Thursday, 13 February 2014

Volunteering and the floods: questions and lessons

As is typical when disaster strikes, volunteers are right there in the front line of relief efforts. The current flooding in the UK is no different. Whilst official agencies are criticised for being slow to act, volunteers are getting on with the job of practical help and support to those affected. 

Note: Nobody is complaining about job substitution now!

This volunteer led support is being woefully under-reported by the bad-news-fixated media. The best example of reporting I could find was from Tuesday when Sky News reported on their website how flood victims were being helped by the ’best of British’

Interestingly, from my searching online this morning I could find little information from the existing volunteering infrastructure - NCVO, volunteer centres etc. - on how people can get involved in flood relief efforts. 

What reference I did find was largely related to pre-existing, formal volunteer roles that require training and official deployment. For example, Do-It make mention of flood volunteering on their site, directing people to the British Red Cross and Community Resilience. Both links send people to information on opportunities that look like ones which don’t really seem geared to people who spontaneously want to help. The Red Cross itself has a news story online about how its volunteers are supporting flood affected communities. This links to information on becoming one of their emergency response volunteers - also a role that requires training.

What about spontaneous volunteering, people just wanting to help because they see a need and want to get involved without going through weeks of training and induction?

Interestingly this is where there was more information, but none of it linked to the existing volunteering infrastructure. Instead the main focus was on a new initiative called Flood Volunteers

Flood Volunteers has been set up by the private sector entrepreneurs behind TaskHub, a site for finding professional services such as plumbing etc.. According to the Metro newspaper and, the Prime Minister asked the founders of TaskHub to set up Flood Volunteers to aid the support efforts. People simply say how they are willing to help and affected people can link up with them for help.

For me all this raises some important questions:

  • Why is the government not turning to the existing volunteering infrastructure for help in deploying spontaneous volunteers? 
  • If it did, does the volunteering infrastructure have the resources to be of help at times like this?
  • What should be the role of national volunteering infrastructure bodies like NCVO and NAVCA (to name just two) in co-ordinating with government and the relevant agencies to ensure the great British public’s spontaneous help is directed most effectively?
  • What plans do the existing volunteering infrastructure have in place so that they are prepared to be of real help in times like this by channeling spontaneous volunteer support to the right places?
  • Who is ensuring that the spontaneous volunteering that is happening is being done safely and actually helping, not hindering, relief efforts? We might not realise it but people wanting to help can actually cause more problems than they alleviate, a situation explored in detail by Jayne Cravens on her webpage, Volunteering To Help After Major Disasters.
  • Who is monitoring whether people actually follow through on the pledges of support? Take a look at this story (again reported by Jayne Cravens) following the floods in Queensland, Australia three years ago where this was an issue.
  • What is being / will be done to see if these spontaneous volunteers who are making a real difference in flood affected communities might want to put their time into volunteering when the flood waters subside?

Quite rightly the focus now is on on helping those affected by the floods. As the efforts move in the coming weeks into cleaning up and moving on, the media will inevitably focus on the lessons learnt from the floods. There will be calls for better flood defences, more funding for flood hit communities, an examination of the political point scoring that seems to be more important to some politicians than helping the people in need.

But will we in the volunteering movement learn any lessons?

Will we be more prepared next time? 


  1. I think it is looking at the strength of volunteers. Often because they are people with direct stake in the issue they are able to do different things to those that a government or statutory service can provide. The story of Mary Dhonau and the National Flood Forum is a interesting case in point:

  2. The UK flooding and storms are reported here in NZ, and there is much concern for the devastation many people are experiencing. I am not surprised there is a great volunteer response, nor at the slow (reluctant?) response from civil defence agencies. It was the same here following the Christchurch earthquakes in 2011. The spirited efforts of the Student Army is written up in e-volunteerism (January 2012), showing what can be achieved by groups of willing people and facebook communication, independent of the formal agencies. Subsequent re-jigging of Civil Defence procedures, following extensive criticism, has not brought (in my view) change that will cope any better with an influx of spontaneous volunteers. The most recent guide (November 2013) is available, which included input from Volunteering New Zealand (see website below). Volunteering Queensland has developed very good information on emergency volunteering and community resilience, at$file/Volunteer-Coordination-in-CDEM-DGL-12-December-2013.pdf