A woman volunteer participating in a civil society consultation on the Sustainable Development Goals
A woman volunteer participating in a civil society consultation on the Sustainable Development Goals, organized by UNV and partners in Ukraine.

Exploring volunteering practices in the 21st century

Every day, individuals engage in a variety of volunteering activities all over the world. In the face of a shared problem, people turn to each other for support.

In the Arab region, volunteering is founded on the collectivist principle of Al faza’a, a surge of solidarity, where people volunteer in support of others, regardless of socioeconomic status.

In the African continent, volunteering is best described as the ultimate expression of social solidarity.

Volunteering bustles in moments of crises. Amidst the current health pandemic, people organize swiftly for response. In the United Kingdom, the government mobilized 400,000 volunteers in a day. Meanwhile, volunteer groups in the Philippines fundraise to provide hot meals and protective equipment to frontline health workers.

These examples illustrate that volunteerism – a value and practice embedded in everyday life in different communities – continues to be a potent driver for social change and a crucial contributor to development outcomes.

That is why the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) programme, International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and their partners under the Plan of Action have been exploring types of volunteer action, and today launch a background paper and framework on Volunteering Practices in the 21st Century.

After more than two decades, this research builds upon and updates the UN Volunteer typology discussed in 1999. It takes into account the rapid and widespread changes in the social, political, economic and technological landscapes across the globe. These transformations have motivated people to volunteer more, and have created new tools and channels for volunteers to use.

This simple framework and accompanying paper acknowledges the complexity of volunteerism as a social practice cutting across different structures, sites, intensities, aspirations and categories. For instance, online volunteering offers enormous potential to increase access for individuals who may have found it difficult to volunteer in the past.

Furthermore, it adds a new category to the 1999 typology – volunteering as leisure – reflecting that people may contribute to building the world that they want to see in varied ways, including through the arts and sports. It recognizes that against the backdrop of influential social movements, volunteering sometimes has a political nature and a capacity to go beyond awareness raising and challenge and/or disrupt power structures at a systems level.

Finally, the paper looks at the 'face' of volunteering in so-called Global South communities – recognizing the wealth of volunteer practices already existing in spaces that are dominantly framed as 'recipients' of development programmes.

This last point resonates with my own research on the learning dimension of volunteering among so-called 'vulnerable' youth and adults in the Philippines. By engaging in voluntary action, they challenge assumptions that are often attached to those who experience poverty and vulnerability. There is a need to consider how local volunteers in poorer communities themselves understand and practice volunteerism and take this into account as we (re)shape definitions of volunteering.

Rather than providing definitive answers to complex questions, this paper encourages further questions for exploration about the roles that volunteers are playing, and how volunteerism can be leveraged as a resource for community development.

Governments, civil society and the private sector will discuss these issues and more at the Global Technical Meeting on Reimagining Volunteering at the High-Level Political Forum on the Sustainable Development Goals. It is hoped that this paper encourages wider conversation among policy makers, practitioners, community groups and volunteers themselves.

We are living in incredible times and faced with arguably unprecedented social issues. These compel us to explore new ways of working with and through volunteers. A first step towards this transformation is perhaps to take stock of how we understand volunteering and 'reimagine' what it could look like, to 2030 and beyond.

Chris Millora is a Filipino scholar currently working as a Research Associate with the UNESCO Chair in Adult Learning and Literacy for Social Transformation at the University of East Anglia. He has worked for over five years in the development and education sectors of the Philippines.