What is Volunteerism?

The terms volunteering, volunteerism and voluntary activities is understood to be “a wide range of activities undertaken of free will, for the general public good, for which monetary reward is not the principal motivating factor” (A/RES/56/38).

Social scientists, psychologists and social policymakers have long studied volunteerism as a universal social practice. More recently, it has increasingly been linked to development processes.

What is UNV doing?

UNV promotes volunteerism as a powerful means of engaging people in tackling development challenges by strengthening trust, solidarity and reciprocity among citizens, and purposefully creating opportunities for participation. 

UNV produces knowledge and research to promote dialogue on volunteering at the intergovernmental level. UNV also supports Member States and UN agencies to ingetrate volunteering into development plans, policies and strategies. In addition, UNV spearheads the International Volunteer Day every year to promote volunteerism globally.

What does the evidence say?

Volunteerism in development thinking

  • Volunteerism is an enormous renewable resource for social, economic and environmental problem-solving throughout the world. More than 1 billion people volunteer globally, the majority of them working in their own countries and communities. 

  • Often, the most visible aspects of volunteering are around service delivery in communities.  People engage in voluntary work to help eliminate poverty, improve basic health and education, provide a safe water supply and adequate sanitation, tackle environmental issues and climate change, reduce the risk of disasters, and combat social exclusion and violent conflict. 

  • But volunteering is not only a means of delivering development activities; it can generate other positive results by bringing people together to work towards a common cause. For example, UNV’s State of the World’s Volunteerism Report (SWVR) 2015 highlighted how volunteering can promote good governance, while SWVR 2018 looked at how volunteerism can build trust, promote inclusion and strengthen community resilience. The SWVR 2022 showed that the ways in which volunteers and state authorities interact, collaborate and partner are vital for the achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals.

  • A report by Voluntary Service Overseas on Valuing Volunteering highlights how volunteering can strengthen local ownership of development processes, foster social innovation through new forms of collaboration and promote sustainable behaviour by modelling new norms. 

    There is a growing recognition of the value of participation in volunteering as a strategy for health and well-being. The ways in which being a volunteer can help reduce social isolation and loneliness, or provide a sense of purpose, are of increasing interest among policymakers (OECD, How's Life 2017).

  • However, it is important to note that volunteering may not always have a positive impact on well-being, particularly where those least able to cope take on additional roles to fill gaps.

Research and Evidence

  • Research and evidence on volunteerism for development is still in its infancy.
  • In the past there has often been a focus on international volunteering in the development literature. As a result, the wealth of volunteering practices found within the Global South have often been overlooked. This is beginning to be rectified with an increasing amount of research produced by Global South researchers on local volunteering.   
  • In addition, the contributions of informal volunteers to development continue to be largely overlooked, despite an emerging body of evidence that highlights their vital role in community service provision and disaster response. 
  • Research also increasingly highlights the potential for volunteering to reflect or even perpetuate inequalities. 

Volunteerism trends and practices

  • Volunteering continues to evolve in line with social, political, economic and technological trends (Butcher and Einolf 2017).

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  • The broad categories of volunteer work remain largely the same today as they were two decades ago – highlighted in the five descriptions in the Figure above. What has changed is how these are practised. The ways in which people volunteer tend to be increasingly blended across five main variables: structure (formally/informally arranged); site (online or offline); intensity (regular/sporadic); and motivations (self-building/world-building); as well as across the five categories listed above. 
  • What is not yet clear from the evidence is how best to combine different elements of these volunteering categories to maximize the contribution towards the 2030 Agenda. In particular, how these elements can work together to strengthen people’s ownership of the development agenda and reach the furthest behind first. 


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