Volunteering and Social Development : A Background Paper for Discussion at an Expert Group Meeting New York by Justin Davis - October 1999
Section 1: Meanings and Definitions
7. Volunteering means different things to different people. A recent study (Cnaan et al, 1998) found widespread differences between countries in public perceptions of what constitutes a voluntary activity. In some countries giving blood was seen as volunteering, in others being involved in a political party or trade union was counted. For some people the defining characteristic of volunteering was the absence of financial reward; for others lack of coercion was the main identifier. Volunteering takes on different forms and meanings in different settings. It is strongly influenced by the history, politics, religion and culture of a region. What may be seen as volunteering in one country may be dismissed as low paid or labour intensive work (or even forced labour) in another. And yet despite the wide variety of understandings it is possible to identify some core characteristics of what constitutes a voluntary activity. In fact it is essential that we do so. Without some shared understanding of the common elements of volunteering the term would be meaningless and would make redundant attempts by government to promote it. Although it is clearly not possible to come up with a hard and fast definition of volunteering that will take into account the variety of contexts in which it operates, we can construct a broad conceptual framework which will allow for significant differences in interpretation within clearly delineated boundaries.
8. There are five key elements to this framework. First the notion of reward. Some definitions argue that only purely altruistic behavior should be counted as volunteering. Others contend that there is no such thing as pure altruism and that all volunteering contains an element of exchange and reciprocity. Thus some definitions would allow for volunteers to be rewarded in some way, either non-materially through the provision of training or accreditation, or materially through the reimbursement of expenses or the payment of an honorarium. The key cut-off point in drawing the distinction between volunteering and paid employment is that the volunteer should not be undertaking the activity primarily for financial gain and that any financial reimbursement should be less than the value of the work provided.
9. The second element concerns the notion of free-will. Most definitions concede that volunteering and compulsion are incompatible. Thus schemes which run counter to the ILO Conventions on forced labour would clearly not qualify as volunteering. But as with the notion of reward there are Grey areas. How should we view school community service schemes which encourage, and sometimes require, students to get involved in voluntary work?; Food for Work programmes, where there is an explicit exchange between community involvement and food assistance?; or citizen service schemes which offer people a community service alternative to military service? The broad conceptual framework accepts that it may be difficult to uphold the pure notion of free will in any volunteering interaction - people's motivation to volunteer will perhaps always include a mix of reasons including peer pressure and social obligation - but it would draw the boundary around any overt attempt by government to force people to participate.
11. Fourthly the issue of organizational setting. Some definitions insist that volunteering be carried out through a formal, non-profit or voluntary organization of some sort. Others keep to the organizational requirement but include activity undertaken within the public or corporate sector. Others relax the organizational requirement and accept activities carried out informally, either on a one-to-one basis such as helping out a neighbor, or in isolation through such civic minded activities as picking up litter. The broad framework put forward here allows for both formal (organized) and informal (one-to-one) volunteering to be included and for volunteering carried out in the public and corporate sectors.
12. The final element is the level of commitment. Some definitions allow for one-off voluntary activities to be included; others demand a certain level of commitment and exclude occasional acts. The broad conceptual framework enables us to encompass a range of different levels of activity from high commitment to sporadic involvement, although it seems fair to assume that most volunteering would carry with it some degree of sustained commitment.
13. Given the differing interpretations of what constitutes a voluntary activity it is not surprising that there is disagreement over terms. Some people favor the term volunteering, others voluntary activity, voluntary work or voluntary action. In some countries distinctions are drawn between more traditional forms of charitable activity and more modern forms of citizen involvement and participation. Whilst recognizing that different terms often have very different meanings in different settings this paper will use volunteering and voluntary activity as interchangeable terms to describe the broad range of activities which fall within the broad conceptual framework outlined above. Similar terminological difficulties arise in relation to the organizations through which most volunteering takes place. Voluntary organizations, community groups, civil society organizations, third sector associations, non-governmental and non-profit organizations - are all terms which are used to describe the rich variety of organizational structures which occupy the space outside the state and the market. As with the terms to describe individual voluntary activity all have subtle (or not so subtle) differences of meaning. But for the purpose of this paper we will choose the term voluntary and community organizations to encompass this wide variety of organizational form.
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