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File:Carting dirt in Yaounde.jpg

Children cart dirt and debris away during a community clean-up day in Yaoundé, Cameroon.

Volunteerism is the willingness of people to work on behalf of others without the expectation of pay or other tangible gain. Volunteers may have special training as rescuers, guides, assistants, teachers, missionaries, amateur radio operators, writers, and in other positions. But the majority work on an impromptu basis, recognizing a need and filling it, whether it be the dramatic search for a lost child or the mundane giving of directions to a lost visitor.[How to reference and link to summary or text] In economics, voluntary employment is unpaid employment. It may be done for altruistic reasons, for example charity, as a hobby, community service or vocation, or for the purpose of gaining experience. Some go so far as to dedicate much of their lives to voluntary service. One way in which this is done is through the creation of a Non-Profit Franchise.

Professional skills

Skills-based volunteerism is a term used to describe volunteering where the volunteer uses their professional skills. This is in contrast to generic volunteerism where specific skills are not necessary. The average hour of traditional volunteerism is valued by the Independent Sectorat between $18-20 an hour.[How to reference and link to summary or text] Skills-based volunteerism is valued at $40-500 an hour depending on the market value of the time.[How to reference and link to summary or text]


In almost all modern societies, the most basic of all values is people helping people and, in the process, helping themselves. But a tension can arise between volunteerism and the state-provided services, so most countries develop policies and enact legislation to clarify the roles and relationships among stakeholders, and to identify and allocate the necessary legal, social, administrative and financial support. This is particularly necessary when some voluntary activities are seen as a challenge to the authority of the state, e.g. on 29 January, 2001, President Bush cautioned that volunteer groups should supplement, not replace, the work of government agencies.[How to reference and link to summary or text] Volunteerism that benefits the state but challenges paid counterparts raises the ire of labor unions representing the paid counterparts as in the case of volunteer fire departments, particularly in combination departments.

There are two major benefits of volunteerism:

  1. economic: activities undertaken by volunteers would otherwise have to be funded by the state or by private capital, so volunteering adds to the overall economic output of a country and reduces the burden on government spending.
  2. social: volunteering helps to build more cohesive communities, fostering greater trust between citizens, and developing norms of solidarity and reciprocity which are essential to stable communities.

The social capital represented by volunteering plays a key role in economic regeneration. Where poverty is endemic to an area, poor communities have no friends or neighbours to ask for help, so voluntary mutual aid or self-help is their only safety net. This model works well within a state because there is a national solidarity in times of adversity and more prosperous groups will usually make sacrifices for the benefit of those in need. But there are difficulties when this is to apply across national borders. One well-meaning state cannot simply send volunteers into another state. This would breach sovereignty and deny respect to the national government of the proposed recipients. So, when states negotiate the offer and acceptance of aid, or requests for aid, motivations become important, particularly if donors may postpone assistance or stop it altogether. Three types of conditionality have evolved:

  • financial accountability: donors like to insist that there be transparency in the management of funding to ensure that what is done by the volunteers is properly targeted.
  • policy reform: some donors insist that the governments of developing countries adopt certain social, economic or environmental policies, the most controversial relating to the privatisation of services traditionally offered by the state.
  • development objectives: some donors have attempted to force developing countries to adjust specific time-bound economic objectives.

Some international volunteer organisations define their primary mission altruistically as fighting poverty and improving the living standards of people in the developing world, e.g. Voluntary Services Overseas has almost 2,000 skilled professionals working as volunteers to pass on their expertise to local people so that, when they return home, their skills remain. When these organisations work in partnership with governments, the results can be impressive. But when other organisations or individual First World governments support the work of volunteer groups, there can be questions as to whether their real motives are poverty alleviation or wealth creation for some of the poor or policies intended to benefit the donor states. This confusion exists because experience shows

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that what is volunteered can distort the foreign and economic policy of the country receiving the aid. The economies of many low-income countries suffer from "industrialisation without prosperity" and "investment without growth". This arises because "development assistance" guides many Third World governments to pursue "development" policies that have been wasteful, ill-conceived, unproductive or even so positively destructive that they could not have been sustained without outside support.[1]

Indeed, some of the offers of aid have distorted the general spirit of volunteerism, treating local voluntary action as “contributions in kind”, i.e. as conditions requiring local people to earn the right to donor “largesse” by modifying their behaviour. This can be seen as patronising and offensive to the recipients because the aid expressly serves the policy aims of the donors rather than the needs of the recipients.

The track record shows that making any aid conditional on policy reforms is often ineffective. Conditionality only works when there is a strong domestic commitment to reform and the recipient governments are democratic, i.e. they are accountable to their own electorates. Volunteer organisations and their funding donors should respect the governments of the countries they wish to help and build on the deep-rooted traditions of people to help one another, and thereby provide an important ingredient for social and democratic development.


A growing body of literature examines the negative effects of volunteerism around the world. As early as the 1960s Ivan Illich offered an analysis of the role of American volunteers in Mexico in his speech entitled, "To Hell With Good Intentions". His concerns, along with critics such as Paulo Freire and Edward Said, revolve around the notion of altruism as an extension of Christian missionary ideology and the sense of responsibility/obligation driving the concept of noblesse oblige, first developed by the French aristocracy as a moral duty derived from their wealth. Simply stated, these both propose the extension of power and authority over indigenous cultures around the world. Recent critiques of volunteerism come from Westmier and Kahn (1996) and bell hooks (nee Gloria Watkins) (2004). There is also growing concern about the effects of neoliberalism in the field of volunteerism, as witnessed by the increasing influence of corporations on the social programming of nonprofit community organisations, particularly through youth work.



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