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Voluntary action & community engagement - five key themes

  1. Motivation and Call To Action
  2. The Importance of developing our ways of seeing reality
  3. Developing the culture of voluntary action
  4. Developmental dynamics and expanding the role and position of volunteers.
  5. Quality in voluntary action and implications




  • People and organisations contributing to the project
  • Thanks and acknowledgements

Voluntary action and community engagement – Five key themes

Motivation and call the action

Volunteers' motivations to act are very varied and may be complex, but understanding and appreciating motivation is the key to developing committed action, whether the starting point be the volunteer's own or group needs or 'altruism'. A number of common motivations are outlined below, as a tool for reflection for those organising, recruiting or working with volunteers, so that they may be able to take this into account. Long and short term volunteers also have different characteristics and there will be differences between natural, self-supported and self-organised volunteering and 'constructed volunteering', where the call to volunteer and the structure of voluntary action are given by an organisation.

A response to the 'other' or 'neighbour/neighbours' in need

Voluntary work may often be a direct response to a local need which is directly experienced by a volunteer or sometimes a group, like neighbours or members of a congregation. People see a need and develop a response. Empathy, indignation and imagination can be sources for motivation and a call to action. Sensitivity to community challenges and opportunities, including a sense of responsibility for the community is an important element. Probably the largest part of voluntary action is such spontaneous acts as a neighbour caring for an elderly person nearby or people creating a safe environment for children to play. It is very important to support such informal beginnings and to nurture a supportive culture and not only to rush to create 'organised volunteering'. Some people, seeing the neighbour ́s need feel the call to respond to them. This 'call by others' may lead, if the volunteer has a Christian background, to see Jesus in the 'least'. (Matthew 25, v37) It may also be that some people, responding to a need or a local issue find through this, a link to the Christian faith. We found examples of this in our work together. Normally we think the motivation is faith leading to action but in some cases, action can lead to faith.

Volunteers as message bearers of Jesus

Volunteers as m...

The importance of developing our ways of seeing reality

Through our workshops in Helsinki and Český Těšín, we had a rich opportunity to share experiences from diverse contexts and among different working backgrounds. In our discussions, we found out that the same word frequently carries different meanings according to context, history, culture and even understanding of the Christian faith and the role of the church in society. For us this was an enriching experience. We came to see that comparing situations and experiences helps is to see our own working methods in relation to our own situations and to reflect on these in the light of other, different experiences. But we also found out through our visits that we also see the same situation 'differently' according to our backgrounds and involvements.

This important learning process was a central aim of our workshops but we also recognised that it should be a part of our work in our own situations. It made it very clear to us that in every context there are people who see the same situation differently and this is due to their own life-story (biography) and experience. However, such 'seeing' is also complicated by the fact that we also have different 'positions' in the work, for example as a volunteer or activist, as a professional worker or project manager. The same context may be viewed differently by someone who is working inside a church, trying to engage church members in volunteering or by an activist working with a group of people who share the same problem. In the same community, problems and issues may also be seen very differently according to such factors as age and gender as well as race or religious background. Newcomers may have a different view to long term residents, concerning life in a particular neighbourhood or rural village.

This kind of mutual reflection and sharing different views about the same contact and sharing across contexts has great value in developing new pictures and patterns of work.

Developing the culture of voluntary action

Talking about the culture of voluntary action, we can distinguish between the culture of volunteering which is rooted in the individual as a volunteer, the organisational culture of voluntary service inside organisations and the culture of volunteering prevalent in the wider society. Involvement in voluntary action offers a unique learning process which reflects the deepest values, norms and assumptions of the individuals involved in society. To understand voluntary action, you have to put on ́culture-lenses ́ to see the differences and respect them by developing empathy and sensitively going through the mutual learning. (The importance of this was already mentioned in the foreword of this publication). Each social unit or group has some kind of shared history which has evolved a culture; the strength of that culture is an important factor dependent on the length of its existence, the stability of the group ́s membership and the emotional intensity of the historical experience they have made. The same factors apply in considering the culture of volunteering. There are examples in section one of the report which show some of the considerations which organisations with a longer existence and traditional roots have to take into account in revaluing voluntary and community action in the present diversifying context.

Atypical volunteering: supporting a foster family


Developmental dynamics and expanding the role and position of volunteers

Volunteers can bring the new energy and needed insights, to renew and re-energise professional work. They are an 'added value', with new or different competences and should not be used a substitute for professional work.

'Professionals' should promote and facilitate the development of participation from 'service user' to 'volunteer/activist' to 'engaged citizen' (It is important to recognise that service users may develop their role as volunteer/activists, but they need professionals who share this vision to accompany them)

In social and diaconal work it has been common to separate people into professionals, volunteers who assist professionals and those who 'receive services' – sometimes called 'beneficiaries or the 'target group'. This language tends to lead workers and volunteers to ignore other roles for service users or local residents. For example a church providing hot meals used a mixture of volunteers and paid workers to deliver the meals, but on closer questioning it turned out that in this situation, the volunteers were also mainly elderly people. The whole system had turned one group of elderly people into service passive recipients. The model of 'assistance' traps both the service user and the volunteers into their roles. In our workshop we could see examples of well-meaning social workers and volunteers who, because of their preconceived ideas, could not envisage a positive role as volunteers from among their service users.

Creating Space For Using Talent In Churches

Creating space ...

Developing quality in voluntary action

Some of the main themes related to the promotion of voluntary work and community engagement need to be brought into discussions about the quality of voluntary action and diaconal work. Examples of such themes include:

– Working with excluded groups and communities as well as service users to include them as volunteers or activists and not simply to bring in volunteers from 'outside'.

– Valuing the informal actions of volunteers and the building up of a culture of voluntary, community and diaconal action

– Promoting the development process from client or volunteer to participant and activist

– Supporting the creation of diaconal churches which can become models of good practice in volunteering and inclusion

– Addressing the issues raised by voluntary and community action for diaconal organisations in a diversifying and multi-faith context

– Recognising that a key for success in joint work between professional and volunteer is to start with and build on the skills and interests and expectations of the volunteers. Then the space for processes for investigating needs and issues in the areas with residents or service users can be filled out and new strategies with volunteers can be developed.

– Recognising that organisations which wish to promote more participation by service users and others as volunteers have also to reflect on their own service model and procedures of decision making

– Recognising and supporting network building with partners locally and on wider levels to find out the synergies which can support self-organisation and mutual aid (self-help) as well as community organisation and development. Such process based approach can lead to creation of structures and processes for specialised voluntary work including for work with 'at risk groups' or in crisis situations.

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