Disaster Relief Volunteering

A group of people volunteering and helping with boxes.

We are understandably eager to help those affected by natural or human-caused disasters in any way we can. When considering which ways might have the most positive impact, it is important to consider the complexities of a disaster, such as financial burdens and shelter destruction, as we seek out ways to offer both immediate and long-term aid. Below are just a few ways to lend support. 

Donating money is often the quickest, most efficient way to support a disaster response. Organizations incur significant financial costs to get their staff, equipment, and supplies to the affected region. Your donation helps put experienced disaster responders on the ground and also gives them the appropriate resources to support the situation.

Organizations typically prefer cash donations to material items for several reasons: Cash donations allow organizations to purchase food, water, medicine, and equipment from secure and familiar supply chains. It helps them to buy materials locally, which can help rebuild the local economy and conserve resources.

If you'd like to do more than donate, reach out to the relief organizations to learn more about how you can help. Often their websites will provide up-to-date information on what they need and how to get involved. 

This may include collecting cash or material donations, providing administrative support in the local office, as well as organizing other initiatives in your community that raise awareness about, and funding for, the relief effort.

If you want to volunteer in the disaster zone, here are some things to consider:

  • Logistics and cost: disaster areas are usually characterized by a severe breakdown in the supply of food, water, medicine, and shelter. Traveling safely to the disaster zone and securing room and board may prove expensive and difficult. If going to another country, you may need an entry-visa and immunizations. Despite your best intentions, you may end up being one more person for relief organizations to take care of, and wasting money that could be spent on relief efforts.
  • Mental and physical challenges: disaster responders often have long shifts with little rest, so your physical fortitude and your mental health status are important considerations. Disaster survivors have experienced significant trauma and loss and are likely to experience feelings of anguish, anger, remorse, and pain. As a volunteer, you should be prepared to operate in a charged emotional setting.
  • Don't go it alone: volunteers with specialized knowledge and skills can be very valuable to relief efforts, often by plugging short-term holes in the existing efforts. Individual volunteers acting on their own, and not in cooperation with other organizations, can lead to unnecessary duplication of efforts and add confusion to an already challenging situation.
  • Consider the timing: long after the disaster has passed, victims may need assistance rebuilding their lives and communities. Despite your initial impulse to help, you may be more effective later on in the recovery efforts, rather than as a first responder.

The desire to help is part of what makes us human. It is made even more effective with an attentive ear. That’s why In addition to the relief efforts listed above, consider what’s happening at the local level, and be sure to amplify those voices most as part of your work. Check out our growing network of mutual aid groups for more examples of community-led aid efforts, as well as this article by staff writer Angel Eduardo about “neighbors helping neighbors” during the COVID-19 pandemic.