Organizations need to update old approaches to volunteering to attract the next generation of recruits. Image: Unsplash/Ismael Paramo
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- Climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of natural disasters, and with it, concerns about volunteering numbers at aid agencies keeping pace.
- Jagan Chapagain, Secretary General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, talks to the World Economic Forum about why agility is key to attracting the next generation of volunteers.
- The World Economic Forum and the International Committee of the Red Cross have signed a memorandum of understanding to “further strengthen collaboration and dialogue” between the two organizations.
“In the last few years, the number, frequency and scale of disasters have been phenomenal. And, of course, a lot of them are induced by the changing climate ... So we feel a tremendous pressure of responsibility and lack of resources at the same time.”
This is the stark assessment of Jagan Chapagain, Secretary General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), who joined the humanitarian network as a volunteer in Nepal aged just 14.
Volunteers are the lifeblood of aid organizations' efforts to support communities living through natural disasters. But as the rate and intensity of these events continue to rise, aid groups face mounting pressure to maintain volunteer numbers.
Here, Chapagain speaks to the World Economic Forum about managing relief efforts in a time of multiple crises, what motivates today's volunteers and how organizations can make themselves more attractive to a new generation of young recruits who want to do things differently.
Dealing with disaster
As disasters become more complex and multidimensional, tough decisions must be made to prioritize where and how many resources are sent to support the communities affected.
"We don't have the luxury to say that we can respond to this country and not respond to another country, because our member societies are expected to respond."”
The IFRC has a presence in almost every country and needs to respond to disasters large or small, wherever they occur. Many disaster situations may be too small to feature on international news reports, but they will quickly exhaust local capacity to respond.
“A lot of times, we don't have the luxury to say that we can respond to this country and not respond to another country, because our member societies are expected to respond," Chapagain explains. "So that's how we have designed the tools for responding to a smaller disaster, some crises require a very rapid response."
Promoting domestic volunteers
Humanitarian relief work relies heavily on the efforts of local people giving their time and skills for free. Chapagain says that plans are under way at the IFRC to boost domestic volunteer numbers and, in turn, maximize local resources in countries vulnerable to disasters.
“We have sort of flipped the response mechanism upside down. So the first priority is domestic mobilization, and international mobilization is complementary,” says Chapagain.
How has the World Economic Forum helped initiate a more effective response to natural disasters and humanitarian crises?
“We have a system. We have 191 members and each has a domestic capacity … and when a crisis happens, we can draw down domestic capacity to support the country.”
He cites the COVID-19 response as a good example of the power of local mobilization. A total of 2.5 billion volunteers joined the global response, with 2 billion mobilized domestically by IFRC members, compared to 500 million – around 20% – internationally.
The new age of volunteering
Despite the current gloomy outlook, Chapagain has not noticed volunteer fatigue creeping in – as he says, during the COVID-19 response, volunteer numbers increased.
“When you work for the Red Cross, you wake up in the middle of the night, you drive to a place you have never been, and you support somebody you have never met and probably will never meet again in the future. That's the motivation,” explains Chapagain, citing a Red Cross worker’s explanation of why they volunteer.
“It's very powerful, to be able to do something to make a positive difference in someone else's life.”
“The younger generation wants to volunteer, but they want to volunteer differently. They need a much more agile system of volunteering.They don't have the time and patience, frankly, to fill in five different forms.””
But things are changing. And volunteer organizations need to invest in change, too – adapt their operating models – if they are to attract the next generation of young recruits seeking new ways of doing things.
“The younger generation wants to volunteer, but they want to volunteer differently. They need a much more agile system of volunteering. They don't have the time and patience, frankly, to come and fill in five different forms and wait for two weeks before you get a little paper to say that you have volunteered,” explains Chapagain.
“Younger people self-organize. So we have to transform as an organization to create a platform for self-organization, and we support that. So in many ways, we will be leading from the back, not from the front with future volunteering.
"And then of course the important element is also how do you use the digital capacity, because a lot of volunteers want to volunteer virtually.”
Mental health issues, for example, don’t require the physical presence of a person to provide support, he explains.
Harnessing 'senior power'
Change is also happening at the other end of the age range, where retirees offer a rich source of experienced, knowledgeable and capable volunteers.
“Life expectancies have gone up so much in many countries, but retirees actually have 10 or 15 years of a productive life they want to do something about. And a lot of them have achieved what they wanted to achieve, so now they want to do something good,” says Chapagain.
"When you work for the Red Cross, you wake up in the middle of the night, you drive to a place you have never been, and you support somebody you have never met and probably will never meet again in the future. That's the motivation."”
For retirees, doing something good can include helping to mentor young managers who are joining committees, modernizing supply chains, setting up new systems to conduct reviews, helping develop policy or myriad other functions.
“I started as a volunteer myself. The experience you have – to get a smile on somebody else's face – when you come back home that evening and when you go to bed, you sleep very well. And that becomes the motivation the next morning to wake up and go and do something, something for people you have never met.”
The World Economic Forum and the International Committee of the Red Cross – part of the Red Cross Movement – have signed a memorandum of understanding to “further strengthen collaboration and dialogue” between the two organizations.
*Some quotes have been lightly edited for brevity.
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.
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