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Definitions of Volunteering

Abstract: The challenge of defining volunteering is taken up. To this end four canons of definition are reviewed, after which the economic and volitional definitions of volunteering are examined in detail with attention given to the weaknesses and strengths of each. Terms such as activity obligation and intentional productivity are introduced as ways of clarifying the economic and volitional definitions. A definition of the work-leisure axis of volunteering is then presented followed by a discussion of stipended volunteering.

Keywords: activity; canons of definition; intentional productivity; obligation; stipended volunteering; volunteering

Stebbins, Robert A. Leisure and the Motive to Volunteer: Theories of Serious, Casual, and Project-Based Leisure. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. doi: 10.1057/9781137585172.0005.

Jon Van Til’s definition of volunteering numbers among the most frequently cited. He endeavored to define the whole of volunteering, while also framing it as an activity (“action”). He did not directly refer to it as work or as leisure activity, except to say that volunteering is “un-coerced” Smith, Stebbins, and Dover’s (2006:245-46) definition of volunteering follows Van Til’s as presented earlier in this book, except they add that volunteer work is “done outside one’s family.” This condition raises the question of when caring is volunteering, for a significant amount of caring is given to family members undertaken as non-work obligation (see later in this section).

The definition of volunteering revolving around the idea variously known as “unpaid work (labor)” or “unpaid productive work (labor)” - the economic definition - has been around far longer than that of volunteering incorporating the idea that it is leisure - our volitional definition. The former, which is the more widely used of the two, seems at first blush to be incompatible on several accounts with the latter. And, indeed, there are some incompatibilities, which however, can be reconciled in an overarching definition incorporating both. For, among its other defining features, volunteering can be shown to be both unpaid work and attractive leisure. More about this after the following short disquisition into the nature of definitions:

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