I participated in the CEV (European Volunteer Center) Autumn Volunteering Congress on 25.-26.10.2018 in Brussels. Kansalaisareena (Citizen Forum) offered its member organizations an opportunity to participate in the conference. In my blog, I present thoughts arisen there about how volunteering can act as a promoter of involvement and inclusion with the right kind of support for the volunteer.

Volunteering is a civil right. In addition to good will, solidarity, and desire to help, enabling structures are needed. CEV presented to the congress a statement which pointed out that volunteering cannot succeed without laws supporting participation and an enabling environment where organizations and different movements can act. Volunteering also requires resources and premises. (CEV statement, Draft Policy Statement on ”Inclusive Volunteering”).

Nevertheless, volunteering is not accessible to everybody yet. CEV points out that some European countries still require that the authorities are informed about volunteering if the volunteer receives financial support from the society. Volunteering may be prohibited for certain recipients of benefits, such as unemployment, healthcare or pensions, or participation in volunteering may have an impact on the benefits.

CEV believes that volunteering is one of the most visible forms of solidarity, promoting inclusion, increasing social capital, and creating change in a society. Everyone should have the right to participate in volunteering, including the unemployed and retired. (CEV Draft Policy Statement on ”Social Welfare and Volunteering in Europe”)

CEV’s Annual Report 2017 states that volunteering is the main agent of social change in a society, supporting inclusion, active citizenship and involvement, and promoting joint responsibility. As focus areas in 2019, CEV raises the prevention of hate speech and stigmatization and the work to increase solidarity, among others. (CEV European Volunteer Center, Annual Report 2017)

Volunteering is renewable energy

For volunteering to work well, practical support is needed, in addition to structures. During the congress, in addition to workshops, we heard interesting presentations about supporting volunteers. Professor Lucas Meijs from Erasmus School of Economics in Rotterdam aptly describes volunteering as energy. The coordinators of volunteering act as transformers of energy. The energy is transformed on volunteers’ terms; ”You have a skill, and it is my task to make it work”, Meijs describes.

Meijs recommends that the job descriptions for volunteers should not be fixed but renewable energy is achieved by provoking different forms of energy and putting the arising desire into action; hence ”volunteering happens when the volunteer has time,  not when the organization has it”. Volunteering is influenced by the volunteer’s desire, knowledge and skills and by the time and resources available.

After the presentation by Meijs, an important point was made from the audience; the need for volunteering in social and health care arises from the client. In this case, the organization needs to connect the need of the client and the availability of the volunteer.

The individual and environment are in a continuous interaction

It is challenging to measure the impact of volunteering. Making It Matter -project is developing user friendly models in six countries for measuring the impact of volunteering in supporting inclusion. The importance of volunteering was emphasized throughout the conference. The chair person of CEV, Cristina Rigman, stated that the value of influencing an individual is unmeasurable because through individuals the impact is being multiplied and spread to the whole community.

An individual and the environment act in continuous interaction. However, the individual is always responsible for how the impact of experiences created by the environment is experienced. While in Finland, I participated in another seminar describing how ”with the help of service design, people can be empowered and involved”. It is my belief that nobody can be empowered or involved on her/his behalf, but that the individual needs to keep an active role. However, the environment can provide opportunities for the individual to feel empowered and included in the surrounding community. The environment calls and the individual gets involved, the environment has an influence and the individual feels empowered.

Volunteering has the power to break stereotypes

Especially for those volunteers in danger of becoming marginalized or who are in need of special support, the role of the environment is significant. CEV stated to the congress that ”volunteering has the power to break stereotypes and strengthen understanding and tolerance of difference”.

According to Meijs, the best way to recruit volunteers is to present the diversity of volunteering and the different ways of participation; different pictures, through different channels, different stories, different role models and examples. Meijs encouraged to try different new ways to combine e.g. volunteering and businesses, volunteering and family, volunteering and being single, volunteering and community service, services, getting employed or different unemployment benefits.

A good example of volunteering that breaks stereotypes is Vekkari-activity by Kehitysvammatuki 57 ry (non-governmental organization for people with intellectual and development disabilities) where the volunteers act in different events and as peer group leaders. The volunteers are disabled or they need support in learning and/or understanding. The activity has received good feedback especially for increasing encounters between different people, for enabling the representatives of special groups to take a responsible role, and for making visible the fact that the roles are not static (support objects and providers), but the roles vary in relation to the environment.

Similar activity is found, for example, in Holland in Movisie organization. They discovered that only 9 % of the disabled people needing less support participated in volunteering, whereas in the other population the percentage was 36 % (www.movisie.nl). Especially in supported volunteering, guidance and support with emphasis on strengths has a key role. Strength emphasis means focusing on the individual’s strengths and supporting their growth.

When joining an organization, a new volunteer is asked ”what do you like, what is important to you and what are you good at?” The volunteer is not offered a fixed package to fit into but the activities are dependent on the volunteer. Strengths based action is emphasized and the support needed is tailor-made according to the needs of the volunteer. Hence, the strengths will be further strengthened and hidden potential will come to use.

Changes in the environment can create conditions where as many people as possible can feel included and can make use of her/his strengths. Paying attention to the existing strengths, bringing them up, and supporting them provide a good way to approach and support people also outside of volunteering.

Text: Tiina Herttuainen

Kehitysvammatuki 57 ry, Development Manager

Translation: Merja Tahkokallio