The landscape of volunteering is not what it used to be, and emergency management organisations in Australia are feeling the impacts. The numbers of people engaging in the classic or traditional style of volunteering are declining. Traditional style volunteering is directed by formal organisations, is long-term, and high commitment. Data available from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows a decline in the last few years of the number of people engaged in this type of volunteering, and a decline also in the average number of hours that people dedicate to this volunteering (Oppenheimer et al. 2015).
The impacts of these trends are certainly felt in emergency management (Esmond &AEMVF 2016; McLennan, 2008). Volunteer models in most established emergency management organisations in Australia are based on this traditional style of volunteering and emergency management organisations report declining volunteer numbers in some areas and high volunteer turnover or declining turnouts in others. These impacts are exacerbated by demographic shifts, such as Australia’s ageing population, urbanisation, increased mobility, and rural depopulation. In rural areas where depopulation is occurring, communities face being under-serviced in emergency management in the near future, if they aren’t already. Meanwhile, in fast-growing peri-urban areas on the outskirts of metropolitan and regional centres, some brigades and units face a scarcity of volunteers able to turn out during week days. The emergency management volunteer workforce is also ageing, and many organisations lament the difficulty in recruiting young people.
Emergency volunteering: transforming, not declining
The pressure put on the volunteer emergency management workforce by a decline in traditional volunteering and changing demographics is not the whole picture, however. People are not necessarily less community-minded in today’s societies. Rather, more people are choosing less prescriptive and less time-consuming ways of contributing to their communities and to causes they care about (McLennan et al. 2016). This shift is linked to fast-paced changes in modern lifestyles and values, the nature of paid work, and technology. It is leading people to prefer less formal, more flexible, shorter-term, and more self-directed forms of volunteering.
In the emergency management space, greater exposure to disaster information through mobile technology and social media has helped drive growth in emergent (i.e. spontaneous) volunteering that is not directed by established organisations (Whittaker et al 2015). This has been accompanied by a rise in the formation of new, self-organised, often digitally-enabled volunteer groups. The Brisbane Mud Army, Tassie Fires We Can Help, and Lismore Helping Hands are three prominent examples of this phenomenon within Australia. Some emergent volunteer groups that form following a disaster event go on to become established organisations and movements in their own right. BlazeAid and the Christchurch-based Student Volunteer Army are two notable groups that have done this. These groups offer the more flexible, streamlined, and shorter-term volunteering opportunities that people increasingly prefer. Following a disaster event, groups such as these increasingly work, sometimes uncomfortably, alongside the pre-existing NGOs, community, and faith-based groups that have historically mobilised to help communities when disaster strikes.
There has also been a rise in community-based and community-led emergency planning and preparedness. This is spurred sometimes by well-informed and engaged community members and groups, and sometimes by willing emergency management organisations under the banner of building community resilience. The ‘Be Ready Warrandyte’ project on the outskirts of Melbourne, led by the Warrandyte Community Association, is one of many examples of this type of initiative (McLennan 2018). It is not uncommon to find formal emergency management volunteers participating in and sometimes leading such initiatives as community members.
Regarding the difficulties in recruiting and retaining younger volunteers, contrary to the assumptions of some, research shows that Millennials care deeply about contributing to society. They are more likely than previous generations to choose to work for an employer that improves society, even when it means accepting lower pay, for example (Deloitte, 2018). It is just as likely, then, that Millennials are simply doing things differently to their parents and grandparents, and that we have not adequately adjusted our gaze, our measurements, and our management approaches, to recognise and connect with them. In particular, Millennials highly value self-determination, diversity and flexibility in their workplaces (Deloitte 2018), and in their voluntary roles as well (McLay 2015). These are qualities that are traditionally not strong within emergency management organisations, particularly those with roots in command-and-control structures.
Making the future of emergency volunteering
The changing landscape presents a mix of challenges and opportunities for the emergency management sector. There is no universal prescription for the kinds of changes that organisations will need to make to respond. Each organisation’s role and position in the emergency management cycle, in their communities, and in their jurisdictions are different. Broadly, however, there are four key areas where leading organisations are already trialling and demonstrating ways to move forward.
- First, established organisations need to make their traditional, formal volunteering easier, more welcoming, and more accessible to a wider range of people. Less formal and more flexible styles of emergency volunteering cannot meet all the volunteer service needs of our communities. Volunteer managers need to be supported by their organisations to streamline the volunteer experience and remove unnecessary red tape and delays in training that frustrate emergency management volunteers (EMV & VCFV 2016; Esmond & AEMVF 2016). In some organisations, systems also need to be developed to more deeply embed volunteer consultation and involvement in decision-making. A current focus on diversity and inclusion in the sector is also a positive development that can support this.
- Second, some organisations will need to revisit and redesign their volunteer models to allow greater diversity and flexibility in the volunteer roles they offer. It is likely that, in future, organisations will have a range of volunteer models tailored to different risks and social settings. The NSW State Emergency Service has taken a lead role in this regard, launching its Volunteering Reimagined Strategy in 2017 that includes three new categories of SES volunteer: corporate volunteering, community action teams and spontaneous volunteering (McCullough 2018).
- Third, many established organisations will need to prepare for and engage with the growing body of people volunteering to help communities from outside the traditional emergency management community. This includes spontaneous volunteering and emergent and established volunteer-led groups. To support one aspect of this, the Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience (AIDR) has developed Australia’s first national handbook on planning for spontaneous volunteering. It provides principles and guidance for organisations on how to develop effective and appropriate policies, plans and processes for spontaneous volunteering, whether or not they decide to directly manage these volunteers (AIDR 2018).
- Fourth, established organisations will need to develop wider and deeper partnerships and collaborations, both within and outside of the emergency management sector. In rural areas facing depopulation, it is likely that a more integrated and collaborative model of service delivery will need to be investigated, as already occurs with the combined services in some areas of Western Australia and the Northern Territory. Meanwhile, third-party organisations will have increasingly important roles in brokering and facilitating engagement between potential volunteers and organisations helping communities. The ongoing work of many of the state and territory volunteering peak bodies in Australia, which actively facilitate and build capacity for the coordination and mobilisation of spontaneous volunteering, is one such example (e.g. McLennan et al 2013).
Some key challenges exist in preparing the sector for the future. One that is outside the control of emergency management organisations is the stronger need to establish an enabling environment for volunteering. This would likely require government policy change and investment in promoting and building capacity in volunteering and volunteer management. Another key challenge, internal to the sector, will be leading the organisational learning and cultural change that will be required in some organisations.
Clearly, the landscape of volunteering is irreversibly changing. Whether or not the future of emergency volunteering is a bright one will depend heavily on how well, and how quickly, the sector meets the challenges and opportunities this change brings.
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