Planning for Volunteers and Donations: Don’t Let Good Intentions Go Awry

Volunteer & Donation Management

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A state government official speaks to a group of volunteers under a pavilion.

A Louisiana state government official thanks AmeriCorps volunteers for their service during the August 2016 Louisiana flooding. Photo Credit: FEMA, J.T. Blatty

Although always a welcome sight initially, volunteers and donations in the aftermath of a natural disaster can quickly become an additional burden. A swath of untrained, “spontaneous” volunteers can quickly result in a chaotic situation, and localities can find themselves amidst a “second disaster” as truckloads of material pile up at unorganized donation sites.

Amanda Moody, director of Economic Development for the City of Central, Louisiana, recalls that donations poured into the City just the second night after shelters opened for thousands of residents displaced by an historic flood in August 2016.

“It’s overwhelming and it’s almost immediate,” she says. “We expected donations and volunteers, but we were caught off-guard at how quickly and how many responded. No matter the disaster, you need to have a game plan for volunteers and donations before something happens.”

Having volunteer and donation management plans in place prior to a disaster is the most important action localities can take to utilize volunteers and donations most effectively, and ensure good intentions don’t go awry.

Start developing your plan today by taking a few simple steps:

Establish locations for registering volunteers and receiving donations ahead of time.

“You don’t have to scramble to find a location when a disaster hits, you know where to setup, and the community knows where to find you,” says Denny Huff, executive director of the Bedford Community Health Foundation. “Usually it’s going to be a large facility with parking – gyms and churches work great.”

It’s also a good idea to implement a formal or informal agreement, such as a memorandum of understanding, with the facility before a disaster hits so you know it will be available for your use during a disaster. Have a few backup locations picked out in case the initial location is impacted by the disaster.

Pre-designate a volunteer and a donation coordinator.

It’s inevitable that volunteers will show up in swarms almost immediately after a disaster. Designating a single person to manage volunteers prevents miscommunication and mixed messages. Likewise, having this role assigned before a disaster allows them to train and be prepared to direct a large volume of volunteers, ensuring their safety and maximizing their skillsets.

A donation manager is equally important to ensure donations are organized and stored properly, and to field calls from donors to avoid missed opportunities. Moody recalls that they had calls coming from across the country “almost immediately.”

Create an online volunteer database to have a cadre of volunteers at the ready.

Moody recommends creating an online signup site before a disaster. She suggests including volunteer contact information, skills, availability and a checklist of tasks that volunteers can select. The database can then be used to find appropriate and available volunteers to meet your needs.


See more lessons learned from the City of Central’s August 2016 flooding experience on how to prepare for disasters effectively.

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