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Introducing the voluntary sector
Introducing the voluntary sector

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1 What is volunteering?

A volunteer creating shade by holding an umbrella over a contestant at the London 2012 Paralympics.
Figure 1 Volunteering at the London 2012 Paralympics

It might seem straightforward to ask: ‘What is volunteering?’. However, the roles that volunteers fulfil are diverse, and the amounts of time that people give vary substantially, so it is not easy to pin down an answer. You saw in Week 3 that many small voluntary organisations are ‘under the radar’, so it stands to reason that many acts of volunteering and many volunteers will never be counted or appear in surveys or official statistics.

Many definitions of volunteering are used by government and voluntary organisations, but one that probably captures most people’s definitions of volunteering is given by Musick and Wilson (2008, p. 1). They describe volunteering as an altruistic activity, which has the goal of providing ‘help to others, a group, an organisation, a cause, or the community at large, without expectation of material reward’.

The idea that all volunteering is ‘altruistic’ will be explored later, but certainly the main defining feature of volunteering is considered to be that a person’s time is given for free. Interestingly, the Scottish Government (2013) adds to their own definition, ‘it is a choice undertaken of one’s own free will’.

There is also a difference between formal and informal volunteering. Formal volunteering relates to people giving unpaid help through groups, clubs or organisations. Informal volunteering relates to people giving unpaid help as an individual to other people who are not relatives, such as getting an elderly neighbour’s shopping, clearing snow from the streets and so on. Informal volunteering is less likely to be recorded in surveys as people may not think of it as volunteering.