Volunteering: by whom, for whom?

Volunteering, defined as unpaid and voluntary organizational work for the benefit of others, is almost per definition considered a positive and desirable activity in research, policy and practice. As an active and productive form of citizen participation that generates positive outcomes for both the volunteer and the wider community, there is a strong scholarly interest in predicting ‘who volunteers’, and social policies increasingly promote volunteering as a measure to fight social exclusion, e.g., to better integrate the unemployed, the elderly or immigrants.

The strong normative thrust in current research and policy stands in sharp contrast with empirical evidence of volunteering as a clear reproductive force of social inequality. First, dominant groups in society are most likely to volunteer, because they possess the economic, social and cultural resources that volunteer organizations are in need of. Second, privileged citizens also occupy the most important positions within associations. As a result, a Matthew Effect occurs, because such high-resourced volunteers will be better equipped to reap the alleged benefits of volunteering compared to people with fewer resources, while volunteers from disadvantaged groups confront exclusionary organizational mechanisms that actually aggravate already existing inequalities. In my lecture, I explore these contradictory tendencies, and devote particular attention to the roles and strategies of organizational actors in the field of volunteering.