In the wake of a disaster — a hurricane, an earthquake, a tsunami — hundreds or even thousands of well-meaning people want to help out. After 9/11, 40,000 wannabe volunteers flocked to New York City to provide whatever help they could. But according to recent research out of Johns Hopkins, these spur-of-the-moment volunteers sometimes hurt more than they help.
Johns Hopkins disaster training expert Lauren Sauer asked two dozen non-governmental volunteer organizations about their experiences with non-trained, spontaneous volunteers. The majority agreed that these volunteers could be helpful, but 42 percent also reported that there had been injuries and even deaths (!) among the volunteer population. Also troubling was the fact that two-thirds of the organizations surveyed did not take on legal liability for unsolicited volunteers, and that only one organization performed background checks on such volunteers.
“The presence of spontaneous volunteers is unavoidable after a disaster. They are always well-intentioned and have a high level of altruism. We don’t want to discourage that,” says Sauer. “But it does appear from this study that the NVOs need to take a harder look at safety and liability issues. The goal should be minimizing any risk of harm to their volunteers.”
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