Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Just how valuable are those volunteer hours?

Just as important as technology is in helping to bring people together to capture the outpouring of support in coordination and communication following disasters, are the people who drop what they're doing to help--the Volunteers.

Volunteers are a lifeline following an event, they do everything from feeding to working at points of distribution, to mobilizing cleanup operations, as well as advocate for those who may not have a voice. Their actions save affected homeowners time and money through sweat equity in cleanup activities and voice unmet needs that traditional emergency management may not be able to identify. But beyond the direct benefit homeowners receive by welcoming groups of volunteers into their homes / onto their properties, is the potential financial benefit that the impacted municipality can reap if the Volunteer hours and tracked and properly reported.

The reimbursement of Volunteer hours for work done on private property is something that few people know about, and fewer people understand. But given the potential for offsetting some of the financial burden incurred by communities cleaning up, one would think that this would be common knowledge--as far as I is not.

The process of reimbursement for Volunteer hours after a disaster has long been a question that many national non profits and community based organizations have asked, but due to the ambiguity surrounding whether the work Volunteers do qualifies for reimbursement has been difficult to get a straight answer to. The stories of the millions of dollars Volunteers saved the city of Joplin through meticulous hours tracking and reporting are the stuff of legend, but yet when I have asked for guidance on the process, who to talk to, and ultimately who had the authority to make that determination, I've gotten a variety of answers.

The question(s)
Who can responding organizations go to prior to engaging in cleanup activities to get a clear answer on whether or not the hours worked on private property by Volunteers are eligible for municipal reimbursement under the Stafford Act? In addition, if hours are applicable, what metrics need to be tracked for reporting and who does that reporting go to?

Cost Share
Often referred to as "the soft match," a community can apply the documented value of Voluntary labor for certain activities against the amount they owe the Federal government to offset costs. As an example, if the Federal government is covering 75% of the costs and the municipality 25%, then Voluntary hours could be applied to reduce the financial burden owed by the city. If you want more info on this check out FEMA's Public Assistance Applicant Handbook page 6.

This is a great way to communicate and reinforce the natural desire people have to help a community in need, and to promote the value of affiliating Volunteers with organizations who can provide this added benefit to an impacted municipality. However, the fact remains that few know or understand how to navigate this process, and the perceived nuance that pervade the mechanics of securing a designation and all the requirements that go with it only add to the mystery.

While I could write a lot on the subject, the bottom line is that after reading through FEMA's:
And speaking with FEMA and reps from impact municipalities, I still don't feel I know what the triggers are to start this process, who on the ground makes that determination (because in my experience it's not the FCO as some of the documentation indicates), if the act of bringing debris to the curb of private property (the majority of the activity Volunteers engage in) is covered, who ultimately to report the information to, and whether or not there is a template that exists that you can give to community's to help them jump start the process.

While this is an esoteric topic, the benefits of gaining clarity around the issue could be far reaching. As previously stated, with the proliferation of spontaneous response groups sprouting up after events, untold numbers of Volunteer hours are going un-reported. If there was a concise way to show the value in following guidelines on tracking Volunteer hours, I believe it would work to bring more groups to the table around a common cause--helping individuals and families while also advancing the goal of community-wide recovery.

If anyone has or can gain insight based on the linked documents, please leave I am by no means the expert, just someone who knows the importance of gaining clarity around this issue.

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