Good news, and more good news, about the measurement of volunteer activity

By on June 8, 2015

This post originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of the International Association for Volunteer Effort’s (IAVE) e-newsletter, ahead of an upcoming webinar presentation to IAVE members about the features of the ILO Manual on June 23.


Despite what everyone seems to know inherently, volunteering is often overlooked, invisible, and under-funded in the policy agendas and discussions. A major reason is that reliable data about volunteers are hard to come by. Most existing data have been assembled through one-time surveys utilizing diverse definitions, or through large general purpose surveys that often use small samples and only one or two questions about volunteering. As a result, findings are inconsistent, no systematic comparisons are possible either across countries or over time, and opportunities to assess approaches to volunteer management and promotion are being lost.

Good news!
This changed in 2011 when the International Labour Organization, working in cooperation with the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies and a team of international experts, adopted the Manual on the Measurement of Volunteer Work for use by national statistics agencies. This ILO Manual represents the first-ever internationally sanctioned approach for gathering official data on the amount, character, and contributions of volunteers. National governments now have the information needed to measure volunteering according to the same level of standards used to measure other forms of work (such as paid employment).
The data collected won’t answer all of the questions we have about volunteers, but will offer the ability to move the conversation past the anecdotal to the empirical and provide a foundation for the development of other variables of interest in the future.

More good news!
In 2013, the world’s community of labor statisticians took a radical step and adopted volunteering as an official form of “work,” which moves it from the status of activities countries might-measure-if-interested to the status of activities countries should-measure-if-able. (In this context, the word “work” should not be confused with “employment” and “paid work.” In labor statistics terms, the term work is used to distinguish certain activities from leisure and personal time.)

The Global Volunteer Measurement Project
The ILO Manual thus offers an important opportunity to increase the recognition of and support for volunteering worldwide and to benchmark progress over time. Despite this good news, volunteer groups need to communicate their support for the ILO Manual to government officials and statistics agencies, which will only produce data when there is a perceived demand for the information and when the funds and technical assistance needed are available. Statistics agencies also need to know that volunteer groups will partner with them to provide advice, understand volunteering in the local context, help translate the ILO Manual and survey module into local languages, to monitor the implementation of the survey module, and to support the dissemination of the resulting data.
To help encourage the implementation of the ILO Manual in as many countries as possible, IAVE has joined up with our Center to make volunteer groups aware of the ILO Manual and to support efforts to see it implemented. To learn more about the ILO Manual methodology and for resources to help you launch this effort in your country, please visit the Volunteer Measurement Project page and email me for more information.

Megan Haddock is International Research Projects Manager for the Comparative Nonprofit Sector, UN Handbook, and Volunteer Measurement Projects. She received her Masters in Public Policy from the Johns Hopkins Institute of Policy Studies and her B.A. from Carleton College in International Relations and Political Science. She was a lead author of the ILO Manual on the Measurement of Volunteer Work.