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Spontaneous Volunteering

Want to donate your time and talent to nonprofit groups but can’t work regular hours? Consider event-based volunteer groups.

By Judy Colbert

The United States has more than 1.3 million nonprofit organizations, which creates a constant demand for volunteers and nonstop opportunities for older adults to give back to their communities.

The need is particularly acute now because the COVID pandemic caused the number of volunteers to decrease considerably across the board, affecting groups as diverse as the World Central Kitchen, Rotary International and the Girl and Boy Scouts.

World Central Kitchen volunteers
Chef José Andrés of World Central Kitchen at work during the war in Ukraine  |  Credit: World Central Kitchen/

While many people think about volunteering, they envision regular shifts filling grocery bags at food shelves, caring for abandoned pets at an animal shelter, visiting nursing home residents or tutoring students.

If you cannot commit to a regular schedule, you may consider becoming a spontaneous or event-based volunteer. These unpaid workers are affiliated with groups that respond to such disasters as fires, hurricanes, earthquakes, wars and government shutdowns.

The Marines of Disaster Relief

When summoned to deploy at a disaster site, spontaneous volunteers can clear fallen trees, cover damaged roofs, fight fires, provide first aid and prepare and serve food. These volunteers can work full-time for days or weeks at a time.

"We could not exist without volunteers."

At one spontaneous-volunteer group, the Los Angeles-based Team Rubicon, military veterans, first responders and civilians donate their time and skills to help communities in all parts of the disaster cycle, from prevention to preparation to recovery.

"Our volunteers, known as Greyshirts, work to mitigate wildfires by clearing brush and debris from high-risk zones," says Devon Miller, a spokesperson for the group. "We rapidly respond to disasters as they happen and are in the community for the long term, rebuilding for years after the event."

Learn About Volunteering Opportunities

Before the next disaster prompts you to consider volunteering for an organization, learn about the group. What types of volunteers does it need? What expenses does it cover? Will it expect you to temporarily relocate to the disaster site to help with the recovery?

If you cannot commit to spending weeks away from your home to help people rebound from a disaster, keep in mind that nonprofits also need skilled volunteers. Someone familiar with finance, bookkeeping, fund-raising or graphic design can be essential, even if they can volunteer for an hour or two once a week or month, according to Rick Cohen, chief operating officer of the National Council of Nonprofits.

"We could not exist without volunteers," says Miller. "The problems come when there's a bad fit, or when someone volunteers who doesn't understand what's needed." That may include physical labor and specialist skills. "For those unable to do those tasks, we have roles where volunteers can assist with such administrative tasks as communications, logistics and mobilization," he adds.

The World Central Kitchen, founded by chef José Andrés, which establishes and oversees emergency kitchens in areas hit by natural disasters, says on its website that its priority is to hire local labor and makes clear that "volunteers are responsible for covering their own transportation and lodging."


Ask the Right Questions

While organizations screen applicants to make sure they're a fit for the current needs, it's imperative that potential volunteers make sure the organization is a fit for them by asking questions like these:

  • What's needed (physical activity, clerical work or organizing skills) and what can you offer? World Central Kitchen says it may need people to lift as much as 50 pounds and stand all day.
  • Where will you sleep (in a hotel/motel, a private home, in tents, sleeping bag or cot)?
  • What is the weather like at the disaster site?
  • Is there fresh drinking water?
  • Will showers and hot water be available?
  • Will there be cell service so you can call home?
  • Will there be electricity to charge your phone and other electronics?
  • Do you have allergies? To fabrics or foods?
  • Will you need a visa or work permit? Are you current with COVID-19 shots and boosters and other vaccinations, such as flu and tetanus)? Be prepared to wear a face mask.
  • In many states, volunteers are not covered by workers' compensation insurance, which is why some nonprofits elect to purchase "volunteer accident insurance." What if you're injured on the site? Who will take care of you? How will you get home? Is there travel insurance provided or do you need to buy it? What will it cover while you're volunteering during an emergency?
  • Make sure you take essentials with you, such as a hat, sunscreen, insect repellent, mosquito netting, power bars, sleeping bag, candles and prescription medications.
  • Be prepared for sad stories, loss of life and property and how they will affect you.

Be Humble to Be Helpful

In all cases, volunteers should come with the attitude that they are ready to do what is needed, not what they want to do. A licensed electrician may be assigned to a food line, for example, while a surgeon could be asked to dig a trench.

Volunteers should come with the attitude that they are ready to do what is needed, not what they want to do.

Just because you may not be able physically to do what's needed, that doesn't mean you can't help. You can still donate money (so much better than donating clothing or other items that nonprofits must pay to ship and may not be essential when they arrive). A new exhibition at the Library of Congress documents the history of volunteerism in the United States and the many ways that Americans have found to support people in need.

Sometimes, it's a simple gesture. As an example, following Hurricane Ian, YouFit Gyms opened several Tampa locations to anyone who had been affected by the storm and was seeking a hot shower, a place to charge their phone, or were in need of a stress-relieving workout.

To help assure success of your volunteer venture, find a cause that you are passionate about and that will carry you through the good and bad times.

Judy Colbert, the author of 36 books, writes about travel and the business of travel. Read More
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