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Using Social Media to Leverage Volunteers after Disasters

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Our visits to Vermont’s flood-impacted communities reveal several compelling stories of how towns used social media to help recover from Tropical Storm Irene. Part of this social media effort was to assist with the dissemination of vital information, organize volunteer efforts, and attract donations to help with the recovery process.

Perhaps the most poignant of these stories was told in the southern Vermont town of Wilmington, where Facebook was described as “key” to recovery. “You couldn’t get out to the road, but you had Facebook,” said members of the local kick-off team, which included Wilmington Town Manager, Scott Murphy, and a host of other community stakeholders. The Facebook group was created by a second-home owner from Washington State and it became instrumental in harnessing virtual volunteers and in raising money for flood relief and recovery. Within just a few weeks after Irene, the Facebook group raised $1.5M in donations. Today, the Southern Vermont Deerfield Valley Relief Support Network has 1,500 members and is still very active in local volunteerism and area events.

Community stories like this have focused our decisions as we began to work with our partners at IBM. We are very fortunate that the work directly conducted by the Vermont Digital Economy project staff and partners is being augmented by targeted strategic assistance from IBM, through the deployment of IBM Service Grants which contribute matching funds to the project. Introduced in 2010, IBM Services Grants enable recipient not-for-profit organizations to enhance their IT infrastructure, leadership, and technology skills.

Because of stories like those told about Wilmington, the first IBM Service Engagement deployed through our project will be a “Strategies for Social Media” workshop for Vermont’s emergency managers and their extended partners. This workshop is designed to leverage social media to organize volunteers and community groups. The workshop will be hosted by the Vermont Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security (DEMHS) at the State Emergency Operations Center in Waterbury, on September 23th.

“In an increasingly connected world in which individuals self-organize using online platforms and tools, Vermont’s emergency planners anticipate that those looking for volunteers and those looking to volunteer will use social media to coordinate disaster response, regardless of what volunteer management systems are in place,” said Jason Gosselin, Operations and Logistics Chief at the Vermont Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security.

Based on input from DEMHS and others, we have asked IBM to convene a focused group of state, regional, and local stake holders in disaster recovery to help the larger team create a road map for leveraging social media to harness volunteers. Leaders from several areas will be invited to attend the IBM workshop that is designed to help nonprofit organizations plan and use social networking media. The Vermont Council on Rural Development is the nonprofit that applied for and received this IBM Service Grant.

“This is my first opportunity to put together an IBM Strategies for Social Media workshop and I am really looking forward to it,” said Marian Lawlor, Manager of Corporate Citizenship & Corporate Affairs at IBM. “I am so impressed by all of the consultants who implement these service grants; they are truly experts in their fields.” Lawlor, who is based in Essex Junction, has worked for IBM in Vermont for 40 years. She is assisting the Vermont Digital Economy Project in implementing all of the IBM service grants that will support the project.

The value of this donation from IBM is $32,000. It includes strategic work with the consultants prior to the workshop through pre-workshop assignments and a day-long workshop, with the morning session focused on social media tools and how to use them and an afternoon session on plan creation and execution strategies. A few months after the workshop, the team will assemble again to go over the specific “road map” to achieve stated objectives.

This strategic assistance from IBM is expected to make Volunteer Management following a disaster in Vermont proceed more efficiently, by enabling both emergency planners and local community emergency management directors to better harness the power of social media in matching-up volunteers with those in need.

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