Volunteering practices in the 21st century

Do people volunteer differently in the 21st Century? If yes, in what ways? What factors have driven these changes?

These questions are important if we are going to understand how volunteering contributes to the 2030 Agenda. However, the answers are neither straightforward nor simple. This data story looks at what we know about volunteering practices in the 21st Century, including why there might be a need to add one new category of volunteer work to the four types discussed by the United Nations 20 years ago.

Changing Volunteering Landscapes

Volunteering opportunities and practices have changed in response to wider social patterns and challenges. These include the climate emergency, technological progress, migration, the changing world of work, humanitarian crises and inequalities.

Volunteers take on important roles in the response, relief and rehabilitation efforts following natural disasters, which are increasingly becoming common with the current climate emergency.

The rapid spread of new technologies and online connectivity has also diversified volunteer engagement and provided access for certain individuals to volunteer.

Certain international volunteering-sending organisations have shifted approaches from solely service-delivery to a greater emphasis on partnerships – arguably influenced by the ‘participatory turn’ in development.

Large youth populations push countries to bring new emphasis on volunteering to constructively engage young people.

Dimensions of volunteering

The next diagram summarizes the range of configurations for volunteering. Each ring is as a spectrum, not a binary choice. For example, volunteering activities can mix both offline and online components.

The first ring represents the structure of the activity. Volunteering can be done formally through organizations, community groups or any platform that allocates support. Volunteering can also be informal – that is arranged directly between persons.

The second ring represents the sites of volunteer practice: online, on-site, or a combination of both.

The third ring represents the intensity of volunteer engagement. This can be episodic, short-term or sporadic or more regular and long-term.

The fourth ring represents the outcome of volunteering. Community-building refers to direct contributions towards wider societal outcomes (e.g. the sustainable development goals). Self-building benefits the volunteer through the accumulation of individual social and cultural capital. Self-building can also indirectly contribute to better communities and societies.

The final ring represents the categories of volunteer work. These broad areas of activity, which are discussed in further detail below.

Categories of volunteering

A research paper commissioned under the plan of action reviews the four main “types” of volunteer work identified by the United Nations in 1999. The review addresses current research and evidence from the global South and aims to reflect the diversity of volunteering practices in low- and middle-income countries.

According to the paper, the four types of volunteering (mutual aid and self-help; service delivery; campaigning; and participation) are still valid in 2020. The relative mix of these categories of volunteering activities may vary, but they are present across diverse situations. The examples for each category may differ depending on the location.

The 2030 Agenda, with its focus on the agency of all peoples, raises the question of whether the model needs updated.

We are increasingly aware that volunteering is not only valuable due to the activities it delivers. It also has intrinsic value, for example, by improving volunteers’ health, well-being skills and social capital. This is an indirect contribution to volunteers’ communities and societies.

We also know that different people build the world they want to see in different ways. This can be directly, by giving something to the community. It can also involve developing a better and happier self to contribute to the public good. The existing framework did not capture these latter activities so well.

Accordingly, the paper suggests an additional category of volunteer work: volunteering as leisure. Volunteering as leisure covers volunteer work in the arts or sports. It refers to activities that build confidence and well-being among volunteers while contributing to social cohesion. Some activities related to the environment are also volunteering as leisure, since their value extends beyond the people involved. However, volunteering as leisure does not cover activities like “voluntourism”, which do not always benefit sustainable development.

The five categories of volunteering are:

Mutual Aid, Self-Help
Civic Participation
Philanthropy & Services
Advocacy & Campaigning

Towards reimagining volunteering for the 2030 Agenda

Rather than offering a ‘final word’ on the complexity of volunteering practices, this story seeks to stimulate discussion among practitioners, policymakers, academics and the many volunteers who practice these activities first-hand. Throughout the Global Technical Meeting on Reimagining Volunteering for the 2030 Agenda, stakeholders will have a chance to give their views on what they see as the major categories of volunteer work, and how these might develop to 2030 and beyond.