When a disaster occurs, people volunteer their assistance for the aid of those affected. Broadly, this assistance can be donations of money or goods, loans of equipment, and donations of time and labour. In the ‘disasters’ and ‘sociology’ literature, these actions are described as emergent behaviour, convergent behaviour and, in the case of volunteers themselves, spontaneous behaviour. This report is based on applied social research with people who spontaneously volunteered to assist others affected by a major disaster, and who had registered formally with an agency.
Volunteering is a ‘gift of time to the community and involves elements of choice’ (Oppenheimer and Warburton 2000:3). Volunteering can be ‘formal’, that is through organisations, or ‘informal’, which is not through organisations and is often domestic in nature. Volunteering is very much associated with a desire to contribute to society, co-operative altruism, and reciprocity (Oppenheimer and Warburton 2000). This gift is never more apparent than in times of a disaster, when spontaneous volunteering occurs.
‘Spontaneous volunteers’ are those who seek to contribute on impulse—people who offer assistance following a disaster and who are not previously affiliated with recognised volunteer agencies and may or may not have relevant training, skills or experience (Drabek and McEntire 2003). Most of the academic literature on spontaneous volunteers appears to be from the sociological perspective, focusing on the types of groups that emerge, the changing nature of groups as they respond to a disaster, or how government and other organisations deal with an influx of volunteers (Drabek and McEntire 2003, Fritz and Mathewson 1957, Rodriguez et al 2006).