Beyond Natural Disasters: Inspiring Volunteer Motivation Year-Round

Those living in or around the Raleigh, North Carolina area are acutely aware of some of the havoc wreaked by a massive tornado that assaulted our area on Saturday, April 16 of this year. Following the storm, many of us (especially in the nonprofit community) were inspired by the mass of volunteers who came out of the woodwork to help with tornado clean up, get supplies to those impacted by the storm, and give donations and money to recovery efforts.

While I’m no disaster relief expert, I’ve experienced and observed a fair share of natural disasters and the response they generally warrant from community members: An immediate and in some cases urgent desire to lend a hand. Commonly after a disaster, nonprofits–especially those on the forefront of disaster relief (Red Cross, city / county services)–receive a barrage of offers from volunteers to assist. The energy and willingness to aid is positive to be sure, but it can be difficult for organizations to handle the sudden wave of newcomers.

A fellow nonprofit professional remarked to me the other day that she was grateful for volunteers’ willingness to help, but secretly wanted to say to them, “Thanks for coming, but where were you the other 364 days of the year??”

True, the nonprofit dream is that communities will be consistently and enthusiastically engaged 365 days a year, but low volunteerism rates in many areas are proof that this is not already the case. So what makes times of disaster so different for volunteer engagement? How can nonprofits hope to build up a similar volunteer energy on a ‘regular’ day?

I believe four factors make disaster-volunteering compelling to volunteers or would-be volunteers:

  1. Urgency: This is a given. Those in nonprofits certainly know and feel that their cause is an urgent one that deserves volunteer attention, but disasters are adrenaline-pumping, emergency situations that cause most to call friends and family to check on well-being. I have personally experienced the rush of adrenaline that comes with hearing about some disaster striking and feeling that “I HAVE to DO something!”–I know that responding to this often visceral compulsion to help out is understandable.
  2. A connection to people we know personally: Disasters strike communities, which means it is possible those disasters have impacted people we actually know. It’s commonly understood that people are more likely to volunteer when they feel personally connected to a cause. And many researchers have wagered that volunteer rates would appear higher if we included “personally helping your neighbors” in the official definition of volunteering. What this means is that we like helping people we know, and people whose faces we can see and lives we can watch being impacted. It is believed that disaster volunteering provides this.
  3. Visibility: It’s common sense that causes with more exposure get more support. When disasters strike, they make up the top news stories around the entire community–and these stories often include how people can get involved to help with the aftermath. Massive awareness like that, combined with the call to action, means that more people hear about the need and understand how to fill the need.
  4. The perception that you can use your hands / get “down and dirty” to help out: Disaster volunteering invokes images of blood, sweat, and tears–Using your muscles to move giant trees blocking roads, personally comforting affected victims, etc. Though some disaster volunteering could include physical or personal work, in reality the top type of support needed after a disaster is financial support. It’s no secret that disasters cost a lot of money in damages to public areas, peoples’ homes, and more. However, the belief that volunteers could get hands-on to help is one that gets them especially interested because it makes the impact feel more “real” to them. Though dollars are a top need, people are harder pressed to see how their dollars helped than they are to see how the streets got cleared, the people got meals, or the houses got rebuilt.

So what can we learn from this? How can we try to harness positive volunteer motivation year round?

    • Be clear and concise in how volunteering for your cause makes an impact: In general people are overwhelmed already with information they see and hear about all the causes out there that need help–That’s one reason urgent disaster needs get their attention and time. But, people will shut out our message if we claim every need is urgent–So instead, make it a point to clarify your message, keep it as straightforward as possible, and spell out from the beginning what sort of an impact people can expect to make by volunteering. Ideally, people will volunteer to make that impact you’ve said they would, even in the absence of some urgent and sudden disaster to address.
    • Offer more data about how everyday people around us are affected: Some causes do an excellent job of this already (“Some one you know may be homeless”, etc.), but others can take a page from their book. We know that people are more compelled to help causes they are connected to – so build on that by making your cause relatable. For causes that deal with issues that are very specific or rare, bring it down to earth by telling the stories of those impacted.
    • Find a way for people and groups with varying skills to support your cause: Organizations should always stay mindful of their needs and finding the right people to help fulfill those needs, but some creative thinking on how to utilize people with new types of skills wouldn’t hurt either. “Hands on” volunteering is popular because any one can do it and your impact feels tangible, but that doesn’t mean you can’t demonstrate how using other skills is vital, too. I’m a firm believer that there’s a way for any one with any skill set to help the community some how–and that finding a way to include people with diverse skills means you are reaching across boundaries to expand your support network as well.