The Paradox of Spontaneous Volunteering in Disasters and Emergencies: Lessons from Winter Flood Episodes in England
Shaw, Duncan; Harris, Margaret (2015)

Spontaneous volunteers are individuals or small groupings who, without extensive preparation, arrive to provide unpaid help at the time of an unplanned event, often an emergency or disaster. Examples include bystanders giving first-aid at an accident and people arriving with their own boats to aid flood victims.  This presentation will explore the ‘involvement/exclusion’ paradox underlying spontaneous (‘convergent’ or ‘unaffiliated’) volunteering.

In disasters and emergencies there is often a need for personnel additional to those deployed by formal third sector and governmental response agencies.  But, paradoxically, there are pressures on these ‘official’ responders (ORs) to be cautious about involving spontaneous volunteers.  ORs may not have the time or personnel during an emergency to check the expertise of spontaneous helpers, to allocate tasks to them, to manage and supervise them, or to coordinate them.  Indeed, time spent managing volunteers may be at the expense of managing the emergency response itself. Thus ORs may prefer to reject or exclude spontaneous volunteers, who are – in principle – needed potential resources, in order to minimise risk to emergency victims and to their own personnel.

Our presentation will show how the paradox is reflected in earlier literature on spontaneous volunteering.  It will then present selected findings from an empirical study of responses to winter floods in England which explored the perspectives of both spontaneous volunteers and managers of formal response agencies.  Possible practical resolutions to the paradox which emerged from our data will be suggested for discussion.


Margaret Harris is Professor Emeritus of Voluntary Sector Organisation at Aston University, Birmingham and Visiting Professor at Birkbeck, University of London.  Before she moved to Aston in 1999, she was Assistant Director of the Centre for Voluntary Organisation at the LSE.  She has published widely in academic journals and in the practitioner press on topics including third sector governing bodies; working across sectors; performance management; community cohesion; faith based organizations; corporate philanthropy; and the implications for the voluntary sector of changing public policy. In 2011 she received the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA).

Duncan Shaw has been Professor of Operations and Critical Systems at Manchester Business School, since January 2015. He has previously been Professor at Warwick and Aston Universities. His research involves working closely with organisations to support decision making during times of complexity and paralyzing uncertainty – typically using systems modelling approaches. This involves the two application areas of disaster and emergency operations and the Nuclear Industry. Duncan is frequently commissioned to conduct research and provide independent reviews for government departments (HSE, Cabinet Office, CLG, DoH, DEFRA, EA, ONR) and for NGOs (RNLI), and is an Expert Reviewer for the European Commission (REA, DG-HOME). He chairs Working Group 6 on Societal Security for the International Standards Organisation and wrote the standard on mass evacuation (ISO22315). He is writing another ISO on convergent volunteers in emergency response (ISO22319). He holds a Ph.D. in Management Science (Strathclyde), a D.Sc (Warwick) and is Fellow of the Operational Research Society.

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