Rapid Response Volunteering After the BP Oil Spill

This week marks the one-year anniversary of the disastrous BP oil spill in the Gulf, and I'm joining many others in trying to put the experience into context.

A year ago, just a few days before Earth Day, the nation watched helplessly as the first reports of fire and casualties aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig just off of the Louisiana coastline were reported. With the well gushing it soon became clear the situation was out of control. Three months and billions of dollars later, the hole was capped -- but the damage was done. Although Congress has been mostly silent in its findings, the impact on communities, the environment, and Gulf Coast drilling will be felt for generations.

For me, the spill response highlighted one area where change still needs to occur -- that is, in how smaller NGOs and community groups engage volunteers in rapid response actions.


In the days that followed the spill, traffic to VolunteerMatch.org swelled as angry, energized folks from around the nation sought ways to help. Even more, two years into a deep recession, many individuals wanted to donate time as well as money. But how?

As the person at VolunteerMatch charged with press relations, I often work with reporters on deadline that need to know what readers in Dubuque, Flagstaff, Cleveland, and other communities can do after disasters strike far away. From previous floods, storms, wildfires, and heat waves, I've seen how challenging it is to scale up for national involvement in a local or regional disaster.

This was particularly clear after Hurricane Katrina. Then, tens of thousands of prospective volunteers spiked our traffic at precisely the same moment that trained disaster teams were telling everyone to stay away. Following Katrina, VolunteerMatch launched a partnership with the American Red Cross that still endures. At a strategic level, the goal is to make it easier for the nation's largest disaster relief NGO to tap the nation's most popular volunteer network. In practice, this means that more than 800 ARC chapters have been brought into the VolunteerMatch system and encouraged to post their listings with us.

We then feed those listings back to American Red Cross's national volunteer portal. The result is saved time for American Red Cross chapters, greater distribution via our network, plus the extra administrative support our team can offer American Red Cross so it can focus on disaster relief instead of I.T. during emergencies.

Disorganized Days

Directly after the BP spill, our American Red Cross partnership was less relevant. Human lives weren't in danger. And BP and White House weren't the only ones who were unprepared: a spill such as this had few precedents, and very few organizations do deep water oil cleanup to begin with. Plus, there had never been a spill affecting such a wide area.

With Twitter trending, the mainstream news in 24-hour reporting mode, and hundreds of millions wondering what would come next, there were just no concrete answers. One concerned activist, noting how few opportunities there were to volunteer, even registered a web site and set up a wait list that volunteers could get on in case an opportunity arose. More than 7,000 people signed up in the first three days.

Back in my office, I put the reporters on hold and got to work. First, I spent time searching our listings for opportunities from large, well-known organizations that anyone could do to help out no matter where they lived. I wasn't exactly sure what this might be, but I thought such a thing might exist; no such luck.

So I tried a different approach. Scanning the news out of the Gulf I noticed that there were three or four efforts led by local, not national, organizations, and that some of these groups were tiny operations with little Web presence but a great idea. For example, Matter of Trust, a San Francisco-based organization, was pioneering the collection of hair from salons and individuals around the country and making it into booms to absorb oil.

Another interesting effort was being led by LA Bucket Brigade, who had set up an online map that made it easy for local residents and visitors to report any spill impact on the water, coastlines, and in port. Such reports would make it easier to collect in later insurance claims.

I called both organizations and offered to add these volunteer opportunities to our system, and then I pushed them out to our national networks, driving hundreds of volunteers to them within the first couple of days.

Good But Not Great

By being proactive, we were able to give people a way to make a difference at the key moment when the need -- and the inspiration to give -- was at its highest. But this is hardly a sustainable approach.

A better approach for smaller NGOs would be to join a network like ours now, identify their volunteer needs, and then queue up a listing in their account that can be pushed live when the moment strikes. We promise to get it out as far and wide as possible.

Although VolunteerMatch.org is the leading Web service for volunteer recruitment, neither organization had heard of us. So if you know programs that need volunteers, consider spreading the word. The more folks who are talking about preparedness, the better.

In the Gulf, the Need Continues

Of course, this isn't the end of the story. Back in the Gulf and elsewhere, volunteers are still needed in the ongoing recovery efforts. This week Dan Favre from Gulf Restoration Network told supporters, "I was out in the wetlands yesterday with an out-of-work oyster fishermen, and I can tell you the oil is still here."

From reef construction to oil clean up, many smaller programs are hard at work, well out of the public eye. If you're interested in getting involved, Gulf Restoration Network also keeps an updated list of current volunteer opportunities related to the spill. Take a moment today to see if there's a way you can help out.

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