Volunteers: essential actors in European societies
The Covid-19 pandemic unleashed an unprecedented societal energy which translated into an explosion of informal and formal voluntary activities within European societies;
Similar towering levels of energy are now put towards assisting Ukrainian refugees and the fundamental societal contribution of volunteering cannot be underestimated;
Even in non-crises periods, volunteering plays a crucial role beyond service provision and new types of volunteering, e.g. corporate and civic service volunteering, are emerging;
All types of volunteering play a pivotal role in building social capital, social inclusion and cohesion, encouraging inter-generational cooperation and bringing together individuals from different socio-economic backgrounds;
Volunteering is also an important source of self-development, improving key and transferable life-long skills and contributing to the reduction of the digital divide;
Through creative and innovative actions, volunteers provide supplementary and complementary assistance, of free will, free of charge and with the aim of serving the common good;
In effect, volunteering constitutes the most obvious example of civic engagement and active citizenship per se.
How to strengthen volunteering across the EU
Despite the difficulties in understanding, recognising and measuring the added value of volunteering, it is imperative to increase social awareness of its pivotal contribution to European societies;
A first step in this direction must be the availability and sharing of reliable models and data that measure the economic contribution of volunteering, which currently accounts for more than 2% of GDP in many countries;
In order to fully acknowledge the value of volunteering to society, measuring its contribution to GDP should become mandatory;
Poland and the city of Gdansk, which is the 'European Volunteering Capital 2022', constitute positive examples of enabling environments for the effective development of volunteering and for the measurement of its economic contribution;
In this context, good national practices for collecting data should be shared with Eurostat, with the aim of standardising methodologies across the EU;
However, additional data on the contribution of volunteering beyond GDP are also necessary, in order to demonstrate its holistic contribution to European societies. For example, the impact of volunteering on improved well-being, social cohesion, health, environmental protection, etc.;
Crucially, in order for the voluntary sector to prosper and grow at the local and national levels, it will also be necessary to introduce enabling policy and/or regulatory and legal frameworks. These should be decided on a country specific basis and in direct consultation with civil society organisations;
Moreover, it is imperative that there is regular and effective dialogue, mutual learning and partnership between civil society organisations, national and local authorities;
Structured and sustainable funding in order to maintain independent and quality services, as well as safe and good levels of support and infrastructure for volunteering (e.g. volunteer centres, training, psychological support), are also essential.
Finally, as recognition of the work carried out by volunteers, particularly young people, skills attained should be acknowledged and certified, thus adding them to their qualification and skills records at the national and European levels.
Bringing volunteering back onto the European political agenda
In the years following the '2011 European Year of Volunteering', the topic of volunteering has slipped off the EU political agenda. Nonetheless, the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFE), placed citizens squarely within the political arena. In this context, the follow-up to the CoFE constitutes an opportunity to be seized by civil society organisations, including the voluntary sector;
Specifically, citizens as volunteers, should be at the centre of the future EU agenda. Civil society organisations, must have a key role in the co-creation and co-implementation of national and European policies, through fruitful structured dialogue and partnership;
Constructive participation and an emphasis on 'people', which defines the nature of the voluntary sector, will render EU policies more acceptable to the wider population and hence, more successful;
The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and the "Civil Society Organisations' Group" in particular, have over the years striven to maintain volunteering on the EU political agenda, as one of the main instruments for achieving the multi-dimensional objectives of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs);
In this context, the EU should develop and actively support a more comprehensive European-wide voluntary programme. Building on the European Solidarity Corps, the scope of the programme should be widened to include all ages and more policy sectors;
In addition, the EU should create an EU-wide volunteering website with information on volunteering opportunities across all EU regions and countries;
Finally, the EU is called upon to designate 2025 as the 'European Year of Volunteers'.
Conclusions and recommendations - Conference on 7 July 2022 in Gdańsk