The extent of community-based volunteering and the dependence of community- based organisations on volunteers suggests that there exists a layer of formalised volunteering that takes place within communities at grassroots level. The evidence shows that there are at least three different types of volunteers active in community-based organisations—‘founders’, ‘stakeholders’, and ‘short-term volunteers’—representing diverse levels of investment in the organisations in which they serve. The longevity and resilience of the organisations surveyed in Southern Africa suggest a degree of sustainability that is generally not recognised and which may well be a function of the different roles that the volunteers play in their communities. The organisations represent important grassroots asset bases, which are indispensable to community-centred sustainable development. These forms of volunteering in Africa are often overlooked with greater attention being paid to international volunteers, volunteers who offer professional services, or employee volunteers. Yet it is these community-based or local volunteers who form the backbone of the volunteer force in many African countries delivering key services to their neighbours and fellow community members. This is a strong demonstration of participation in development. It is not without its challenges, both in terms of volunteer management and the additional burden it places on vulnerable people to deliver services that should be delivered by the state. Nevertheless, it does highlight the agency and capabilities of vulnerable individuals to invest in their own development—actions that often go unnoticed.
Volunteers thus contribute significantly to development efforts of community- based organisations. But these organisations in turn offer volunteers a connection point through which to exercise their capabilities meaningfully, opportunities to build social cohesion, advance different interests, and mobilise for the development of their communities. In this sense the organisations give expression to community agency and create vehicles for civic driven change at grassroots level.
While we must recognise the mutually beneficial role that community-based organisations and community-based volunteers play in development efforts, this should not be seen as unproblematic. Of particular concern must be the extent to which these formations deliver services in the face of the state failing to meet the essential needs of its citizens and placing additional burdens on already stretched and vulnerable communities. Further, these volunteers often work under conditions in which they are placed at risk and in which they do not have the means to legal frameworks or forms of social protection that may exist for employees. This means that governments need to work towards legislative frameworks that both facilitate volunteering and regulate and protect volunteers.