I Volunteering: An Introduction and Theoretical Framework

Volunteering: A Complex Social Phenomenon

Jacqueline Butcher and Christopher J. Einolf


The chapters here presented approach volunteer activity through a series of essays and case studies that illustrate the theory and practice of volunteering. Working from the premise that volunteering is universal, this collection draws on experiences from the Arab World, Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia. The case studies in this volume highlight key issues including the diverse models and expressions of volunteering in middle income and developing countries. Some are longstanding practices rooted in social conventions while others are newer expressions that pop up in contemporary society.

By casting the net widely, this volume not only expands the geographic reach of experiences, models, and case studies but also transcends the conventional focus on formal volunteering. The volume highlights both the specific institutional forms of volunteering in developing nations and volunteering that is more loosely institutionalized, often considered informal, being part of solidarity and collective spirit. As a result, a different look at the values, collective meaning, acts, and expressions of volunteering is provided.

A focus on middle income and developing countries represents a fresh set of experiences and perspectives on volunteering. These accounts complement the conventional focus in the literature on ‘the developed’ world—largely Northern or Western experiences from Europe and North America. While developing and middle income countries are in the spotlight, the developed country experience is not

J. Butcher (*)

Centro de Investigation y Estudios sobre Sociedad Civil, A.C. CIESC, Tecnologico de Monterrey, Mexico City Campus, Mexico e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

C. J. Einolf

School of Public Service, DePaul University, Chicago, IL, USA e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2017

J. Butcher, C.J. Einolf (eds.), Perspectives on Volunteering, Nonprofit and Civil Society Studies, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-39899-0_1

ignored. Rather it is used as a critical reference point for comparisons, allowing points of convergence, disconnect, and intersection to emerge.

There is a need for acute awareness on the nature, status, and implications of volunteer activity as well as its origins, its expressions, and its present role in development (Wuthnow, 1991). We must ask ourselves where are the boundaries and parameters between developed, middle income and developing country experiences and whether they matter. Should convergence, structure, and formality be promoted or should diversity and informality be embraced? This is an analysis that should be made after immersing ourselves into each of these chapters, enabling us to see the reality of how volunteering affects lives in middle income and developing nations, which we term “the Global South.”

The idea of this book emerged out of a gap in the academic literature. While the issue of volunteering attracts scholarly attention all over the world, much scholarly research has a theoretical and empirical bias favoring developed countries and a Northern or Western perspective and experience. In a review of the literature (Dekker & Halman, 2003a, 2003b ; Eliasoph, 2011; Hodgkinson, 2003; Meijs et al., 2003; Musick & Wilson, 2008; Rochester, Ellis, & Howlettt, 2010; Salamon et al., 1999; Salamon & Anheier, 1996; Wilson, 2012) it is found that publications on volunteering through an exogenous lens are well represented while those from an endogenous lens focusing on the cultural and contextual realities of the Global South in all its diversity are underrepresented (CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizens Participation, 2011a, 2011b; Fokwang, 2008; Fowler & Wilkinson-Maposa, 2010). As a result, the literature overlooks expressions and awareness of volunteering in the lived reality of people from different regions of the world. This anthology provides a remedy, giving a new perspective on the old customs and antique traditions of many Southern countries that are often the basis for what is now called volunteering.

This introductory chapter reviews the research literature on volunteering in the Global South and provides background information to support later chapters. It first reviews conceptualizations of volunteering and then adopts the definitions of volunteering made by the United Nations Volunteers and International Labor Organization as the definitions subscribed to in the later chapters. Having defined volunteering, we explore how it relates to similar constructs used in the academic literature, including civil society, social movements, social capital, cooperation, and reciprocity within social networks, citizen participation, service, solidarity, self-help, and mutual assistance. We summarize the research literature on the causes of individual volunteering, most of which studies individuals living in the developed world, although a few studies of motivation have also used samples of subjects living in less wealthy countries.

Looking at cross-national differences in volunteering, we first pose the question of whether volunteering is universal. We find that formal, institutionalized volunteering is more common in the developed world, but informal person-to-person helping is truly universal. Despite its universal nature, participation in volunteering varies from country to country, and factors that influence that variation include wealth, education, values, religion, and social capital. Governments can influence volunteering through their relationship to the nonprofit sector, and we examine the literature on how volunteering can help spur economic development. Finally, we review the literature on how citizens of Northern countries participate in volunteering in the global South, a literature that focuses particularly on the phenomenon of “voluntourism.”

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