After the wave subsides

Andy Fryar February 1, 2005 3
After the wave subsides


By OzVPM Director, Andy Fryar

In last month’s Hot Topic column I wrote about the significant voluntary efforts being poured into the Asian region to aid those countries suffering the effects of the tsunami disaster which occurred on December 26, 2004. Since writing that column, the pace has not let off.

Charitable giving in Australia has echoed that of the international community, with both the private sector and individual citizens giving more than ever before. For example, a charity cricket match in Melbourne raised no less than eleven million dollars, while national commercial television and radio networks joined forces to host a telethon titled ‘Australia Unites’ which raised a further $72 million. Even the Australian government pitched in with nothing less than a one billion dollar relief package – the largest in our nation’s history.

Volunteering has also been high on the agenda. Relief agencies such as the Red Cross, World Vision and Australian Volunteers International have been inundated with offers of assistance for both ‘on-the-ground’ roles in places like Phuket and Sri Lanka and home based roles back here in Australia . Never before have Australians felt such a desire to give ‘en masse’.

But what are the likely long term outcomes of such an outpouring of generosity? Should we, in the volunteerism community celebrate this acknowledgement of the vital work of volunteers and the not-for-profit community, or should we be concerned about the some of the potential longer term consequences that may occur?

Let’s start by examining the many donations of both money and goods that has occurred on such a monumental basis. Australians, by nature, are generous people and the Asian disaster has again demonstrated just what large hearts we all have. However, has the giving to the tsunami crisis been an extraordinary response to an unprecedented crisis, or is it simply the reallocation of donations usually ear marked for other charities?

What will be the longer term financial impact on community based volunteer driven organisations such as the local animal shelter, football club or hospital Auxiliary? Will these groups be met with the response, “sorry, but I already gave to the tsunami disaster” when they stick out their hands for donations later in the year ? Will there be a noticeable decline in the donation of second hand goods through organisations such as St Vincent de Paul stores or Salvation Army Op Shops as these goods are redirected directly to those in Asia ? I know already of one organisation which has had several regular donors inform them that they will direct their donations elsewhere, at least for the short term. What will be the impact of this for both the organisations and the volunteers operating these second hand stores?

The events of September 11, 2001 have already established a precedent, where there was a noticeable decline in general charitable giving after the initial outpouring to support the relief operations. I for one would suggest that we may well see the same trends here in Australia come the second half of 2005 and beyond.

And what of volunteering?

Firstly, one thing we do know is that a tragedy of this magnitude often acts as the catalyst that gets people, who may have been thinking about volunteering, off of their backsides and into the fray!

The reports coming from agencies such as Red Cross, World Vision and any other agency with even a slight tsunami related mission, would suggest that is exactly what is happening. But what are the longer term impacts for the availability of volunteers to non-tsunami related charities?

Although anecdotal, I distinctly remember that following the International Year of Volunteers (IYV) in 2001, there appeared to be a much smaller pool of new volunteers applying for positions at the beginning of 2002. This trend seemingly continued right into 2003 before returning to what might be described as ‘pre IYV’ levels. One theory behind this is that the extra promotion of volunteering opportunities that occurred throughout IYV (and the Sydney Olympics), actually prompted those who had been thinking about joining a volunteer group to do exactly that. This is certainly not a bad thing, it’s just that the ongoing promotion of volunteering that occurred during IYV spurred an action which normally would have occurred over a longer period; hence leaving a lesser pool of willing candidates after the year was over.

Maybe the tsunami disaster too will signal a similar effect – a noticeable decrease over the coming months of new volunteer applicants as a result of the heightened levels of activity happening now.

But perhaps I’m being all a little too pessimistic with my predictions.

One thing that the tsunami has certainly helped to highlight has been the absolutely critical role that volunteers do play – not only in times of international disaster – but in everyday life. So just maybe, out of this tragedy we may witness a new momentum for future volunteerism around the world. This was certainly the case in Japan in 1995 following the magnitude 7 earthquake that hit Kobe , killing some 6,400 people. It has been well documented that the largest legacy to come out of that disaster was a new found understanding of just what citizen participation in activities like volunteering could achieve.

Ultimately only time will tell what the long term effect of this latest tragedy will have on both financial and physical giving. I certainly don’t pretend to have the solutions, but I do have some of the questions which will someday have an answer.

Let’s hear what you think?

  • Do you agree with all (or any) of these sentiments?
  • Are there other important points emerging from the tsunami disaster we have not touched on      as yet?
  • What trends do you think will emerge?




  1. ozvpm_andy April 14, 2012 at 7:35 am - Reply

    Response posted on February 22nd, 2005 by Jayne Cravens, Bonn, Germany

    You wrote:

    “But what are the likely long term outcomes of such an outpouring of generosity? Should we, in the volunteerism community celebrate this acknowledgement of the vital work of volunteers and the not-for-profit community, or should we be concerned about the some of the potential longer term consequences that may occur?”

    How about a third option? What about looking at this as an opportunity to create long-term outcomes, and to reframe the way we talk about volunteering? To me, this was more than an outpouring of support for the people affected by the tsunami; the overwhelming response indicated to me that people are hungry to connect, to not feel so powerless, and to volunteer in such a way as to make a real difference, to feel like they are making a contribution that has value. Perhaps it’s time to look at how we talk about opportunities to volunteer — are we framing opportunities in such a way that shows people they can make a real difference in the issues they care about?

  2. ozvpm_andy April 14, 2012 at 7:35 am - Reply

    Response posted on February 4th, 2005 by Kerrie Spinks, Volunteering Central West, NSW, Australia

    I too have been concerned that the Tsunami Appeal may ultimately result in donor fatigue and that a lot of local organisations will be struggling to raise money for their ongoing activities. My other concern is that there has been a huge contribution made to the Tsunami Appeal, which is a good thing, but the stories of starvation and devastation on the African Continent (to name just one locality) seem to not create much interest. I am sure as many or more people die there each year as were lost in the Tsunami. I am not for a minute ignoring the devastation caused by the Tsunami and I am well aware that there was huge amount of infrastructure destroyed as well as the significant loss of human life.

    I guess my point is that the problem of “in your face” issue attracting volunteers and money as opposed to the “ongoing” issues is something we all need to develop strategies to deal with. If I put on my eternal optimist hat I would say we could educate people to realise that we all need to contribute in terms of hours and money on regular basis and if we did that it would be a wonderful world. However I have realist tendencies too so know that is not going to happen.

    My challenge to our sector is that we all work towards increasing the awareness of ongoing need – maybe one of the first sectors we need to work with is the media. The messages they present doesn’t always help the cause. Our local media highlighted that people were bringing in clothes and toys – and saying what wonderful people we all were. This was despite the fact that they message I was hearing from all the organisations was that the greatest need was for money. The costs alone of transporting clothes and toys back to an area where they were undoubtedly manufactured in the first place seems to be mildly crazy. Surely the greatest need is to re-establish local industry and local industry is not going to benefit from already manufactured goods being shipped in. If the media focussed on that side as opposed to lauding the goods donors it may be a starting point for changing the community perceptions and reactions in time of crisis. It may have the effect of people looking at the issues and the community in general in a more long term fashion.

  3. ozvpm_andy April 14, 2012 at 7:34 am - Reply

    Response posted on February 3rd, 2005 by Richard Irvine, Volunteer Coordinator, Careres NT Inc, Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia

    I can’t help but agree to some extent with the comments. There is an undeniable trend internationally towards episodic volunteering. Short term, one off activities (particularly high profile ones) can attract huge numbers of volunteers who are willing to give up a day or two here and there, or even a couple of weeks. There will be a huge response to volunteer for the Melbourne Commonwealth Games.

    Part of the reason for this is because of the intrinsic recognition that comes with being involved in these events. To tell people you were involved with the Sydney Games, the Melbourne Games or tsunami relief and everyone knows what you are talking about. There is also a lot of official recognition for the volunteeres involved such as uniforms, getting in to see the events free of charge, public thanks and so on. This is not denigrating the work that these people at all. They do a fantastic job and deserve all the recognition they can get.

    But smaller organisations who need regular, ongoing volunteer effort are still finding it difficult to recruit. There is little public recognition of the effort put in by volunteers who just work along quietly in the background making a huge difference in people’s lives.

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