One in four (25%) Europeans is engaged in volunteering and 1-5% of EU GDP is generated by voluntary activities, according to Ylva Tiveus of the European Commission's communications department, responsible for organising the European Year of Volunteering.
"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," Tiveus told the conference, organised by NGO 'Sport and Citizenship'.
"Volunteering is from the heart but it's also very important from an economic point of view. It has a price tag […], most of which comes from sport, sports clubs and sports events," she said.
This is not the first time that policymakers' attention has been drawn to the role of volunteering in sport. Last summer, stakeholders called for better recognition of its role and urged the EU to use the new competencies bestowed on it by the Lisbon Treaty to remove administrative obstacles (EurActiv 30/07/10).
Administrative barriers to volunteering
Indeed, "recruiting volunteers is difficult and we need to focus on areas where sports can achieve most," a former Belgian Olympic sailing champion warned last week's conference, citing difficulties obtaining the necessary authorisation.
"I wanted to teach sailing but was told to go home because I didn't have a certificate," he said, complaining that by failing to properly address the difficulty of recruiting volunteers "we're building up a volunteering system that doesn't always respond to our needs".
Some participants suggested that the administrative barriers were greater in some sports than others. "We're used to working with volunteers. It's part of our DNA and we couldn't organise tournaments without them," said William Gaillard, special advisor to UEFA President Michel Platini.
"Most professional sportspeople end up volunteering in some way once their careers have ended. Documents proving that you've gone through an administrative process are more important in some European cultures than others," he said.
Boosting private sector involvement
Private sector representatives, meanwhile, were quick to highlight the key role played by companies in promoting volunteering in Europe.
"We have 30,000 employees and they are our biggest asset in pushing for social change. In 2009 they volunteered more than 75,000 hours and gave over $5m to various causes," said Bruno Alves, government and public affairs manager at Nike.
But others were less optimistic. "You can always get hold of money, but it's really hard to get volunteers to give up their free time to coach kids," complained Sport and Citizenship President Laurent Thieule.
Insufficient numbers of volunteers and the lack of time available among those who do volunteer were singled out as major obstacles preventing sports clubs and programmes from being run properly.
"It's easy for Nike to talk about volunteering, because we have an inherent interest in boosting involvement in sports. But we need to look at how the rest of the private sector can involve its employees in volunteering," said Nike's Alves.
Meanwhile, some participants expressed fear that difficult economic conditions across Europe in the wake of the downturn would negatively impact upon grassroots sport.
"The economic downturn and competition for political and financial attention within the sports sector are the biggest challenges facing grassroots sport," said Mogens Kirkeby, president of the International Sport and Culture Association.
Nike's Alves agreed that "the cuts are a worrying trend" but insisted that grassroots sports development programmes would retain their importance in the eyes of policymakers and businesspeople alike.
"Most of the cuts have now already happened, so it's about minimising their impact on grassroots initiatives. The public and private sectors need to work together on this," Alves said.
EU sports ministers are set to convene for their next council on 18-19 November, while the European Commission is expected to publish a communication outlining its proposals for the first-ever EU sports programme in mid-December.