The Role of Unbound Volunteers in Disaster Response and Recovery

Unbound Volunteers 1

What are Unbound Volunteers?

Spontaneous offers of help during and following a disaster are a growing phenomenon. The amount of coverage an event receives in the media, coupled with the desire to do something for those who need help, are strong motivators.[1] Unbound volunteers can be understood as those independent persons who are not officially invited to become involved in disaster response or recovery, and are often not part of a recognised voluntary agency. Therefore, most of them can be assumed to not possess formalised or traditionally accredited skills or training in the field of disaster response, but due to their personal backgrounds, they come with a variety of additional valuable skills and insight. Their help is commonly welfare orientated, free of charge and, in most cases, taking place outside the volunteer’s spatial and social surroundings. People’s motivation to help can manifest itself in a number of ways: donating goods, donating money and offering physical help, with unbound volunteers often independently coordinating their help amongst each other in real-time, using social media platforms such as Facebook or Twitter. Numerous preceding disaster events have shown that it is very important to use these offers of unbound volunteer assistance and to integrate them into the work of recognised voluntary agencies, such as the Red Cross.

[1] Commonwealth of Australia: Spontaneous Volunteer Management Resource Kit; 2010.

Recognising the value of Unbound Volunteers in disaster response

There is significant potential for the integration of unbound volunteers with recognised voluntary agencies or NGOs. The fast mobilisation of unbound volunteers and materials within a short time-period and across a large (geographic) reach is of particular value to disaster response agencies, assisting them in significantly reducing the social and physical impact of disaster events. However, disaster response agencies and NGOs have also recognised the importance of formally engaging and building relationships with the unbound volunteer community. The German Red Cross, for example, are currently involved in an innovative research project ‘INKA’ (Professional Integration of Volunteers in Crisis Management and Civil Protection), which aims to strengthen the volunteer network in the field of civil protection (http://www.inka-sicherheitsforschung.de/projekt/).They are also participating in the national research project, ‘ENSURE’ (Enablement of Urban Citizen Support for Crisis Response (http://ensure-projekt.de/wordpress/). Together with regular network meetings at national level, this project is helping them to turn the unbound volunteer community into a more tangible resource in their disaster management activities by developing mechanisms to cooperate with unbound volunteers and to integrate them into existing operational structures in disaster situations. This approach, which focuses on formal interaction and clear overall coordination, has the potential to mitigate against the unsustainable duplication of response activities and resources during disaster events.

COBACORE as a tool to optimise the use of Unbound Volunteers

Voluntary disaster response agencies have recognised the potential value of the COBACORE platform as a way to formally and directly engage with the unbound volunteer community during a disaster event. COBACORE, as a centralised and integrated platform for disaster management, is designed to bring together the help-offers of both unbound volunteers (as members of the Responding Community) and Professional Responders, with the help-requests of the Affected Community, through its “needs-capacity matching” model. For unbound volunteers in real-life disaster situations, the consistent use of the COBACORE platform can also mean that they can introduce their help direct to where it is needed the most, such as amongst vulnerable disaster-impacted communities in geographically peripheral locations. The COBACORE platform also provides significant value for recognised voluntary agencies and NGOs, such as the Red Cross, who are offered a comprehensive situational or visual overview of the disaster-affected area, including valuable information on the activities of the unbound volunteer community. This facilitates the structured integration and involvement of unbound volunteers in these organisation’s disaster management strategies and affords them a formal role in supporting the work of professional rescue teams and organisations.

In order for the COBACORE platform to become integrated into the disaster management and decision making processes of Professional Responders, and in order for it to also help realise the potential of the unbound volunteer community for the Responding Community, it is recognised that it will be necessary to provide them with information and direction on the value and use on the platform during disaster events. It is envisaged that this could be in the form of information on meeting places, places of action and (application) times as well as about procedures.

Blog prepared by:

Anja Kleinebrahn

Scientific Associate Security Research

German Red Cross (COBACORE partner)