Two major publications have made important recognition of the contribution of volunteering to well-being and human development and the need for improved information. The elevation of the recognition of the contributions of volunteers to this level of policy discussion, and the case that is made for the development of improved measures of volunteering, should be very heartening to volunteering and civil society advocates. Both publications clearly show how better measures of volunteering can lead to efforts to improve the enabling environment for volunteers. The task now for volunteering and civil society supporters is to take advantage of the opportunity these publications provide to escalate the development of data to additional countries and regions to ensure that the opportunities to engage in the policy discussion are available to all.
First, the OECD dedicated an entire chapter on volunteering How’s Life?, its biennial publication reporting on the data from its Better Life Index: “Good decisions about investments for the future rely, among other things, on having good data today. How’s Life?, first launched in 2011, is a pioneering report that summarizes an extensive range of well-being indicators, putting the latest information on the progress of OECD and partner countries at policy-makers’ and citizens’ fingertips. Besides documenting well-being today, this third edition of How’s Life? also offers a first glimpse of future well-being prospects by looking at three key areas.” Of special focus is volunteering, “which is a key form of investment in social capital, and one which pays dividends for volunteers themselves as well as for wider society now and in the future” (How’s Life?, p. 5). More from the report:
“Volunteering makes an important ‘hidden contribution’ to well-being, producing goods and services that are not captured by conventional economic statistics, and building social capital through fostering cooperation and trust. When you add up the value of the time people spend on volunteering in OECD countries, it amounts to roughly 2% of GDP per year, on average.
Not surprisingly, people who have more for themselves can afford to give more to others: volunteering rates tend to be higher among those who are better off, those who have higher levels of education, and those who have jobs (relative to the unemployed). Yet people who give time to their communities also get something back in return: volunteers benefit from the knowledge and skills fostered by volunteer work, and they feel more satisfied with their lives as a whole. This virtuous circle of volunteering offers win-wins for well-being. However, it also risks further excluding those who have less to start with. It should therefore be a priority to open up volunteering opportunities to a wider range of people, for instance through public initiatives such as the Service Civique in France.”
(How’s Life?, p. 6).
The OECD chapter makes a strong argument for the importance of developing comparative measures of volunteering as one mechanism for strengthening the enabling environment for volunteering, which it passionately argues, provides important contributions to household material conditions and well-being through the provision of services, health care, education, environmental preservation, and development cooperation, often narrowing inequalities by targeting the excluded groups and the very poor, and is a tool for the integration of youth facing difficult situations or of seniors after retirement. It also recognizes volunteering as being an: “important type of ‘work’ that is personally rewarding—physically, mentally, socially—and benefits employability” (How’s Life?, p. 190).
Importantly, How’s Life? stresses that volunteering is: “an expression of a vibrant civil society, volunteering helps create social capital, building and consolidating bonds of trust and cooperation, while cultivating norms of altruism, solidarity, civic mindfulness and respect for diversity. In other terms, volunteering is an essential component of the fabric of a ‘good society’” (How’s Life?, p. 190).
Recognizing the lack of truly comparable data of the kind that would be available were countries to have implemented the ILO Manual on the Measurement of Volunteer Work and developed the associated satellite accounts on nonprofit institutions and volunteering, the OECD pulls together a picture of the amount and character of volunteering using several types of existing surveys, following a similar approach our Center applied in our 2011 study that appeared in the Annals of Public and Cooperative Economics.
The conclusions to this chapter are particularly striking. Because the How’s Life? publication is not available for free, we have reproduced the whole set of recommendations below:
The statistical agenda ahead for volunteering
“While some comparative statistical information on volunteering is available, and has provided the basis for the analysis presented in this chapter, it remains limited in many important respects. To respond to the demand for better information on the size, structure and effects of volunteering, steps should be taken in the following areas:
** Consistently applying a common definition of volunteer work across different surveys along the lines recommended by the 2013 ICLS resolution (by both official and non-official data producers). This would avoid the current situation where surveys (e.g. labour force surveys, time use surveys, general household surveys) differ in terms of the activities included (in particular with respect to caring for family members living alone or in separate households), the time period used for assessing whether respondents have performed volunteer work (e.g. the previous four weeks or the previous 12 months), the frequency and duration of the work done, and the type of service produced.
** Developing experimental measures of the economic value of volunteering, through the periodic compilation of satellite accounts covering the full range of non-profit institutions and including the economic value of volunteer work, along the lines pursued by the ongoing UNECE Task Force on Valuing Unpaid Household Service Work.
** Developing metrics for other aspects of volunteering beyond “work.” These include donations (cash and in-kind) and non-work activities such as being a member of a volunteering organisation or participating in a campaign launched by such organisations. While these types of non-work activities are better understood as a form of “political and civic participation” (Boarini and Diaz, 2015), they are important to gauge how volunteering contributes to social capital and to maintaining a vibrant civil society.
** Using additional sources. Most OECD countries have a national registry of non-profit associations or organisations, normally managed by a public body and updated regularly. This is a valuable data source when associations are obliged to register with the national registry and to provide consistent information about their professional staff, number of unpaid volunteers, sectors of activity, and funding sources. Information from these registries should be regularly gathered and disseminated by the voluntary sector, with statistical offices validating this statistical information (and using it in their own reporting).”
(How’s Life?, Chapter 5, p. 220).
How’s Life? also mentions on-going efforts to improve data-gathering, including conferences like the 5th OECD World Forum on Statistics, Knowledge and Policy hosted in Mexico, where the work INEGI has carried out to measure volunteering and produce satellite accounts on NPIs in Mexico was highlighted. Importantly, the OECD Development Center is supporting the expansion of these measures in other countries/regions, including current work to develop a How’s Life? publication for Latin America. This is terrific news, and we look forward to a day when volunteering is measured as an important component of well-being everywhere in the world. So what about Asia and the Pacific, Africa, and the Middle East?
A second major development was the publication of the United Nations Human Development Report, which features volunteering throughout the text as a form of sustainable work and contributor to human development.
The report concludes that “Targeted actions are needed for balancing care and paid work, making work sustainable, addressing youth unemployment, encouraging creative and voluntary work, and providing work in conflict and post-conflict situations” and that “Policies that direct innovation towards the greater social good, including volunteer work, can enhance human development. Voluntary work can be encouraged by tax rebates, subsidies and public grants to voluntary organizations. Public support to create and protect space for voluntary work can bring social benefits, particularly during emergencies like conflicts and natural disasters” (Human Development Report, p. 20).
A major section of text is dedicated to making the link between volunteer work and human development:
“In the work–human development nexus volunteerism, as well as creativity and innovation, warrants particular attention. Volunteerism, by its nature, reflects agency and the capability to choose. Volunteers benefit from their work, either because they value altruism or through the personal enrichment they gain from community involvement. Volunteer work also tends to have substantial social value. Participation in volunteer activities can enable people to contribute to their communities and the public good in ways that markets or public institutions may not. Volunteers can be great innovators, forging the way towards new ways of working and organizing workers, paid and unpaid. Wangari Maathai, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, mobilized grassroots movements to promote sustainable development, democracy, women’s rights and peace. Her legacy has been influential in preparing the Post-2015 Development Agenda.
Volunteer organizations can create bridges between political, geographical and cultural realities and can coordinate international efforts and solidarity to pursue humanitarian causes. Among others, the International Committee of the Red Cross, devoted to protecting human life and health, has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize three times: in 1917, 1944 and 1963. Similarly, Medecins Sans Frontieres, which won the prize in 1999, mobilizes doctors and nurses to address health emergencies around the globe. UN Volunteers encourages the integration of volunteerism into development and peace processes in developing countries, partnering with governments and other local and international bodies. In all these ways volunteerism promotes cross-cutting approaches for human development”
(Human Development Report, pp. 33-34).
What is particularly fascinating about the Human Development Report is not that it makes special mention of volunteering in one part of the text, but rather how mention of volunteering is naturally integrated throughout the text as a key factor in human development, much in the same way other types of “work” are described. Thus, volunteering is mentioned elsewhere in the context of the changing demographics of the workforce (millennials and older persons) and in the context of new technology (permitting online volunteering).
The achievement for volunteers, in the publication of this report, is the elevation of volunteering considerations in the policy discussions to similar status levels as other types of productive activity. Volunteering is mentioned as a cross-cutting measure of the SDGs and better data on human development is called for in general.
Megan Haddock served as 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.