Volunteering: European Community

In the aftermath of the UK Year of the Volunteer, Nick Cater surveys the wider volunteering landscape across Europe.

Experts may still be unable to agree on the tangible difference made by the UK's Year of the Volunteer in 2005, but if 2001's International Year of Volunteers is anything to go by, it could well have a lasting effect.

Across Europe, the surge of activity in 2001 is still having an impact, as volunteering presses forward with modernisation on many fronts, from widening opportunities and raising recruitment to building infrastructure and improving training.

And it isn't just Europe that is benefiting. Kofi Annan, the secretary general of the United Nations, recently said: "The environment for an expansion of volunteerism worldwide is as favourable as it has ever been."

Although volunteering, both formal and informal, is found in every community across Europe, its scale, legal status and structure varies significantly between nations, often reflecting their historical roots. But leading figures in the volunteering movement say co-operation among many countries, including the European Union's ten new member states, is fostering both mutual learning and collaboration on exploratory projects. Europe's institutions, meanwhile, are starting to add both funding and political weight to volunteering's development.

These issues and more were among topics discussed recently by hundreds of participants at the first European Volunteering Assembly, staged in Wolverhampton by Volunteering England with the support of the Home Office's Active Communities Directorate, to mark the British presidency of the EU and the UK Year of the Volunteer.

Christopher Spence, chief executive of Volunteering England, says Europe's decision-makers are giving volunteering an increasingly positive reception.

The movement, he says, has laid out a clear plan for itself and its stakeholders through the European Roadmap 2010, which sets detailed priorities in policy, legislation, funding and partnerships.

"The Roadmap calls for a shared vision of the scope and importance of volunteering," he says. "Volunteering as building social capital; service delivery; political activism; self and mutual help and support; a means of integration for refugees and asylum seekers; lifelong learning; and an expression of faith."

Much is already under way, says Spence, "but we have a great deal of work ahead, not least in building our infrastructure and ensuring we gain the full support of governments throughout Europe". The UK has a key role, because it shares with the Netherlands the most developed volunteering sector.

Diverse results emerge from surveys among European countries. Whereas southern states show the church-based origins of their volunteering and characteristically focus on health and welfare needs, the central and eastern states find one inspiration for volunteering in the protest movements involved in their progress to democracy from Communism. Europe's north and west often find it harder to recruit young volunteers, whereas the previously enforced public service of former Communist nations makes older people reluctant volunteers and their children more enthusiastic.

Differing definitions of volunteering make figures unreliable, but some suggest rates vary from between 25 and 35 per cent in countries such as France, the UK or the Netherlands, to between 10 and 15 per cent in eastern Europe. Similarities do exist, whether in volunteers' generally higher incomes or the trend towards shorter, project-based volunteering assignments.

Dr Marijke Steenbergen, chief executive of the Dutch national volunteering body CIVIQ, helped to co-ordinate the development of the European Roadmap and the country-by-country research that underpinned it. She says volunteering is becoming more 'sexy' as governments, the European Commission and Europe's parliamentarians recognise its value. But what more is needed? Steenbergen offers a checklist, from sustained funding, national volunteering policies and better promotion to business partnerships, improved infrastructure and better networking.

Cross-border inspiration is also important, she says. "In the Netherlands, we have picked up from the UK the idea of the Make a Difference Day," she explains. "And other countries are interested in the Dutch practice of a 'volunteering marketplace' event that brings together voluntary groups, local government, businesses and community bodies to see how they can form better partnerships."

There are opportunities at both ends of the age spectrum, says Steenbergen.

"As Europe ages, the challenge will be to convert active, busy wage earners into active, busy volunteers," she says. "For young people, especially those less engaged with the education system, the idea that volunteering can add to their CV is gaining ground and finding support among governments and companies."

At Romania's Pro Vobis national volunteering group, executive director Cristina Nicolescu confirms that young people are the main recruits. "They have not experienced the forced volunteering of the past," she says. "Opportunities are often targeted at young people, or demand skills in computing or extra languages, and students are keen to gain experience outside their education."

Most volunteers get involved in the social field, from helping children with special educational needs to working with elderly people in daycare centres. "In central and eastern Europe, we receive less support from central government, although in some situations limited funding is available from local government," says Nicolescu. "And volunteering gets little coverage or support from the media, which is generally looking for more sensational stories. But we do get some useful exposure in local media such as regional newspapers."

Europe may have open frontiers for travel and business, but borderless volunteering has some catching up to do, according to Markus Held, the Brussels-based co-ordinator of the European Volunteer Centre (known by its French acronym CEV), a network of almost 40 volunteering bodies from 23 countries whose roles include research, sharing good practice and lobbying the European Parliament and Commission.

"We are seeing a significant new openness at the commission," says Held.

"Decision-makers are particularly positive because we are able to bring together all our stakeholders, from voluntary groups to business, in dynamic partnerships."

Held says cross-border volunteering has so far been led by programmes of youth service, but the commission is keen to foster links between countries through what it terms 'active citizenship' for all ages. Funding remains an issue, however. "More money is on the way from Europe," he says. "But it seems up to now to have been directed mainly to think tanks for research in the field rather than directly to volunteering groups." A new EUR235m active citizenship budget for 2007-2013 specifically includes voluntary service.

An example of the multinational projects backed by the commission is Involve, in which eight countries led by the UK, the Netherlands and Spain are undertaking research into how volunteering engages with what are dubbed 'third country nationals', from migrants and guest workers to refugees and asylum seekers, and how it could go further to help integration, including the search for work.

The project was launched this year and runs until at least 2006. In the UK, Ruth Wilson of Tandem Communications co-ordinates Involve on Volunteering England's behalf, setting up advisory groups of third country nationals and staging seminars as catalysts for change, skills exchange and networking.

"Movement of people is the story of our times," she says. "We need to understand and appreciate the energy and enterprise they bring with them."

Wilson says that, for self-help and support, volunteering usually exists within migrant groups. Involve will explore how this can be fostered and how host country voluntary groups can encourage diversity and make themselves more accessible.

In an expanding, ageing and increasingly diverse Europe, there is a consensus that volunteering is growing and reaching further into societies to meet their needs. Even with concerns about issues such as funding, insurance, infrastructure, legal frameworks and training, volunteering is playing a significant role within national welfare provision and assisting the growth of the charitable sector as a whole.

Steenbergen shares this upbeat perspective. "Volunteering is gaining more attention, extra money, policy support and a flow of positive energy from eastern Europe," she says. "There is a new confidence for the future."

FURTHER INFORMATION

- European Volunteer Centre (CEV): www.cev.be

- CIVIQ: www.civiq.nl

- EU Promotion of Active European Citizenship: http://europa.eu.int/comm/dgs/education_culture/activecitizenship/index_ en.htm

- Home Office Active Communities Directorate: http://communities.homeoffice.gov.uk/activecomms

- Pro Vobis: www.provobis.ro

- Tandem Communications: www.tandem-uk.com

- Volunteering England: www.volunteeringengland.org.uk

- UK Year of the Volunteer: www.yearofthevolunteer.org.

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