Volunteering is at the heart of a person’s free will, choice and motivation, and refreshingly without concern for financial gain - a factor which corrupts the best of situations. It's about contributing to someone else, whilst contributing to the so-called general interest.
So when do we volunteer? Research suggests between the ages of 35 and 55. But the lowest percentile of ‘young’ volunteers is found in the so-called ‘young democracies’ of central and eastern Europe, as well as Greece and Portugal. Darek Pietrowski, director of the Warsaw Volunteer Centre, says this is because in post-communist countries, volunteering has a ‘negative connotation’, as it is associated with the notion of obligatory, collective work.
Volunteer centres are specialised establishments which create databases. They are the marketplaces where the demand – i.e. organisations looking for volunteers - meets the supply - people able to volunteer. Personality is everything. Volunteers can be adapted to the perfect activity for him or her, along with its expectations and needs. They are also centres of promotion. Because despite its long tradition, in many countries the proper volunteer infrastructure or legal provision has not been developed yet. Subsequently, volunteers rarely benefit from social privileges, like insurance or reductions.
Volunteering can simply change people’s lives. It stimulates active citizenship and the development of local communities. It is a means of social inclusion and integration of the elder, the unemployed or the migrant sector. It leads to positive political, social or ecological changes, and contributes to the somewhat neglected economic development.
Off the page
Many countries do not identify volunteering in their national statistics. But even if they cannot and should not replace remunerated work, volunteer activities contribute largely to the national economy. In the UK, the economic value of volunteering has been estimated at more than 7.9% of GDP. In Poland, 124 million euros. In France, time devoted to volunteering within associations was equivalent to over 716,000 full time jobs in 2002.
To volunteer or not to volunteer
People are generally not aware of the possibilities that exist. On the local level there are cultural centres, animal shelters, orphanages, etc. Virtual/ cyber volunteering or is another phenomenon. Without leaving the house, one can translate articles online or help resolve IT problems.
International volunteering opportunities are the most appealing. The Youth Programme of the European Union motivates young people to participate in local projects in other countries. The advantages are obvious: learning about other cultures and other languages - life changing experiences.
Monika spent one year in France working with handicapped children. She has come away with a positive outlook: ‘Volunteering made me more courageous.’ She adds smilingly; ‘I look on my previous ‘problems’ from a totally different perspective.’
What about a wider European volunteer programme, which could offer possibilities to people of every age group? This is where volunteer centres start to mobilise and seek advocacy, by creating regional and international networks.
CEV - the European Volunteer Centre serves as the perfect example. Its director Markus Held explains: ‘CEV is a federation of 43 regional and national volunteer centres, which in March this year launched the Manifesto on Volunteering in Europe. It is targeted at European decision-makers, and proposes concrete actions for further developing volunteering.’
The private sector is paying attention too. It incorporates ‘corporate social responsibility’ (CSR) in its work, with the design induction of innovative programmes. Employees are helped in creating partnerships between business, volunteer centres and public authorities.
Once, volunteering was mainly associated with charity and help for the poorest or disabled. Today, many professional organisations have made their names form the back of this initiative - Greenpeace, Amnesty International or the Olympic Games. Volunteering is also a response to globalisation. People still find time to engage in HIV campaigns, to help clean up the effects of ecological disasters and to take active part in humanitarian missions.
The shadow across the room
And the dark side of volunteering? Some companies or NGOs use volunteers as a source of cheap labour. People accept this unconsciously or with the sometimes subdued hopes of getting some professional experience. We should not therefore mistake it with real volunteer engagement. Volunteering can be a positive experience provided it is exercised out of free will of the volunteer and the good will of hosting establishments. Only then can satisfaction be 100% guaranteed.