Volunteerism is the voice of the people put into action. These actions shape and mould the present into a future of which we can all be proud.Helen Dyer
This quote serves as a poignant reminder of the pivotal role volunteerism plays in shaping our collective future. It encapsulates the essence of human virtues like empathy, compassion, and love. In our globalised era, we’re fortunate to tap into a vast pool of ideas, beliefs, and perspectives, enriched by the collective wisdom of diverse individuals worldwide.
This article delves into one such perspective: the unique approaches to fostering volunteer opportunities, which significantly differ between Eastern and Western cultures.
While recognising that these are broad generalisations, our discussion aims to shed light on key aspects that often go unnoticed when viewing volunteering through Eastern or Western lenses.
1. Emphasis on Community and Informality
Eastern cultures like India and China share a community-centric approach to volunteerism, fostering social bonds and local needs. Yet, their unique cultural beliefs lead to nuanced differences in volunteering practices. India’s volunteering tradition, stemming from societal relationships, integrates practices such as seva (service), dana (voluntary contribution), and sharaamdaan (voluntary labour). According to the United Nations Development Programme’s published book on volunteering in India, Indian volunteering is an emotion-rich value, rooted in the concept of swantaukhaya – ‘one’s own happiness lies in another’s.’^1
Conversely, societies influenced by Confucian values, like China, interpret volunteering through “ren” or benevolence, embodying a broad “love for all.” This love, extending beyond family to others and nature, aspires for unity between humans and nature.
India and China both prioritise community in their approach to volunteerism, yet differ in expression – India emphasises emotional engagement and service, while China promotes a philosophy of universal love. These insights can inform the creation of volunteering opportunities respecting these diverse cultural perspectives.
2. Spiritual and Religious Motivations
In many Eastern cultures, volunteering is deeply rooted in spiritual and religious beliefs. Concepts like karma in Hinduism and Buddhism suggest that good deeds, such as volunteering, lead to positive outcomes. This aligns with principles in Confucianism and other Eastern philosophies that encourage societal contributions through service.
Moreover, these cultures often link personal growth or enlightenment with selfless actions and compassion, core qualities of volunteering. Thus, in these cultures, volunteering isn’t just an act of service—it’s a spiritual practice contributing to personal growth and the greater good. This perspective, while varying in details, is a common thread in many Eastern faiths and philosophies.
3. Long-Term Commitment and Sustainable Impact
Eastern cultures often emphasise long-term commitment in their approach to volunteering. It’s not about quick fixes, but investing time and continuous support to foster enduring change. Volunteers aim to build lasting bonds with the communities they serve, immersing themselves to understand the unique needs and challenges. This deep engagement allows for more effective and tailored volunteering efforts.
Moreover, this long-term commitment cultivates a sense of shared responsibility for the community’s development. Volunteers aren’t seen as outsiders but as partners working alongside the community towards a shared vision. This partnership empowers the community, ensuring the sustainability of the changes initiated by the volunteers.
The focus isn’t just on immediate results, but on creating lasting change. This could be through initiatives that equip the community with the skills and resources they need for their ongoing development. In essence, the Eastern approach to volunteering is about building relationships, empowering communities, and fostering enduring change.
1. Individualistic and Formalised
Western societies often approach volunteering with an individualistic perspective. This is not to say that Western volunteers are self-centred, but rather that personal growth and skill development are often key motivators for individuals to engage in volunteer work.
Thomas and Finch’s study (1990) provides insightful documentation of the general public’s perception of volunteering in Western culture. The study found that people’s perceptions hinged on three key criteria: volunteering was seen as ‘helping people’, providing a ‘service’, and typically taking place within an ‘organisation’. Here are some typical comments by respondents to the study:
‘If you’re going to make an effort to do voluntary work you’d sit down and consciously think to yourself, right I’m going to go and do that, I’m going to some organisation. And you don’t really sit down and think, I’m going to consciously go over and help that woman across the road twice a week.’
‘Well, helping one old lady is like just helping your next door neighbour or something, things that you’d do in the normal course of activities. Being a volunteer implies being part of something bigger … a member of an organisation or a charity or something.’^2Thomas, xm and Finch, xm (1990) A qualitative research study of images, motivations and experiences Voluntary Action Research Paper No.2. Volunteer Centre UK
The emphasis on organisational, or formal, volunteering is a distinguishing feature of the Western approach. This perspective recognises the value of structured volunteering within organisations, while also acknowledging the importance of informal acts of service carried out beyond organisational settings.
2. Skill-Based Engagement
Western perspectives on volunteering often emphasise the use of specific skills to address social issues effectively. This approach, known as skill-based volunteering, matches volunteers’ professional expertise with the needs of non-profit organisations.
Skill-based volunteering is about leveraging professional skills to create a significant impact. For example, a marketing professional might volunteer to develop a non-profit’s marketing strategy. This not only benefits the organisations with expert assistance but also provides volunteers with a sense of fulfilment and opportunities for skill development.
Moreover, skill-based volunteering can lead to sustainable outcomes by building capacity within the organisations. In essence, the Western approach to volunteering focuses on using specific skills to create a significant, sustainable impact, recognising that everyone has something valuable to offer.
3. Impact Measurement and Accountability
Western approaches to volunteering underscore the importance of impact measurement and accountability. This focus is driven by the desire to ensure that volunteer efforts lead to tangible, positive change, rather than being merely well-intentioned actions.
Nonprofit organisations and community initiatives in Western societies adopt outcome-oriented approaches, tracking not just the input of volunteers, but also the results of their efforts. For instance, a literacy program would measure the improvement in reading levels among students, not just the hours spent tutoring. Transparency and accountability are highly valued, with organisations expected to openly share their resource utilisation and progress towards set goals.
Volunteers, too, are held accountable. They are expected to commit to certain responsibilities and fulfil them to the best of their abilities. This might include committing to a specific number of volunteering hours per week or completing a project within a given timeframe. In essence, the Western approach to volunteering is about ensuring that good intentions translate into measurable, positive societal impact.
Bridging the Gap: Towards a Global Volunteering Framework
In the quest for a more inclusive and effective future of volunteering, it is crucial to embrace cultural diversity. This is where Force for Good, a community engagement platform, plays a pivotal role. By bridging the gap between charities, businesses, and corporations, Force for Good fosters a diverse network of volunteers united by their passions and interests. This could manifest in initiatives like a global cultural exchange program, fostering cross-cultural understanding and respect among volunteers from diverse backgrounds.
Moreover, Force for Good facilitates skill-based volunteering programs, combining the Western emphasis on skill-based volunteering and impact measurement with the Eastern focus on community engagement and sustainable impact. For instance, a tech company could leverage the platform to offer its employees’ technical expertise to community projects in a long-term, committed manner.
Force for Good also supports the integration of spiritual growth with measurable impact. A meditation centre, for instance, could organise a volunteering program on the platform where participants engage in acts of service as part of their spiritual practice. The platform’s robust tracking capabilities align with the Western focus on impact measurement while resonating with the Eastern perspective of volunteering as a spiritual practice.
The goal of volunteering, regardless of cultural perspective, remains the same – to create positive change and improve societal well-being. However, to truly create a global framework for volunteering, we must consider the unique philosophies and cultural nuances of other regions, such as the Middle East and Africa. By integrating the strengths of Eastern, Western, and other diverse perspectives, Force for Good is crafting a future of volunteering that is not only inclusive but also effective. This integration allows us to leverage the strengths of each approach, fostering a more holistic and effective volunteering framework that can truly make a difference in our world.
^1 United Nations Development Programme. (2013). Volunteering in India: Contexts, Perspectives and Discourses (1st ed.). https://www.undp.org/sites/g/files/zskgke326/files/migration/in/volunteering-in-india-contexts-perspectives-and-discourses.pdf
^2 Thomas, A., & Finch, H. (1990). A qualitative research study of images, motivations and experiences. Voluntary Action Research Paper No.2. Volunteer Centre UK. https://www.bl.uk/britishlibrary/~/media/bl/global/social-welfare/pdfs/non-secure/a/n/e/an-exclusive-construct-exploring-different-cultural-concepts-18.pdf
Guo, M., Liu, H., & Yao, M. (2021). The Confucian Value of Benevolence and Volunteering Among Chinese College Students: The Mediating Role of Functional Motives. SAGE Open, 11(1). https://doi.org/10.1177/21582440211006683
Lukka, P., & Ellis, A. (2001). An exclusive construct? Exploring different cultural concepts of volunteering. Voluntary Action, 3(3), 87–109. https://www.bl.uk/britishlibrary/~/media/bl/global/social-welfare/pdfs/non-secure/a/n/e/an-exclusive-construct-exploring-different-cultural-concepts-18.pdf