Indicator description: Volunteer work

Introduction

Volunteer work covers a wide range of unpaid activities performed by individuals to help others, to contribute to their communities, the environment, and to support different organizations.

Available national data shows that people in all regions and from a wide range of social, cultural and economic backgrounds engage in volunteer work. Volunteer work helps everyone – those who volunteer, those who directly benefit from their work, and society at large. It connects people, helping many to avoid exclusion. It also connects communities, helping to alleviate poverty, building resilience, and contributing to the well-being of all.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development calls on governments to work closely with volunteering groups on its implementation. The UN General Assembly resolution on “Volunteering for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” (UN, 2019) recognizes “that volunteerism can be a powerful and cross-cutting means of implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” and encourages countries to “invest in measuring the scale and contribution of people’s voluntary efforts”.

In this context, the ILO supports efforts to achieve the SDGs by offering constituents guidance on how to produce meaningful and reliable statistics on volunteer work following the latest international standards and best practices, and by compiling existing available national data for global dissemination.

Concepts and definitions

According to the latest international standards (see 19th ICLS, Resolution I), “volunteers” includes any person of working age who engages in unpaid, non-compulsory work for others, for at least one hour in a four week or one month reference period.

Unpaid means that volunteers do not receive a remuneration in cash or in kind for the work done or hours worked. Nevertheless, volunteers may receive some small form of support or stipend in cash or in kind usually meant to enable their participation.

Non-compulsory means that volunteers do not engage in this work because of civil, legal or administrative requirements. However, some volunteers may be motivated by social responsibilities of a communal, cultural or religious nature.

For others means that the work done by volunteers benefits a) people other than the volunteer’s household or family; b) organizations that may include market and non-market units, self-help, mutual-aid or community-based groups of which the volunteer is a member, or c) nature or the environment in general.

There are two types of volunteer work:

  1. Direct volunteer work, which is done to help other people directly (e.g. a neighbour, a friend, a stranger, nature);
  2. Organization-based volunteer work, which is done through or for an organization, community or group.

Method of computation

The number of volunteers represents the number of persons of working age, who are classified as having done volunteer work for 1 or more hours, in a given reference period.

The volunteer rate represents the share of working-age persons classified as volunteers as a per cent of the working-age population. It is calculated as follows:

Volunteer rate (%) = Number of working-age volunteers / Working-age population x 100

Recommended sources

Labour force surveys and similar large-scale household surveys (e.g. general social surveys) are the preferred source of information for collecting data on volunteer work. Such surveys usually cover virtually the entire non-institutional population of a given country. By attaching special modules to such surveys, participation in a wide range of volunteering activities, both direct and organization-based, can be covered. When the source is a labour force survey, it further provides the opportunity to capture engagement in different forms of work (e.g. employment, volunteer work, own-use production work) to enable joint analysis.

Population censuses also can be used. However, information obtained may be less comprehensive since they do not typically allow for detailed probing on the volunteer activities of the respondents or to capture additional characteristics about the type of volunteer work done. For more details, see the ILO model question on volunteer work for population censuses.

Although widely used to capture volunteer works statistics, Time Use Surveys (TUS) are the least desirable source of such data. When volunteer work is captured only in a diary, this will not enable to produce information on participation in volunteering or the characteristics of volunteer work. This is because the short reference period (e.g. 24 hours) for diaries only enables to capture time-spent on this activity on a given day in productive activities, which includes volunteering, employment, own-use production work, etc. Nevertheless, TUS could be used to measure participation in volunteer work by adding a small set of stylized questions on volunteering in a “4 weeks/one month” reference period in the background questionnaire.

Interpretation and uses

The number of volunteers and the volunteer rate provide information on the engagement in this form of work.

As volunteer work is about helping others, higher volunteer rates can indicate strong social integration and social cohesion in a region or country. It can also signal a situation where certain groups and communities need support to maintain or improve the quality of their lives. From this perspective, the geographical analysis of the indicator, for example, may help identify the areas where significant numbers of people rely on others’ help to avoid poverty and social exclusion.

Joint analysis of the volunteer rate and rates of participation in employment and own-use production work offer a better understanding of how different population groups contribute to a country’s development through paid and unpaid work.

Limitations

Indicators available in the ILOSTAT database are collected from national official reports or produced using published micro-data by national statistical offices. In some cases, published data are used to calculate the number of volunteers (if only the volunteer rate is available) or the volunteer rate (if only the number of volunteers is available) and to calculate indicators for standard age groups (15+, 25-64, 65+). Therefore, totals may not always equal the sum of their components.

Most countries measure participation in both direct and organization-based volunteer work. As one person can do both types of volunteer work, the sum of volunteers by these types will be higher than the total number of volunteers.

Comparability of volunteer work indicators across countries is affected significantly by:

  • Differences in the length of reference periods used for measurement (e.g. one week, 4 weeks, 12 months). Typically, for a given population, measurements made using longer reference periods result in higher values. This occurs due to the increased likelihood of capturing the participation of persons who engage in volunteer work less frequently. Very long reference periods (e.g 12 months), however, can also be subject to reporting errors due to recall issues;
  • Seasonal variations in data collection periods (ranging from one to 12 months). Participation in volunteer work varies significantly across the year, in relation to natural, economic, cultural and social evolution. As a result, it is difficult to compare indicators referring to a specific month with indicators referring to monthly averages over a quarter or a year;
  • Questionnaire design. Measurement approaches vary significantly in relation to the number and type of questions used to identify participation in different types of volunteer work (from 1 to more than 20 questions). More detailed probing can lead to more comprehensive estimates, mainly due to a better detection of engagement in direct volunteer work. Meanwhile, the wording and type of questions used can also impact reporting, and thus, the estimates of volunteer work participation.
  • Age coverage.  The minimum age varies from 10 to 20 years and some countries set upper age limits. This also limits comparability across countries.

To support data users in making informed conclusions, the database includes detailed notes to describe the main characteristics of the data sources used for measurement. These notes should be consulted when comparing indicators across countries.