While first referring to military service, the word volunteering now applies to many sectors of social life. During the 20th and 21st centuries, this phenomenon of volunteering exploded and more and more citizens are volunteers, at a smaller level when helping their neighbors or internationally within an NGO. What is hidden then behind this large concept of volunteering?
The definition and the status of volunteering differ from one country to another. Being a volunteer in the Soviet Union had obviously not the same meaning as being a volunteer now in Germany where some volunteers receive a paid compensation for their work. The components of volunteering in a country like the United Kingdom, where volunteering is often a requirement for students who want to pass University, are also different than in the Turkish or Azeri society, where volunteering literally means “with heart”.
Yet behind all these interpretations of “volunteer”, several common ideas can be highlighted. Volunteering is often considered as an altruist act showing a good will, a desire to help others and make a change in society. The idea of doing it for free is often emphasized; however it would be more accurate to settle for an absence of salary. Indeed, if volunteering means giving of one’s free time and energy, it also means getting a lot in return. Volunteering brings professional experience, personal development, gratitude, social reward and a sense of belonging.
Among these general ideas, it is important for everyone to keep in mind what is one’s own vision of volunteering to make sure that both the organization’ and the volunteer’s expectations match. For the coordinator, asking oneself what are the needs and the resources of both the volunteers and the organization facilitates the selection process by helping to clearly determine who to reach and how to do it. For example, an organization working internationally in a professional setting would have different needs than a national organization looking for non-professional volunteers. It is also very important for the volunteer to have in mind the real reasons of its commitment; many cases of disappointment or inefficiency could thus be avoided.
If volunteering is an enriching process resulting from a good will, it is indeed not always as enjoyable as it seems to be. The integration in a new culture is not always easy and the volunteer’s responsibilities might not meet with his/her expectations. While the volunteer might start full of enthusiasm, this motivation often goes down after a while. Later on, the volunteer might get more responsibilities and in the best case reach a level of high competences and motivation. Of course this development is not an absolute truth. However keeping it in mind might help us to have a better idea of what to expect and consequently be better-equipped to achieve one’s goals, and ultimately to help others in need.
This article was written following a 10-day training attended by UNPO staff in Tolyatti, Russia, and organized by Youth House Chance and the European Intercultural Forum. The training gathered a group of 27 youths from 9 different countries to reflect on the concept of volunteering and improve organizational practices.