The Word "Volunteer" Can Reveal, Conceal, or Confuse

By Susan J. Ellis

It’s been ten years since the United Nations declared 2001 the International Year of Volunteers, or IYV, and they have now officially designated 2011 as IYV+10. One of the projects for this global opportunity to highlight volunteering is something called the State of the World’s Volunteerism Report (SWVR).

SWVR is being researched and written by the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) program. It builds on excellent, thoughtful documents developed for IYV in 2001, and will try to “result in major paradigm shifts in conventional thinking about volunteerism and its contribution to addressing some of the major development and peace challenges of our times.” A special attempt is being made to identify the vast arena of informal volunteering that is the predominant form of community involvement in developing nations. The report is scheduled to be released on December 5, 2011 (International Volunteer Day), to culminate IYV+10.

I was privileged to participate in the “North American Consultation” stage of SWVR, during which 30 academics and a few practitioners debated elements of the first draft document. We began by raising the perpetual, nagging question: “What exactly is – or is not – volunteering?”

Naturally, we could not agree.

Some kept widening the definition to include almost everything; others drew arbitrary boundaries that eliminated activities meeting only some traditional characteristics. And this was a discussion only about words in English; UNV must consider the entire world and every language! One welcome by-product of the SWVR will be a lexicon of all the words used somewhere to describe what many/most/some recognize as volunteering.

Why Vocabulary Matters

Debating the parameters of volunteering may seem like an intellectual exercise, but how someone uses the core words of our field has a strong impact on some critical, practical matters. Here are two examples – one political and the other personal:

  • How government defines volunteering directly affects the funding allotted to support it, laws to limit liability, possible tax incentives, civil service job applications, and more.
  • How agency executives define volunteering will determine your status in your organization, the degree of creativity and risk you can exercise, the types of community outreach you will be encouraged to do, and more. For example, would decision makers welcome your attempt to create a barter exchange among clients or a team of volunteers to speak at city council meetings on your behalf? Do they expect you to organize help but not community input or clout?

Have I got your attention?

Denotations and Connotations

Energize is always trying to define volunteering (see our Dimensions page and the links to various existing definitions) and to use inclusive vocabulary to make many colleagues feel at home as “leaders of volunteers.” But my time with the academics surfaced a number of issues that I’d like to offer as food for thought. I’ve highlighted several below in the hope of hearing what you think – and maybe starting some conversations in your organization. There are no right answers! But discussion of the key questions can lead us closer to agreement.

Informal Volunteering

Formal, or organization-based, volunteering seemed easier for the SWVR group to classify than the wide range of neighborly and friendly actions people do for each other and their communities.

Where do civility and kindness end and “volunteering” begin? When does self-help become help to others? What’s the difference between being a good neighbor or helpful person and intentionally being a “volunteer”? What actions for the common good are so ingrained in a society that they should be consider national character or strong tradition rather than a choice to serve?

Which of the following do you definitely categorize as volunteering and why (or why not)?

  • Sewing in a quilting bee
  • Working in a community garden
  • Unpaid babysitting for your neighbor’s children
  • Buying groceries for homebound neighbors when you do your own shopping
  • Signing a petition
  • Using your cell phone to send a picture of a pothole to the streets department
  • Being part of a micro-lending cooperative
  • Participating in Alcoholics Anonymous
  • Remote villagers digging a well for their collective use

Right now “micro-volunteering” is getting lots of attention. Where do 60-second actions fit into the scheme of things?

Most of us would agree that informal volunteering needs to be recognized, described, and counted, but where are the boundaries?

The Language of Giving

Volunteering fits into the spectrum of activities often called “philanthropy,” yet too often philanthropy studies focus solely on fundraising. People can give time and expertise as well as money and do both at various times (alternatively or together) in their lives – including giving both resources to the same organization over time. In the past few years, terminology has sprung up to emphasize the interrelationship of all charitable giving, including time donor and skill-anthropist * for the word volunteer, and friend raising or people raising to broaden fundraising.

The SWVR hopes to educate decision makers about this critical connection.

Is It Always “Work”?

Does volunteering always have to be perceived as “work”? Some at the SWVR meeting noted that a great deal of voluntary activity might be considered serious leisure. Much of the world depends on unpaid community members to organize sports, performing arts and fine art shows, nature appreciation, and more. And all volunteering is done in someone’s discretionary, or leisure, time.

What about political activism? Do we apply the word volunteering to “helping” and not to protest and advocacy? Why?

Getting Paid to Serve

Confusing things is the fact that the English word volunteer is commonly used when something is voluntary but still recompensed financially. Thus the “All-Volunteer Army” in the U.S. means non-draft, not non-paid. Similarly:

  • We are asked to “volunteer” to give up our overbooked airplane seat for travel benefits.
  • Most medical experiment “volunteers” are paid for their time and expenses.

Again, most of us understand that this is not the kind of “volunteer” we mean in our field, but what’s the public perception of this label?

Note, too, that although recently many use the term “pro bono work” as synonymous to “volunteering,” the actual Latin term pro bono publico translates as “for the public good” and can include a professional helping a client at a reduced fee as well as for no fee.

Strangely enough, although corporate employees often receive their normal salaries when they are given paid release time to give their skills to community agencies, we have no trouble calling them “volunteers.”

Service as the Default Term

There are two factors driving the popularity of the vague term “service” to cover unpaid “volunteering” plus a variety of other types of activities. First, many people feel uncomfortable labeling court-ordered or school-mandated hours as “volunteering” because these limit free choice. So community service neatly describes the situation. The only problem is that the term is used both for offenders and for students, thereby muddying the waters. Is it volunteering or is it punishment?

Second, full-time service to the community does receive financial recompense. Public or civil service and military service are both career options that benefit society as a whole. National service was conceptualized to expand the types of things young adults might choose to do for their country as an alternative to conscripted military service. Not having universal national service in the U.S., the Peace Corps and VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) began as purely volunteer opportunities in the 1960s and provided participants little more than a living allowance.

Today, however, the Corporation for National and Community Service (note the language) has increased the compensation package for full-time service – adding together the living allowances, insurance, and after-service education grants raises the money to minimum wage equivalence. And in today’s economy with its lack of jobs, more and more young people see AmeriCorps/VISTA (or their country’s equivalent) as an entry-level employment opportunity. So it is definitely voluntary service, but is it “volunteering”?

My problem with the word “service” is that it is one-size-fits-all and therefore has no shape! Consider these everyday statements:

  • The service in the restaurant was great.
  • That church has a meaningful Sunday service.
  • I am looking for a silver dinner service.
  • I have a flat tire, where’s the nearest service station?
  • Man kills dog…gets 18 hours of community service.

Why would we want to align with such a generic word?

Where Do You Stand?

It may not be a bad thing that the definition of volunteering delineates some common elements but cannot encompass everything for everyone. This also allows us to expand our big-picture thinking to welcome new kinds of actions into the volunteering fold. The SWVR group posed the questions: If so many people misunderstand, misuse, or simply dislike the word volunteering, should we try to replace it altogether? Or should we reclaim the word as distinct and valued, applied to actions that uniquely address community needs and wishes?

What do you think?

  • What is your working definition of “volunteering”?
  • Where are your boundaries as to what you do not consider volunteering?
  • When does neighborliness become volunteering?
  • What do you hope the SWVR adds to the debate?

I will make sure that the SWVR team sees your responses. Share your thoughts and contribute to our field.


* See “Volunteerism: An Old Concept, A New Business Model for Scaling Microfinance and Technology-for-Development Initiatives,” from Grameen Foundation (2010) about its work with Bankers Without Borders. It’s the first place I’ve seen that proposes the term “skill-anthropist.”


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