A Volunteerism Perspective on the Days after the 11th of September

By Susan J. Ellis

It's been an overwhelming two weeks since the terrorist attacks in the US on the 11th of September. Whether physically close to New York City "Ground Zero, " Washington, DC, western Pennsylvania, or much farther away, the emotional and psychological reactions ripple out to affect just about everyone, as well as past our borders to the rest of the world. One of the ways that many people respond to crisis is to "do something" - write a check, donate blood or items, or give time, talent and energy to a volunteer project formed to provide immediate assistance to victims. Volunteers come forward to do everything from searching for survivors to feeding the rescuers to providing solace to grieving relatives. The list of expected and unexpected roles volunteers have filled in response to the attacks is enormous, not just in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington but in local communities everywhere. As I've said on other occasions, volunteers are the "silver lining" of the cloud of disaster.

Volunteers have received much media attention in these past two weeks - all of it good. This is the one time during which no one minds being called a "volunteer," either. In fact, the word becomes a badge of honor in a crisis. "Volunteer" becomes synonymous with "hero." Participation in rescue or relief efforts when it is not a professional obligation or a paid job is seen as patriotic, courageous, spiritual, and other elevated adjectives. This halo effect is deserved and I add my genuine appreciation to all the rest.

It is also valuable to note, as Robert Leigh of United Nations Volunteers pointed out in an e-mail to me this week, that the outpouring of offers to help in this emergency clearly demonstrates the reciprocal nature of volunteering. In addition to genuinely wanting to help, many volunteers deeply need to be doing something constructive and communal for their own mental health, as an outlet for rage, and to overcome the sense of powerlessness. No apologies necessary and great proof of how such service benefits the giver and as well as the receiver.

But, particularly as time goes by, we in the volunteer field need to ask some important questions. I raise these not to be negative, but to be constructive. I see contradictions in this helping frenzy that I believe can be resolved in positive ways. And, if you believe (or fear) as I do that terrorism attacks may occur again in the future, it is important that we learn from this experience.

The Minimal Role of Volunteer Management Professionals

Emergency response in a city the size of New York mobilizes literally thousands of people, many of whom are paid to be on the front line. The obvious ones are employees such as police, firefighters, FEMA staff, or medical personnel, and the less obvious are Mayoral staff, telephone operators, or crane operators. Also on call are major disaster-related nonprofit organizations, notably the Red Cross. But what also happens is that hundreds (even thousands) of concerned citizens converge on the site of the crisis and surrounding hospitals and offer to help.

Who gets them working? At what? Who turns them away? Why? Who redirects them to other ways to serve?

The Red Cross is experienced in managing large numbers of volunteers in times of natural disasters (along with various other local nonprofit agencies), and recently Volunteer Centers have been preparing themselves to serve as a key component in community emergency response. VOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster) is a national organization that has worked hard to build a coalition of agencies who do first response work.

In New York City, the Mayor's Voluntary Action Center, a city government agency, has indeed been mobilized to handle some of the workload of the crisis, especially to communicate important emergency information to organizations in their network. But, the extensive and diverse number of volunteer program managers in New York have not been tapped for their expertise. Rustie Brooke, director of NYC/IYV was surprised to see an unknown name on a press release listing the "Volunteer Manager" of the Jacob Javitz Center (coordinating point for the deployment of paid and unpaid workers and supplies). She called to introduce herself and offer help when she learned he was an investment banker who had arrived on the scene the day after the attack and was assigned to "coordinate volunteers" because he had "some organizational training." He, in turn, was amazed to learn that there was a profession of volunteer management and that people in NYC could be of help to him in this work. (Talk about a volunteer rising to the occasion! He deserves everyone's admiration.)

How could this happen? Is it really necessary to re-invent the basics of volunteer management in the middle of this sort of crisis? Why did no one in charge call upon one (or many) of the civilian volunteerism experts in the city? The answer, I'm afraid, is that they didn't even think of it. And that apparently none of our colleagues either volunteered their expertise, gathered others together, or knew someone powerful enough to make a difference. I understand that one factor is that this is not being handled as a local operation, but as a federal one, and a "crime scene" at that. But activity connected to the disaster is occurring everywhere - and all these efforts can benefit from volunteer management skills.

When you heard of the attack, did you recognize that you were one of the key people with skills that might be needed?

Turning People Away

Last week, I heard a news report that said: "As of today, volunteers are no longer allowed at Ground Zero." It was in the context of the sad news that little hope was left for finding survivors and so the clean up effort would actually go faster with fewer people on the scene (and more machines). But I immediately knew the reporter was wrong in his statement. He meant to say no "unskilled people" would be allowed on the site. In fact, at that time many of the people still working at Ground Zero were still, in fact, volunteers, but they are trained firefighters, construction workers, and others who have the credentials to be of assistance, but who have come from all over the world-at no pay-to help. In time, it may be that only federal, state, and city trained, paid workers remain on the site, but it will take a while.

More important, many newscasts began to say things like: "Please do not come to the Javitz Center. No more volunteers are needed right now. Your checks are most important at the moment." We all can understand that there is such a thing as "too much help." But…is it really possible that every agency in New York City had "enough" volunteers at that moment? Of course not. In fact, one of the longer-lasting tragedies of this nightmare might be the missed opportunities for signing up some amazing volunteers for all sorts of important causes.

I find myself asking:

  • When people were turned away, did anyone keep their names and addresses for future contact?

  • Were the people turned away asked vital questions, such as what their occupation, education, or skills were - since some types of people were very much still needed? Or was the assumption when someone asked to volunteer that they were nice, but unskilled?

  • Were they turned away pleasantly, with thanks? Or shrugged off?

  • Did anyone mention where else in the city such people might offer their services? (The New York Cares Web site does have some information <www.nycares.org> if a person is informed enough to visit it.)

  • Did volunteer program manager associations in a wide variety of settings make it clear how people could help in the crisis, even if in lower visibility roles?

It is very important to emphasize that New York has done an incredible job under unimaginable circumstances, and I am not criticizing anyone here. It is also evident that ordinary citizens asked to do extraordinary things would understand being "turned away" if other crises were more pressing. But consider how this tragedy could potentially channel the outpouring of emotion and energy to activities that - in the long term - could truly rebuild New York, not simply be a disaster response.

Opportunities Still Exist

Every one of us in the volunteer field can still work towards transforming a tragedy into a new direction. Here are some possibilities:

  • No matter where you are, you can tap the frustration and sense of powerlessness many people have right now by offering them meaningful volunteer roles. This is not "capitalizing on tragedy." It is community action.

  • If your organization is doing any sort of work that directly serves the NY relief effort, your recruitment pitch is obvious. But there are so many other "angles", such as:

  • If you work with children, you can point out how important it is right now to demonstrate caring, role model lack of fear, and create a sense of normalcy. 

  • Similarly, older people may have fearful reactions to the crisis, so volunteers can offer support and caring

  • Many people are turning to the arts - museums, performances - as a respite from horrifying t.v. news. What a great way for volunteers to help others while also surrounding themselves with cultural inspiration.

  • This is also a good time to stress that "returning to normal" means not forgetting causes and issues that still need attention, from AIDS to homelessness to school violence.

It should be noted that some volunteer program leaders have, in fact, already seized the moment and bravo to them. Also, some online sites such as VolunteerMatch <http://www.volunteermatch.org> have made a special effort to respond quickly to the crisis with a long-term view in mind.

Those Millions of Dollars

Interestingly, in recent days there has been a good bit of discussion in the American media about the enormous amount of money raised in the name of the disaster victims. It looks as if the final total of funds will be unprecedented, coming from an endless variety of sources. The media is raising some good questions: How will the money be spent? How can donors be assured it will reach the right people? What will be the effect on financial contributions to "regular" charities, particularly as the December holiday season approaches?

Needless to say, there has not been similar questioning about volunteer involvement. First, let's note that volunteers (board members, at a minimum) will undoubtedly be part of the decision making about the expenditure of the money and its stewardship for future needs, such as scholarships for orphaned children. But I'd hope that someone, somewhere - and it can be YOU and ME - begins to ask what is happening to those volunteers who came forward in crisis and may - or may not - have been well utilized then. Those people are still there to mobilize.

International Year of Volunteers 2001

Many of us in the United States have been critical that our country has done so little to acknowledge the International Year of Volunteers. Maybe we've been given a new chance! Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could celebrate the efforts of the disaster volunteers in the context of all volunteers and IYV2001? We can broaden the applause beyond Ground Zero and note that volunteering brings out the very best of people, everywhere in the world. There is nothing good to say about the events of September 11, but maybe it can unify citizens everywhere in positive ways.

As Rustie Brooke said to me so well: "We are showing that participatory democracy can and does work. IYV is 'International Unity through Volunteerism.'"

Your Response

I feel torn between emotional and cerebral reaction to current events, and it's important to me that this Hot Topic not be misinterpreted as unconstructive or even obstructive - and certainly not as criticism of the extraordinary efforts of so many incredible people (volunteer and paid) whose contributions have been important beyond measure.

I have tried to pose my reflections more as a series of questions for future discussion in volunteerism professional circles. Maybe they're rhetorical or unanswerable. But perhaps together we can decide on the answers we most want to work toward.

Receive an update when the next "News and Tips" is posted!


Permission to Reprint