Public Managers, Volunteer Organizations, and Disasters: Emergency Managers Need Clear Working Relationships with Nonprofits and Charitable Organizations That Assist Disaster Victims

By Sylves, Richard | The Public Manager, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Public Managers, Volunteer Organizations, and Disasters: Emergency Managers Need Clear Working Relationships with Nonprofits and Charitable Organizations That Assist Disaster Victims


Sylves, Richard, The Public Manager


Public managers often interact with the people of established voluntary nonprofit, charitable organizations, especially in times of local or state disasters, whether or not those events receive presidential declarations of major disaster or emergency. This article explains for public managers how these bodies have organized themselves to coordinate the delivery of services and commodities they provide to victims of disaster; describes what they do with respect to disaster mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery; and examines important issues surrounding the "dos" and "don'ts" of public managers' working relationships with these organizations and their members.

When a disaster or emergency transpires, government emergency management officials usually cannot be sure how much post-disaster help voluntary organizations are able to provide. Often, voluntary organizations augment government disaster assistance and furnish outstanding help to both disaster victims and responders. However, voluntary organizations are sometimes "in over their heads," only modestly involved in offering assistance or completely disengaged. Clearly, many voluntary organizations were overwhelmed for days by the human needs created by Hurricane Andrew in south Florida in 1992 and Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast in 2005, especially in and around New Orleans. Remarkably, the American Red Cross was one of those temporarily overwhelmed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but it opened thousands of evacuation shelters for those displaced by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma. It raised over $2 billion for disaster relief, more than any other nonprofit private entity, and directed it to victims of these hurricanes.

Unfortunately, some nonprofit organizations are reluctant to offer disaster assistance if they have problems or disagreements with those needing help. For example, some organizations are reluctant to aid undocumented aliens, corrections parolees, mentally ill homeless people, HIV-AIDS victims, or people of religious faiths or cultures drastically different from their own. In 1992, some organizations were slow or unwilling to help victims of the Los Angeles riots.

The Voluntary Nonprofit

A voluntary nonprofit organization serves a community free of charge or for a minimal cost required to defray the cost of the services furnished. Financial sup port for voluntary agencies is generally through donations, contracts, and grants. Private, nonprofit organizations are legally characterized by holding the special nonprofit federal tax-exempt status, (501) (c)(3). Many provide educational, utility, emergency, medical, rehabilitation, temporary or permanent custodial care (including those for the aged and disabled), or other facilities that produce essential services for the general public.

Voluntary nonprofit organizations, community service groups, and religious organizations that provide assistance in the aftermath of a disaster or an emergency are often referred to as VOLAGs, or voluntary agencies. VOLAG involvement in disaster response and recovery has a long history in America. For example, in 1905, Congress mandated that the American Red Cross

"continue and carry on a system of national and international relief in time of peace and apply the same in mitigating the sufferings caused by pestilence, famine, fire, floods, and other great national calamities, and to devise and carry on measures for preventing the same."

Similarly, the Salvation Army, a recognized church, has been providing disaster relief assistance since 1899.

A great many not-for-profit and volunteer organizations in the United States have an interest and a role in emergency management. Organized volunteer resource groups come in a great variety of forms. (See the NVOAD membership below) Many voluntary nonprofit organizations are involved in disaster mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery efforts. …

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Public Managers, Volunteer Organizations, and Disasters: Emergency Managers Need Clear Working Relationships with Nonprofits and Charitable Organizations That Assist Disaster Victims
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