The Measurement of Volunteering in Europe – Reflections on the CEV Symposium

By on May 12, 2011

JHU Center Director Dr. Lester Salamon took part in the opening panel discussion at the European Volunteer Centre (CEV) Symposium “The future of volunteering: concepts, trends, visions” convened in Tallinn, Estonia May 4th through 6th, 2011.
The European Year, and the examination of volunteer work accompanying it as exemplified by this Conference, comes at a crucial time. Volunteering is at a crossroads—for much of its history it has been marginalized in policy circles and public debates, oftentimes trotted out only to justify government budget cuts and attacks on the modern welfare state. As Dr. Salamon pointed out, it is well past time that we begin to recognize the valuable resource that volunteers represent, and begin taking the work that they do more seriously.
One reason volunteering has not received the respect it deserves is that its advocates have not been able to present it effectively in policy debates—a failure due in large part to a lack of the solid information and hard data needed to make its importance clear. That is not to say that there is no data available on volunteer work. Indeed, a significant amount of data has been gathered on volunteering over the years. The problem is that there has been no agreed upon definition, methodology, or consistency in those attempts at measurement. Most of the existing data have been assembled through one-off country studies utilizing a bewildering diversity of definitions, or  through massive general purpose surveys in which the space devoted to volunteering is limited to one or two questions, many of which are themselves poorly phrased. For instance:

  • Some surveys ask about numbers of volunteers but not the hours volunteered.
  • Some ask respondents to recall an entire year of volunteer effort, while some neglect to provide any time frame at all, rendering the results useless.
  • Most only cover volunteering done through organizations, while ignoring direct volunteering by individuals.
  • While most use the same term–‘volunteering’–this term can have very different meanings and implications depending on where it is used. What one thinks of as ‘volunteering’ in China might be radically different than what comes to mind when that term is used in Kenya.
  • Most report the volunteer rate but make no attempt to convert volunteer effort into full-time equivalent workers or compute the value volunteers contribute to the economy.

As a consequence, inconsistent results are often produced on the same country, the data from one country is not comparable to the data from another country, and volunteering fails to present its case in terms that make sense to policy makers and the public. Real opportunities to assess different approaches to volunteer management and volunteer promotion are being lost in the confusion.
What is needed, of course, is to establish a rigorous, systematic body of permanently updated data on volunteer work. To do that, it is necessary to establish and utilize a broadly applicable definition of volunteer work, coupled with a systematic and readily implemented measurement tool that is proven to be deployable in a wide range of countries regardless of their economic or development circumstances. This is what the recently accepted ILO Manual on the Measurement of Volunteer Work provides. Its implementation will shed new light on old questions about volunteer work and its role and execution in countries around the world; the question, as Dr. Salamon pointed out, is whether the volunteer community will have the courage, and the discipline, to embrace it.
This Manual, once implemented, will make the measurement of volunteer work a regularly updated part of official national statistics by piggy-backing on existing labor force surveys. On top of that, it will actually measure the same phenomenon in each survey because it will not only embrace both organization-based and direct volunteering, but it uses a definition of volunteer work that has been developed by a Technical Experts Group of volunteering activists, researchers, and statisticians from all over the world to be nearly universally applicable.
The purpose of all of this structure is, of course, to compile the information the volunteer sector needs to quantify their impact and assess and improve their effectiveness. The ILO Manual will enable this by providing detailed information on the number of volunteers in a given country; the volunteer rate (the percent of the adult population who volunteer); the demographics and characteristics (including employment, education, and household income) of those who choose to devote time to volunteer work; the actual work that volunteers do, categorized in a way that makes it compatible with international categories for paid labor; and finally, the economic contribution that volunteer effort makes around the world.
The European Year of Volunteering 2011 is a perfect time for the European volunteer promotion community to seize this opportunity and make the implementation of this Manual one of the crowning accomplishments of the European Year. This is, of course, why the Center has partnered with CEV and SPES to create the European Volunteer Measurement Project, which is working with volunteer promotion agencies across the continent to advocate for implementation by statistics agencies  in as many countries as possible by the end of the European Year.
Please visit the Volunteer Measurement Project page to find out more about this project and about the global effort to see this Manual implemented in as broad a range of nations as possible.

cross-posted from