Relationships Between Affiliated and Unaffiliated Disaster Response Volunteers

Challenges and Opportunities

Darien Alexander Williams
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Publication Date: 2020


The intentions of unaffiliated disaster volunteers are often seen as being at odds with those of large affiliated volunteer groups and agents of government. Unaffiliated volunteers, however, often perceive their work as important and necessary to the recovery of communities, sometimes in tandem with the work of affiliated and government actors. This tenuous dynamic between affiliated and unaffiliated volunteers is influenced by feelings of betrayal or solidarity between different organizations, often based on memories from previous disaster events. The goal of this study is to understand the extent to which unaffiliated volunteers perceive their work as part of a unified state-managed disaster recovery processes, as evidenced by adherence to volunteer-hours reporting protocols. Participant observation, in-person and web-based semi-structured interviews were conducted across three sites in the Florida Panhandle immediately following Hurricane Michael. Results highlight how different actors working in the same context have differing access to information about recovery. Findings also suggest that post-disaster actors construct narratives about various institutions and perceive specific barriers to coordination. Overstretched emergency management organizations with uneven institutional capacity appear to contribute to these dynamics. These findings have implications for emergency managers, volunteer coordinators, and nonprofit organizations wishing to maximize the impact of their response and recovery efforts by engaging with various volunteer groups. This research also emphasizes some of the challenges disaster volunteer groups encounter, including communication challenges arising in dramatically altered physical and social landscapes.


Following major regional disasters, impacted communities often experience a wave of volunteers, eager to lend their tools, skills, and time to help those most severely affected by the event. Some of these volunteers are typically affiliated with organizations responding to the event, being listed and sometimes trained members of a group that has some connection or direction from professionals. Others are unaffiliated, engaging independently or in small groups of people with no professional experience in disaster work. The landscape for such efforts is uneven, changing across the jurisdiction and yielding vastly different experiences depending on coordination with government agencies. This investigation explores and compares the experiences of volunteers and volunteer coordinators in the Hurricane Michael-impacted Florida Panhandle region of the United States’ Gulf Coast. I document volunteer experiences during the transition from the response to the recovery phase of the disaster (about one hundred days following the event). I then highlight problems in volunteer coordination with government.

While there are a variety of organizations involved in community recovery, most fall into at least one of four categories: established, expanding, extending, and emergent. This typology, first observed by Russel Dynes, spans two axes (Table 1.1) (Dynes & Aguirre, 19791). One axis, structure, features a range from old to new. The second axis, tasks, includes a range from regular to irregular. In times of disaster, first responder organizations, emergency managers (EMs), and police generally maintain their structure and don’t have significantly different task expectations from non-disaster periods. As such, they are considered established organizations, and are almost always agents of the state. In contrast, volunteer organizations active in disaster (VOADs), such as the Red Crescent & Red Cross or United Way, have relatively unchanged mission-driven tasks but can experience structural changes. Structural changes may include changes in national-level hierarchies. For examples, organizations may defer to local leadership when responding to a disaster. Groups may also take on volunteers to support event-specific chains of command. In this report, those associated with such organizations will be referred to as ‘affiliated’.

Table 1.1. Group Behavior in Disaster.

Regular Non-regular
Structure Old Established
(Businesses in disaster)
New Expanding
(Many Affiliated Volunteer Orgs)
(Many Unaffiliated Volunteers)
(Dynes & Aguirre, 1979)

In contrast, this study’s use of ‘unaffiliated’ volunteers denotes those typically engaged in irregular or unrehearsed tasks and are often associated with groups that are considered emergent (Table 1.1). Finally, there are extending organizations, such as small businesses and private enterprises that retain their same organizational role and structure but shift their business model to include disaster recovery-oriented activities. Extending organizations, which operate with a unique set of constraints, have been omitted from this investigation, but can be considered in the ecosystem of groups active in disaster (Williams & Martin, 20182). The typology described in Table 1.1 is not meant to be inclusive of all of the complex ways in which groups operate in the wake of disaster. Instead, it offers a roadmap to understand how different actors are organizationally situated, and how disaster events might impact their structure and operations.

Dynes’ group typology additionally reveals details about disaster magnitude (Dynes & Aguirre, 1979). Events that are entirely within the management capabilities of established organizations tend to be less disruptive, destructive, and extreme than events that involve two or more group types (Dynes & Aguirre, 1979). In the latter case, the disaster event has spilled over into the daily lives and business of residents who opt to use their resources to address issues not captured or managed by established groups. This phenomenon can be exacerbated when established organizations have diminished capacity due to being underfunded. Compared to well-funded jurisdictions, lack of capacity renders underfunded established organizations more likely to depend on the services provided by affiliated and unaffiliated groups (Perry et al., 19743). Because of this, the stakes for volunteer coordination are even higher for underfunded jurisdictions.

Established organizations, such as government agencies, are often directed by timelines and standard operating procedures (SOPs). Despite their influence on volunteer involvement, their operation and communication styles are often mismatched while working alongside emergent, unaffiliated groups. Compared to established actors, unaffiliated groups may have more fluid, unwritten ways of coalescing and responding to community need. “Local responses in crises are increasingly characterized by volunteers who come together and organize extremely fast – sometimes within hours–a phenomenon dramatically expedited with social media” (Wall & Hedlund, 2016, 304). The dynamic nature of unaffiliated group formation and operation make them less predictable than their affiliated peers.

Varying speeds and modes of volunteer mobilization present challenges for state agencies managing response and recovery processes. Small emergent groups utilizing newer communication technologies such as social media are often considered difficult to collaborate with by affiliated groups and established organizations who utilize conventional partnership models. Often these small groups lack a mission, official procedures, and a geographic center. Such an informal organizational set-may result in negative stereotypes about spontaneous groups on the part of formal actors, discouraging collaboration before it can even begin (Wall & Hedlund, 2016).

As understanding of community needs during disaster become more nuanced, emergency managers have steadily, over the course of decades, experienced expanding professional roles. Emergency managers’ duties have extended to all phases of disaster (mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery), a far cry from their original response-oriented duties as first-responders, evacuation coordinators, and crisis planners (Stehr, 20075). Emergency managers are expected to aid local officials and private citizens with protocol planning, shelter and mass care, evacuation, food and agriculture concerns, hazardous materials, water supply issues, terrorism, and more (Wilson & Oyola-Yemaiel, 20016). More recent conceptions of the emergency manager role characterize them as connectors, facilitators, and networkers who leverage resources through pre-event professional connections, including channeling the energy of large volunteer networks through programs such as CERT (community emergency response teams) (Dynes, 20007; Schroeder et al., 20018).

Not all characterizations of volunteer collaboration rely on the pessimistic trope of distance between an established professional class, affiliated nonprofits, and noncompliant, unaffiliated groups. Several case studies have placed the onus on state institutions to plan for the inclusion of the emergent (Scanlon, 19999). Inclusion in this context refers to providing avenues of productive involvement in community disaster recovery (Scanlon et al., 201410). This depiction presents the institutional landscape that volunteers navigate as ultimately under the control of state agencies. However, there is a recognition that a diverse set of stakeholders are a part of unified response and recovery.

In both the US and abroad, affiliated organizations are usually the ones with formal partnerships with state agencies. Volunteers associated with formal organizations are considered “affiliated” and part of the recovery process because they have relatively clear channels of communication with state authorities (Whittaker et al., 201511). The skilled emergency management professional class has the institutional agency to deem spontaneous unaffiliated volunteer networks and individuals as a less-prioritized resource that requires connection and management under the government. In short, unaffiliated groups are sometimes considered a hassle. Such perspectives routinely neglect to consider the power dynamic created in contexts where skilled, but under-resourced emergency management agencies and formal organizations depend on local spontaneous unaffiliated volunteer activity.

Prior investigations have evaluated the effects of disaster events and recovery processes on survivors’ relationships, both personally and organizationally. Disasters can enhance feelings of trust between individual survivors, who often see each other as engaged in a struggle towards the common goal of community recovery (Toya & Skidmore, 201412). Disaster can also precipitate prosocial grassroots behavior, bringing more people into spaces to volunteer their time, money, and resources (Cassar et al., 201713). Matters of trust become a little more complicated, however, in considering the feelings survivors have towards government agencies following disaster events. Investigations of earthquake survivors in China, for example, reveal that those already more inclined to trust the government, do so even more. On the other hand, those with prior distrust of the government tend to trust it less following disaster (Han et al., 201114). Our understanding of trust becomes increasingly nuanced when we begin to consider the various ways in which trust is built or eroded. Prior research suggests that, in the case of disasters, actors generally need to experience an instance where another actor both “drops the ball” (responds inadequately) and reveals itself to have different priorities or intentions than previously thought (Beamish, 200115). Positive (or negative) relationships with government agencies are not produced in a vacuum, but through specific points of engagement that create lasting memory. In this report, I investigate particular post-disaster mechanism that have supported positive and negative relationships between volunteers and their government.

This project considers whether volunteer actors actually perceive recovery project participation as being unified. How do affiliated and unaffiliated volunteers perceive the role of their work in the same disaster context? How do these perceptions and experiences relate to government-led response and recovery processes? I will interrogate specific processes that transform volunteer intention. These processes, identified by volunteers and volunteer coordinators, involve relationships with a variety of actors, including but not limited to state-nonstate, across volunteer organizations, and involving both affiliated and unaffiliated volunteers. The overall lack of best practice literature on effective spontaneous unaffiliated disaster volunteer coordination, alongside the plethora of academic research on such groups, frames a gap between the worlds of practice and research. This project speaks to the broad set of community-level factors named by Montano (capacity, government coordination, communication), but adds considerations of narrative, inclusion, and organizational conflict between volunteer groups and across local, state, and federal jurisdictions. The stakes are high; following hurricane events in the United States, thousands of people often offer their time in volunteer projects (Michel, 200716). Coordinated volunteering in the response and recovery phases following an event can substantially multiply the effects of human, material, and financial resources a community has at its disposal. Poorly-executed volunteer efforts, however, can create additional work for state and nonstate organizations, discourage residents from further involvement, and in some cases even exacerbate poor living conditions of residents in impacted communities.


Information about the experience of disaster volunteers was collected through key informant interviews, in-depth participant interviews, web-based semi-structured interviews, and participant observation.

Key Informants

I identified key informants through purposive sampling. I identified informants by compiling a list of established, affiliated, and unaffiliated actors advertising their work on social media. Geo-specific (e.g. the impacted counties, North Florida, Florida, etc.) and event-specific tagging (hurricane, Hurricane Michael, storm, flood, disaster, etc.) generated a list of potential key informants who I then reached out to. I selected informants that could speak, in unstructured interviews, to project considerations at each level of organization (from national to local). I interviewed four informants, holding positions at local, state, and national-level organizations. One state-level key informant had extensive prior experience in a county organization and informed project considerations for engaging volunteers at that level. Key informants helped to gauge the relevance and specificity of questions in my interview guide. Informants also provided leads for in-depth interviews, with two agreeing to be interviewed themselves and the other two assisting with snowball sampling.

In-Depth Interviews and Web-Based Semi-Structured Interviews

I identified interview respondents through a combination of purposive and snowball sampling, with recruitment methods (posted flyer, social media, and snowball sampling) aimed at capturing perceptions across an organizational ‘slice,’ eliciting responses from various levels of an organization active in Hurricane Michael recovery (national, state, county, and local), across a diversity of group type (established, expanding, and emergent) working in the same geography. I conducted eight in-depth interviews within 5 months of the storm event. Interviewees wished to preserve the privacy of their affiliations. Large faith-based organizations, small non-Christian faith-based organizations, secular nonprofits, government partnerships, and internet-based collectives are represented in the sample. Interviews were semi-structured, with questions aimed at soliciting perceptions of agencies and organizations their work intersects with, the work of affiliated and unaffiliated volunteers, and the challenges that emerged in the field following Hurricane Michael. Interviews ranged from 30 to 120 minutes. In-depth responses entailed relaying experiences of group coordination, motivation, dynamic with other organizations, successes, and failures. Two project participants wished to provide written responses, and I subsequently administered a web-based semi-structured interview matching the interview guide, for a total of 10 in-depth responses.

Mexico Beach, FL Volunteer Site. Image Credit: Darien Alexander Williams, 2019.

Participant Observation

In tandem with interview data, I conducted participant observation to aid in developing “thick description” of volunteer group experiences. Thick description entails a rich interpretive understanding of ideas, practices, and symbols in the contexts they are invoked, from the perspective of multiple participants (Geertz, 200417). Fieldwork consisted of one week driving and walking through hurricane-impacted Jackson, Calhoun, Bay, Gulf, Liberty, and Gadsen Counties. On two occasions, I engaged in participant observation. The first as a participant-observer to a small group of spontaneous, unaffiliated volunteers for one day (eight people). The group was faith-based and comprised of local and nonlocal volunteers. I conducted several short, unstructured interviews as the group mobilized and engaged in volunteer labor in a destroyed section of Mexico Beach, FL, though to preserve privacy, I chose not to include direct quotation in the final text.

I conducted participant observation again at a roundtable meeting and discussion between about 40 affiliated volunteer organization representatives. While most of the participants were part- or full- time staff, their conversation, exclusively about the coordination of volunteer labor, constraints, donations, points of connection, and contention yielded useful quotes and memos for my analysis. In total, including all interviews and participant observation, I was able to include the perspectives of about 50 volunteer organizations, as well as about 12 unaffiliated volunteers in this investigation.

Table 1.2. Project Respondents

Level of Organization Key Informants In-Depth Interviews Participant Observation Web-Based Semi-Structured Interviews
National 1 Affiliated Coordinator 1 Established Coordinator
State 1 Unaffiliated Digital Coordinator
1 Established Coordinator
1 Unaffiliated Digital Coordinator
1 Established Coordinator
~40 Person Volunteer Organization Roundtable
County 1 Affiliated Coordinator
1 Established Coordinator
8 Unaffiliated Volunteers
Local 1 Affiliated Coordinator 1 Affiliated Coordinator
2 Spontaneous Unaffiliated Coordinator
2 Unaffiliated Volunteers


Hurricane Michael was a category four hurricane that struck the Gulf Coast in early October, 2018. The storm caused 72 fatalities, 47 of them in Florida, with USD $25.1 billion in damages (Michael, 201918). The storm made landfall on Mexico Beach, Florida, with winds reaching over 139 miles per hour. The town of Mexico Beach was largely destroyed, with the majority of its structures washed away by a 14-foot storm surge and high-speed winds (Associated Press, 201819).

The surrounding Panhandle, including the cities of Panama City and Panama City Beach, Florida experienced damage mostly due to wind, with the majority of the region’s utility poles brought down, interrupting power and cellular service for over one million customers. Prior to this event, the last major hurricane to make landfall in the region was Hurricane Dennis in 2005, which mobilized a similar collection of organizations (Miller and Griggs, 201820).

Damage in Mexico Beach, Florida. Image Credit: Darien Alexander Williams, 2019.

Site Selection

I conducted on-site interviews in the Florida cities and towns of Mexico Beach, Panama City, and Miramar Beach. Volunteers and coordinators represented work experiences in all counties affected by Hurricane Michael, including Jackson, Calhoun, Bay, Gulf, Liberty, and Gadsden Counties.

I selected the Florida Panhandle because it presents an advantageous landscape for understanding a diverse group of organizations within larger disaster recovery efforts (McCann, 202021). Multiple religious, racial, and political organizations have worked in Florida’s Hurricane Michael response and recovery effort. Florida is also impacted by hurricanes at a greater frequency than any other U.S. state, leading to an educated presumption that the state’s emergency management and planning professionals are very likely among the most experienced in navigating how to work with disaster volunteer networks (Navarro, 201822). The state is repeatedly a leader and innovator in approaches to disaster resilience. For these reasons, Florida following Hurricane Michael is a useful context for investigating the connections between organized and spontaneous disaster volunteer work and state-led recovery.


I coded interviews and participant observation notes for thematic elements that arise from patterns in descriptions of group structures and relationships, with a codebook developed from factors themes gleaned from my literature review such as individual role perception and agency or authority to complete a recovery-related task (Britton, 200723; J. Scanlon et al., 2014). The first-run descriptive codes included descriptive details such as organization type, task type, communication modes, inclusion, relationships, feelings, history, experience, success, and challenge.

Second-run axial coding (identifying patterns in the first-run coding and the creation of themes) led to the creation of broader themes explored in this paper: labor reporting protocol, speed and intake, disaster exacerbation, perceptions of coordination aversion, and communication challenges (Hsieh & Shannon, 200524). I then compiled and evaluated coded segments for thematic consistencies across challenges, resources, and organizations.

Government and Volunteer Coordination. Photo Submitted by Interviewee, Image Credit: Darien Alexander Williams, 2019.


Findings explore the initial points of contact between different volunteer actors, starting with the initial state-managed registration procedure and intake process. First, I report mechanisms such as hours registration and federal match, volunteer intake. Then, findings explore the role of outreach and resource variability. Last, findings include allegations of exacerbated disaster, and rationale for nonparticipation.

Registering Hours & Federal Match

One of the most highly referenced post-disaster point of engagement was the process of recording and registering volunteer hours. Federal regulation requires county jurisdictions to provide 25 percent of overall Public Assistance (PA) spending following declared disasters. Volunteer hours can be counted towards a county government’s contribution in a process called “federal match.” This process enables more federal spending and the freeing up of public dollars for other projects. Given this process, accounting for volunteer hours become an important element of disaster recovery funding. This process is intended to aid localities in funding their own disaster recovery, but also funnel unaffiliated volunteers into affiliated organizations. From the very start, emergency management agencies distinguish the value in the labor of different groups.

When asked about how volunteer work relates to state-managed disaster recovery, established and affiliated respondents repeatedly referred to the potential for volunteers to multiply the impact of their work through recording and reporting their hours. Conversely, they described disappointment with potentially missed opportunity of unaffiliated volunteer labor. Almost every respondent conveyed multiple advantages and zero disadvantages associated with coordinating affiliated and unaffiliated volunteer efforts. In this endeavor, most respondents cited the necessity of centrally-located and directed volunteer intake, usually called Volunteer Reception Centers (VRCs). Such centers have the purpose of connecting volunteers with the formal process of recording and submitting their hours worked. Recording and reporting volunteer hours is considered important for several reasons; reporting can connect unaffiliated volunteers and their communities with resources on the disaster recovery process, the process can provide volunteers with protocol to mitigate accidents, and it can expand the community reach of the VRC.

Affiliated Volunteer: What we tried to do was get all these organizations to register their hours so we could turn this into the county [and assist the] county with pushing the dollar amounts that they need to meet for FEMA aid.
Established Coordinator: One of the biggest outcomes besides volunteers being managed and supervised in a safe and effective way is being able to grab those volunteer hours and get those that match information. And if you're not doing that almost immediately you can't go back and get that.

Volunteer Intake

If respondents mentioned federal match, they were asked to more deeply describe the VRC process by which volunteers became affiliated. VRCs themselves, however, were meant to build trusting and communicative relationships between organizations, regularly featuring paid and volunteer staff providing resources to guide unaffiliated volunteers towards safe work or organizations to affiliate with. Resources included paper or digital forms to register, and general disaster recovery information. Experienced respondents noted speed and expansiveness of communication as a paramount factor of VRC success. Even within a narrow geography comprised of several highly-impacted counties, respondents reported wide variability in VRC setup and engagement across counties. Despite the structure provided by standard operating procedures, established organizations faced serious challenges in achieving volunteer intake goals. When asked about this process, volunteer coordinators described procedures that varied across jurisdiction:

Established Coordinator: We've seen many CERTs ([Community Emergency Response Teams]) across the state being trained and utilized to open up a volunteer Reception Center VRC… That's a place that we can direct the public to go sign up to volunteer and match them with those affiliated groups.
Established Coordinator: I think there's probably a number of factors that are delving into this but VRCs, if they're not open almost immediately, you don't really have much of a chance of success with them working long term and they're pretty labor-intensive. They're pretty technical assistance intensive. There is some resourcing that has to happen for those to be done really well and not every community is going to have that.
Affiliated Coordinator: The VRC I don't think was really officially stood up until the middle of November. Prior to that all the management and distribution of volunteers and donations was done from the Emergency Operation Center.

Outreach & Resource Variability

The endeavor of reaching unaffiliated volunteers looks different across the impacted geography. Communication about the location and services offered by VRCs can be unpredictable prior to a severe storm, due to a lack of clarity about available space, degree of damage, and infrastructural capacity in the immediate aftermath. This unpredictability meant that certain populations questioned government agency’s motives when they felt left out of the loop, especially when important meetings were coordinated with invited community leaders. The unevenness of this process heightening the potential for feelings of betrayal and distrust. Still, emergency managers made substantial efforts to disseminate information through traditional media, the internet, word-of-mouth, and other channels. When asked about how people and organizations were prioritized to participate in disaster recovery meetings with government officials, one respondent described the following:

Affiliated Coordinator: The [community leader] was recruited by the county to be the community liaison… It was important that all these emergency workers from out of town had some local contacts and some local people that they could rely on to share information with them.

Emergency managers typically rely on pre-event social and professional networks, or stakeholders as proxies in many of their information dissemination efforts. When asked about this, volunteer coordinators reflected on varying degrees of inclusion, as well as their understanding of the challenges emergency managers deal with when crafting holistically inclusive outreach strategies:

Established Coordinator: Honestly local emergency management has to do a better job of communicating with their stakeholders – and the stakeholders in emergency management are everybody – and that's the problem. How do you talk to everybody? It's got to be John Smith the local emergency manager going out and talking to faith -based organizations locally… and if people come in we need to have them sign at our VRCs. But two years later different pastors, different directors of the nonprofit – It's continuous it's a process. There's no end.

One of the most espoused best practices in disaster recovery is the importance of relationships between local emergency management offices and residents, businesses, and local organizations. “Working with local emergency managers before a disaster strikes can help all [residents] during a disaster” (FEMA, n.d.). This practice is commonly understood to build trust, foster resident familiarity with emergency management processes, and better attune emergency mangers to the needs, concerns, and priorities of a wide variety of community members. It implies a certain level of trust in the primacy of state-led disaster recovery, something reflected in the responses of affiliated volunteer coordinators who were well-connected with established actors immediately following the storm. When asked about people included in long-term disaster recovery meetings, one affiliated coordinator shared that both he and an individual who was active in the local chamber of commerce were tapped to work alongside government officials:

Affiliated Coordinator: [We’d all] known each other personally and had a personal friendship and have served on other boards for a long, long time… [and] I guess if you call him like the chief civilian during that time. So, when the county or anybody else the government had a need [for] information [and] wanted to get information to folks in the private community, [the Chamber person] was that connector.

When one affiliated volunteer was asked about the sorts of people involved in his highly-coordinated group, he shared:

Affiliated Volunteer: There's a fair amount of people that have been in public service paid public service positions who are either retired or are in semi-retirement. Some are ex-military, some are ex-EMT, some are ex-law enforcement, and some are ex-fire.

I probed him, asking about the reason it seemed that people of a particularly established professional background seemed to gravitate towards his organization. He quickly responded that “[Understanding] protocol actually helps calm things down,” and that these were people who deeply understood process, being told what to do, and plugging into command structures and clear communication of need. In this context, the past lives of volunteers and the established peers they worked with generated a sense of solidarity. All involved persons in his group either knew the local emergency managers directly, or new the nature of their work intimately enough to have seamless working relationships. This solidarity, however, was restricted to the response phase of the disaster.

In contrast, other respondents found themselves grappling with feelings of betrayal at the hands of government agencies and emergency management. I met one respondent, a local faith leader, at his house of worship in a very prominent part of town. His congregation remained committed to attending weekly services in a nearby temporary structure, where I first asked him for an interview. During that interview, I asked about any form of contact he had with emergency management in the wake of the storm. Because he was a prominent faith and community leader, I assumed he might have had some interesting experience with emergency management following the storm. He responded:

Unaffiliated Volunteer: I was expecting some official efforts because I [worked] with [DHS & local EM actors]. Everybody, they know us very well – I have not received any calls. Nobody offered help. Nobody asked ‘How are you doing?’

Frustrated with the lack of support he received from relationships he had nurtured prior to the event, he turned to more official means of securing information and aid. When prompted, the faith leader described the process of seeing public announcements about a FEMA tent setup where disaster survivors could go to get “resources.” Upon arrival, however, his efforts were met with continued roadblocks, generating increasing feelings of post-disaster betrayal at the hand of established agencies:

Unaffiliated Volunteer: I drove first thing in the morning – they said they were going to be open at 8 and I was there at 8. They were not ready. They didn't have any access – there was no computer – they said the computers were coming later – coming later! There was a huge long line of people and they were all just frustrated – that happened like two weeks after the disaster… Everybody was kind of lost at this time – and unfortunately government wasn’t there… I’m actually blaming some of it on them… It was a waste of time for me to drive all the way to them there. I was hoping that they could offer something substantial to people or help people apply. They would just throw some papers to you.

In cases like these, established actors were presented with an opportunity to build increased solidarity or create feelings of betrayal. The latter occurred. In doing so, particularly with a community leader they had prior relationship with, it is rational for the unaffiliated to remain unaffiliated. In instances such as this, the respondent did not choose unaffiliated status. Instead, the actions of established actors prevented him and his congregation from affiliating and contributing more to the state-managed recovery process.

Exacerbating Crises

Exacerbating crises was one of the primary reasons established and unaffiliated actors cited for not trusting the work of unaffiliated volunteers. Many emergency managers and affiliated volunteer coordinators presented early-career stories of unnamed volunteer groups making a situation worse, generating heightened distrust of those organizations thereafter. This makes these narratives important, as feelings and actions from one disaster have the potential to generate distrust that lasts into the next disaster. The stakes can be high for communities where, unaffiliated volunteers carry out work without professional coordination, with repercussions for survivor-residents. In one instance, a respondent described a deliberately resistant volunteer determined to carry out their intended form of service, despite a mismatch with the needs of their target community:

Established Coordinator: A guy came down with a trailer of boxes that his neighborhood had gathered for this affected community. It was clothes... well we didn’t need clothes. So I asked him to please take it back. We appreciate their assistance but donating money to organized, recognized non-profits that are assisting the area would be better. He turned the corner, dropped everything off at a tennis court. The next morning, we walked over and people were rifling through his boxes and complaining about it. That was the creation of a secondary disaster and now we have to clean all this up.

This particular experience reveals a problem with the absence of a system to direct the resources available to different populations who might have been in need. The result of this mismatch, and the stubborn intent of the unaffiliated volunteer, was a new distrust for unaffiliated volunteers and a narrative of betrayal that the established respondent now carries into each new disaster work setting.

Exacerbated crises and powerful narratives are not limited to interactions between volunteers and the state. Feelings of distrust were also generated by tensions between different volunteer groups. Multiple respondents referred to Crisis Cleanup, a web portal where disaster-impacted residents can match their needs (in the form of “jobs”) with willing volunteers who can claim and complete jobs. Unaffiliated volunteers, sometimes unaware of the process of reporting, claiming work, and marking it complete, caused frustration for affiliated organizations. Affiliated volunteers often sank time into preparing, gathering supplies, personnel, and travel to Crisis Cleanup worksites. In these instances, the resource loss can be substantial, given the lengthened travel time requirements when road infrastructure was blocked or damaged. Without prompting, respondents shared their frustrations with this process:

Affiliated Coordinator: I’m not going to name any names, but there are some organizations that go in and grab information from Crisis Cleanup and go out and do the work and then do plan it, don’t update information, and don’t close it. Then that makes it harder for the other people.
Affiliated Coordinator: One of the failings or the challenges that people had [was] people [going] into places on the website finding that somebody had already been there and had taken care of [the job].

Their experiences represent volunteers unintentionally sabotaging the efforts of other volunteers to follow a proper, beneficial community recovery protocol. Feelings of betrayal were diffuse, and there is no clear blame beyond the unnamed, uncoordinated, unaffiliated volunteer group. Such conflicts have the potential to be discouraging, adding to counterproductive use of Crisis Cleanup, group conflict, or abandonment of volunteering altogether.

Disaster Fatigue & Nonparticipation

The subject of volunteer nonparticipation came up frequently in interviews. Narratives about nonparticipation were full of suspicion, distrust, betrayal, but also instances of solidarity. Concerns about nonparticipation came in two forms: concern about lack of overall volunteer involvement and concern about volunteer nonparticipation in state-led disaster recovery. When respondents were engaged on these subjects, it was often a conversation where distrust of motive and perceived distrust of process affected how groups mobilized their efforts. Others discussed disaster fatigue, a process in which repeated events effectively saps a region’s human capital:

Established Coordinator: We didn't have a whole lot of spontaneous unaffiliated volunteer pressure. By the time our operations got out there and got set up we were having a hard time getting those people back into it… I think we're getting into disaster fatigue both at the volunteer level and at the organizational level.
Established Coordinator: I believe volunteerism is down nationwide… that obviously is an issue. And keeping them engaged. When was the last time you saw anything about hurricane Michael in the news? It's gone away.

Roundtable participants cited Hurricane Irma, which hit Florida the year prior to Michael, as chiefly responsible for disaster fatigue and a lack of interest in volunteering across the State of Florida. Some respondents even expressed a preference for additional volunteers and engagement over additional funding from the federal government. Roundtable participants and interview respondents shared concerns about organizational strain brought by the management of volunteer-related projects for two disasters in different parts of Florida.

The second form of nonparticipation, opting out of government processes, came up in response to questions about volunteer goals and motivations. Ranging from deliberate opting out to being ignorant of the full benefits of reporting their hours worked and connected with VRCs, affiliated volunteers characterized these reasons as follows:

Established Coordinator: A lot of organizations and in this particular case a couple of church groups did not want to participate because they thought ‘No we're not here working for the government.’ Not realizing how often I tried explaining that by registering their hours they were not only helping Mrs. Jones or whoever they were individually they'd be helping the entire community.
Established Coordinator: They wanted to do it by their rules certain their standards… They're not necessarily comprehending why the local jurisdiction wants it done a different way or in a different manner… They could be doing so much more good than they do by just going and doing good on their terms.
Established Coordinator: A church in that local community could be a volunteer group that is doing amazing things for the community that's maybe not coordinated at an emergency management level. I think the average person doesn't understand the whole process and the coordination that happens.
Roundtable Participant: Too many of these organizations want to report up their own chain of command and assume it’ll get back and it doesn’t. They want to focus on doing good work and don’t realize they could double it by playing with government.

In contrast, unaffiliated volunteers did not cite an intentional lack of connection to government or volunteer organizations, rather than a deliberate opting-out of the managed disaster recovery process:

Unaffiliated Volunteer: This was just led by our hearts’ desire… we were not connected with larger churches or Christian organizations or any other organizations for that matter. And it was not prompted by all or led by any of the larger organizations or anything.

When asked if there were representatives from government agencies available to dispel rumors and guide community groups on proper protocol to get involved, one responded related the following:

Unaffiliated Volunteer: We had some more questions and people who knew the answers to them would provide them. But as for official people providing that information, no, we never really got that.

This respondent actually searched for a trust established actor to help her community group. When one could not be located, she mobilized human and financial resources on Twitter, funneling volunteer efforts into issues identified in their communitywide Whatsapp group, a platform of up to 250 people to message each other. In this 250-member, ethnicity-oriented community Whatsapp space, families expressed needs, communicated valuable information, shared resources, and processed and dispelled rumors. Many members of the group did not speak English, and relied on hearsay from multilingual members to navigate the community post-event and strategically direct their volunteer efforts. The group accomplished this without outreach from official emergency management agencies, inspiring feelings of solidarity across community members, and a feeling of betrayal towards emergency management that did not consider them a priority. Perhaps most importantly, this unaffiliated group did not deliberately opt out of a recovery process directed by the state.

In other contexts, reasons for nonparticipation were less rooted in outreach strategies and more about protocol. During roundtable discussion, one volunteer coordinator claimed difficulty in understanding the proper protocol for reporting volunteer hours. Web-interview respondents also cited a lack of knowledge about an official process, with only one project respondent in total stating they were explicitly uninterested in coordinating their work with government agencies. One affiliated volunteer coordinator, with prior working relationships with county government, attempted to register hours but found themselves frustrated by a bureaucratic breakdown and subsequently opted out of participation.

Affiliated and established respondents brought up the deliberate noncompliance of unaffiliated volunteers many times, though it was barely mentioned in interviews with unaffiliated volunteers themselves. In this regard, established and affiliate respondents had largely adopted a narrative that did not have room to include process difficulty, exclusion, and lack of awareness (or any combination of these factors) as reason for nonparticipation in hours-reporting and the state-managed disaster recovery process.

Established and affiliated respondents tended to respond to interview questions with examples from many different hurricane events they’d ‘worked.’ Rather than disaster fatigue, these actors had a kind of disaster indiscriminate outlook, and some difficulty in keeping conversation restricted to Hurricane Michael, implying that the timelines and order of carrying out tasks was essentially the same, even for different events across multiple decades. Respondents brought narratives of betrayal and solidarity with them into new disasters. This characteristic of my interviews with these experienced respondents underscored the importance of prior narrative in their conception of current challenges.

Damage in Mexico Beach, Florida. Image Credit: Darien Alexander Williams, 2019.


Research findings have practical and theoretical implications for post-disaster actors in several types of organizations . Positive and negative experiences with disaster recovery occur at specific points of interaction that respondents have identified. In the volunteer reception center setup and intake process, experienced affiliated volunteers reported feelings of a shared mission, something that could potentially be extended to inexperienced unaffiliated volunteers through mindful concerted efforts of established actors. Betrayal narratives play a role in how organizations operate, with examples of betrayal associated with a variety of disaster events. In the case of Hurricane Michael, such narratives were associated with the decision to volunteer and disaster exacerbation. Perhaps most strikingly, the burden of resolving many of these tensions is often placed on the emergency manager, who has an increasingly complex role that is difficult to perform without adequate resources.

The perception of unaffiliated volunteer intentional nonparticipation, held by established and affiliated actors, suggests deeper challenges involving how formal organizations understand the lay of the land where they execute projects. Wall and Hedlund’s assertion that emergent groups are considered by emergent managers to be too difficult to work with, especially as they make novel use of communication technologies holds true in the case of Hurricane Michael. Additionally, Scanlon’s original argument about the perceived viability of emergent groups once they are included in a managed process plays out similarly (1999). This finding also highlights that if unaffiliated volunteering is an issue, it may benefit volunteer organizations and emergency management offices to consider launching more concerted pre- and post-event outreach campaigns, rather than assume unaffiliated work to be intentional opting-out.

Affiliated and unaffiliated volunteers alike cited general challenges associated with the process of connecting through Volunteer Reception Centers and making their efforts known to government agencies. Many problems identified by respondents involved the speed at which VRCs were set up and the limited outreach executed by emergency managers in directing disparate groups to register and report their hours. This latter issue relates to the perceived role and capacities of the emergency manager. Based on interviews, there is no standard or commonly-held expectation of the role of the emergency manager. Planning and emergency management literatures highlight the importance of the connector and the generalist – public servants with the ability to shapeshift to meet the needs of unexpected situations. While the evolution and expansion of emergency management and volunteer engagement considerations is important, in some ways this expansion of expectations may be setting up lone or under-resourced emergency management offices to fail.

In rural contexts, the singular jack-of-all-trades emergency manager role may only be able to mindfully communicate with a small and narrow population of locals for coordination. Pre-storm engagement might be easy and manageable, if they personally know most leaders and stakeholders in their jurisdiction. Post-major event, however, their ties with nonlocal newcomer volunteers may become strained or nonexistent in ways the same ties would be maintained in better-resourced jurisdictions. Disrupted channels of communication only exacerbate the difficulty in making these connections. Expectations expressed in this investigation match the expanded role of emergency managers documented by prior studies (Stehr, 2007; Wilson & Oyola-Yemaiel, 2001).

Findings from Hurricane Michael-impacted Florida suggest that the affiliation of volunteers may be relevant in understanding narratives of distrust and solidarity in disaster recovery, but barely relevant to the pragmatic issues they perceive and describe as volunteers. Members of both groups experienced similar daily challenges with aligning their efforts with larger state-led processes like hours reporting.

My findings also reveal the relationship between capacity and inclusion in Hurricane Michael recovery and response. Such findings problematize the idea that emergency managers in jurisdictions with fewer resources are best as generalists, capable of reaching all stakeholders. In these cases, simple volunteer coordination issues flourish, when they could potentially be quashed through delegated specialized roles and increased capacity. A staff of one spread too-thin potentially renders the emergency manager incapable of succeeding at any of their perceived roles. The consequences of this lack of capacity were felt by affiliated and unaffiliated volunteers alike, with potential negative ripples in the federal Public Assistance funds available, county budgets, and disaster recovery progress for years to come.

Disasters present numerous opportunities for betrayal and solidarity across all variety of recovery-oriented organization, particularly for established and unaffiliated actors, who seem to experience the greatest amount of organizational distance and operational mismatch. Improving these processes can lead to trust and solidarity narrative characterizing community disaster recovery to a far greater degree than distrust and betrayal.

Limitations and Future Research
This research focused on a hurricane disaster in Florida, an event that is likely to occur again in the near future. The goal of this investigation was to contribute to an understanding of the organizational ecosystem in which affiliated and unaffiliated volunteers work, with particular attention to challenges between and across groups. This understanding may be best achieved through qualitative approaches. Such methods have been used here to lay a foundation. Future work may consider a larger sample size (perhaps utilizing quantitative or mixed methods approaches), in order to find larger patterns for generalization.

Acknowledgements. This Quick Response report is based on work supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF Award #1635593). Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF or Natural Hazards Center.


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Suggested Citation:

Williams, D. A. (2020). Relationships Between Affiliated and Unaffiliated Disaster Response Volunteers: Challenges and Opportunities (Natural Hazards Center Quick Response Research Report Series, Report 297). Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado Boulder.

Williams, D. A. (2020). Relationships Between Affiliated and Unaffiliated Disaster Response Volunteers: Challenges and Opportunities (Natural Hazards Center Quick Response Research Report Series, Report 297). Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado Boulder.