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Do volunteers strengthen NGO accountability?
14 June 2007
by Karena Cronin

While the contributions of volunteers and social activists have been widely appreciated within civil society, the role of volunteerism in strengthening civil society organizations’ (CSOs) accountability has received less attention.

At the World Assembly 2007, CIVICUS, the International Association for Volunteer Effort (IAVE) and the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) programme explored this issue in a workshop entitled: “Accountability within: Engaging Volunteer Social Activists.” 

Participants were asked to consider accountability between volunteer activists and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to shed light on the larger question how volunteers strengthen NGO accountability.

To provoke discussion, it was established that volunteers in fact strengthen NGOs’ accountability by opening up a unique space of exchange and observation within NGOs.  However, the manner in which NGOs engage volunteers greatly impacts the possibilities for volunteers to strengthen NGO accountability. 

Dr. Galia Chimiak shared her study on motivations of volunteer activists engaged in NGOs in Poland. Her research revealed that often volunteer to fulfill a desire for self-actualisation, but also to satisfy a sense of responsibility, social need, or gain new skills and knowledge. Interestingly, these motivations resonated with a young Scot who presented his experience as a VSO volunteer working in Kazakhstan and the UK.

It was subsequently suggested that NGO volunteer management should reflect an understanding of volunteers’ motivations, particularly with respect to recruitment, empowerment, engagement and recognition of volunteers.

Based on this, a representative from Alianza ONG from the Dominican Republic proposed that volunteers be considered as internal stakeholders by NGOs.  She rightly pointed out that volunteers are often the public face of NGOs, and thus key in promoting the organization’s reputation. NGOs must therefore be accountable to their volunteers.

Drawing on their experiences, attendees shared ideas regarding accountability of NGOs to their volunteers.  Empowering volunteers emerged as a reoccurring theme. One student volunteer emphasized the importance of transparency of NGOs and suggested that organizations develop a document outlining volunteer rights.

A representative from G-Watch, an organization that addresses government corruption by empowering ordinary citizens, talked about the need to give volunteers access to information so they can act with legitimacy. Providing volunteers with emotional, technical and sometimes even minimal financial support was also mentioned. 

Approaches for promoting accountability of volunteers to NGOs were quite similar to those proposed for accountability of NGOs to volunteers. A number of attendees mentioned requiring volunteers to sign a code of conduct outlining the organization’s expectations. Meaningful engagement and supervision of volunteers was also identified as critical.

Lastly, recognizing volunteers was considered a way to thank volunteers but also to strengthen the relationship between NGOs and their volunteers. Who volunteers was determined to be just as important as how volunteers are engaged.  Reaching out to a diversity of volunteers, including NGO beneficiaries, was recognized as a way for volunteers to strengthen NGO accountability.  Volunteers bring new perspectives and skills to organizations and can foster greater effectiveness and efficiency of NGOs. Including beneficiaries, especially members of socially marginalized groups also helps strengthen accountability since these individuals often have interest in seeing the NGO be successful.

The workshop helped to identify some helpful approaches in strengthening NGOs’ accountability through the engagement of volunteers. CIVICUS, IAVE and UNV plan to continue to explore this topic in their joint advocacy, research and publicity activities to highlight the value of volunteerism, particularly for addressing development challenges like those outlined in the MDGs.