.  Stop and look around, make a plan, start with where you want to end up.  
  1. End Goal - “A dynamic volunteer group with active, qualified volunteers who are utilized by other departments due to their success on previous missions."  It may take a while to get there, but it’s a goal.
  2. What are your agencies requirements? - Do the current volunteers meet those requirements (for us it was NIMS & ICS training).
  3. Survey your program from top to bottom - how do you process them, where do you get them, what do you do with them.  Internal process (paperwork, checks & balances), do you have support above for what you need to do. Think of everything, and review it.  Take your time do it right.
  4. Survey your volunteers- Do you have the right volunteers? why did you join? What do you like about volunteering with us? What would you like to see change? How can you help? How long have you been here? Ask them, they will tell you.
  5. Review your findings with your leadership. Review it with the volunteers.  Tell both groups your plan.
  6. Two communications to volunteers are next:
  • Tell the volunteers who meet all requirements thank you! 
  • Tell the volunteers who do not meet all requirements thank you, and here is what you need to do to continue as a volunteer.  I know, I know what if they leave? Then they weren't really volunteers.
You aren't done yet; you need to provide a path and encouragement for the volunteers in the second group to accomplish whatever steps are missing.  I typically do three communications, the first two by email, the third by snail mail.  After the snail mail I just stop communicating and archive their files, if they ever decide to come back they don't have to start over again.

It’s tough to turn around a program, but in the end worth it.