Interest in volunteering reached new heights in March and April 2020

In normal times, a billion people volunteer their time and energy each year, providing unpaid help to others. Has the COVID-19 pandemic led to even more volunteering worldwide?

The year 2020 will surely go down as one of the most difficult years on record in recent history. Billions of people around the world have experienced insecurity and suffering. A full recovery is likely to take several years and will require huge efforts by all countries.

Yet, the disaster that befell humanity at the start of the year has once again revealed a well‑known fact: we are able to come together and support one another in difficult times. This gives hope for a better future – as long as we manage to learn the lessons from the COVID‑19 crisis.

Through organizations or individually, many people have volunteered to help those who needed support. Indeed, most people on the planet have probably done so, given the scale of the crisis. Very likely, you yourself have helped a friend or a neighbour at least once in these challenging times.

There are unfortunately no global estimates of the number of people who performed volunteer work this year. Only a few countries regularly measure volunteer work, and some of those that do had to suspend their data collection because of COVID-19 restrictions. The last global estimate was published in 2018. According to this estimate by the United Nations Volunteer (UNV) programme, one billion people choose to provide unpaid help to others, their combined efforts being the equivalent of 109 million full-time workers annually.

Despite the lack of more recent global estimates, there are some easily accessible data which suggest that interest in volunteering as such increased around the world during March and April 2020. Looking at the past five years, the highest values of the Google search index for the word “volunteering” – in different languages – were registered precisely in those two months in early 2020 when the pandemic was at its height.

But did the level of actual participation in volunteering follow the same pattern? It is difficult to say. Some people may have searched for information about volunteering without themselves intending to volunteer. Many of those who searched for volunteering opportunities may not have been able to carry out the activities they wanted to because of COVID‑19 restrictions or illness. Besides, many people most likely volunteered without looking first on Google.

Regardless of what the actual number of volunteers has been during the pandemic, these charts add up to an important conclusion: people from different parts of the world and the most diverse cultures reacted similarly to the crisis. Although Google search index values can only serve as an approximation of the level of interest in volunteering, they do show that such interest increased significantly at a time when societies needed cohesion and solidarity as never before. This is an encouraging finding and should definitely be taken into account when designing and implementing policies to achieve fair and sustainable development.

Estimating the volunteering potential

What if the above conclusion is not quite correct, though? Perhaps most people are always willing to help – not just in very difficult times! Interest in volunteering may have shot up in 2020 mainly because the need for help became extremely visible in news reports and out on the streets.

If this is the case, then statistics could play an important role in promoting social cohesion. That would require estimating regularly the demand for and supply of volunteers, and communicating the estimates in clear and accessible ways. Making such information readily available could help to stimulate participation in volunteer work.

A wide range of metrics currently used to gauge the rate of progress in different areas at the national, regional and international levels – such as the indicators for the Sustainable Development Goals – could be applied to estimate the need for volunteer work. However, precise data for indicators of the actual and potential supply of volunteer work are generally not available, because only a small number of countries measure volunteering regularly. Moreover, it is difficult to make international comparisons because of the different measurement approaches used.

To tackle this problem, the ILO and the UNV programme have developed new survey tools and data collection guidance. Countries are encouraged to apply these to produce comprehensive statistics on the various types of volunteer work.

Meanwhile, on International Volunteer Day let’s all celebrate the efforts of the many volunteers around the world. Join the party and follow the hashtags #TogetherWeCan and #IVD2020UNV on the @UNVolunteers Twitter account.

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