When most people think about volunteering they picture a regular gig, such as set hours at the local library or shifts cleaning cages at an animal shelter. But many organizations, particularly those on a larger scale, also recognize the massive untapped resource of “spontaneous” or event-based volunteers. With climate change and our political environment causing regular events that require a rapid mobilization of assistance — natural disasters, wars, government shutdowns, etc. — agencies and organizations are developing plans to use volunteers more efficiently. If you’re looking for ways to give back without making a regular, long-term commitment, you could be just the type of person these organizations need.

A fireman yells out directions while pointing at something, standing in front of smoking rubble from World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001Almost immediately after the tragedy of September 11th, The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), along with UPS and the Points of Light Foundation, convened a national forum to discuss volunteerism. The result was a publication called Managing Spontaneous Volunteers in Times of Disaster: The Synergy of Structure and Good Intentions. Both the conference and the publication were a response to the realization that unaffiliated volunteers were being underutilized and mismanaged. They wanted to address spontaneous volunteerism’s paradox: “people’s willingness to volunteer versus the system’s capacity to utilize them effectively.” 

As a result, over the past 20 years, national and international organizations have developed concrete plans to mobilize the people who emerge from the woodwork during times of disaster. Now, there is an established framework for people who want to volunteer in response to a crisis, and we’re here to show you how to use it.

How to Get Started

There are a few ways to approach volunteering this way. You might be moved to volunteer for a particular cause or event, in which case you’ll need to research which organizations are on the ground there. Alternatively, you might know that there is a specific time frame in which you’d be available to devote yourself fully, which can narrow your search. Or, you might have a particular skill set that you think would be helpful, which can also help refine your parameters. 

People wait patiently in line for food being distributed by a volunteer in a hair net.
Chef José Andrés’ World Food Kitchen volunteers distributing meals to victims of the war in Ukraine

If you’d like to get involved with spontaneous volunteerism, the first step is to research individual organizations. In addition to vetting their legitimacy (especially if you’re considering volunteering abroad), you should make sure that you are up to the tasks they require. For example, World Central Kitchen — the fantastic charity led by Chef José Andrés — often requires volunteers to lift as much as 50 pounds and be on their feet all day long. If you are looking to volunteer during a crisis, you might need to prepare for living conditions that are pretty rugged and be willing to absorb certain costs associated with travel and other provisions.

Don’t be disheartened, though, if your physical ability seems to limit your participation. Many organizations are in desperate need of skilled volunteers who might be able to take on administrative tasks such as bookkeeping, communications, and logistics. Again, it all comes down to ensuring you are a good fit for the organization’s requirements.

Where to Sign Up

Volunteers wearing matching purple t-shirts and yellow hard hatshelp with a construction project
All Hands and Hearts volunteers working on a project

If you’re feeling lost, a few online places are more than happy to connect you with the right volunteer opportunities. Volunteermatch.org is a fantastic website where you can search by location, cause, and type of volunteer gigs. (There is even a category for senior volunteers if you desire.) Pointsoflight.org is another organization dedicated to matching nonprofit organizations with people who want to help, as is allhandsandhearts.org

National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, or NOAD, is a government-supported organization that works with FEMA to place people where they are most needed and is another invaluable resource if there is a particular cause you’d like to volunteer for.

Why Isn’t Spontaneous Volunteerism More… Spontaneous?

This may all sound overwhelming, but if you genuinely want to help, you must go through the proper channels. Spontaneous volunteers are essential to many disaster relief efforts, but they have also historically presented complications when they interfere with rescue efforts despite their good intentions. You might be tempted to “self-deploy” by packing a bag and showing up somewhere, but that causes more problems for people trying to organize a relief response. If you can be patient and take the time to prepare, your help will come without a cost to someone else.

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