Measurement of Volunteer Work: Agreements and Disagreements

When one establishes the reasons why Latin Americans appear to volunteer less than their counterparts in developed countries, many factors should be mentioned.

Among these reasons, it is worthwhile to mention the instruments used to capture data (household surveys vs. omnibus surveys), the way the topic is presented in the questionnaire (referring or not referring to the notion of “work” associated to the word “volunteer”) and the length of the observation window (last month or/and last year). To his respect, it would produce different outcomes depending on the period of reference. When someone is asking about sporadic activities deployed during the previous year, the capacity to recall of such an event could affect the answer (Salamon & Sokolowski, 2001).

Last but not least, there are cultural factors that are deeply rooted practices in the region which are not necessarily regarded as voluntary actions. Such is the case of reciprocity, good neighbor practices or helping others informally. These events can hardly be recalled as “relevant actions to others” worth mentioning in the context of a formal survey. Moreover, people would not link such actions with the word “volunteer.”

We believe that it would be convenient to take into account the thematic sequence on which the questionnaire is structured. This is to say, the influence exerted on the answers by the sequence of questions, whatever the subject of the survey. Thus, it is possible that a question on voluntary work coming after a question about remunerated work can narrow the reference universe of the interviewee, and as a result underestimate the phenomenon. An inverse effect could generate a type of questionnaire that could start a section on volunteering asking about attitudes the interviewee adopted in certain circumstances, whereas others demand some kind of help or collaboration, explicitly or implicitly.

In the case of the Household Surveys, it is plausible that some bias reduces the number of positive answers about volunteer activities and does the opposite in the case of the Omnibus Surveys. To this respect, one must check if the interviewers have taken into account the need of establishing different sequences to different groups of people interviewed. Besides, it would be useful to validate how much a specific sequence of questions in the Household Surveys’ affects the answers.

Therefore, what the above-mentioned measurement problems and dilemmas show is that there is a long way to go before reaching a deeper knowledge on human actions that we have tried to include within solidarity practices. Besides these “cuttings,” other agreements and disagreements on the way of measuring this social phenomenon are verified.

As Bosioc, Fonovic, and Salamon (2012, p. 1) have pointed out: “with the exception of a few industrialized countries, voluntary work is neither captured in any systematic form nor covered by official statistics.”[1] They also remark that what little is known about volunteering is scattered, partial, and not comparable either from place to place or from one time period to another. Consequently, even such a basic question about the share of population engaged in volunteering is unknown in most places.[2] Worse, various studies report wildly different levels in the same country due to differences in definitions or research methodologies.

It is important to highlight that this quote is from a recent publication. This indicates that there is a lot missing to be able to apply uniform measurement criteria at a global level that enables us to realize in an adequate manner the importance of voluntary work and, at the same time makes its comparison between countries possible. We only began in 2011 to count with a methodology that has huge potential to address the above-mentioned objectives, the Manual on the Measurement of Volunteer Work issued by the International Labor Organization.

When we compare definitions of volunteering adopted in different countries from surveys destined to measure its importance, there exists a certain degree of variability not only among countries, but also sometimes within them.[3] As Bosioc et al. (2012, p. 2) have emphasized, countries do not necessarily even have a standard definition on what voluntary work is. That is why they also warn us that such differences are later expressed in measurements and the results do not always enable an adequate comparison either between each other or of this phenomenon at an international level. For instance, the UK does not actually have one common national definition of volunteering, although you can find definitions set out in government legislation and reports as well as in research on volunteering (Volunteering England Information Service, 2008).[4]

The effect of each country’s culture, expressed by the perceptions that the population has regarding the notion of voluntary action, can decisively influence the ratios that give information on this phenomenon. Such a situation can be seen, for instance, in the United Kingdom civic participation that appears in the document 2005-Citizenship Survey Active Communities’ Topic Report (Kitchen, Michaelson, Wood, & John, 2006). A review of the kind of actions that those surveyed consider a voluntary action show a wide array of situations, differentiated as informal or formal, that are perceived or conceived as voluntary. The most common type of help given by those who participated in informal voluntary activities at least once a month was giving advice (52 %). Other kinds of help cited by more than one-third of those who participated in voluntary work at least once a month were transporting or escorting someone (38 %); keeping in touch with someone who had difficulty getting about (38 %); looking after a property or pet for someone who was away (37 %); and babysitting or caring for children (34 %). What also appears with values over 30 % are actions such as shopping, collecting a pension, writing letters, and filling forms.

In the region, when we ask a person in a volunteer survey, particularly in the context of a labor survey, about his/her activities for others without pay, this person will hardly recall as voluntary work actions as described in the preceding paragraphs. Therefore, it seems that an inhabitant of the United Kingdom can conceptualize attending the house or a neighbor’s pet as a voluntary action, but it is improbable that a Latin American would do so.

A relevant and enriching study carried out in Mexico (Butcher, 2009) has a specific chapter, written by Gustavo Verduzco (2003,2008), devoted precisely to show that in the region, particularly Mexico has similar or higher levels of volunteering than those of the leading countries on this issue (See also Verduzco, this volume).[5] This author analyzes the results of the National Survey carried out in 2006.[6] The main purpose of this survey was to capture all forms of solidarity or volunteer practices carried out by people at some moment of their lives, be it through an institution or in an informal and/or individual manner. It could be understood that the instrument used to capture the data was structured with an observation window that, besides enabling the calculation of the number of volunteers during a given period of time, was directed to account for the heritage of all kinds of solidarity practices and the will of participation of the Mexican people.

As a result, it is possible to gather data that offer evidence on social capital available to the Mexican society that could unfold when social circumstances demand it. This is precisely the capital that is usually reflected in surveys on volunteering and/ or social participation occurring at times of deep social commotion, for instance natural disasters (floods and earthquakes) or moments of severe social stress, as what occurred in Argentina during the economic, political, and social crisis in 2001 and 2002.[7] [8] This is when the “the reserves of solidarity energy” of a given country, region, or city is put to test.

Besides, the cultural aspects that constrain the number of people that perceive themselves as volunteers and what is more, as voluntary workers, the conviction that a higher degree of precision can be achieved through Household Surveys has spread in academic environments. For the ILO such instruments are considered an optimal strategy for capturing key characteristics of volunteer work. The criterion is to add a carefully designed “volunteer supplement” to national labor force surveys on a periodic basis. Labor force surveys offer a particularly useful platform for measuring volunteer work for a number of reasons (ILO, 2011, p. 9).

The Annual Household Survey of the City of Buenos Aires (EAH),11 which we have used as a database for this chapter, is a survey that contains the main aspects of a Labor Survey as those proposed by the ILO. Its objective is to update knowledge yearly regarding demographic composition, education, health, and particularly the situation of the population in the labor market. Even though it is a multipurpose survey, the section regarding work force predominates. Through this statistical instrument, it is possible to have information for the analysis of different aspects not only for the City of Buenos Aires as a whole, but also for the smaller territorial units that make it up called Communes.[9]

The design of this survey is based on a wide scope of issues in order to respond to the diverse and changing needs of the knowledge and of the political-administrative management of the city. One of its main attributes is the size of sample that makes it possible to delve into different subjects and trends that appear in the economic and social-demographics of the city in a deep and detailed manner. The sample consists of 9724 households and takes place through direct interviews. All households living in a single housing unit are surveyed. It is not self-responding.

In the case of the labor market indicators, surveyors ask people about the employed, unemployed, and underemployed populations. In-depth information is obtained regarding the degree of medical coverage that employed and unemployed population have, and also on the varied benefits regarding employment programs, training, and unemployment insurance given by the National Government and by the City. For these reasons, this survey can be considered the most adequate instrument to capture the importance of voluntary work. Besides the degree of coverage of the survey, the definition of volunteering contained in these surveys is equally important.

Not only the criteria proposed by the ILO but also those held by the UNV were taken into account, with the pertinent restrictions, to define volunteering in the corresponding module[10] (voluntary work module) included in the Annual Household Survey (EAH) carried out in the City of Buenos Aires in 2011.[11] The results will be discussed further on.

In the sequence prepared for the development of the interview, survey designers foresaw that the module on voluntary work would start once different sociodemographic aspects of EAH were covered. The interviewer explained to the adult present in the household that from that moment he/she would be asked about “unpaid work that is carried out by free will to offer a service, to promote a cause, or to foster a determined activity.” So there were no doubts regarding the objective of the questions, the interviewee was told that unpaid work carried out in family businesses[12]

should neither be considered voluntary action, nor were those actions or occasional favors to a person’s circle (friends) or members of the family group.

Then, the interviewer explained the features of voluntary work (a) it is carried out by free will and by free choice; (b) it is performed for a nonprofit organization, for a community, or for a person who is not a member of the family and who lives out of the household; and (c) the activity is essentially nonpaid.

Then the following questions were asked of all the members of working age in the household:

  • • During this last month did you do this type of work for someone who does not live in your home or has no kind of family ties with you?
  • • Is this an occasional or a permanent activity?
  • • What does the organization or institution where you did voluntary work do or produce?
  • • What is your occupation called and what tasks do you carry out?
  • • What average of hours per week did you devote to this task this last month?
  • • What average of days per week did you devote to this task this last month?

In the first place, it is important to point out that through EAH information on volunteers that do their activities informally or within the framework of organizations was intended to be captured. Nevertheless, since in the enunciation the issue was presented to the interviewee under the label of voluntary work, in the context of a labor and living conditions survey, and due to the characteristics of the questions subsequently formulated, it is plausible that the interviewee has omitted certain informal actions, individual or collective, occasional or little demand of time. This implies that probably the study has underestimated to some point the total voluntary effort that exists in the territory of the City of Buenos Aires.

The indicators put forward once the household member(s) were identified were: the period of doing the activity with two references, the last month and the last twelve months, 1 6 the nominal frequency (occasional or permanent) to which the interviewee refers to, in order to get a record of seasonal work. Besides these issues, other indicators were the place or subsector[13] [14] of activity where the voluntary action occurred, the type of tasks he/she carries out, the average number of weekly days and hours during the reference month.[15]

  • [1] These authors refer to regular surveys of volunteering that have recently been conducted by thestatistical offices of Australia, Canada, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Norway, and theUnited States.
  • [2] They highlight the resistance to measurement of volunteering and their economic values as acommon believe among diverse social actors. For instance, volunteer leaders consider that placingan economic value on volunteer work will actually undervalue it by ignoring the deeper andbroader impacts volunteering has in terms of building self-respect, fostering solidarity, providinga sense of self-worth, deepening feelings of altruism, contributing to social capital, and promotingdemocracy. Additionally, there are concerns that policymakers will see estimates of the value ofvolunteering as an invitation to cut back on public sector support for needed services and assumethat volunteers can handle the chores. (...) Labor groups also have concerns about too visible anappearance of volunteer activity, particularly when that activity is identified with “work” andassigned at least an implicit “wage.” Such concerns for instance are particularly intense given thecurrent high unemployment rate in Europe.
  • [3] A demonstration of this type of inconvenience is variations in the results of different surveys.Regarding this point, Bosioc et al. (2012, p. 4) highlight the case of Hungary as an example ofmarked differences in the results that appear in different surveys. Recent studies of the volunteering rate in Hungary put this figure at 5.5, 10.8, and 40 %, all within the space of 4 or 5 years.These differences seem to have had less to do with any variations in the actual performance ofHungarians than with variations in the definitions and measurement methods used by researchers.Thus, for example, the Hungarian National Volunteer Center got the 40 % figure by including allmanner of voluntary activity, formal and informal, as well as long-term voluntary service engagements, whereas the Hungarian Statistical Office came up with its 5.5 % figure by focusing narrowlyon NGOs that engage volunteers.
  • [4] See Volunteering England Information Service Volunteering Definition
  • [5] A research carried out by Gallup in 2005 Latin America shows values that are very inferior toCanada and United States and slightly beneath Western Europe’s average. Therefore it cannot beaverred, without pertinent specifications that the percentage of population that does volunteeringwork in the region be, in any case, significantly inferior to that registered in developed countries.Accessed February 27, 2015.
  • [6] ENSAV (Encuesta Nacional de Solidaridad y Accion Voluntaria) the National Survey on Solidarityand Voluntary Action carried out by CENEFI. Accessed February 26, 2015.
  • [7] Regarding this point, it is useful to take into account the survey that TNS-Gallup Argentina carried out as part of the project Voice of the People at a global level. This consulting firm estimatedthat in Argentina 13 % of the population over 18 carried out voluntary activities in 2013, the lowestvalue since 1997 and is far from the peak of 32 % of participation in 2002 when the country wasgoing through a social and economic crisis.!%2520voluntariado.docx+&cd=1&hl=es-419&ct=clnk&gl=ar. Accessed February 26,2015. Different specialists regarding the data produced by the above-mentioned survey, considerthat the fall of traditional volunteering in Argentina is due to the fact that it is changing to newparticipation forms, of a more informal and occasional nature, motivated by specific causes. Accessed January 6, 2015.
  • [8] Household surveys are an important source of socioeconomic data. Important indicators to informand monitor development policies are often derived from such surveys. In developing countries,they have become a dominant form of data collection, supplementing or sometimes even replacingother data collection programs and civil registration systems. Source: Accessed January 6, 2015. ILO together with the Study Center of John Hopkins’ CivilSociety recommend to carry out data gathering on voluntary work via household surveys where aspecific module destined to capture information on voluntary work. Nevertheless, one must keep inmind that there are other information sources based upon wide coverage surveys such as the TimeUse Survey. An instance of this modality is the American Time Use Survey (ATUS) that measuresthe amount of time people spend doing various activities, such as paid work, childcare, volunteering, and socializing. Source: Accessed January 6, 2015.
  • [9] The Communes are the administrative units in which the City is divided. Buenos Aires city hasbeen organized in 15 Communes. Each commune is made up of several neighborhoods. They havemunicipal responsibilities in some local specific aspects, such as caring of trees, maintenance ofsquares and parks, sidewalks, streets, and the use of the public spaces. Accessed May 15, 2015.
  • [10] This module was included in the Annual Household Survey (EAH) designed by the DireccionGeneral de Estadisticas y Censos (General Direction of Statistics and Census) of the City ofBuenos Aires at the request of the Center for the Study of State and Society (CEDES).
  • [11] For further information of this Survey, see the document of Maria E. Lago “Diez anos de laEncuesta Anual de Hogares (EAH) de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires.” Accessed December 20, 2014.
  • [12] In this way, the surveyed person did not confuse voluntary activity with unpaid work within theframework of an economic unit (for instance a family business) or a household.
  • [13] This indicator was proposed with the aim of recovering information on the issue that covered agreater reference period.
  • [14] We have used the International Classification of Nonprofit Organization (ICNPO) adopted by theU.N. Handbook.
  • [15] This question (number of days and hours devoted to voluntary work) was put only to those interviewees that carried out such activities during the previous month to the interview, in this wayavoiding the type of mistake that those surveyed fall into when they try to recall aspects of relatively remote actions or events.
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