Volunteers are often described as the "glue" that holds society together. Almost 100 million Europeans dedicate their time and expertise to help those in need and give back to their communities. People make a difference in thousands of ways: a retired art teacher gives lectures on European masterpieces to foreign visitors at a museum; a high school student reads to sick children at a hospital; a former national football player coaches at a neighborhood club. To highlight these efforts and encourage more citizens to join in, the European Commission has made 2011 the European Year of Volunteering.
Volunteering can be a rich learning experience for the individuals concerned, no matter their age. For young people, it can help them prepare for their professional lives, and for older people it can be a rewarding way of maintaining social contacts and realizing self-worth. Volunteering helps develop one’s social skills and competencies. It also contributes to solidarity, nondiscrimination, social inclusion, and the development of a sense of citizenship.
While we celebrate the individuals and organizations that are making a difference, we also need to confront a number of significant challenges for volunteering in Europe.
For instance, we are lacking a clear legal framework for volunteering to cover issues such as volunteers’ social insurance, entitlement to holidays, accommodation, or reimbursement of out-of-pocket expenses.
Moreover, national volunteering strategies are rare. This is because volunteering does not fall neatly into a specific government department: should it be handled by youth, employment, or family affairs? The result is that volunteering tends to get neglected as a distinct area for policy development.
Another problem is sustainable funding: the large increase in volunteering organizations over the past years has increased the competition for available funds.
The European Year of Volunteering 2011 will help to empower and recognize groups that are making a difference. The European Year will provide a much-needed impulse to set in motion the necessary changes, mainly at the national level, that will make it easier for volunteering organizations and volunteers to do their work, and to do it better than ever before.
The Year is a platform for broadening and deepening both the outreach and the quality of volunteering, and the European Commission is working to ensure that volunteers all over Europe will be able to meet and learn what each country does best. We want to encourage the exchange of good practices between Member States on how to remove existing obstacles to volunteering, for example, clarifying volunteers’ entitlements to reimbursement of expenses or their level of protection while they are performing voluntary activities.
Another goal is to see new Europe-wide networking initiatives that encourage cooperation, exchange, and synergies between volunteering organizations and other sectors, especially the corporate sector. In this context, we are delighted by the interest that AARP has shown in our activities; we look forward to a mutually enriching exchange between the EU’s stakeholders and AARP at EU-level thematic conferences on volunteering that we are organizing this year.
The European Year aims to reward and recognize volunteering activities. This means that that the skills that volunteers gain through their activities should be formally recognized by EU countries’ education authorities, policy makers, and employers. We also hope to develop internationally comparable data on volunteering so we can improve our policy making at the EU level.
Finally, we aim to raise awareness of the value and importance of volunteering with the general public, policy makers, and government officials. We want to ensure that there is increased awareness both within Europe and in partner countries of the value of volunteering and its contribution to the economy, society, and individuals’ lives.
I am convinced that the European Year of Volunteering will leave a lasting legacy and set the scene for even more improvements in the years to come. Our work this year will fit nicely into next year’s themes as 2012 is the European Year of Active Ageing and Intergenerational Solidarity. We will then explore in greater depth how volunteering can keep older citizens active in retirement and promote exchanges between the young and old.
Clearly, the momentum we gain now will not be lost any time soon!
Viviane Reding was appointed Vice-President of the European Commission, responsible for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, in February 2010.