My Personal "State of the World's Volunteering" Report

By Susan J. Ellis

On December 5th, International Volunteer Day, United Nations Volunteers (UNV) is set to issue its State of the World's Volunteering Report, officially bringing to a close the 2011 International Year of Volunteers + 10. At the same time, the European Year of Volunteering is ending with a flurry of country-by-country summaries to funders and governments. In this spirit of celebration and reflection, I also thought about all that has happened professionally (won't even touch personally!) in our field – things we have done or were done to us.

2001, the original United Nations-declared Year of Volunteers, was remarkable in many ways. While key volunteerism bodies in the United States essentially ignored this chance to focus attention on volunteers, other countries seized the opportunity. Many national centers for volunteering, most government sponsored, were started in countries ranging from Singapore to Peru to Lesotho, and an array of first-ever national conferences were held (here’s a snapshot of IYV 2001).

But on September 11, 2001, the world changed dramatically. Suddenly the United States became aware of the determination of volunteers to act in response to need. I have often commented that “volunteers are the silver lining in the cloud of disaster.” The horrifying news reports in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks were brightened by stories of lines of would-be blood donors outside hospitals, hundreds bringing water bottles and meals to the perimeter of Ground Zero for the emergency responders, volunteer pet rescuers, and those who created spontaneous walls of photographs of the missing and provided comfort to the distraught.

As I look back over this decade, I am struck by both achievement and disconnect; the volunteer world that I see has evolved in many ways, with volunteers themselves often bypassing the professional infrastructure of our field. Here are some of my observations, positive and negative, during 2001-2011, and I hope you will share your perspective on this time period with the rest of us, too.


The Web opened up incredible new ways for people interested in a cause to find one another anywhere on the globe and exchange information, offer support, and join forces. Leaders of volunteers, too, discovered/created online discussion forums, blogs, and an array of online learning opportunities. Volunteer recruitment moved into cyberspace in a big way.


The Web's greatest strength is in linking information, allowing people to share existing information without guarding access. Yet we have seen a proliferation of more and more Web sites begun mainly to promote the sponsoring organization's “brand” than to serve volunteering. No one site can ever provide every single volunteer assignment available or every single volunteer management resource. Potential volunteers would be helped so much more if each online registry clearly stated its focus and limitations and urged people to continue searching – even on other sites – to find the best form of service for them.

Similarly, too many national organizations want to “own” exclusive volunteer management information provided only to their inner circles or insist that only their vocabulary and jargon can truly teach their leaders of volunteers. They end up wasting time duplicating (often poorly) what already exists and keeping their networks in the dark about the knowledge available elsewhere.

None of this fragmentation strengthens volunteering community-wide.


Interest in corporate employee volunteering, in which a company supports community service by its employees through release or flex time and creates a culture of volunteer involvement has steadily risen throughout the decade – and across the world. The newest Volunteering in America statistics for 2010 show a rise in volunteering by Generation X (those in their 30s and 40s), attributed in large part to being able to engage in the community through their places of work. While single day of service team activities are still the most popular form of business volunteering, we can see new interest in longer-term commitments, particularly through pro bono consulting to share business acumen with nonprofits seeking future growth.


We remain enamored of “business acumen,” despite the worldwide financial crisis brought about by poor business practices. Too many boards of directors, commissions, and special projects are led by corporate executives, frequently clueless about the realities of life on the street in the nonprofit and government arenas and, worse, certain that corporate thinking will save anything to which it is applied. And we pander to such leadership in the hope of getting more money and influence.


The volunteer response to every major natural disaster this decade, and we have had many. How young volunteers have grabbed the potential of social media to mobilize quickly, epitomized in the Student Volunteer Army after the New Zealand earthquakes. Social media also allowed activists to connect and mobilize citizen action that toppled corrupt governments around the world.


The call for civic engagement by most democratic governments, perhaps epitomized by the Barack Obama presidential election and the concept of the “Big Society” in the UK. Because volunteering is neutral, in that it is a strategy used by all sides of a controversy, we also need to acknowledge that reactionary, conservative, and liberal activists alike all mobilized their volunteers to protest government actions and to vote their opinions.


Misguided follow through in the cutting of funding for the infrastructure to support and enlarge volunteering. Overnight gutting of once-strong national bodies such as Volunteer Canada and Volunteering England. Removing representation of the American volunteer field from Washington, DC. Seeking resources to aid nonprofit fundraising while decreasing or totally neglecting resources to enable greater volunteer involvement.

It's been a long 10 years and I could go on. But I won't (actually, you can follow the ups and downs of the decade in the archive of these monthly Hot Topics). Now I want to hear your reflections please.

To conclude, however, I offer this important observation. Volunteering survives. No matter what government does. Whether or not leaders of volunteers create strong professional networks. Despite superficial media attention to the glitzy things. People will always come forward when they are moved by strong personal conviction to do so. Margaret Mead's famous words about not underestimating the power of a small group of people to change the world remain true. No matter what any of us do, we cannot kill the volunteer spirit.

So, for me, the question is: How much more effective could volunteering be if we stopped reinventing the wheel for every single cause, recognized that there are basic skills of volunteer leadership that can be learned and practiced, and acknowledged the vital role of strong coordination of volunteer efforts?

Maybe in the next 10 years.

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