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What is volunteering

June 9, 2018 / Volunteering

My name is Ilya Popov and I'm the founder of the GoodSurfing project. It's an open secret for those, who have been following our group for a long time, that a lot of comments collected are in the format: "this is slavery", "where is volunteering in this?", "this is not volunteering", etc.

What is volunteering

Definition of Volunteering

Let's make it clear and try to understand what volunteering is and what meaning it carries today together. I have to warn you beforehand, I will be guided by the definitions the United Nations uses in its programs, such as "UN Volunteers", in the International Labor Organization, etc. Besides, again I want to clarify, it's my understanding, as well as the scientific one, to be honest,- the words “voluntariness” and “volunteering” carry the same meaning and are synonymous. There are certain linguistic nuances in the definitions, so I suggest using the foreign word "volunteering" as the most commonly used for the whole world around us.

So what is volunteering? I will permit myself to use the definition of Professor Lester Salamon from the Johns Hopkins University, which is used in international organizations: "Volunteering is unpaid non-compulsory work; that is, time individuals give without pay to activities performed either through an organization or directly for others outside their own household".

Volunteering is work

Let's analyze the definition piece by piece straight away, in order to avoid questions about "slavery" in the future. First of all, let's take the fact that volunteering is all the same work as a basis, and hence only activity that may be replaced by a paid activity can be considered as volunteering. If the activity can not be called a job in the full sense of the word, then this is not volunteering. We may take voting as an example of "nonvolunteering": participation in elections is voluntary and is not paid for, and a campaign for elections can not be called volunteering. Or, suppose you play a musical instrument for your own pleasure, and only the closest friends listen to you - this is also not work - this is your hobby. Therefore, a personal hobby is not volunteering, although it is not paid and is done voluntary. It is the phrase "may be replaced by a paid activity" that is an extremely important part of the definition.

What is volunteering

In fact, calculating the savings of resources in comparison with hiring workers for money is a common measure of the volunteering effectiveness. This is the simplest formula that is used in the world in order to understand how much volunteering is important and what benefit it brings. That is why volunteering, first of all, is a job, not a hobby, not a civic stance or something else.

Volunteers and money

"Unpaid" is also a very important point, but there is a significant nuance: volunteering can sometimes be paid for, while still remaining volunteering. A person who performs work, especially connected with his professional activity, for a smaller payment than usually paid for his services, is also a volunteer. After all, if the volunteer's contribution is incomparably greater than the amount that he receives, for example, world-famous musicians perform at a nursing home, and at the same time receive a fee an order of magnitude less than under normal conditions - this also counts for volunteering.

What is volunteering

A volunteer can also receive a scholarship for certain expenses from the organization, on behalf of which he helps, - this is also a volunteering activity, since such payments are a form of volunteer support so that he can carry out his activities, not a full salary. However, such a practice contains one narrow point, which causes much controversy, especially in the Western world: if a volunteer comes from a prosperous, wealthy country like the United Kingdom to help children in Uganda, he gets a scholarship from the foundation, and a scholarship there is 1,500 pounds, which for the UK is a small amount, enormous for Uganda at the same time - there is a twofold situation: looks like he is still a volunteer, but at the same time his standard of living within the scholarship is significantly higher than that of the people he helps. This nuance is usually interpreted in such a way that the reward of the volunteer must be calculated on the basis of the economic realities of the country he VISITS, and not the one he CAME FROM.

What is volunteering

In addition, volunteering can have compensations, for example, compensation for travel – much favored by our participants, compensation for living, food, etc. - it also completely correlates to the framework of volunteering, and in some cases is an additional motivation for the volunteer. There is one more important point - the volunteer can also pay for his volunteering activity himself - this is normal. The organization of volunteer activity bears certain expenses: the volunteer needs to live somewhere, eat something, he needs something to work with, and not always the host party, be it a Russian nature reserve or a village in Bangladesh, is capable of maintaining this. Thus, the expenses on the part of the volunteer is sometimes an absolutely necessary thing. Another thing is that there is a question of motivation, but nevertheless this fact does not contradict the definition of volunteering - after all, now we are talking about definitions of what the volunteering activity is, and what it is not, and not about how we would like to see it, and how we would not.

What is volunteering

Volunteering should be voluntary

An obligatory and extremely important part of volunteering is that there should be no extortion to such an activity and there must always be freedom of choice. Therefore, various compulsory internships do not fall under the concept of "volunteering". I.e. if you need to go through some kind of practice in order to enter a university, this is not volunteering. Or you are trying hard to get a job in a large design company, and according to the conditions you need to work for it for a month free of charge - this is also not volunteering, even if you create logos for charitable organizations within the internship. The purpose of this work is not important, the important thing is that the choice of internship is not completely free, this is the condition you need to fulfill.

Corporate volunteering

I also want to highlight such kind of volunteering as corporate volunteering. For example, if the employees of the "Yandex" company went to clean the territory of the orphanage during working hours (that is, the company pays for this and pays them a salary) - this is not volunteering, precisely because they receive a salary. The type of activity does not play any role, even if the company pays people for programming or drawing, and the staff is engaged into cleaning the orphanage at this time. But if they do everything the same within the organization, but this time outside of working hours - this will be volunteering. A programmer with a salary of 250,000 per month, engaged into weeding the garden or planting trees in his working hours, without deduction of wages, does not bring benefits, but losses. The state, or a private company, paid him, roughly, two and a half thousand roubles an hour, although the real costs for a gardener would be only 300 roubles per hour. That is why it is very important to understand and develop corporate volunteering correctly.

The point is that volunteering as such makes first of all economic sense: if the same reserves, hospices or somebody else do not have the opportunity to cover the necessary expenses with money, it is very important to find people who cover them with their activities.

Child volunteering

Another controversial issue arises in relation to children, who according to the legislation do not have many rights in terms of making independent decisions, including economic ones, due to their age. Work is allowed only from the age of 14, and then only with the permission of the parents. Volunteering works according to the same principle - if a person depends on someone, even on his parents, in his volunteering activity, then he a priori does not fall under the notion of a "volunteer". This is the main dilemma, because the child can sincerely desire and want to be a volunteer, help others. And yet, membership in the ranks of volunteers is considered by age, from which the law permits labor activity: in Russia from the age of 14, in the world, on average, from the age of 15.

What is volunteering

Organized and unorganized volunteering

Further on: "it does not matter whether a person is engaged into volunteering directly or through various organizations" - what does that mean?

You can go and help random grandmother directly: clean up the house or chop firewood, or you can go to a charity organization that helps grandmothers and it tells you who needs your help and where, and how to properly provide it. So, you come to the place where they already know what kind of grandmothers you need to help and who can do it, i.e. the organization acts as a coordinator. In many aspects, special organizations are the basis of volunteerism, especially when it comes to international cooperation. Therefore, it does not matter if you helped someone directly or contacted the organization. Another important condition is that volunteer activities can not be extended to their own households.

Not for your family

Many disputes arise on the basis of the question that volunteering does not extend to one's own family, but how to determine the boundaries of the family? For some people the family is: mom, dad, sister, and for another person it's cousins, twice removed cousins, fourth-generation brothers, etc. How much help for a fourth-generation nephew is volunteering? The concept of "household" was introduced to exclude disagreements, thereby referring to people who either simply live under one roof, or consider themselves a family.

And, you know, there are also difficulties with the definition of volunteering. Let’s play a little game. Imagine a situation: there is a flood, a tenant of the house, which is closest to the river, thought about it in advance, built a dam and thereby saved both his own house and the neighbors' house. So the question is whether his act is a manifestation of volunteering, because he helped not only others, but himself? Feel free to share your opinions in the comments below.

Another condition of volunteering: no matter who is the beneficiary. This is exactly what was very vividly discussed in our comments: "they earn money there", etc. The definition of volunteering in this part does not set conditions for someone to help. Because of the fact that evaluation perception is subjective, we all differ in opinions on what is good and what is evil, and it does not matter whom you help. It can be both organizations and private business. The main thing is if you do the work free of charge, without coercion and this does not apply to your own household - this is volunteering.

This can be help to specific people: if you helped an African child do homework, this, of course, can be called volunteering; if you helped all the children in a small village - then this is a full-fledged volunteering, because it can be measured in categories useful to society.

Political volunteering

The standard world practice is the implementation of volunteer assistance in favor of the state or specific political parties. In Russia volunteering is less common in politics, but it should be understood that this is also quite normal, when people in elections help some political parties: they do it voluntarily, free of charge and outside the framework of their own family. There are a lot of state volunteer organizations in our country that implement various programs aimed at developing patriotism, formation of historical memory, etc. This form of volunteering is not very clear to many foreign volunteers and charitable organizations, since it does not solve specific social problems. However, this patriotic volunteering pretty much falls under the general definition of volunteering.

Religious volunteering

A lot of controversy is also raised by the definition of volunteering in religious organizations. Is volunteering carried out within the religious community as such? If you go on the eve of Kurban Bairam ((Eid al-Adha, the second of two Islamic holidays celebrated worldwide each year, and considered the holier of the two)2 to a farm where sacrificial animals are bred and help this farm voluntarily and free of charge, will this be considered a volunteer activity? After all, these actions are partly justified by personal religious motives of a person. A what about the help in organizing the sacred procession or the restoration of churches?

Principles of GoodSurfing

In my opinion, it does not matter which motives lead a person to the volunteering activity. If a person here and now is helping somebody, who gets better from this, if he does it free of charge, without coercion and not for the welfare of his own family - he is a volunteer.


Author of the text - Ilya Popov

Edited by - Kseniya Gushchina

Translated by - Drejk Barkov

Date of publication - 09.06.2018

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Comments (2)

Очень полезная статья!

Доброго здоровья. Хочу высказаться о том вопросе, который поднялся в этой статье, а именно про добровольчество в рамках семьи или личных интересов. У меня сложилось мнение из собственного опыта и опыта других людей, что побуждение к добровольческим взглядам приходят именно от личной заинтересованностью в решение того или иного вопроса, ситуации. Если в городе нет раздельного сбора, к примеру, то Человеку, который хочет разделять мусор у себя дома, нужно это движение создать. Таким образом он решает свою личную потребность в семье, в доме и при этом помогает всем жителям этого города. Также и о создание платины и много другого. В основе любого добровольчества всегда личная заинтересованность в решение вопроса иначе это просто превращается в обман. Обман себя и других. Ведь зачем делать то, что самому добровольцу не нужно и не интересно. Это моё личное субъективное мнение, не претендующее на истину.