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Remembering Who We Work For

David Burke

David Burke, the Director of Field Operations, graduated from the University of Iowa where he majored in business, bicycle maintenance, and beer snobbery. He served just under 5 years in the Marine Corps as a logistics officer and he deployed to Iraq with RCT-8 and to Afghanistan with the 2d Marine Division. David finished active service as a Captain in Quantico, VA, supporting the M1A1 Tank and M88 Recovery Vehicle. After a short stint in consulting, David and his wife, Amanda, traveled the US logging 1000’s of miles on the road and 100’s with a backpack.

I was recently in a meeting when a retired flag officer from the other ground service (sorry, sir, we can’t all be Marines) asked me:

What would be the impact if our partnership efforts suddenly doubled your member base?

I had just finished discussing the investments we’re making currently in training development and delivery, which we know are already lagging behind the engagement we need to reach and keep 25,000 members so I stopped to think. Now he’s asking me to consider 50,000, basically overnight. 

I started with an explanation of our mid-term goal of reaching 75,000 members, that didn’t actually answer anything, and my Army inquirer saw right through that. I switched to telling him about our current fundraising efforts to hire a larger training team to catch up with and get ahead of our training needs or that we could even double down and seek more funding if necessary, that wasn’t quite right either. I landed on the fact that there are disasters today to which our current member capacity, and that of all our VOAD partners, cannot respond to meet the entirety of the need or cannot respond at all.

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As a volunteer organization, this calls into question many of the things we do and forced me to think twice about how we do them. 

  1. First, what’s the real number? We know we’ve had over 25,000 people register but, for any given operation, consistently see between 2 and 10 percent of those we contact answer the call. A little daunting, but I will venture to say the real number is still 25,000. Something moved an individual strongly enough to register – they’re still committed to serve, but as a volunteer. Their time will come when the need and the rest of their life align. That’s not the only challenge, our most active members,our volunteer leaders, commit more than could ever be requested, and this sometimes results in over-work and burnout. This is a unique challenge and frequently avoided, but the reality is that we need to make opportunities for new leaders step up and share the load. The talent and desire exist – we need to find the best way to maximize it.
  2. Second, training standards? 25,000 registered, about 1,700 have completed basic pre-deployment training. Should this be reconsidered? We’ve succeeded (and failed a time or two) on the recognition and recommendation of local emergency managers who continue to tell us that the quality of our volunteer teams and their ability to integrate into a system and speak a language the professionals use are what they appreciate most. I believe that’s worth the 3-5 hours of dedication we request members to commit for Module 1 and Pre-deployment Basic. 
  3. Finally, background checks? 25,000 registered, about 2,400 have completed a background check. With a growing member base, we no longer have even a six degrees of separation kind of knowledge of whom we’re crashing next to in the gym or sending in to muck out a home who’s owners didn’t get to remove belongings. I believe we have an obligation to members and disaster survivors to uphold this standard. 

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So how does this remind me of who I work for? Now from the bottom up:

  • We do background checks to protect disaster survivors and our membership. 
  • We require training so our members can better integrate with local response and relief efforts in order to maximize our impact on disaster survivors. 
  • And, we’re growing our member base at a rate of about 200 per week so we have the volume of trained and cleared members to answer the need of communities affected by disaster that is currently going unanswered. 

Everything I do, then, is ultimately driven by the unmet needs of disaster survivors and disaster-affected communities. That’s who I work for. I may be held accountable by and take direction from one, or a few folks that sit above me on the sticks and boxes, but when I think about who drives my day-to-day decision-making and priorities – it’s the unmet need that our current member and organizational capacity cannot yet answer.

So back to the question from my much wiser former brother in arms, “What would be the impact if our partnership efforts suddenly doubled your member base?”

The real number would be 50,000. We would have a lot of work to do to train and engage them.

Our background check company would be happy…

But the real answer is that we would be making progress toward filling the unmet need of disaster survivors and disaster-affected communities.

Would it be perfect? No. Would we lose some members to a lack of engagement? Yes. Would it force us to scale with an 80 percent plan and iterate to improve? Yes. Would we relax our standards? No. Would we be reminded of who we work for? Absolutely.