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Mobilising and managing spontaneous volunteers during national and international emergencies, including COVID-19

Research conducted at AMBS into mobilising spontaneous volunteers has significantly informed and improved responses to UK and international emergencies, including COVID-19.

“This national guide to coordinate SVs has led to a necessary and unprecedented national public policy, which will bring exponential benefit to Argentina.”

(Minister of Government and Security, Argentina)

Addressing misperceptions around Spontaneous Volunteers (SVs) during emergency responses

In 2015, the value of Spontaneous Volunteers (SVs) during emergency situations was not widely understood. SVs were often viewed as an inconvenience with potential to hinder emergency responders without careful management. Approaches and practices for managing SVs varied widely, and there was documented tension between SVs and official response organisations.

As a result, Professor Duncan Shaw developed a new International Standard (ISO) for managing emergencies: ‘Guidelines for planning the involvement of spontaneous volunteers’. Published in 2017, the ISO is available in five languages and sold in 24 countries. The guidelines were informed by Shaw’s research into UK emergency responses, including SV involvement in UK flood emergencies and international responses, including Shaw’s research with Dr Jerry Moreno into female SVs during the 2010 Chilean earthquake and tsunami.

Designing and implementing new policies and practices for managing SVs

International Standards provide an international consensus on management practices and standards for companies and organisations of diverse sizes also provide significant economic and social benefits to organizations adopting them. Shaw’s ISO guidelines offered the first planning framework for managing SVs for governmental emergency managers. Following the ISO guideline publication, Shaw has:

  • Assisted English Local Authorities in converting SV guidance into policies and emergency response practices.
  • Joined the National Committee on Spontaneous Volunteers (NCSV), formed by the UK Cabinet Office, and informed UK government national guidance on SVs (2019).
  • Influenced local and national government policy and practice in Chile and Argentina.

This work has developed interventions that have allowed SVs to be deployed effectively in response to natural and man-made emergencies, including earthquakes, tornadoes and the COVID-19 pandemics.

Informing Local Authority policies and practices in the UK

From 2016 onwards, Shaw worked with Local Authorities (LAs), including in Lincolnshire and Somerset, to develop and implement SV planning frameworks. Shaw’s research provided baseline knowledge for developing these frameworks and informing guidance for the management of SVs.

Using insights from Shaw’s research, the British Red Cross (BRC) initiated its own SV scheme in 2017, the Community Reserve Volunteer [CRV] programme, which now has 88,000 CRVs, over 3,500 of whom have been deployed during COVID-19 to support over 80,000 people.

Similarly, in 2020, Essex County Council instigated one of the largest volunteer recruitment drives to assist vulnerable people during COVID-19, recruiting 3,600 people to help Essex Welfare Services.

Influencing UK national government policy

Shaw’s work was also critical to the development of UK government’s national guidance on SVs in 2019. Following his work with LAs, the UK Cabinet Office invited Shaw onto the National Committee on Spontaneous Volunteers (NCSV), involving him as the only academic along with 10 senior practitioners.

The guidance states that it “was developed based on existing Local Resilience Forum activity, with special recognition for the examples provided by Lincolnshire LRF, Somerset LRF, the University of Manchester and British Red Cross”.

Influencing policy and practice in Chile and Argentina

In Chile, the Ministry for Youth (INJUV) secured significant government funding to implement the international standards in 16 regions of the country. INJUV created a government department to manage SVs, which provides support to other national and local organisations. INJUV funding from the National Commission for Scientific and Technological Research was used to develop an online app for SVs to register before arrival at a volunteer centre.

Subsequently, in 2018, the Ministry of Security of the Republic of Argentina also invited Shaw and Moreno to develop an SV plan for Neuquén Province (population 620,000).

In Chile the benefits of the increased capacity for managing SVs were evident during COVID-19. In December 2020, Chile had over 560,000 confirmed cases and 15,680 deaths. Activating the SV plan, INJUV established a national online platform to register and train SVs to support vulnerable people in the country. More than 3,000 individuals registered and over 300 SVs were deployed to provide vulnerable people with food and medicine.


In summary, Shaw’s work has been instrumental in developing an international standard for involving spontaneous volunteers (SVs) in emergency responses. His work has also informed policies and practices for managing spontaneous volunteers in the UK, Chile and Argentina, and improved the capacity of UK Local Authorities to respond effectively to emergencies, including the COVID-19 pandemic.

Further reading:

Launch of National Consortium for Societal Resilience [UK+]

Recovery and renewal from Covid-19: A year of The Manchester Briefing

AMBS cited in House of Lords report on resilienceAMBS cited in House of Lords report on resilience

Alliance Manchester Business School takes lead on new standard for disaster volunteers