I spent five days in Landau (Pfalz), to attend the European Citizens Convention on volunteering. My presence at such event was mainly justified to exhibit “Structurally recyclable, basically disposable“, which represented a more critical take on the issue of volunteering, or more precisely, a statement on how internship is too often mingled with volunteering (and that, as you know, is very wrong).
Coming from the NGO world as I do, I was also naturally interested in the rest of the event, mainly the talks and seminars all around volunteering. Being skeptical by nature, I was a little afraid that the convention was simply going to focus on the great aspects of the volunteering sector without much attention to the context in which volunteering is inserted, that (to name one) is the realization that volunteers have basically become a self-evident reality without which no cultural event would ever take place.
I was very happy to have been proven wrong: this event had a lot of interesting content. However, fear not, you will have your share of critical analysis yet again.
As far as my exhibition is concerned, you can see a little video and read a full report as well (both by “Europe and Me“, media partner at the event).
The problem of gathering and presenting data
The convention was officially opened by a speech delivered by Dr. Peter Heuberger of the Staatskanzlei Rheinland-Pfalz, in which he reported on a lot of interesting data on volunteering:
- 3/10 of Europeans volunteer
- For every euro that goes into supporting of volunteering activities, 3 to 4 Euros are gained.
- Volunteering makes up 2 to 7% of the GDP of national economies (48 billion pounds in the UK)
Citing data from a study commissioned by the European Commission, he then went on to say that volunteering is unevenly distributed: there is a high engagement rate in Scandinavian countries, to then descend all the way to the bottom, Italy.
From the same study, it appears that more men then women volunteer (40% vs. 32%), that families with many children dedicate more time to volunteering than singles, that people seem to be more active in rural areas than in cities and that there is still a huge potential because one third of those who don’t volunteer would like to do so. It also looks as though, whereas there has been a slight decrease in youth engagement, there have been increasingly more volunteers among those of sixty years and older. The main motivations to volunteer remain to “shape society and to meet people with similar interests”. However, if in the 60s and 70s the focus was more around doing charity work, it looks as if nowadays the motivation is more individualist in nature and revolves around doing something for others to feel better about oneself and to build a certain identity.
Dr. Peter Heuberger used much of these data on the following day as well, during the plenary session at the University of Landau, which preceded the working groups on various specific topics. During this presentation he highlighted the importance of volunteering “as a power for social integration” because of its high social meaning that is detached from the way a business works in that it is “trust based, takes place in the public sphere, it is transparent and solidarity driven and is consensus oriented”. Civil society is seen as a social sector and a collective subject and it gains more and more importance because, due to the current crisis within national parties politics which has been influencing the European institutions as well, lawmakers would not do without the citizens.
He then highlighted many of the problems and challenges around volunteering, mainly the lack of a legal framework, social protections, insurance and a proper code of conduct. There are also some legal constraints around volunteering which limit the time that some categories (retirees and unemployed) can devote to volunteering activities in some countries.
The problem of dealing with data that are then to be presented to the public, and a response to Dr. Heuberger’s speech, was addressed during the plenary session by Agnes Uherczky of the Association of Voluntary Service Organisations (AVSO), who shed some light on the mentioned study. She pointed out that the data introduced did not fully reflect reality as the study commissioned by EU had not been well funded. The researchers then had to do a lot of desk research, which resulted in stats that do not always take into account the different local realities. For example, she mentioned that the poor scoring of Italy in terms of engagement does not integrate the fact that volunteering is different in this country where it is not as common to ask for fees to participate into an association (in sharp contract to Scandinavian countries). As a participant pointed out during the discussion, in Austria firefighters in rural areas are mainly volunteers, and these are mostly men. Surely these local specificities were not mentioned.
She summarizes the problem by stating that “European politicians think that volunteering is free”. However, it is not.
The influence of the private sector on the volunteering sector
All this is nice and well, but Dr. Heuberger could not stop using the words social capital (volunteering creates social competences that are requested by companies) and productivity. Volunteering, he asserted, generates benefits and productivity that neither the State nor the economy can provide.
He then closed his first speech mentioning social responsibility and the need for a new social contract, because “if you’re not at the table, chances are you’re on the menu“.
This excessive (to me at least) focus on productivity and social capital, even when it is mitigated by the concession that volunteering needs more recognition and that its value is not and cannot be monetary, is an interesting indicator that even within the framework of a conference where no direct potential donors are present, we (as a collective) are constantly driven to justify the presence of an activity whose value and positive impact cannot be directly and quickly assessed.
As you might have guessed by the highlighted terms in the previous paragraph, the private sector has been slowly taking over many volunteering activities. Dr. Rosário Costa-Schott, a consultant and project manager, mentioned during the panel discussion that in Germany this has become a very professionalized and formal sector and many of the Big organizations (Caritas, Red Cross, Diakonie, etc..) seem to face problems in receiving, qualifying and accepting non-formal volunteering. These non-formal volunteering activities are not represented in the process and do not make into the study. If through the increasing popularity of “social responsibility” the private sector enters the process, is this really a good idea to leave it all to them?
The supposed self-evidence of the voluntariness in cultural activities
I then took part to a seminar titled “The supposed self-evidence of the voluntariness in cultural activities”, and I was also encouraged to share some of the problems that I have faced while looking for funding for my projects.
The seminar was led by a local arts professor, Mrs. Tina Stolt, and it started by acknowledging that “without Volunteering in cultural and art activities, education and exhibitions, there would be not much more than nothing”.
I found this little (and not too well-attended) workshop very refreshing and down to Earth.
We started by highlighting the obvious contradictions that exist around art: on the one hand art is considered as a “volunteer job”, where artists have no economic security and are not expected to be making much money from their work. Most artists are in fact almost “forced” to be volunteers (let’s not forget that one of the defining characteristics of volunteering is the element of free will), and there seems to be a general “uneasiness” to talk about money when setting up an exhibition or working on a project (see here).
On the other hand, art is taken for granted, it is expected to be there. It is considered as a luxury, something to cut back on when economic crisis sets in, but still expected to work and mostly adapt to the logic of the capitalist market. This results in funding coming mainly from the private sector, which cuts out a large part of “non conventional” artists.
Not only are many governments cutting funding for cultural activities, they are at the same time spending an enormous amount of money setting up large exhibitions featuring some big names to display abroad. Artists are expected to compete into the market and no one seemed to know where this underestimation of art came from. The consequences: all is left to the private sector and to volunteers.
I have to mention that we had a wonderful guest during the seminar: a representative of the women artists association GEDOK (specifically the Karlsruhe branch), who told us a bit about the history of the organization and the struggle to get women into shows and exhibitions.