Disaster Volunteering in the Modern Era

In August of 2017, Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm, made landfall near Houston. Its effects were catastrophic. FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) designated 41 counties in southeast Texas and 20 parishes in Louisiana as federal disaster areas. The agency received more than 888,000 individual assistance applications in Texas alone. USD$8.73 billion in federal funds were provided to affected Texans and USD$3.2 billion were allocated to affected residents of Louisiana.

In response to Harvey, volunteer efforts brought individuals from around the country and across the state to support the impacted areas. But the scale of both the disaster and the response to it stretched volunteer management systems beyond capacity.

As shifting weather patterns make disasters more frequent and more destructive, volunteer management systems must evolve. Hurricane Harvey exposed both the positive power of community altruism and the ways in which the existing disaster volunteer ecosystem was not equipped to utilize the response effectively.

In February 2018, IBM and Points of Light, the world’s largest organization dedicated to volunteer service, convened a collaborative, cross-sector Design Thinking session. Representatives from various organizations active in the volunteer ecosystem for Harvey came together to develop improvements to responses to future disasters. This session resulted in Leading in Times of Need, a white paper co-authored by IBM and Points of Light. The paper highlights the accomplishments and challenges of the existing ecosystem, and calls for participants to work collaboratively towards even greater efficiency and effectiveness.

Highlights of the paper include:

  • The disaster volunteer ecosystem includes organizations and individuals involved in the mobilization, engagement and management of volunteers within the disaster management cycle.
  • Volunteers play a crucial role throughout the disaster management cycle, and emerging volunteer engagements bring potential to amplify volunteer impact.
  • Opportunities exist to collaborate in volunteer management and better leverage technology, requiring alignment on data standards and commitment to collective impact.
  • A lead convener would provide the impetus needed to accelerate the evolution of the disaster volunteer ecosystem.

Our response to Harvey revealed many insights and challenges. As the white paper details, ecosystem members are not shying away from trading insights and facing challenges together. And if harnessed effectively, the passion and expertise that these organizations bring can help our collaborative work create lasting change.

I encourage you to read the paper and join this important conversation.

[Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared here. Additionally, IBM will be participating on a webinar called "Responding to Disaster: IBM and Bechtel Partner to Address Resiliency" July 11 @ 2pm ET. Click here for more information.]