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Crisis Mappers

SEEKING FEEDBACK: How much is your time worth? ... July 2016

Original article:
Peter Burgess COMMENTARY

Peter Burgess
Gmail Peter Burgess

[CrisisMappers] SEEKING FEEDBACK: How much is your time worth?

Samantha L Wed, Jun 29, 2016 at 8:57 AM


To: CrisisMappers

Hi CrisisMappers!

My name is Samantha Levinson. I am currently working in collaboration with UN-OCHA and the Digital Humanitarian Network, looking to understand how we can calculate the market value of the work contributed by Volunteers & Technical Communities (V&TCs).

I am aware that this topic is controversial; the idea of calculating the worth of volunteer communities poses multiple issues, including the risk of getting the calculations wrong, or the difficulty in measuring the impact of these technical contributions, just to name two.

My current tact for calculating the value of the work done by V&TC’s is to identify how much these services would be worth in other markets. For microtasking organizations, this means identifying analogous public sector data (as such found on Mechanical Turk). For organizations that focus on volunteers with specific skills, I am looking for various sources of information on how much per hour these volunteers would earn if they were undertaking the same work in a ‘for pay’ position.

For this reason, I need your help. I would appreciate any information you might have on the volunteer services you provide, what organization(s) you volunteer with, and, if you do the same work in a fee-for-service capacity or for a paying organization, what are the industry standards for those specific tasks. In addition to information about your specific activities, I would appreciate any feedback you might have about the idea in general.

I’ve attached a link to a Google Form here to help curate feedback:

Please feel free to respond with questions/comments via this thread as well. For confidential questions or comments, I’m also available at

Best, Samantha
Catherine Kane Thu, Jun 30, 2016 at 6:38 AM Reply-To: To: CrisisMappers

Hi Samantha,

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) undertook a study on this topic. You can find it at

I hope this helps.

Kind regards, Catherine Kane
Carl Taylor Sat, Jul 2, 2016 at 9:07 AM Reply-To: To: CrisisMappers , Meen Chhetri

Dear Samantha

No doubt volunteers play a highly valued role in crisis response and in filling in many gaps of daily care, support and assistance. However, I think its hard to truly calculate the 'value of volunteers' because they come in many sizes and shapes from differing organizations. I saw Catherines' very well done paper sent to you in response. Let me try to offer some balancing concerns from disaster response experience. There are factors (I have listed a few below), which actually adversely impacts the overall 'value of volunteers'. It strikes me these should be part of your research. My point is there are organizations where the value of volunteerism is high and there are other organizations where that is not the case. Because of the unevenness of organizations, it is difficult to have a one size fits all perspective. At some point beyond the positives, efforts need to be made to identify highly effective organizations from ones that are not effective, are poorly motivated, or cause far more harm than good.

Some of the mitigating factors which adversely impact the value of volunteers are :
  • a. Volunteers who arrive in country ill prepared for the challenges they are facing and because of poor preparedness actually put more pressure on local responders. Katrina and Haiti certainly come to mind.
  • b. Volunteers who arrive for purposes other than doing good. Human trafficking is a good example of unknown individuals who arrive seemingly to help but in fact have no such intent. Tsunami response one such example.
  • c. Volunteers who arrive detached from local response structures and as such often set up initiatives which are counter to in-country efforts. This was certainly present in Haiti, though to be fair there was so little organization in Haiti I will confess to doing the same thing. If you ever google any of Tiffany Keenans writings from that time you will get a better sense of the challenges of the clashes of dueling organizations.
  • d. Volunteers or organizations who use a disaster for photo opps and fund raising without making actual contributions to the impacted countries. Nepal and Haiti come to mind.
  • e. Volunteers or organizations who use a disaster to fly in for a week-demo some product or resource they wish to sell and then fly back taking with them experiences and leaving nothing behin

    d. Nepal qualifies as an example of this.
  • f. Volunteers or organizations who stay is too short. The community begins to rely on care, supplies, or assistance until one day the tent is pulled up and everyone has gone back to their homes and lives.
  • g. Volunteers or organizations who stay too long. Free is the enemy of economic recovery. The Gulf Coast after Katrina was actually adversely impacted from economic recovery because of free medical clinics, stores etc. Disasters (slow moving or rapidly occurring) are economic events. Care must be taken to rebuild resilience or as Nepal has adopted as its slogan to 'build back better'.
  • h. Volunteers with the best of intentions but who actually cause harm or bring harm to the very people they are trying to serve- Cholera in Haiti an example.

I would be remiss then not to offer some short tips for creating high value volunteerism:
  • a. Be known to the countries before an event occurs. I always say there are three kinds of volunteers. Those I know (high value), those I do not know but come from organizations which have the skills, planning, capability and structure to be successful (also high value), and those I do not know either the organization or the people. These are the groups that plop on my shore and say hi I am here to help expecting me to spend the time to figure out how to manage them. (generally though not always-these are low value volunteers).
  • b. Have clear response goals in mind. Set expectations early. We are here to accomplish this, for this period of time, with this approach.
  • c. Be transparent in fund raising and expenses. I know there are organizations out there which help keep score, and these transparency scores should directly impact the 'value of volunteers'.
  • d. Be mindful that of all the things you do, the one thing you should leave behind is knowledge. I once asked a friend of mine at HHS/ASPR what his goals were for my disaster training program. He said- that you do such a good job that when disaster strikes you do not have to ever call me. There has to be a focus on resilience in the countries you serve. The real score card is- how did we contribute to the country becoming more capable and self managing. This includes not only physical skills, but in creating in country organizations with trust and transparency, which can also raise funds, deploy resources and develop .org capabilities in their own right. Not an easy task and if we ever meet I will share a Honduras story that does not have a happy ending.
  • e. Be respectful. The individuals you come in contact have skills as well as needs. They understand the culture and community at the deepest level. After you are gone, they will remain. You may be volunteering to help but the citizens you come in contact with are your partners in ensuring your success.
  • f. Keep score. Develop an ability to track and measure outcomes. Outcomes can be numbers of people served, cured, vaccinated, fed. Outcomes can be measuring the effectiveness of organizations or individuals you have trained after you leave. Regardless, an outcome is not a process, it is a journey, a goal and a destination. If you do not measure your effectiveness in volunteerism you are unlikely to be effective.

Just random thoughts

Alex Rose Sun, Jul 3, 2016 at 12:10 PM Reply-To: To: CrisisMappers Cc:

Carl- Excellent perspective and points!

Samantha- This article is broader than your initial focus on market value, but I expect that you will find the wider context quite relevant:

Eystad, M. (1997). Measuring the difference volunteers make: A guide to outcome evaluation for volunteer program managers. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Department of Human Services.

Carl Taylor Sun, Jul 3, 2016 at 1:36 PM Reply-To: To: CrisisMappers Cc: Meen Chhetri


Many thanks. Your link to measuring the difference is absolutely on point. What I suspect is true is that most volunteers want to make a difference. They want to have value. They want to go home and feel they have contributed in a meaningful way to alleviating suffering, improving conditions, or advancing opportunities for those who they have been called to serve.

Against that backdrop of a genuine desire to serve and make a difference you have the realistic experience on the ground. That experience may see volunteers as having far less value and in fact being disruptive or even harmful to recovery. I mentioned Dr. Tiffany Keenan. Here is a blog about her during the earlier days in Haiti post earthquake I spoke with Tiffany frequently during those times and understood her frustration. I also knew two of the doctors in Haiti working long hours, with no supplies, performing those amputations that she rails against. They were skilled surgeons, who genuinely believed they were doing the right thing. They donated their time, their supplies and worked without expecting anything in return. They did what they thought was right at the time under the circumstances. At the moment of their work they would have been identified as high value volunteers. Unfortunately time has diminished those accomplishments. They were seen as procedure happy surgeons, with woeful post amputation surgical site infections. Leaving behind a legacy of disabled Haitians where there are few (or no) rehab programs or job opportunities. Their medical judgment was questioned including by local physicians (who were in scant supply) who suggested many of the surgeries were unnecessary. When the Japanese tsunami occurred Japan passed a law barring American doctors from volunteering. There was even an editorial cartoon of American surgeons with axes and saws rushing towards Japan to prey on the injured.

Hence the value of volunteers in disasters, is more than just believing you are doing the right thing. It is doing the right things correctly in concert with others whose local knowledge, practices, customs and requirements amplify your effectiveness. By doing the right things correctly your outcomes can indeed be measured not just by the organizations plan but hopefully by asking the very people you are assisting and others in the community as sort of disaster based CAHPS approach.

During Haiti my greatest moment of frustration came from an American doctor who had convinced his hospital to donate a very expensive and large piece of surgical equipment for an operating room. The Air Force obliged by transporting it on a flight that instead should have contained medicines and food. Once in Haiti the doctor realized there were no biomedical engineers, no a/c, little to no power and no one on the ground that knew how to use the equipment. I suspect it is now an artificial reef somewhere.

Tiffany turned her frustrations into action. She descended on the Jacmel airport and became the emergency medical incident commander. She organized where volunteers were needed and routed them accordingly. Most mission medical groups landed without a plan or with a plan that all had them going to areas already awash in volunteers. Tiffanys approach increased the value of these volunteers by putting them around Haiti where the need was greatest.

I know I have now gotten Samantha way way off track for which I apologize but value = worth and perhaps that is the right one question - at the moment in time what was the volunteer worth to those they served.

all my best carl
Samantha L Thu, Jul 14, 2016 at 10:41 AM Reply-To: To: CrisisMappers

Hi Catherine,

Thanks for the reference!

Best, Samantha
Samantha L Thu, Jul 14, 2016 at 10:51 AM Reply-To: To: CrisisMappers

Dear Catherine,

Thank you for your reference! It was an interesting study to read.

Best, Samantha
Samantha L Thu, Jul 14, 2016 at 10:54 AM Reply-To: To: CrisisMappers Cc:

Dear Carl,

Thank you for taking the time to post such a thorough reply! I would be interested to know how you conceptualize some of these challenges/negative side effects of volunteers transferring to digital volunteers (those who don't - at least as obviously - participate for on-the-ground personal benefits as you described).

I also find your suggestions for creating better volunteers very useful; the idea of measurement speaks really to my academic training and in fact is one of the reasons spurring this project - metrics help us track success and make strategic decisions.


Samantha L Thu, Jul 14, 2016 at 10:55 AM Reply-To: To: CrisisMappers Cc:

Dear Alex,

Thank you for the reference, it has helped me better contextualize my work.

Best, Samantha
Jim Wilson Thu, Jul 14, 2016 at 11:42 AM Reply-To: To: Cc: Meen Chhetri

As regards to the value of volunteers, it was a network of volunteers in the Haiti Epidemic Advisory System (HEAS) who provided tip information regarding the United Nations Mirebalais base and its recent deployment of Nepalese troops. This then prompted media attention placed on that base and hence insurance that the UN would be held accountable for the accidental introduction of cholera to Haiti. To this day, the UN continues to deny its involvement despite genomic sequencing proving the origin of the pathogen.

Controversial, yet an important aspect of humanitarian aid: do no harm.

James M Wilson V, MD FAAP
Carl Taylor Thu, Jul 14, 2016 at 2:01 PM Reply-To: To: CrisisMappers Cc: Meen Chhetri

I actually like the concept of digital volunteers and think perhaps their role has been underestimated (assuming you can organize a community and channel activity).

I tend to think we would be better at disasters if the structures we used looked like a mash up of Google, Twitter, Amazon, Facebook and Instagram, and if anyone knows how to do that let me know- I have a team in Nairobi that would love to chat.

Some quick thoughts:

Disasters tend to take the region from digital to analog in a heartbeat for varying lengths of time.

Yet citizens, responders, physical volunteers and leaders still need to accomplish a series of tasks generally falling into two buckets- situational awareness (knowing what is going on) and surge capacity (dealing with displaced populations of the well, not so well and deceased).

Virtual volunteers can provide two things- knowledge and stuff. Knowledge drives situational awareness. Stuff promotes effective surge capacity management.

However for those on the ground now in analog mode the idea of using google to find information does not work. But someone sitting in a Boston apartment for instance in fact can connect, harness data, share responses.

So those on the ground with txt resources may find it easier to communicate outside of the impacted area than in it. Those outside the area may be able to find knowledge or in a perfect world get vendors to participate in real time bidding to deliver stuff that is actually needed rather than clogging up space on planes with things that are not.

There is a lot missing in my perfect world. The biggest is trust. NGOs, govt, military, .org and .com entities do not natively trust each other (in my opinion). The second is some kind of structure which reduces the noise of lurkers, promotes effective digital response and connects digital responders to physical responders to close the loop. Southern Command/ Pac Com made a good effort in Haiti using something called APAN. But because APAN had the dna of a .mil resource I am not sure it was as successful as it could have been.

In order to build trust and structure and capability to be counted on for real solutions when 'it' happens, the relationships are best built in advance of an event. Not that they cant be created during an event, but disasters always promote way too much confusion and stuff that does not work, which impedes my ability to know if I really need a generator in Port Au Prince-can I count on Samantha to deliver it.

Finally in a talk I gave this week for the VA on Zika I said one of the other problems we have is the fact that in the US and internationally many public health agencies are themselves still stuck in an analog world using plans created during the Civil Defense days when we were concerned about putting heads under our desks when we were nuked. The digital natives (I am not one as you have guessed but at least I try) are not yet in a position of power to move the needle on how we use virtual response and digital resources. No one has stepped forward to Uberize disasters. But there ought to be room for a dialog in that direction (I think)

all my best carl
Peter Burgess Thu, Jul 14, 2016 at 6:28 PM Draft To: CrisisMappers Cc: Meen Chhetri , Jim Wilson , Samantha L , Carl Taylor , Alex Rose , Catherine Kane

The text being discussed is available at

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