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Recruitment and Retention
Red Cross Disaster Volunteers

The Australasian Journal of Disaster
and Trauma Studies
ISSN:  1174-4707
Volume : 2009-1

Recruitment and Retention of Red Cross Disaster Volunteers

Christine Steerman Ph.D*, Greater Rochester Area American Red Cross in Rochester, NY. Email: steerman@rochester.rr.com
Valerie Cole Ph.D., Greater Rochester Area American Red Cross in Rochester, NY. Email: vcole@rochester.rr.com
* Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Keywords: disaster, volunteer, retention, disaster mental health

Christine Steerman Ph.D
Valerie Cole Ph.D.

Greater Rochester Area American Red Cross in Rochester
New York


Recent catastrophic disasters have highlighted the unique challenges of recruitment, training, and retention of disaster volunteers. The demand is sporadic and varying with a high rate of turnover. While research exists on volunteers in general, there is a lack of information on disaster volunteers. Regular Disaster and Disaster Mental Health volunteers from the American Red Cross in Rochester, New York were surveyed to explore factors that may contribute to turnover, including motivation, the importance of a specific disaster, and reasons for either becoming inactive or continuing. Results suggested that those who volunteer in response to a specific disaster differ little from those who respond at other times. Similarly, there are few differences between regular disaster volunteers and disaster mental health volunteers other than education and employment variables. Recommendations to improve disaster volunteer retention and future research are offered.

Recruitment and Retention of Red Cross Disaster Volunteers


While catastrophic disasters are not new, events over the last few years have highlighted both the importance and the challenges of volunteer readiness for effective disaster response. Organizations such as the American Red Cross (ARC) have a volunteer workforce trained and ready to respond at all times. However, after the events of September 11, 2001 and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, these agencies found themselves scrambling not only to find volunteers to staff the many sites that needed personnel but to cope with the onslaught of new volunteers. In response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, the American Red Cross opened over 1200 shelters and deployed over 211,000 volunteers (Crossnet, internal Red Cross press release 11/9/05). After the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, the Red Cross was approached by over 51,000 spontaneous volunteers (Hamilton, 2005). This has occurred to a lesser degree during other disaster responses as well. In order to be prepared for the next catastrophic disaster, it is crucial that new volunteers are retained and are prepared to respond.

There is an abundance of literature on volunteerism in general, but very little refers to disaster response volunteer work specifically. The literature that exists generally pertains to emergency medical personnel such as fire and EMT workers (Aitken, 2000; Fahey and Walker, 2002; Points of Light Foundation, 2007). Emergency medical service workers differ from disaster responders in both their roles and the ongoing need for their services. Disaster volunteers such as those in the Red Cross are not “first responders.” They provide basic support such as food and shelter, assistance in accessing other services and mental health support to survivors and first responders but not immediate life saving services. All volunteers for the American Red Cross receive basic disaster response training from the organization. In addition, disaster mental health workers receive additional training and are required to maintain professional licensure in the jurisdiction in which they practice.

Emergency medical personnel are called out on a regular basis for emergencies, whereas disaster workers often experience long periods of inactivity in between major disaster responses. A minority is needed to respond to smaller, routine emergencies. Once the crisis is over, the majority of disaster volunteers may feel that the need for them has ended and leave the organization.

One factor that may influence retention is the motivation that prompts individuals to respond initially. A number of studies have attempted to identify the motivations that lead people to volunteer. Clary’s functional approach (Clary et al., 1998) suggests that volunteers come forward to satisfy at least one of six psychological functions: 1) to enhance self-esteem; 2) to express values; 3) to advance their career experience and skills; 4) to fulfill social needs; 5) to increase or apply one’s knowledge and professional skills; or 6) to protect oneself from negative emotions such as guilt. They propose that volunteers who continue to receive benefits that match their motivations to volunteer will stay with the organization. Gaskin (Gaskin, 2003) pointed out the importance to volunteers of feeling welcome, secure, accepted, respected, informed, well used, and well managed, what McCurley and Lynch (2005) call the “motivational paycheck.” However, it is unclear whether motivations differ for volunteers who respond to specific disasters compared to volunteers who devote their time and energy on a routine ongoing basis. It is possible that the urgency of intense need that is apparent in catastrophic events overshadows motivations such as esteem enhancement or fulfilling social needs. In addition, if volunteers feel unneeded after a crisis is over, they may find that their original motivations for joining are no longer met.

Figures related to retention of volunteers vary depending on the agency and type of volunteer work involved (Aldridge, 2003; Balliette and Goad Smith, 1990; Taylor, et al, 2002). As with motivational research there is a lack of information pertaining to retention of disaster volunteers specifically, although there is some research on the retention of first responders. One study regarding retention of Tasmanian Volunteer ambulance officers (Fahey and Walker, 2002) report that most of the volunteers had been members less than five years.

The American Red Cross polls their volunteers annually with a satisfaction survey, but does not specifically collect retention data. In 2005, the majority of local Red Cross volunteers in Rochester, New York responded positively to this survey, but respondents were not sorted according to their area of volunteering, and only 25% were disaster workers.

Disaster mental health is an area of disaster services that has been seen as increasingly important since the World Trade Center attacks of 2001. However there is limited information about disaster mental health volunteers and whether they differ from other disaster volunteers in their motivation to respond and reasons to continue. Mental health volunteers are required to undergo additional training, maintain professional licensure in order to volunteer, and are often working full time.

This study is an attempt to answer the following questions: 1) Do disaster volunteers who join the American Red Cross in response to a specific, large scale disaster and volunteers who join during non-disaster times differ in their motivations to volunteer or in their reasons to continue? 2) Are there demographic, motivational or retention differences between disaster volunteers who are mental health professionals and those who are not?

It was hypothesized that the motivations are not significantly different between those who respond for a specific disaster and those who do not but that there may be demographic differences. People who volunteer at times of disaster may report more commitments such as a full time job and children still in the home. The urgency of the current disaster may be the impetus needed to step forward to volunteer despite other commitments. This group may be less likely than those with fewer personal obligations to commit to ongoing volunteer work and therefore may not stay active in the organization after the crisis is over. Is the context of their initial decision to volunteer a predictor of retention and if so, are they willing to return in the event of another disaster?

Similarly, it was hypothesized that reported motivations to volunteer do not differ between disaster mental health and other disaster volunteers. However since mental health volunteers are more likely to be working full time, retention variables may differ.

The purpose of this research is to provide suggestions to improve retention of disaster volunteers at times of a catastrophic emergency in a way that maximizes their usefulness and increases the chances that they will come forward again in the event of another large scale emergency. 


Design and Procedure

This study was originally designed to compare active volunteers to inactive volunteers on a number of variables, including motivation, the context of their initial response (during crisis or non-crisis times) and activity (disaster mental health versus other types of disaster volunteers). The plan was to survey respondents in four conditions, active regular disaster volunteers, active mental health volunteers, inactive regular disaster volunteers and inactive disaster mental health volunteers.

Active volunteers were identified by the local chapter and were contacted by mail, and by phone, with follow up contacts by email, when available. Contacts were done by ARC volunteers who are not involved in disaster services.

Inactive volunteers were identified by examining rosters from previous years and contacting volunteers by phone. Unfortunately, the contact information for many of the inactive volunteers was out of date. Repeated attempts to locate these inactive volunteers were unsuccessful.


National headquarters of the ARC sends out a volunteer satisfaction instrument to their chapters annually. This survey is conducted with all volunteers, including those involved in Blood Services, Food and Nutrition Services, Health and Safety Services, and Disaster Services. In order to address disaster volunteering specifically, ten questions were added to the ARC volunteer satisfaction survey. The number of questions added was kept to a minimum to avoid significantly increasing the length of time necessary for completion.

    A second form was developed to be used with inactive volunteers to find out why they became inactive and whether they would become active again. This group is not typically contacted by the Red Cross for their survey. Both forms of the questionnaire are included in the Appendix.

The measures included ratings of the importance of various motivational factors to volunteer. They were also asked whether they had been prompted by a specific disaster to volunteer, and if so, how important was that disaster in their motivation to volunteer. The survey also included questions regarding the degree to which expectations were satisfied during volunteer service and what factors contribute to decisions to continue volunteer service. Finally, participants were asked to rate the importance of various factors for retention of volunteers. All scales were 7-point Likert scales with negative (not at all important or strongly disagree) at the low end and positive (extremely important or strongly agree) at the high end.


The study was originally designed to compare four groups; DSHR active and inactive and DMH active and inactive. Due to the small number of inactive respondents data analysis was done with the three following groups.

  1. Disaster Services Human Resources (DSHR) volunteers are persons who have been trained to be deployed by the American Red Cross. Until 2007, all DSHR volunteers were expected to be available for deployment nationally at least once a year for three weeks. There were 67 respondents out of 382 persons contacted (17%).
  2. Disaster Mental Health (DMH) volunteers are licensed mental health professionals who have gone through additional ARC training to work with disaster survivors and other disaster responders. They were expected to be available for a minimum of two weeks if deployed nationally. There were 43 respondents out of 65 persons contacted (66%).
  3. ARC Inactive Volunteers are disaster volunteers who have chosen to remove their names from the roster of active volunteers. There were 17 respondents out of 67 persons contacted (25%). Sixteen of the inactive volunteers who responded were DMH volunteers. 


Sample characteristics

 Data was incomplete for many participants. As shown in Table 1, the majority of respondents were Caucasian (n = 83, 90.2%), between the age of 41 and 64 years (n = 45, 63.4%) and somewhat more than half of those who reported were female (n = 54, 59.3%) Of the 88 who reported their employment status, 39% were working full time, and 40% were retired, with the remaining working part-time, unemployed, students or homemakers.

Length of volunteer service ranged from 6 months or less (n = 13, 11.8% of total sample) to over 10 years (n = 5, 4.5% of total sample). Of the group who responded, 65.6% (n = 39) were active for two years or less and 42.6% (n =26) were active less than one year. Length of service data was missing for 49 participants.

Table 1. Demographic Data for ARC Disaster Services and Disaster Mental Health
Variable Subcategory DMH DSHR Total n Total %
n = 91
n = 92
African American
n = 92
High School
Some College
College Grad
Post Grad
n = 88
Full Time
Part Time
n = 71
Over 75
Primary Caregiver
n = 107

Notes: ARC refers to American Red Cross; DMH refers to Disaster Mental Health; DSHR refers to Disaster Services Human Resources
Six of the Disaster Mental Health reported education incorrectly, as less than post-graduate level

Disaster-specific vs. non-disaster-specific volunteers

In order to determine whether the urgency of a current crisis was an important factor, the sample was dichotomized on the variable, “How important was a specific disaster in prompting you to join the Red Cross?” Those who answered from 1 to 4 were coded as “non-disaster-specific” (n = 38, 36.2%) and those who answered 5-7 were coded as “disaster-specific” (n = 67, 63.8%). Chi-square analyses were conducted to determine whether there were demographic differences based on this variable. Because of missing data, sample sizes varied. There were no significant differences on ethnicity, age, gender, employment status, or primary caretaker status between those who rated a specific disaster important compared to those who did not.

An analysis of correlations between the importance of the disaster and motivational variables also revealed no significant correlations. Similarly, expectations and retention factors were not significantly correlated with the importance of the disaster.

Of the disaster-specific respondents, 31.7% (n=19) reported that they were deployed to that disaster. A chi-square analysis revealed that being deployed was related to greater length of time in the organization (χ2 (5) = 11.40, p < .05).

Disaster Mental Health (DMH) vs. regular Disaster Volunteers (DSHR)

Mental health volunteers were compared to other disaster volunteers on demographic variables by using chi-square analyses. There were no significant differences on gender, ethnicity, age or status as a primary caretaker.

In order to distribute the sample more evenly among the cells, the employment variable was recoded to reflect participants who worked full-time (n= 34), who were retired (n = 35), and all others (students, homemakers, unemployed and part-time workers (n= 19). Twenty-two participants did not indicate their employment status. As predicted, the two groups (DMH vs. DSHR) differed on employment status (χ2 (2, N = 88) = 16.47, p < .01). Sixty-two percent of disaster mental health volunteers were working full-time compared to only 20% of regular volunteers. In contrast, 55% of regular volunteers were retired compared to 21% of disaster mental health volunteers.

As expected, the groups differed on the education variable (χ2 (3, N = 89) = 18.91, p < .01). Within the disaster mental health group, 85% reported post-graduate training (although six of them must have answered incorrectly since a requirement for Disaster Mental Health Team membership is post-graduate education), whereas only 41% of the other disaster volunteers reported post-graduate training.

A MANOVA conducted to compare motivations to volunteer between DMH and DSHR revealed no significant differences. Inspections of the overall group means showed that “learning something new” (M = 5.38, SD = 1.66), “working with people” (M = 5.58, SD = 1.38), “making a difference” (M = 6.03, SD = 1.38) and “helping people” (M = 6.22, SD = 1.20) were rated highly. “School/church requirements”, “contributing to a resume”, and “filling free time” were seen as less important. Overall satisfaction was not rated differently between DMH and DSHR.

A t-test revealed that regular disaster volunteers (DSHR) rated a specific disaster as more important (M = 5.41, SD = 2.08) than mental health volunteers (M = 3.68, SD = 2.67) (t (103) = -3.49, p <.001). As seen in Table 2, DMH volunteers had higher expectations to work with survivors and first responders, and to use their professional skills. Only 41% of DMH volunteers had been in the organization two years or less (n=11) whereas 85% of DSHR volunteers had been in for that length of time (n=29, χ2 (5) = 16.85, p < .01).

Table 2. Satisfaction and Fulfillment of Expectations of Disaster Volunteer Service
Expectation Area of
Volunteer Work
n Mean Standard
Overall Satisfaction
Importance of
specific disaster **
To work directly
with survivors *
To work with
first responders
To work near
disaster site
To use
professional skills **

* p < .05
** p <.01

Retention factors and reasons to become inactive

For the sample as a whole, Communication, Training, Social Opportunities, and Recognition were all seen as important to retention (M = 6.65, SD =.90, M = 6.43, SD = 1.01, M = 5.25, SD = 1.61, and M = 4.50, SD = 1.80 respectively).

The limited sample size of inactive volunteers hampered the ability to assess differences between active and inactive volunteers. An additional limitation was that all but one of the inactive volunteers who responded were mental health volunteers.

Surprisingly, the factors that we predicted would influence respondents’ reasons for becoming inactive did not appear to be important. Table 3 shows that only Life Changes is rated as somewhat important. “Other” reasons included “not wanting a background check,” and “not being able to fulfill requirements” such as taking updated classes or meeting new licensing requirements. Twelve of the 16 inactive volunteers reported that they would be willing to volunteer again in the future.

Table 3. Reasons to Become Inactive
Reason n Mean Standard
Did not meet expectations
Did not feel valued/needed/was not called

Changes in life circumstances (i.e., illness, job or family situation, moved)


Conflict or personality differences with other Red Cross staff/volunteers

Felt inadequately trained/prepared
Lack of camaraderie/sense of belonging


As seen in Table 4, meeting expectations, camaraderie, enjoying the work and making an important contribution were all significantly correlated with satisfaction for both DMH and DSHR and did not differ between them. The importance of camaraderie was also significantly correlated with the length of time volunteers had been active in the organization (r (50) = 2.93, p < .05). Only 4% of all volunteers reported that their satisfaction was “poor” or “very poor”.

Table 4. Correlations between Overall Satisfaction and Reasons to Continue as a Volunteer
Camraderie Enjoy
.51 **
.35 *
.44 **
.31 *



This study provided an opportunity to explore the motivations of disaster response volunteers. By surveying American Red Cross volunteers in the Greater Rochester Chapter, it became apparent that the motivations for volunteering were essentially the same between volunteers who came forward during a specific disaster and those who volunteered at non-crisis times. Consistent with the functional motivations proposed by Clary et al., the surveyed volunteers reported that feeling valued (self-esteem enhancement) and wanting to help and do something important (expression of values) were primary factors in their decision to volunteer. Although overall motivations did not differ based on whether or not the volunteers responded to a specific disaster, it appeared that deployment to the disaster for which a person responded was positively related with continued involvement in the organization.

The analysis of differences between disaster mental health volunteers and regular disaster volunteers yielded no demographic differences except that DMH volunteers were more likely to be working full-time and were more highly educated. Although there were generally no motivational differences between the two groups, DSHR volunteers rated the specific disaster as a more important factor in their decision to volunteer than DMH volunteers. They had also been active for a shorter period of time, although that may be an artifact of a recruitment drive for shelter workers that was conducted by the chapter shortly before the data was collected.

This study did not find fulfillment of social needs to be a significant motivation to volunteer for disaster work, but did find a positive correlation between camaraderie and length of service in the organization. This suggests that social needs may become more important as volunteers stay involved in the organization.     

Intermittent volunteering is gaining attention as a common occurrence in the field of volunteerism. Fahey and Walker (2001) reported that 74% of ambulance workers who resigned reported they would consider coming back. Therefore, it may be possible to reactivate disaster volunteers in the event of another large scale disaster. Clearly, having en efficient and simple system to keep up with changes in contact information is a critical factor in reactivation of volunteers, as seen by the difficulty we had contacting inactive volunteers.

Reasons to become inactive were addressed but the results should be interpreted with caution due to the small response rate from inactive volunteers. The information obtained did not provide a clear consensus and this question needs further exploration with a larger sample of inactive volunteers.

Recommendations for improving volunteer retention

Maintaining large numbers of available volunteers may not be possible or practical in the interim between large scale disasters. A proportion of volunteers is involved for “the long run” and can handle the day to day routine emergencies that face communities. However, many disaster volunteers are employed and may not have the flexibility to be deployed often, but could be released from their jobs (and family commitments) for certain emergencies. Therefore, it makes sense to plan for this by having two tracks for volunteers:

  1. Volunteers who are interested in an ongoing, regular commitment of time and energy
  2. Those who are willing to be trained and who commit to maintaining accurate contact information for deployment during a major crisis.

Communities/disaster agencies should develop a system for processing and deploying spontaneous community volunteers. An online publication (Points of Light Foundation, 2007) describes the process to put such a plan in place, through cooperative effort across agencies and in collaboration with the local EOC. When this system is in place on the community level, it frees the disaster operations center from the need to handle the influx of new volunteers. As these research findings suggest, efficient processing and deployment when a volunteer first offers his or her time will increase the likelihood that the volunteer will remain with the organization. This could save money and precious time when the next disaster occurs.

We recommend that the following issues be addressed in planning for utilization of spontaneous volunteers and in training:

 Directions for future research in this area include delineating more fully the reasons that volunteers become inactive and what would facilitate their reactivation for subsequent disasters. The relationship between timely deployment and continued involvement needs verification with further research. The potential benefit of regular communication (e.g., a quarterly newsletter or periodic phone contact), training updates, and drills to retention is another area to be explored further.

This study indicated that disaster volunteers are generally satisfied with the volunteer experience itself and are willing to return if individual challenges are overcome. If organizations can capitalize on the impulse to serve that arises because of a specific event and then retain those volunteers, the volunteer disaster response workforce will be better prepared to meet future needs in a world that is likely to continue to experience large–scale natural and human-caused disasters.


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Appendix - Questionnaires for ARC Active and Inactive Disaster Volunteers (PDF 95 kb)


Christine Steerman Ph.D and Valerie Cole Ph.D © 2009. The authors assign to the Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies at Massey University a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The authors also grant a non-exclusive licence to Massey University to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and for the document to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the authors.

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