We live in a short-term disposable world. Young women don’t value their grandmother’s china anymore, and young men don’t fix up their dad’s old car and proudly drive it down Main Street on Friday night. If we have something in our closet and don’t wear it in a year, the wardrobe gurus tell us to get rid of it. We don’t keep things that don’t have a daily purpose, and as a result our second-hand stores and resale shops have more merchandise than the local mall.
Unfortunately, we do the same thing with disaster resources when we don’t suffer the ill effects of a devastating storm for a year or a few. When we don’t open a shelter, we don’t worry about renewing the agreements, checking the stock, and counting the cots. If we don’t have the need for that special protective gear we use when ethyl-methyl-death creeps down the local ditch, we let it sit in the closet and dry rot. When we don’t need volunteers to clean up debris, sort and assign workers, and do a quick and dirty damage assessment within 12 hours, we park them on a list somewhere and maintain our confidence that they’ll be here for us when the crap eventually hits the fan.
The problem is that then when the proverbial crap does hit the fan, they are not there and we’re somehow surprised. We catch ourselves saying, “Well, you just can’t prepare for Mother Nature, it’s always a crap shoot to do what we need to do. We did the best we could.” We justify the mayhem because it makes us feel like we were prepared, in spite of ourselves.
Well, in fact, we were not prepared. We used to be prepared, but today we were not. We are only prepared when we maintain a true state of readiness to meet the needs of a reasonably serious incident at any given time or place. We don’t have to prepare for Doomsday, but we do have to consider our realistic risks and understand that most of the time, the incidents aren’t going to match the worst possible scenario. Thank goodness! But that does not give us justification to become complacent and dismissive, and to let our volunteers dry rot on a list in someone’s computer.
Maintaining volunteer resources isn’t done as the storm approaches. It’s done on bright and sunny days when the storms are far off in another land. It’s best done when there is little risk of an incident, while they can learn and practice, maybe even have a dress rehearsal or two before “THE” day comes. Of course, we never know when “THE” day will be here, so true preparedness geeks assume it might be TO-DAY. That’s true preparedness.
Volunteers do what they do for two reasons – first, they have a relationship with someone or something that drives them to want to help. Second, there is a connection between them and the disaster-stricken area. In general, community-based volunteers, the version you find in your town, don’t cross the country to help clean up after a storm. But the people who live down the street or up the road will come help. They have a relationship and a connection.
Volunteer managers have to court and cultivate that relationship and connection. It’s their job and it doesn’t happen as a casual consequence.
There IS a second-hand store for volunteers. It’s called “that other organization”, and if you don’t cultivate and tend to your volunteer resources, they’ll go there. Maintaining that relationship, whether its personal or organizational, is still important. As a matter of fact, it’s critical and it needs to be done on a fairly regular basis.
“Out of sight, out of mind” is a real end result in the volunteer world, but it should not be prevalent in the actions of volunteer managers. In these days of electronic communication, constant contact via electronic mail, digital newsletters, blogs, text messages, and social media are critical components necessary to sustain the volunteer resources you work so hard to create. It doesn’t take long to lose the productivity enabled by those capacity-building grants of the early 2000s by throwing away the resources we have because we didn’t need them today.
Don’t throw your volunteers away today because you didn’t need them. That need can change in a hurry, and you won’t have time to mend your ways when that happens. Keep your volunteers training, engaging, and responding every day so when that stuff hits the fan, they’re in the forefront and one step ahead of you.