The European Year of Volunteering 2011 should be viewed as "a low-investment, high-return strategy to boost European economic recovery," said Irish liberal MEP Marian Harkin at yesterday's launch.
Amid the economic crisis, "Europe must view volunteering not only as a social good, but as an efficient and sustainable growth strategy, given the value for money it demonstrably provides," said Harkin, who was instrumental in persuading the European Commission to designate 2011 as the European Year of Volunteering.
A Eurobarometer survey carried out in May 2010 found that three out of 10 Europeans claim to dedicate their time and expertise to voluntary activities of some sort.
The Commission estimates that volunteering contributes between 0.5-5% to EU GDP, while just under 100 million adults are involved in volunteering across the European Union.
"Volunteering makes a remarkable contribution to the European economy. It innovates to deal with the emerging needs of society," said Belgian Secretary of State for Social Affairs Jean-Marc Delizée.
However, the popularity of volunteering varies widely from one country to another. Participation is described by the Commission as "very high" at 40% of the population in Austria, the Netherlands, Slovenia and the UK, but "very low" in Bulgaria, Greece, Italy and Latvia (less than 10% of the population).
Eleven countries - a majority - record "relatively low" levels of volunteering, at between 10 and 19%.
Job loss fears
Irish MEP Harkin cited studies estimating that for every one euro invested in volunteering, there is a return of five euros. "In this time of recession, such a cost-effective measure is worth its weight in gold. No financial institution will give you that kind of return," she said.
Volunteering helps people gain knowledge, exercise skills and extend their social networks, leading to new or better employment opportunities as well as personal and social development, the Commission said.
Replacing paid jobs with volunteering?
However, Harkin warned against the temptation to replace people in paid jobs with volunteers. "Given the employment pressures which will likely continue in many member states throughout 2011, we must be careful to ensure that voluntary effort does not replace existing jobs," she said.
Meanwhile, 12 member states have laws specifically related to volunteering, but in another 12 it is only dealt with by existing, more general legal frameworks. Three more are currently developing laws on volunteering.
The Commission says the European Year will help lower obstacles to volunteering in the EU, empower volunteer organisations and improve the quality of volunteering, help reward and recognise voluntary activities and raise awareness of the value and importance of volunteering.
"Volunteers often work unrecognised and with their hands tied. We want to recognise them and unties their hands," said European Commission Vice-President Viviane Reding at yesterday’s launch.
The EU executive will seek to achieve its goals by encouraging best-practice exchange between national authorities and voluntary organisations, with a particular focus on training volunteers, accreditation and quality assurance.
It will also promote new EU-wide networks to encourage cross-border exchanges between voluntary organisations and businesses.
"We'll also speak to businesses during the year. Social engagement looks good on a CV and we want to highlight the value of volunteering to employers," said Reding.
Last month, Commission officials singled out sports as a key driver of citizens’ involvement in the European Year (EurActiv 15/11/10).
"Sports and volunteering is a possible topic for the European Year. We're considering an event in Athens in October, but during the whole year we want to encourage more people to volunteer too," said Ylva Tiveus of the Commission's communications department, responsible for organising the European Year of Volunteering.
Indeed, another Eurobarometer conducted in 2010 found that sports or outdoor activities clubs attract the highest share of volunteers in Europe (34%), followed by education, arts, music or cultural associations (22%).
Lower proportions of volunteers support charity or social aid organisations (17%), religions or church associations (16%) or trade unions (13%).
Meanwhile, four conferences have already been pencilled in for 2011, including an 8 January event in Budapest and further conferences in summer, October and December.