3 Ways Volunteers Can Maximize Their Impact During Disasters

Guest post by James Chiq

Disaster VolunteerPeople around the world are seeking ways to aid those affected by natural disasters, either from afar or in person. But good intentions can — and sometimes do — get in the way of actual relief efforts.

“Voluntourism” is a popular method of volunteering on a short-term basis while experiencing parts of the world: Providing opportunities for the well-intentioned to simultaneously assist in disaster-stricken areas and explore outside the boundaries of their own country.

In order to ensure your contributions are impactful and reach those who truly need your aid, volunteers can approach their efforts in the following ways:

1. Be Realistic About Your Goals and Capabilities

In the wake of disasters, it’s important to recognize and acknowledge the extent to which you can help. Whether you’re planning to donate money, sponsor a volunteer, or offer your time and labor to help bring relief to affected areas, you should consider your contribution carefully.

Is your contribution in dire need at the site of the disaster or are you giving blindly? If conditions do not improve after a given period of time, will you continue to support those affected by the disaster? These are difficult questions to ask yourself, but giving them considerable thought before making a commitment to a charitable cause can help ensure resources are distributed effectively and in a responsible manner.

2. Do Your Research Before Giving

While some organizations tend to focus on the big picture of disaster relief efforts, smaller, less-marketed organizations provide specialized aid to those impacted by disasters and tragedy. The United Way and Red Cross are the biggest players in disaster relief efforts, yet there are plenty of organizations that provide much-needed aid in various and specific ways.

Experts say to be wary of urgent requests for aid from unknown organizations or individuals. A report in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina cites several identified scams such as phone and email campaigns requesting cash donations for emergency medical shelters. These were created to try and siphon money to private citizens or organizations. Tools like the Federal Trade Commission’s list of charity scams can help direct and guide gifts to honest, reputable organizations.

3. Keep Helping

Too often volunteer disaster relief efforts are left unfinished due to organizational issues and strict volunteer timelines for departure — especially in the immediate wake of a disaster. A year after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast of the United States, the Corporation for National and Community Service reported that more than half a million American citizens volunteered their time and energy to rebuilding devastated areas in the American South. Unfortunately, some of the damage caused by Katrina remains and countless homes were left abandoned long after the storm had passed.

Tens of thousands of individuals are referred to disaster-stricken areas in times of need, but the organization and coordination challenges of utilizing that amount of manpower often complicate the entire process (as does the inexperience of volunteers in question).

Nonprofits can go beyond their central mission and provide guidance and opportunities for volunteers to help in their own way. By encouraging those not directly affiliated with their organizations to pitch in and lend a hand, relief efforts can be more organized and directed no matter the size and scale of the disaster in question. Providing detailed information about other charity organizations assisting in the area may help provide higher-quality, more engaged volunteers to those organizations and groups that are truly in need.

With any luck, they’ll reciprocate in the future and a more collaborative, mutually beneficial relationship between aid groups working in disaster-ridden areas will develop. Those collective efforts could make an even greater impact on affected communities in the future.

About the author:
James is an avid volunteer. He wants to keep volunteers and volunteer managers engaged and knowledgeable through action and informed research.