Volunteering empowers society as a whole and each one of us as individuals

Volunteers do not just deliver services that benefit communities, they also play an essential role in promoting European values and creating a better future for the EU

Volunteering activities have proliferated across the EU during the COVID-19 pandemic and new volunteering trends have emerged to keep pace with changes in the world of work. European policy-makers now need to support voluntary work and ensure it benefits society in the best possible way, all the while respecting labour rights and protecting volunteers, an EESC hearing revealed.

The hearing on Volunteers – citizens building the future of Europe was organised as part of preparations for the upcoming opinion on this topic, in which the EESC aims to showcase the potential of volunteering for social and economic development and suggests how the conditions for voluntary work could be improved to secure an even greater impact.

It is time to open our eyes and say that the future of Europe will not be built by decision-makers, politicians or civil society organisations, but by active citizens and volunteers – by people who devote their free time to the benefit of society, said Krzsysztof Pater, rapporteur for the opinion.

The goal of the opinion will also be to prompt the Commission, Parliament, Council and Member States to do more to shape and adopt policies that support volunteers' activities more effectively in the EU.

Volunteering is not a new topic, but we would like to see it more on the agenda, said Gabriela Civico, Director of the Centre for European Volunteering (CEV) and expert for the opinion. 

Having come a long way, from the adoption of the first EP Resolution on voluntary work in 1983 to the establishment of the European Solidarity Corps in 2017, the scope of volunteering is now expanding to officially include older volunteers through a special platform, moving away from the perception that it is mainly for the young and towards an approach according to which everyone needs to be involved.

In 2021, which marks the 10th anniversary of the European Year of Volunteering, the CEV has been developing the Blueprint for European Volunteering 2030, to move the policy agenda forward and make policy-makers more aware of the paramount importance of volunteering for European society.

Volunteering is a key agent of social transformation. It supports social inclusion and solidarity. It underpins active citizenship, community resilience and social engagement and it promotes shared responsibilities and European values, Ms Civico said. It enables the public to contribute directly to developing the Europe they are striving for.

Volunteering also directly benefits volunteers, especially when they are disadvantaged or belong to groups that are potentially at risk, such as the unemployed, asylum seekers, refugees, migrants, older people, and people with disabilities.

Volunteering helps improve the health and wellbeing of volunteers and provides opportunities for individuals to acquire skills and knowledge that can enhance their career development and employment prospects, Ms Civico said.

For example, the Europass format for CVs now contains a section where job seekers can list their volunteering experience, which should add value to work experience gained during paid employment.

However, there should be a proper legal framework in place to make sure that labour rights are respected so that volunteers' work does not replace paid job positions, undercut the pay of employees or generate profit for owners.  It should equally be ensured that volunteering is inclusive, so that everybody has the right to do it. In this respect, the unemployed should be allowed to volunteer without losing their social benefits, Ms Civico said, adding that there should be enough resources for volunteering by investing in advance in order to have good volunteer management and ensure a high quality service.

This is even more important with the appearance of the new forms of volunteering that have emerged as a result of changes in society and the world of work. These, for example, include non-formal volunteering, volontourism, self-organised volunteering helped by digital solutions and family volunteering.

Our legal frameworks should be fit for purpose for these new forms of volunteering – quality volunteering must be kept in mind for that, said Tina Divjak, lead author of the EESC study on The future evolution of civil society in the European Union by 2030(2018) and Head of Advocacy at CNVOS, Slovenia.

However, volunteering is very much affected by the different trends impacting civil society. Ms Divjak pointed out that, as civic space is shrinking amid growing populism in Europe, opportunities to volunteer have likewise shrunk, making people more individualistic and more prone to engage in one-off voluntary work.

We see enormous growth in spontaneous volunteering helped by the Internet and social media, but provoked by different crises, said Professor Lucas Meijs from the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, and author of the Study on European Volunteering, commissioned by the EESC. Another growing trend is volunteering organised by third parties, such as companies and educational institutions, to which people can respond depending on their availability or the type of skills sought.

Also on the rise is family volunteering, where more than one person per household is involved in voluntary work carried out in many different fields, such as arts and culture, community outreach, help for the vulnerable and support for various environmental activities.

Diana Bere, Erasmus+ Project Manager for Pro Vobis in Romania, said that family volunteering helped us better understand both intergenerational and intercultural perspectives. It is especially beneficial for children, as it enables them to get familiar with different issues and become part of the solution, empowering them to grow up to be active citizens.

We learn about community issues close to us, but also those that span the whole globe. It can contribute to lifelong learning, as it goes right across the board of what we can learn. By supporting a cause, we express passion about a value we hold dear, she stressed.

However, although volunteerism is a global idea, volunteer participation is determined by the amount of volunteer willingness or voluntary energy in a given country, which is influenced by a number of institutional factors.

Traditionally low or high volunteering rates in a country are here to stay; they reflect a long-term trend and it is impossible for governments to change them by policy, Professor Meijs said. In many countries there are certain legislative constraints for organisations that would like to work with volunteers, meaning many cannot use their services.

One shining example of good volunteering practice is the city of Gdansk, which will be the European capital of volunteering in 2022 and which has an impressive number of volunteers in a city with a population of half a million. Gdansk has a regional centre for volunteering supported by the city budget. Volunteering services are offered on a regular basis and volunteers receive training. There is also a mobile application matching volunteers and volunteering services.

The idea of volunteering in Gdansk is something we see in terms of a strategy for our city; it is a very important aspect of our social policy, allowing our development and giving a sense of agency to the inhabitants of our town, said Aleksandra Dulkiewicz, Mayor of Gdansk and member of the Committee of the Regions.

However, despite all the benefits it brings to society and efforts and good intentions of volunteers, there are instances where volunteering does more harm than good. One such example is volunteering in orphanages, which is one type of voluntourism, i.e. voluntary work carried out during holidays in a foreign country.

Lilith Alink of Lumos Foundation, an international charity fighting for the right of each child to have a family, said that placing young, inexperienced volunteers in orphanages to work for a short time with vulnerable children can only hurt and harm the children, preventing them from forming secure attachments. In addition, it can encourage orphanage trafficking, whereby children are trafficked and placed in institutions solely for the purpose of financial profit, which is made through various donations or other types of funding received by orphanages.

As a volunteer you can ask yourself questions such as: would I be allowed to do such voluntary work in my own community? Do I have the skills to do this? Do I understand local culture and needs?  As a policy-maker you can make sure not to fund any harmful volunteering. That is why volunteering in orphanages and similar institutions for children should explicitly not be permitted in the European Solidarity Corps 2021-2027, Ms Alink concluded.

The EESC opinion on volunteering will be debated and adopted at the December plenary session.