Closing the gap between volunteering and social activism
08 October 2007
by Kumi Naidoo

What is the relationship of volunteers and volunteering to social activism? Just last week, Rieky Stuart, a CIVICUS board member, raised this question at the 2007 International Forum on Volunteer Cooperation (IVCO), which I also attended as a speaker. Surely, not all activism can be considered volunteering.

Nevertheless, I think it is critical for our collective work to strengthen citizen participation that we understand, more precisely, how volunteers currently contribute to social activism and the potential to realise even greater volunteer contributions to social change. And while popular perception tends to associate social activism with young people taking on the establishment, through this column CIVICUS would also like to pay tribute to one of the major constituencies of volunteers today: the growing number of older men and women across the world.

CIVICUS, historically concerned with building bridges and fostering greater unity of civil society organisations, has noted an apparent division on the ground between volunteering and social activism. Considering the great challenges that must be overcome to achieve and ultimately surpass the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015, the need to reconsider the relationship between the so-called volunteering and activism communities is of particular urgency.   

Recognising this, CIVICUS recently renewed an agreement with the International Association for Volunteer Effort (IAVE) and the United Nations Volunteer Programme (UNV) to jointly advance awareness of the value of volunteers and volunteer action, particularly for development. In doing so CIVICUS hopes to foster a broad-based dialogue throughout civil society on the similarities and synergies between volunteering and activism. Our work, together with UNV and IAVE, currently includes a planned publication exploring these issues of volunteer management and outreach to volunteer focused and volunteer involving organisations.

Before launching into a discussion about volunteering, it is essential to acknowledge that volunteering is understood differently by different people.  Its specific meaning and expression is linked to the particular social, political, economic and historical context. Thus, what might be considered volunteering in one country may not be considered volunteering in another. The debate about what constitutes volunteering is ongoing, and typically revolves around issues of remuneration, the level of commitment, the nature of the activity, i.e., a formal or informal and, lastly, on free will.    

The UNV ’s definition reads, “Volunteering is action freely taken which benefits the community and society, as well as the volunteer, and which is not driven by financial considerations.” In my view, this definition is intentionally broad and as such cannot account for the various cultural nuances. Still, it succeeds in capturing the key characteristics of volunteering which resonate across cultures and thus, I would argue, it is a helpful common starting point for a discussion.  

In addition to being a contested term, the word volunteering can conjure up negative connotations for some in civil society, particularly those in activist quarters. Instead of addressing the root causes of social problems, volunteering is sometimes seen as humanitarian action which alleviates the daily suffering of the poor and marginalised by providing direct services, but falls short of producing real change. Activism on the other hand is associated with advocacy, campaigning and social disobedience undertaken with the explicit aim of systemic social, economic and political change.  

This distinction between volunteering and activism, from my perspective, is a false and unhelpful dichotomy, which has contributed to a divide within civil society between the so-called volunteering and activist communities. It is increasingly being recognised that a key question facing civil society is how to foster greater respect and dialogue between these two worlds so that they might find new ways of engagement around shared goals of development and justice. This, I think, is critical if we are to make real progress towards ending poverty and inequality.

The volunteering paradigm, in which individuals from rich countries give to those in poor countries, has also been criticised for positioning people and communities as disempowered charity cases instead of actors who have a role to play in solving their own problems and who also have information and knowledge to impart. More and more, the volunteering sector is moving away from this model to one of partnership and mutual learning, for example through South-North and South-South exchanges. While it is essential to continue this trend, it is also important to acknowledge that the volunteering landscape is much more diverse than this particular image suggests.      

The sometimes unfavourable perceptions of volunteering and the apparent schism within civil society point to the need to highlight the diversity of volunteer action undertaken around the world. Throughout the years, volunteers have given their time and energy and even risked their lives as leaders and participants in social movements such as the global women’s movement, the struggle for civil rights in the United States and against apartheid in South Africa.  But the relationship between volunteering and social activism goes beyond simply pointing out that many individuals engaged in social activism are doing so on a volunteer basis.  

Volunteers have played a tremendous role in raising public awareness of human rights violations against the poor as well as the actions of courageous individuals advocating for greater democracy in their countries. Just this past week, as the violence against the peaceful Burmese Buddhist monks and protesters unfolded, Amnesty International reached out to its extensive network of volunteer activists to speak out against the state-led violence.  Sometimes the awareness building is not an explicit goal but rather the unplanned result of volunteer work. For example, ‘Techo para Chile,’ a Chilean non-governmental organisation, has been so successful in their volunteer efforts to provide adequate housing for the extreme poor and has inspired so much support from the Chilean public that the government is now under substantial public pressure to achieve its goal of eliminating campamentos, or slums, by 2010.  

Volunteers also have an important function to play in holding governments accountable for their promises, such as meeting the MDGs by 2015. The 2003 Philippines MDG Report indicated that universal education is attainable by 2015 but only if the necessary resources are allocated. In a project developed to combat corruption at the Philippine Department of Education, existing volunteer networks, such as the Girl and Boy Scouts of the Philippines and the Alliance of Concerned Volunteer Educators, were successfully leveraged to monitor government procurement of textbooks and ensure the timely delivery of these textbooks to schools across the Philippines . Indeed, much ground work in MDG related activism and service delivery is already being realised by volunteers.

Last year, as part of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty (GCAP) initiative, millions of individuals volunteered their time on 17 October to send the message that endemic poverty and inequality in their communities and around the world is unacceptable. Mobilisations for this year’s Stand Up And Speak Out Against Poverty and Inequality campaign and for the MDGs on 16-17 October are currently being planned in close to 100 countries. To see how you can join an existing event or organise a simple event yourself, you can visit

It is fitting that volunteers are involved in campaigns calling for policy change, such as Stand Up and Speak Out, or the well known and successful campaign to ban landmines, given their intimate knowledge and oftentimes personal experience of poverty, discrimination and violence. A research study in South Africa showed that, in fact, poor people were more likely to report volunteering than non-poor respondents. This underscores the need for volunteers to be engaged even more systematically as reservoirs of information for policy activism.  

Volunteering is a powerful human act, which gives expression to enduring human values of compassion and reciprocity. It can also be a useful strategy for combating social exclusion. If approached correctly, volunteering can help to build greater cohesion across gender, ethnic, religious, economic, health and age divides. The disempowered, whether disabled, youth, seniors or women, can gain skills and knowledge and a new sense of worth, while contributing to broader change and cohesiveness in their communities. One example is the Retired and Senior Volunteer Programme (RSVP), which has created a resource pack focused on fostering action to protect and preserve our environment, through intergenerational activities with children ages 7-11.

In this column I have attempted to start a discussion about the relationship between volunteers and volunteering to social activism by highlighting some of ways in which the two overlap and are mutually reinforcing. To strengthen CIVICUS’ work in this area, I would invite you to send your perspectives and experiences to Karena Cronin, who is leading our work on collecting stories, perspectives and current thinking on volunteering for a joint publication with UNV , IAVE and CIVICUS.

In conclusion, I want to say that as we seek to foster a more inclusive society globally, volunteering offers us a great opportunity. Sometimes people start off serving in a soup kitchen and end up being the most eloquent policy advocates around issues of hunger and poverty. In my observations, both in Africa and globally, I have been extremely moved by the energy, skill and motivation of older men and women. In the life experiences of older people there are several stories of those who have engaged in volunteering and contributed to social change. It is indeed tragic that humanity often deprives itself of the energy and expertise of older men and women. In reflecting on these questions on the International Day of Older Persons, it is worth remembering that most readers of this article will hopefully one day be older persons. It is in our self interest as well that we think about a society where older people are treated as reservoirs of wisdom, knowledge and experience that can help us advance the cause of justice; and advancing that cause means bridging the many unhelpful divides that keep us apart - including the false dichotomy between social activism and volunteering.

If you want to work with us to close the gap between the volunteering and social activist communities, please contact Karina Cronin at

From: Civicus

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