The Role of Volunteers in Humanitarian Disasters: Insights from the IAVE Forum

As I stepped into EDP’s Portugal headquarters to join International Association for Volunteer Effort’s (IAVE) forum on the role of volunteerism in humanitarian disasters, I was greeted with a hug from a stranger. IAVE GNVL European Regional Coordinator Sonia Fernandes with Social Entreprenu Pista Magica excitedly shared her memory of learning from Points of Light twenty years ago, an experience supported her in creating a school of volunteering in Portugal.

I was humbled to see that the day kicked off grounded in the underpinnings of Points of Light’s mission to equip, mobilize and inspire. IAVE CEO and host of the convening Nichole Cirillo reminded the crowd that, “…as disasters continue with greater frequency and impact, we need volunteers in all three of the disaster phases, and in particular, in building the systems and mechanisms for recovery.”

The day’s work centered on the role of volunteers in response to the war in Ukraine. Iulia Barbanegra of Moldova Volunteer Center detailed the multi-faceted actions put together to support the 100,000 refugees who flowed immediate into Moldova following the beginning of the war. The team put together a hotline, a call center and structures for humanitarian aid that included border checkpoints, accommodation centers and education activities. MVC quickly sorted volunteers into areas of the greatest need even as they were fielding calls from across Europe from people who wanted to help.

“We didn’t have housing, even for Moldovan volunteers, let alone others,” she recounted. “Some of the refugees were angry, and of course, they have a right to be angry, but we had no time to train [our volunteers] on how to handle.”

The increasing necessity of preparing volunteers, both mentally and physically, in addition to the burden placed on volunteer centers, would emerge as a thread through the day’s conversation.

Dr. Amjad Mohamed Saleem, manager of volunteering, youth and education development from International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, shared the words of a Red Cross volunteer: “Kindness and humanity are superpowers.” Those words reminded me of the importance of the different elements of the Points of Light Civic Circle®. Are volunteerism and service pivotal change-making vehicles? Yes, but so is the act of building resiliency. Dr. Saleem continued to share that, despite what may appear as an overwhelming need, the first action of the Red Cross is to prepare volunteers vs. jumping into action.

I watched as heads nodded in the room with a shared understanding that, without proper training and mental health support, volunteers can ultimately become added challenges themselves within a disaster site.

There is a constant push and pull between the volume of interest from spontaneous volunteers and a need for formalized programs with trained volunteers. The Civic Circle offers much-needed options for those who “just want to help” by creating pathways to listening and learning about a cause area, using their voice to amplify stories of those impacted, and donating funds to support recovery.

If an organization as well supported and well established as the Red Cross can’t support the influx of interest from volunteers, there is a clear necessity to offer a greater diversity of ways for people to engage and become part of the solution.

As we moved from response to resiliency, I anticipated we would focus more on infrastructure and less on the necessity of training, but I was wrong. Increasingly, humanitarian volunteering comes with risk. Over the last year, there were over 300 deaths of volunteers as recorded by Medicos do Mundo. The single greatest risk for volunteers is a lack of formalized training before engagement. Marcio Silva shared Medicos do Mundo’s model of training which begins with “While I’m delighted you dreamed as a little girl to go as a first responder to a disaster site, you’re not cleared as you’re not trained.” Medicos do Mundos has put together an emergency volunteer training module that aligns skill sets with needs. They assume the necessity of skilled-based volunteering.

“You can’t run an emergency response without resources or communications,” Silva said, noting that intentionally keeping infrastructure supports apart from operations is a recipe for failure. There remains an increasing need to harness the energy and passion of those who want to volunteer in other ways. Points of Light’s Civic Circle offers that roadmap for a wide array of engagement strategies.

Executive Director Wolfgang Krell of Augsburg Volunteer Center shared how his organization had delineated the idea of formal and informal volunteering due to the necessity of volunteer centers responding to spontaneous disaster volunteers in a way that harnesses and focuses energy.

“Expectations need to be checked as we have volunteers that want to change the world in one week, and it is very difficult to do this,” said Krell. “Volunteering makes the world go round, especially in times of crisis.”

We headed into lunch, wrapping up the topic of community volunteers in the disaster preparedness portion of the day with Nicole Cirillo challenging us: “What can we do now? Networks are the key to resiliency. Time and time again research shows that you have a greater chance to survive and thrive as a part of a Network. Her words recalled my own experience with Points of Light’s Global Affiliate Network, a testament to the idea that the most powerful solution to challenges is collaboration.

The afternoon kicked off with Lorrie Foster, director of corporate at IAVE, reminding us that when a disaster strikes, phone ring off the hook with employees asking, “What can we do?” We then had the opportunity to hear from three companies with various takes on volunteer response programs.

“Intervention Model for Emergencies resembles closely the Points of Light Civic Circle as it asks employees to listen, learn, use their voice, be a part of social activation and donate to be ‘better citizens,’” shared Francisco Moro, Fundacion Telefonica.

Moro’s take on skilled based volunteering around disaster work is that this role falls to companies. He emphasized how critical it is that companies provide the technical skills to grow an NGO’s capacities. In other words, a company cannot just be an emergency response vehicle, it also needs to also provide preparedness and resilience support.

The most essential part of disaster response is to react to what people need, not to what you think they need. For example, when the war in Ukraine began, people wanted to send food, but the costs are astronomical to ship food to a foreign company. The true need was funding and monetary donations rather than food.

When disaster strikes, it’s common for people to feel compelled to help, but experienced social impact professionals know the importance of being gatekeepers when it comes to volunteer power. They understand the need to coordinate with first responders and provide the right help at the right time in the right ways — not just from volunteers but expert volunteers who can offer guidance in their core areas of expertise.

Elizabeth Schwan-Rosenwald