4 Questions to Ask Before Digitally Volunteering for the Nepal Earthquake Response

In the aftermath of the Nepal Earthquake, we all want to help the people of Nepal recover and rebuild. Giving money to vetted organizations that are working on the ground is a great way to help. But many of us, called by empathy for those suffering, want to do more.
Over the past few years, technology has opened the door for digital volunteering – allowing anyone with a computer to boot up and contribute to the efforts. This is a great alternative for those that feel giving money seems too passive and impersonal and crave the rewarding feeling of actually doing something.
However, before you contribute your time and skills, it is important to think critically about if and with whom you should volunteer. Here are the 4 questions that Jessica Heinzelman and I ask ourselves before volunteering for Nepal, or any disaster response:

  1. Do I have the time?
    Volunteering should not be thought of as a passing commitment, finished after an afternoon hackathon. Volunteering your time, especially in disaster response, should be a serious commitment to long-term change. Please be brutally realistic with your ability to add a new activity into your already hectic daily life, and commit to continuing the activity for the duration of the need.
  2. Do I have relevant skills?
    Now is not time to learn how to code node.js or read Nepalese. If you don’t already have the specialized skills or knowledge needed for an intervention, consider fundraising instead, or growing your skills through a lower-risk digital volunteering activity that you might deploy next time there is an acute need. Inaccurate data analysis or mischaracterization of a map feature could cost lives on the ground.
  3. Is the activity relevant?
    It can be easy to turn on our computers and feel like we are doing something that is making a difference. The fact is, the real impact happens on the ground and your analysis, maps or data should be clearly integrated into on-the-ground response mechanisms.
    If you are unsure, employ Jessica’s WWHD rule: What would a humanitarian do? If you were to explain your volunteering role and/or organization to people in humanitarian response, would they agree that it is valuable? What may seem logical to you and I, may be a luxury in the midst of crisis. Responders on the ground are brutal at prioritization and triage – there is too much to do. If your work is making the essentials easier, great! If not, your work is likely for naught.
  4. When should I stop?
    In the immediate aftermath of a disaster there is clear benefit of engaging a virtual workforce that is removed from the chaos and affected infrastructure, but know when to stop. If your work could be done better by those with local knowledge, hand it over when they have the capacity. And keep in mind that once the country starts rebuilding, and skilled staff start looking for work to earn the money they need to recover, volunteering could take away from the recovery process itself.

After our own analysis of these questions, Jessica and I are taking our own advice. We have opted not to volunteer our tech skills due to a variety of considerations. Instead, we are using our organizing skills to create a Nepal earthquake fundraiser in Washington, DC.
Please sign up here if you’d like to help design or participate in the event.