Disasters strike in every corner of the world, during every season, and on different scales throughout the year. Nonprofit organizations serve as key players during these disasters, providing aid and resources to those affected. Indeed, hospitals, food banks, human and animal shelters, and other nonprofits are integrated into most response and recovery efforts during emergencies.

These events are often unexpected by their very nature, leaving little time, if any, to prepare. That is why it is so important to put time into planning and preparation long before the disaster strikes.

We spoke with Cameron Waldner, CEO of Volunteer Houston, about the importance of disaster preparedness. His organization has been part of the response and recovery effort following Hurricane Harvey. In this article, we’ve included information on preparing for a disaster, as well as Waldner’s advice to nonprofits that find themselves in the midst of disaster response.

What is disaster preparedness?

Disaster preparedness refers to the preventive measures taken to reduce the severity of a disaster’s effects. The goal of disaster preparedness is to lessen the impact of disasters on vulnerable populations, to ready an organization for an influx of activity, and to design a coordinated plan that reduces the waste of resources, time, and efforts. Disaster preparedness has the potential save the maximum number of lives and property during a disaster, and it aims to return the affected populations to normalcy as quickly as possible.

What is the role of the volunteer manager in disaster preparedness?

During and after a disaster, volunteer managers collaborate with local governments, emergency managers, and with other nonprofit organizations to save lives and provide aid. According to Waldner, “the primary goal [of volunteer managers] is to be the conduit between multiple organizations, and to be able to sit at the table with Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, or VOAD.  Being a part of your local and regional VOAD is imperative, and if not it greatly hinders everything else.”

It is essential to cultivate these kinds of relationships in a pre-disaster environment. The chaotic and deadly aftermath of Hurricane Katrina serves as a reminder of the importance of cross-sector coordination and collaboration. The clumsy coordination, response, and recovery efforts needlessly contributed to loss of life. These failures highlight the need for strong communication and preparation before the high-stress disaster situation.

Ways to prepare for a disaster

All nonprofit organizations should create thorough documentation that prepares staff in the event of disaster. Though it may seem difficult or time-consuming to plan for the unexpected, this seeming inconvenience is far better than finding your organization in a disaster situation, rendered incapable of helping and serving your community. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it includes a few important considerations for disaster planning.

  • Develop a business continuity plan. Business continuity is defined as “the comprehensive process of planning for, and retooling, the organization’s best practices so that the nonprofit can function successfully after the crisis has passed, getting back quickly to where it was before the interruption.” Continuity planning outlines what actions a nonprofit will take before the crisis situation, the immediate steps to follow after the interruption of service, and the necessary actions for restoring the nonprofit’s functionality so that they can return to serving clients in the affected population. Having a well-crafted business continuity plan will help ensure limited disruption of services to clients. The business continuity plan is an essential component of the larger disaster preparedness plan.
  • Define your nonprofit’s purpose, priorities, and principles.  When you write your plan, begin with an explanation of why a disaster plan is relevant to your organization, the people you serve, and your mission. This succinct explanation will help you and your organization understand where they fit into the disaster response and recovery efforts later on.
  • Have disaster web-content ready to go. When asked to give advice to other nonprofits based on his experience with Hurricane Harvey, Waldner suggested that you “manage your messaging.” He explained that “we had some of our folks working on messaging, and also getting everything standardized,” stating that “that was the big piece.” He also recommended that you “have all of your graphics ready to go for a disaster” in order to “plug and place as needed.” For instance, he explained how he knew what dimensions he needed for his home page and Get Connected banner ahead of time. He had also planned content for his organization’s Twitter and Facebook accounts. Having this information ready will save time later on by eliminating the need to create materials from remote locations– especially if your office is destroyed in the disaster.
  • Prepare your website. In Waldner’s case, it was vital that his website was ready to go before responding to the disaster in Houston. When asked for advice on how to prepare one’s website, he said  “be flexible and mindful of your user environment on your website. We were able to move our website into disaster mode. So, shrinking our WordPress site, and moving all of our links to [point towards disaster related information]. We also had to buy additional bandwidth from GoDaddy in the midst of it, and that was already having some precautions set up.”
    Because of these changes, he said, “we were able to get our website up and going, and in that we were able to manage the influx of volunteers—we had over 60,000 people register [for Get Connected] in eight days.”
  • Have a plan for volunteers. If you belong to a voluntary organization, you need to have a plan for how to manage disaster volunteers. There are two categories of disaster volunteers: affiliated volunteers and spontaneous unaffiliated volunteers. Affiliated volunteers work with specific agencies and have been trained in disaster-response techniques. Because they have training and are known to the agencies, they usually require little supervision. Spontaneous unaffiliated volunteers (SUVs), on the other hand, are ordinary citizens who want to help in the aftermath of the disaster. Despite their best intentions, SUVs can be hard to manage if you do not have a plan for doing so in place. As Waldner mentioned, he had over 60,000 people register to volunteer in only eight days! It is therefore crucial to have a plan in place for how to manage the large number of volunteers that respond in the aftermath of a disaster.

Waldner said that one of his best methods for organizing these SUVs was “trying to get ahead of the news and also utilizing the website.” He explained that “before we took over managing the George R. Brown Convention Center, there was a line of volunteers around the building that would take them anywhere from two to three hours just to get in to volunteer. By getting ahead of the messaging and working on it,” he said, “we were able to schedule volunteer shifts and get that back under control.”

In conclusion

When any disaster strikes, whether it be a hurricane, flood, domestic terrorism, tornado, or fire, the situation has the potential to create chaos and confusion. Effective disaster preparedness helps alleviate some of the chaos wrought by the unexpected crisis. It is critical to have a written plan in place, and for all staff to understand their role within the plan. Disaster plans should be revisited regularly to ensure complete understanding within the organization. If you follow your disaster plan, it is possible for your nonprofit to be able to get back up and running quickly and begin serving the populations affected by the disaster.

A big thank you to Cameron Waldner, CEO of Volunteer Houston, for his contributions to this article. We hope his insights and advice will help other nonprofits before they find themselves in the midst of disaster response.