Engagement of Recovery Volunteers: East Texas 2015-2016

Samantha Montano
Massachusetts Maritime Academy

Publication Date: 2015


Volunteers and voluntary organizations are a critical component of disaster recovery. They help impacted communities with tasks such as distributing donations, mucking and gutting, rebuilding, and more (Phillips, 20151). It would be useful for emergency management officials and voluntary organizations to understand how volunteers engage and what factors influence that engagement. This study considered the case of recovery from flood events in East Texas to explore these questions. It was found that factors related to individual volunteers, voluntary organizations, and the broader community interact with one another to influence volunteer engagement. One must consider these factors over the length of recovery to understand the extent of volunteer engagement.


Volunteers are important contributors to post-disaster response and recovery. The literature has primarily focused on volunteerism in response, defined here as the period when a hazard event is imminent, occurring, and after in which immediate actions are taken to save lives, property, and the environment (e.g., Mileti, 19992; Tierney, Lindell, & Perry, 20013). The temporary time period following a disaster, known as a therapeutic or altruistic community, is characterized by the convergence to and emergence in the impacted community. Research has consistently found that people, materials, and information converge from within, and from areas surrounding, the impacted area with the intent to help (e.g., Barton, 19694) though not always in significant numbers (Amette & Zobel, 20165). Response volunteers exhibit pro-social and helping behavior as they assist survivors with specific response-related activities (e.g., Dynes & Quarantelli, 19806). A majority of the disaster volunteer literature has focused on volunteer motivation (e.g., Aguirre & Bolton, 20137), tasks in which volunteers engage (e.g., St John & Fuchs, 20028), spontaneous volunteers (e.g., Kendra & Wachtendorf, 20019), and the mental health of volunteers (e.g., Adams, 200710) in response. Unlike this line of research on response volunteers, there remains a dearth of academic research on their engagement during recovery.

It is not clear to what extent the findings related to response volunteers are applicable to recovery volunteers. Here, recovery will be defined as “the differential process of restoring, rebuilding, and reshaping the social, physical, economic, and natural environments through pre- and post- event action” (Smith & Wenger, 2006, p. 23711). Generally, recovery volunteers conduct tasks related to restoring, rebuilding, and reshaping the community (e.g., debris removal, infrastructure and lifeline restoration, donations management, sheltering, housing, environmental restoration, and historic and cultural restoration). While we know volunteers continue to be engaged throughout recovery (Phillips, 20151) we know very little about their engagement; that is, how they choose the tasks they are involved in, for how long they volunteer, how they find volunteer opportunities, and other information that would be useful for volunteer management in the broader context of emergency management. The research questions addressed in this study include: (1) How do volunteers engage in disaster recovery? and (2) What aspects of the disaster context seem to influence their engagement during recovery?


In a 13-month period from May 2015 to June 2016, Texas—specifically counties in East Texas—experienced six Presidentially Declared Disasters (PDD). Each disaster was a flood event that caused severe enough damage to require a combination of individual and public assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Impacts varied across flood events. According to initial damage assessments provided by FEMA, the smallest of the floods affected 2,082 residences while the largest affected 11,365 residences. The number of counties that received public assistance ranged from seventeen in the October 2015 flood to 110 in the May 2015 flood. The May 2015 flood had forty-seven counties approved for individual assistance, whereas only 13 counties received individual assistance in March 2016.

Although the original scope of this study focused on the April 2016 flooding, through the data collection process it became clear that it was not possible or appropriate to examine only the April recovery. The length of recovery meant that organizations and communities were engaging in overlapping recoveries. The data collected primarily represents volunteerism occurring in Fort Bend County, Harris County, and Wharton County.


This study employed qualitative methods to address the research questions. Qualitative methods are best utilized in situations such as the present study, where there is a lack of previous research, because they allow for greater flexibility to explore understudied topics (Rubin & Rubin, 2005; Taylor & Bogdan, 1998). I conducted open-ended interviews—which are particularly useful for collecting data following a disaster—as the flexibility of this approach affords the researcher an opportunity to note nuances that may go unnoticed if a more rigid methodology were employed (Killian, 200212).

The research design included data from multiple sources. The first source of data was interviews conducted with individual recovery volunteers, including anyone volunteering in the impacted area or in service to the impacted area, regardless of whether they were local residents or non-local, and irrespective of whether they were spontaneous or affiliated. I conducted nineteen interviews with volunteers working on recovery related tasks (e.g., donations management/distribution, mucking and gutting flooded homes). I found these participants through recommendations from emergency managers, community leaders, and nonprofit organizations in the impacted areas.

These interviews were semi-structured and in-depth. This type of interview allows the researcher to learn how participants view their reality (Taylor & Bogden, 199813). Data collection and analysis were conducted following the Rubin & Rubin (200514) Responsive Interviewing Model. This model suggests that interviews consist of several open-ended questions with follow-up questions and probes used as necessary. Open-ended questions included: (1) How did you come to be a volunteer during this disaster?; (2) What have you been doing since you’ve been here?; (3) How has your work gone? Challenges? Successes?; (4) How do you think the overall response or recovery is going?; and (5) What is your goal? What do you expect the outcome of your time here volunteering to be?

The second source of data was interviews with key informants who were not necessarily volunteers (though some were), but were in a position to provide valuable insights about recovery volunteer engagement within their organization or community. In total, I interviewed fourteen key informants including two emergency management officials and twelve volunteer coordinators/disaster program leaders/executive directors. These key informants provided important contextual clarification regarding factors that influenced volunteer engagement in recovery in Texas. Including both individual volunteer interviews and key informant interviews, I conducted thirty-three interviews with participants representing thirteen nonprofit organizations. Nine of the interviews took place via phone and twenty-four in person.

The third source of data was field observations. The majority of interviews took place in settings where volunteers were working, which provided an opportunity for me to make observations about the work environment and group dynamics. It also allowed me to gain a broader understanding of the contexts in which recovery volunteerism was unfolding and to assess the status of recovery in different parts of the community. I was also able to ask more intentional follow up questions during interviews based on my observations of the community (Corbin & Strauss, 200815). Finally, I collected documents and multimedia clips that provided additional contextual insights related to volunteer engagement in recovery.

Interviews were transcribed and then analyzed using initial line-by-line analysis and later by focused coding using a grounded theory approach (Charmaz, 200616). I also engaged in note writing, memo writing, diagramming, and use of concept maps to analyzed the interview data.


I traveled to Houston in August 2016. Discussions with community members and organizational leadership before, during, and after the trip confirmed that there were significant unmet needs throughout the impacted communities. At that time, individuals and households throughout East Texas were at different stages of recovery. Some homes had yet to be worked on since the flooding; some were in the process of being gutted; and others had begun to be rebuilt. This was complicated further by the numerous floods that had occurred over the 13-month period. I was unable to find any organization that had a comprehensive list of what stage of recovery each neighborhood was in at that time.

Despite widespread need there were suprisingly few volunteers working in East Texas in August 2016. I primarily interviewed volunteers working in Fort Bend County because it seemed to be the community with the most volunteerism. In Fort Bend, I visited six sites where volunteers were working to interview volunteers and to make observations. Five of the six sites were overseen by a single organization, though they were hosting volunteers from four organizations. I also interviewed two other recovery volunteers who had previously volunteered in East Texas but were not engaged in August.

The volunteers varied in gender, age, race, residence, and occupations. Some volunteers had previous disaster volunteer experience while others did not. Local volunteers tended to have been volunteering on and off over several weeks, while out-of-state volunteers were volunteering all day, every day for weeks, and in some cases, months. Volunteers with no previous disaster experience were primarily untrained with minimal experience with the type of work they were doing in East Texas.

I had also made arrangements with two other organizations working in East Texas to interview their volunteers. When the time came to visit their volunteer sites, organization representatives informed me that they had no volunteers currently working. I wanted to interview additional volunteers—particularly those working in other nearby counties—and used several approaches to find more study participants.

First, I asked each of the key informants previously interviewed for recommendations on where to find volunteers. Key informants were able to provide contact information for other organizations using volunteer labor that they thought might be in East Texas. Based on these recommendations, I contacted representatives from fourteen additional organizations. None of these organizations had volunteers engaged in recovery work at the time (August 2016). Some organizations reported that volunteers had just recently stopped showing up for work. Other organizations indicated that they had not yet started work in the impacted communities but were planning on using volunteers in the future.

Second, I looked online for organizations that were offering volunteer opportunities and reached out to several churches. No interviewees were found through this method. I also reached out to an organization that loaned tools to other nonprofits engaged in mucking, gutting, and rebuilding work. They reported that they had been working with numerous groups over the past several months but currently they were engaged with only one organization (an organization that I had already interviewed). Combined, these follow-up measures confirmed that there were likely no other organizations still working in these communities.

Finally, I spent several days driving around affected neighborhoods to observe the progress of recovery and to look for volunteers. It was clear that each neighborhood was at a different stage of recovery. Some neighborhoods had debris still out on street corners while in others, homes were boarded up. Surprisingly there was almost no work being done on these homes. Except for the sites I visited, there were no volunteers or any sign that there had been volunteers working in any of the neighborhoods (except Rosenberg) (i.e., no volunteer signs or trucks out in front of houses). In Harris County alone I drove through seven neighborhoods that had at least flooded in April 2016 if not also in June 2016. In each neighborhood I saw only a handful of homes where construction work was actively being done—and this was being done by professional contractors rather than by volunteers.

Wharton County was similar. An emergency management official gave me a tour of all the flooded homes in his community. Many homes were uninhabitable and not a single home was being worked on. In that same community, recovery efforts were primarily being led by a local nonprofit organization. The executive director of that organization explained that there were plenty of unmet needs throughout their community, but that they had no volunteers at the time.

While existing research would suggest there tend to be fewer volunteers in recovery than in response (Phillips, 20151), it did seem unusual to me that so few volunteers were engaging in the community—particularly given how visible the needs were. Although I was able to go only to six sites and to interview just nineteen individual volunteers, the interviews conducted with key informants painted a clear picture of recovery in East Texas: a lack of volunteerism. I found that how volunteers engaged in recovery and the factors that influenced their engagement could be explained by the model presented in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Embedded within the model is the story of volunteer engagement in Houston. Volunteer engagement includes how many volunteers participated, where volunteers came from, the tasks and activities they took part in, how long they participated, where they volunteer, and who they volunteered with. In this case, extent of volunteer involvement can be thought of as the extent to which volunteers engaged in East Texas.

The engagement of recovery volunteers is influenced by factors across three units of analysis: (1) individual volunteers; (2) the organizations they work with; and (3) the community. These three units of analysis influence one another to culminate at the point of volunteers and organizations working at a volunteer site. This process occurs repetitively over the course of recovery (represented in the model as “time”). In sum, these factors and their interaction explain the extent of volunteer engagement in a community’s recovery.

Individual Factors

The decision to engage in disaster recovery as a volunteer is influenced by a number of key factors related to the individual. These include the individual’s motivation, their availability, finding an organization with which to volunteer that has an attractive organizational model, group membership, fulfilling the volunteer requirements of the organization with which they want to volunteer, and mobilization to the volunteer site. The individual factor section of the model is smaller than those of organizational and community factors because the individual factors seemed to have the least influence over the extent of volunteer engagement. In other words, factors at the organizational and community levels seem to have a greater impact than those on the individual level on volunteer engagement seen throughout East Texas.

Initial Motivation

Individuals were initially motivated to volunteer because they wanted to help others, to gain new skills or use skills they already had, make new friends, and/or travel. Both local and non-local volunteers had an awareness of the flood event before volunteering but they did not know the full extent of impacts and needs until they arrived at the volunteer site. An awareness of the actual unmet needs in East Texas was not an initial motivation to volunteer. However, while volunteering, participants learned more about the extent of unmet needs in the community. This contributed to keeping volunteers motivated. For individuals who volunteered more than once, knowing the unmet needs motivated them to volunteer again.


Individuals must have time available to dedicate to volunteering. For example, out-of-state volunteers may need several days or more available to volunteer. The participants in this study tended to be individuals who were retired, were taking time off before or after college, were on school break, or had taken vacation time. Individuals who did not have copious amounts of free time were still involved in recovery, but they tended to volunteer on weekends, according to volunteer coordinators. An individual’s availability largely dictates the nature of their engagement and where they volunteer. Specifically, they are attracted to organizations that have volunteer opportunities that complement their personal availability.

Group Membership

One of the most critical factors influencing an individual’s engagement during recovery is being associated with a group or organization. All volunteers in this study were affiliated with some type of organization. In other words, none of the individuals interviewed had spontaneously arrived to volunteer without first having had contact with the organization running the volunteer site. Participants in this study were members of churches, company employees, or members of voluntary organizations that became involved in recovery efforts either directly or through an organizational partnership. In other words, an individual may be a member of the group that becomes involved in the disaster (e.g., local nonprofit or national disaster organization) or they may be a member of another group (e.g., AmeriCorps, Church Group) that collaborates with another organization that becomes involved in the disaster. It is by joining the group (formally or informally) that an individual may be considered by the organization as a potential volunteer. According to interviewees, individuals who volunteered more than once demonstrated organizational loyalty by volunteering with their organization repetitively.

Individuals who wanted to volunteer needed to select an organization to volunteer with and/or select a disaster/volunteer project. Some volunteers made their decision to come to East Texas because they wanted to volunteer with a particular organization. By signing up with that organization, they indicated their willingness to go on any of that organization’s projects around the world but were assigned, by the organization, to go to East Texas. In these cases, nothing about East Texas specifically made a volunteer want to work there as opposed to South Carolina, Louisiana, or West Virginia—states that were also in the midst of disaster recovery work. The volunteer being in East Texas was purely a function of being assigned to go there by the organization. What they wanted was to work with that specific organization, and in some cases, just to do disaster work regardless of the location.

For others, primarily local volunteers, choosing organizations to work with was based on the voluntary organization being located locally and their knowledge about the organization. Here the emphasis was much more on helping their own community rather than working with a particular organization—or even necessarily about doing disaster work. Local volunteers seemed to view what they were doing, not necessarily as “disaster work,” but more as helping their community. On the other hand, non-local volunteers primarily defined what they were doing as disaster work and the specific community was not important.

Model of the Organization

Individuals, particularly those not associated with another group where the decision was made for them (e.g., AmeriCorps), considered the model of the organization. In doing so, they considered the cost of volunteering with the organization, what type of work the organization was typically involved in, how long they could volunteer with the organization, skill requirements, and/or where the organization was working. When the model of the organization met the motivations and availability of the individual, they sought to volunteer with or become a member of the organization.

Accepted by the Organization

Organizations may have requirements that an individual must meet in order to volunteer with their organization (e.g., skill level, a minimum amount of time volunteers must commit to, must be based in a certain location). If an individual meets the organization’s requirements and the organization has a need for volunteers, then the connection between the volunteer and organization was made. From this point on, what the volunteers did was largely guided by the organization they worked with.

When a partnership is made between two organizations, that relationship is influenced at both organizational and community-wide levels. The individual has very little influence on the development and execution of this relationship.


Once the organization the volunteer selected to work with gave them an assignment, the volunteer needed to get to the work site. The mobilization of the volunteers while working with an organization was largely influenced, if not controlled, by the organization—including arrangements for travel and accommodations (provided they are needed by the volunteer). Local volunteers provided their own transportation on an individual basis. Some of the individuals in this study who came from out-of-state were responsible for their own transportation to the impacted community, while others had transportation arranged for them by the organization they were working with. Ultimately, each volunteer’s mobilization was determined by the organizational model of the primary organization and/or the organization overseeing the volunteer site.

Local volunteers in this study all lived close enough to the volunteer sites that accommodations were not needed. Of the non-local participants included in this study, all had their accommodations arranged through the organization with which they worked. The individual volunteers were not a part of the process of determining their accommodations; they stayed at the location of the organization’s choosing.

Organizational Factors

Factors related to organizations that utilize volunteer labor influence volunteer engagement, including the capacity of the organization and the extent to which the organization’s mission meets the needs of the impacted community.

Organizational Capacity

Each organization needed to have the capacity to be involved in the recovery process. For the organizations included in this study, organizational capacity included having staff/volunteers, funding, having a base to work from, and being connected to the impacted community. The presence or absence of capacity influenced organizational involvement in the recovery, how long they were/will be involved in the recovery, how many needs they were/are able to meet, how many volunteers they can host, and more, related to volunteer engagement. When organizations had a significant amount of capacity they were able to work longer in recovery and to do more. Personnel. Adequate numbers of volunteers and staff were needed to oversee, train, and manage organizations’ activities. Organizations often had their own membership base from which to draw, had volunteers who found their organization, and/or recruited volunteers using a variety of tactics. Organizations called upon their existing membership base, used their social networks, created partnerships with other organizations, and advertised in the community and on their social media platforms to recruit volunteers. Volunteer coordinators were well aware of the motivations of their typical volunteers and appealed to those motivations while recruiting. These appeals included raising awareness of needs in the community, presenting the opportunity as a chance to travel, and offering free accommodations to incentivize volunteering.


The amount of funding sought by an organization varied depending on the organization and what kinds of activities the organization engaged in. Regardless of the amount, funding was needed to support the work the organization did (e.g., money for tools, materials, accommodations, staff salaries, overhead).

Home Base

Organizations discussed the importance of having a location from which to base their operations. Non-local organizations typically partnered with a local group or church. Some local organizations were able to use their regular facilities while others included in this study were impacted themselves. They had to simultaneously repair or rebuild their offices while helping the community, which put a strain on staff and funding.

It was a balance between these three elements of capacity (i.e., adequate funding and personnel, and having a home base to work from) that influenced the ability of an organization to work in East Texas during the recovery process. How much funding, how many volunteers, and the parameters of a home base are different for each organization, depending on their organizational model. For example, an organization that provides accommodation and travel for their out-of-state volunteers requires more funding than an organization that utilizes local day volunteers who provide their own travel to the site and do not need accommodations.

All elements do not necessarily need to be present for an organization to deploy, but when they are all adequately present, organizations are more likely to be able to stay in the community and address unmet needs. It is worth considering this issue of organizational capacity because the organization being active in a disaster-stricken area greatly influences the engagement and motivation of individual volunteers. If organizations are not working in the area, individuals do not have a clear pathway to volunteer.

Mission and Programs

In order for an organization to engage in recovery, its mission—or more specifically its projects and programs—must appropriately address unmet needs in a given community. In this study, organizations waited/are waiting to become involved in the recovery process until the unmet needs in the community align with their organization’s mission. For example, rebuilding organizations were not yet operating in the community as they were waiting for individuals and households impacted by the 2016 flooding to be ready to rebuild their homes. Some long-term recovery organizations were waiting to commit to helping and to determining the extent of their engagement until they had a better understanding of unmet needs in the community and what their organizational capacity was going to be (i.e., would they be able to have enough volunteers and funding).

Organizational factors greatly influence the individual and community levels and can inhibit or facilitate volunteer involvement. For example, in the case of East Texas, organizations found themselves working in a community where there was limited volunteer involvement. Yet, if the organization had adequate funding and staff then they had the capacity to recruit more volunteers. However, when an organization also lacked staff and funding they were not as easily able to recruit volunteers. Setting up a home base in the impacted community helped facilitate other organizations learning about their organization. An organization’s involvement in the community was facilitated when they had pre-existing programs that were able to meet the needs of the community. Their involvement created opportunities for individuals who wanted to volunteer. Individual factors also influenced organizations; when there were high numbers of individuals who were motived, available, and interested in working with the organization, then the organization’s engagement was influenced. When an organization knew there would be plenty of people willing to volunteer they were more likely to become involved in recovery. In the same way that individual and organizational factors influence one another, factors at the community level are also influential.

Community-Wide Factors

In addition to factors at individual and organizational levels, conditions and decisions made at a community-wide level influence volunteer engagement. These include physical conditions in the community, the organizational landscape and integration, government action, and media coverage.

Physical Conditions

The physical conditions of the community influenced what organizations could do in East Texas. In August 2016, communities impacted by the April 2015 flooding were transitioning into long-term recovery and the communities impacted by the June 2015 flooding were winding down short-term recovery. The majority of the volunteer work in East Texas at this time needed to be done outside (i.e., mucking and gutting, clearing debris, and beginning to rebuild). Unfortunately, the high heat index made this a grueling proposition. Organizations reported several days where they would not allow volunteers out in the field because the heat index reached 120 degrees, which was obviously unsafe. In the case of East Texas, this made the impacts worse. Homes that needed to be gutted to prevent further damage were not repaired quickly, thus contributing to the unmet needs. The heat also made it more difficult for organizations to recruit volunteers.

Organizational Landscape and Integration

Coordination and partnerships among nonprofits working in the impacted community influenced volunteer engagement. When organizations shared information about needs with the other organizations working in the community, they could be more efficient in addressing those needs. Several organizations shared volunteers with other organizations. For example, when one organization had too many volunteers at their site they contacted another organization in the community that was in need of volunteers. When organizations know about one another they are able to make these kinds of connections that influence volunteer engagement. Collaboration between organizations in the East Texas case was largely facilitated through two intentional structural approaches—Long Term Recovery Committees (LTRCs) and Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOADs). There were also instances of organizations finding one another through social media and through Volunteer Agency Liaisons (VALs). Once organizations found each other they were able to create one-on-one partnerships and to participate in community-wide volunteer days.

Non-local organizations were typically invited to provide assistance by someone in the impacted community or asked the community if they needed assistance before beginning work in the area. Some organizations were invited by local government, emergency management officials, or other organizations working in the area. This process was facilitated when an organization was familiar with the affected community (because they had previously assisted during disasters in the area) or when organizations were familiar with each other (through being National VOAD members). These community connections can be thought of as a product of the organization’s integration within the impacted community, within the local disaster organizational community, and within the national disaster organizational community. The nature and extent of integration influences the engagement of the organization and volunteer engagement, more specifically.

Government Action

Emergency management officials also played a role in how organizations were integrated in the community and how they coordinated with each other. Organizations and emergency management officials were aware of one another and had a general sense of what each group was doing in the community. While emergency management officials were not coordinating the work of nonprofits on a regular basis, they did influence and suggest ways for the nonprofit community to work together. In particular, this was done through the creation of LTRCs. The city of Houston had a pre-existing LTRC started following the 2015 flood event that they planned to continue to use following flooding in 2016. Two of the smaller, outlying communities did not have such a group developed before the flooding but through the suggestion of emergency management officials, nonprofits began the process of forming them as recovery efforts began.

Emergency management officials initiated the creation of these committees, although the organizations serving on the committees were ultimately responsible for them. Initiating LTRCs and community-wide volunteer days helped to not only facilitate organizational partnerships, but also contributed to increasing and directing volunteer efforts in their communities. Emergency management officials that had an awareness of the role of nonprofits, were connected with a VAL, and had an awareness of the volunteer groups that could help their community, seemed to be able to help facilitate the involvement of such groups in their community. They knew to contact certain organizations and/or were able to call them together to establish the LTRCs.

Some organizations also pointed out that throughout recovery they were dependent on local government officials to take action or make decisions in order for the organization to be able to work in certain areas or conduct certain tasks. For example, one organization had to wait for the local government to determine their debris removal plan before the organization could begin to gut houses. During this time, the organization could not send volunteers out into the community to work. Situations such as this not only dictated what unmet needs the organization could address, but also what tasks the volunteers were able to do and when.


Media coverage of the flooding in East Texas contributed to the general awareness of the event and the extent of needs in recovery. When the media covered the event and described the extent of the unmet needs, more people donated and volunteered with relatively minimal effort on behalf of the organizations. This helps to explain why there was an initial influx of donations and volunteers during and immediately after the flooding. As time passed, beyond the immediate response phase, media coverage decreased so organizations had to dedicate more efforts to securing funds and volunteers.

Individual volunteers, even those local to the community, noted that they did not know the full extent of the needs in recovery. It was only after they were onsite volunteering that they gained a better understanding of the magnitude of the need. Organizations also noted that this was a consistent problem. The media facilitated volunteer engagement in response, including directing individuals where to go and who to call if they wanted to volunteer. It was easier for organizations to get volunteers when the media was covering the event during the response phase. After the media reduced its coverage during the recovery phase, individuals were no longer aware of the need, and were therefore not seeking out volunteer opportunities.

Factors at individual, organizational, and community-wide levels are mutually influential. Factors within each level can either facilitate or inhibit volunteer engagement. For example, volunteer coordinators spoke about how the physical condition in a disaster-affected community can facilitate or inhibit volunteer involvement. In the case of East Texas, the nonprofits agreed that the August heat was an inhibitor to volunteer involvement. Conversely, organizations recognized that, during the winter months, the warmer weather in Texas actually enticed volunteers from the north as it gave them the opportunity to escape the cold weather.

Volunteer Site

Individual factors, organizational factors, and community factors influence and are influenced by the variety of unmet needs in the impacted community. Unmet needs are constantly evolving and dictate what tasks need to be done, and therefore what organizations will be involved and when. The organizations in this study identified unmet needs in the community—either by using a shared information platform or by doing their own assessment—and then selected which needs to address based on their capacity, their mission, and existing programs.

Volunteer Site Structure

The actual execution of recovery tasks that utilized volunteer labor took place at various sites throughout the community. The process of establishing volunteer sites is intentional on behalf of the organization; they do not spontaneously emerge. The majority of recovery volunteers included in this study were working at homes that had been damaged by flooding. An organizational structure formed at each volunteer site and this structure was primarily dictated by the organization responsible for the site. Typically, there were some volunteers or staff in leadership roles overseeing the site. The leaders directed the volunteers as to what tasks need to be done, offered on-site training, and monitored the safety and wellbeing of the volunteers. This group dynamic is responsible for how volunteer engagement unfolded while the volunteers were actually working.

A second aspect of the volunteer site was the group cohesion that formed at each volunteer site. The ability of an individual to integrate into the broader group of volunteers is important. Volunteers frequently spoke about their experience volunteering as a group activity, rather than something they were doing as an individual. For example, when asked what they were doing at the volunteer site they answered by saying “we are doing this task” rather than “I am doing this task.” Additionally, volunteers repeatedly brought up the group camaraderie that had formed and how having fun was fundamentally important to their experience. Both the group dynamic and group cohesion kept the volunteers motivated throughout their time volunteering. It also had the added benefit of promoting repetitive volunteering. Volunteer coordinators and staff agreed that having a repeat volunteers benefits their organizations overall because it lessens the amount of time and resources needed to recruit volunteers.


The actual tasks that volunteers engaged in were assigned to them by the leadership overseeing their site. The organization responsible for the site provided the resources volunteers would need and prioritized tasks for the volunteers. All organizations that oversaw a volunteer site included in this study provided training for volunteers when necessary—primarily on-site training. Volunteers with previous disaster volunteer experience—particularly those with experience working with the same organization repetitively and on similar tasks—did not require as much training as those who were volunteering for the first time. This was one of the reasons volunteer coordinators noted that having repeat volunteers is useful for the voluntary organization—it eliminates or lessens the amount of training that a given volunteer needs.

Site Experience

Continued motivation was one of the factors that determined the length of time that an individual volunteered. Volunteers consistently reported that having fun onsite and meeting the homeowners they were helping kept them motivated throughout their time volunteering. Organizations intentionally facilitated a positive volunteer experience. They did this by promoting group cohesion, supporting a positive work ethic, ensuring that volunteers had “fun,” introducing them to homeowners, and by having an organizational model that minimized the effort for someone to volunteer with their organization (i.e., providing on-site training and accommodations).

Unmet Need

Also influencing the capacity of an organization is the need of their overall constituency. Many of the organizations working in East Texas respond to disasters regionally, nationally, or even internationally. When an organization is helping with more than one disaster, the capacity of their organization changes. The national disaster organizations working in the area discussed how their organizations were under pressure because of the number of disasters that had happened around the country. Many were involved in five or six different recoveries and felt their organizations were operating at capacity. The drain on their capacity led to low volunteer numbers in East Texas, which some organizations termed “disaster fatigue.” This was also true of some local organizations that were dealing with 2015 flood recovery work while having to start 2016 flood recovery work.

Nonprofits recognized that their role was to fill the gap between what individuals could provide for themselves and what the government would contribute. In the case of East Texas, this meant that nonprofit organizations were waiting for individuals and households to hear back from insurance companies and FEMA before being able to assess the extent of need in the community. The needs in the community evolved throughout recovery. In East Texas, the numerous flood events contributed to these changing needs. From a community-wide perspective, and for organizations involved in more than one flood event, they found that the needs blurred together at times.


Volunteers may cycle through this process more than once and may volunteer for different lengths of time. Some volunteers were there working for the day, while others had been there for a month. The presence or absence of factors influencing volunteerism change over time. For example, one organization had done an initial wave of recovery work in one of the impacted communities. At the time of the interview, they were waiting for updated damage assessments to see if there was more work that they could do and if they would be able to have enough volunteers and funding to do it.

In this case, the model explains a lack of volunteerism, despite the high number of unmet needs. In East Texas there was a volunteer shortage because of the weather, lack of awareness regarding needs, and organizational capacity not being adequate enough to be operating in the area at the time. Furthermore, individuals and households were waiting to hear about insurance and government aid before knowing what they would need or be eligible to receive from nonprofits. Local organizations had few resources because they themselves were impacted and/or the lack of awareness of the disaster meant little funding and few volunteers were available. Larger, national organizations faced capacity problems as well. The frequent flooding in Texas and other disasters around the country took a toll on how much money they were able to raise, which lessened their ability to recruit volunteers.

Individual, organizational, and community factors, changing needs, and the multitudes of volunteer sites that were established over the course of the recovery period explained the extent of volunteer engagement seen in East Texas. Any question related to the engagement of volunteers can be explained by the factors represented in this model. For example, questions such as: What determines what tasks volunteers engage in? What determines where volunteers will engage in volunteering? What determines where non-local volunteers will stay? can all be explained by the factors presented in the model.

Theoretical and Applied Implications

This research has both theoretical and applied benefits. First, it provides much needed research on recovery volunteers. Specifically, it identifies factors that influenced volunteer engagement in the case of flooding in East Texas. The factors that influence volunteer engagement in recovery is a topic largely unexplored in the existing research. When research has explored this topic there has been an absence of theory to guide the work and many lingering questions. There is agreement that volunteers and voluntary organizations play a critical role in disaster recovery. It is a disservice to communities undergoing recovery for researchers not to systematically study volunteer engagement and how it could be influenced to maximize its benefit to the community.

The findings presented here suggest that these are the factors that influenced volunteer engagement in East Texas. That is not to say that these are the only factors that help to explain volunteer engagement. Future research should test the factors generated in this study, along with any factors identified in the literature, and conduct quantitative studies to determine which hold true across disasters and which are most important. Doing so would allow researchers to tease out these factors, find additional factors, or eliminate some factors described here if they do not hold true across other cases. Emergency management would benefit from more rigorous research along these lines. This work is paramount, to better understand the factors that influence volunteer engagement in recovery and to use this information to support efforts to recruit and support volunteers. This type of work must be done so that we can work toward implementing changes to build the capacity of the nonprofit sector in recovery.

Beyond addressing gaps in the literature and providing a foundation for future research, the findings of this study have potential applied value. The insights this research generates can be used to better understand how volunteers inform, help, or hinder the broader emergency management system in recovery and what might be done by practitioners and organizations to improve their involvement. It would be useful to identify which factors emergency management officials or voluntary organizations can influence that might help to promote and manage volunteer involvement. Some factors are outside the scope of control such as unsatisfactory weather that deters volunteers. Other factors, however, we can influence. For example, partnerships between organizations can be facilitated by local governments to help voluntary organizations gain footing in the community and make them available to host and oversee volunteers. It would be helpful to know more about these aspects of engagement for recovery, but also to understand what factors influence different forms of engagement. Thus, when a disaster happens, emergency managers and others can anticipate how volunteer engagement will progress and try to influence it as needed.

The existing disaster literature does not provide a sufficient theoretical basis upon which to explain volunteer engagement, much less provide an understanding of volunteer engagement in recovery. This research provides valuable insights regarding what influences volunteer engagement. Learning more about the factors that influence volunteer engagement could eventually be incorporated into evidence-based procedures, policies, and programs to manage recovery volunteers.


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Suggested Citation:

Montano, S. (2015). Engagement of Recovery Volunteers: East Texas 2015-2016 (Natural Hazards Center Quick Response Research Report Series, Report 263). Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado Boulder. https://hazards.colorado.edu/quick-response-report/engagement-of-recovery-volunteers-east-texas-2015-2016

Montano, S. (2015). Engagement of Recovery Volunteers: East Texas 2015-2016 (Natural Hazards Center Quick Response Research Report Series, Report 263). Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado Boulder. https://hazards.colorado.edu/quick-response-report/engagement-of-recovery-volunteers-east-texas-2015-2016