Drop the Bullhorn, Pick Up the Phone – A Better Way to Organize Volunteer Relief in a Crisis

On June 24, 2013, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, megaphone in hand, greeted a throng of up to 6000 eager volunteers assembled at McMahon Stadium. All were there to assist, wherever and however they could, in a city and a province reeling from the worst natural disaster ever in its recorded history.

Floodwaters had submerged Calgary’s core, including its municipal offices, and thousands had been evacuated. Everyone was looking to The City, particularly its gifted and inspiring Mayor, for guidance and direction on how best they could help. While many were put to good use, over five times as many had to be turned away disappointed. 

The City was prepared for 500-600 volunteers. Calgary, however, is a city built and sustained by the volunteer spirit and initiatives of its citizens. It’s also a city full of construction and rig workers with access to all kinds of equipment and other resources and encouraged by their employers to take the time off to help out in the emergency. No surprises then that thousands, not hundreds, heeded the Mayor’s call.

Hindsight is 20/20 and not always helpful when it comes with “could haves” and “should haves” and nothing solid to back them up. However, as developers of made-in-Calgary crisis management mobile application, RallyEngine™, it’s tempting to go back to June 24 and imagine how different the situation might have been.

With RallyEngine, instead of manually signing up only the first 500 volunteers that they could accommodate, the Mayor could have used that megaphone to instruct everyone at McMahon to download the RallyEngine app, input their info, and await further instructions from The City, delivered straight to their mobile phones.

The City could then select precisely those people with the skill-sets and experience needed based on RallyEngine’s capacity to filter people by location, availability, skills and previous experience. In the hours, days and weeks to follow, The City could continue to engage that day’s entire volunteer base as required, again using RallyEngine to identify the people best suited for each subsequent call for assistance.

Effective communication is too often the missing “C” in crisis management. Yet, without effective communication, how can organizations not only choose the right people today but continue the conversation in the coming days, adding to as well as masterfully coordinating and managing their volunteer base in an ongoing manner?

Thankfully disasters are rare. Rarer still, however, is the opportunity to make the best use of volunteer assistance in a disaster and not lose the momentum and connections that can keep volunteers engaged throughout the entire period of disaster relief and recovery. It’s great to rally the troops, but better still to rally them in a way that fully respects and maximizes their potential, their time, and their enthusiasm.

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