Home Sociology Perspectives on Volunteering: Voices from the South
II Cross-National Approaches
Closing the Gap? New Perspectives on Volunteering North and South
Lester M. Salamon, Megan A. Haddock, and S. Wojciech Sokolowski
Volunteering is a complex phenomenon that has often defied definition, let alone measurement. Undertaken in leisure time, it is nevertheless a form of work. Pursued for no monetary compensation, it nevertheless produces both tangible and intangible benefits not only for its beneficiaries but also for the volunteers. Supposed to be undertaken as a matter of free will, it is often motivated by a sense of personal, cultural, religious, or other obligation. Treated by statistical authorities as a form of work, it is nevertheless believed to perform important social functions by promoting social integration, civic participation, and sentiments of altruism.
Despite the prominent place of volunteering in the pantheon of civic virtues of almost every culture, very little is actually known about its magnitude in all but a handful of high-income countries. And even in those high-income countries, such as Australia, Canada, Norway, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States, that systematically track volunteering through robust national surveys, the measurement of volunteering focuses almost exclusively on volunteering conducted through organizations, ignoring, for the most part, what is believed to be at least an equal, and possibly far more substantial, volume of volunteering performed directly for other people or communities without the intermediation of nonprofit or other orga- nizations.1 Because the presence of nonprofit organizations varies widely among 
countries, this approach leads easily to the self-fulfilling myth that these more developed countries have a more highly developed “volunteer culture” than most other countries of the world.
This myth runs counter, however, to a contrary belief grounded in sociological and anthropological observation that the basic forms of human behavior, such as rationality, social solidarity, and altruism, are similar across different cultures and societies, varying only in the forms of their expression (Einolf, 2011; Gouldner, 1960; Haidt, 2001, 2003; Haidt & Joseph, 2004; Komter, 2005; Malinowski, 1922; Mauss, 1990). While altruistic sentiments might take the form of charitable contributions or organization-based volunteering in more developed societies, it could be expected to take the form of direct volunteering in less developed societies. This line of reasoning would lead us to believe that the myth of enormous disparities in volunteer participation between developed and less developed regions would be exploded if direct volunteering were factored into the equation.
More than that, sociological theory stretching back to Max Weber would suggest not only that less developed areas would come to appear equal to more developed ones in their rates of volunteer work if direct volunteering were considered, but that they would surpass them. This is so, Weber observed, because less developed societies depend more on custom and charisma rather than formal legal rules for their authority, and on tribal and kinship networks to provide for human needs. As industrialization and urbanization take place, they displace these traditional networks of person-to-person caring and replace them with formal institutions of caregiving, many of which take governmental form. Direct volunteering (which is sometimes referred to as “informal” volunteering, and perhaps even organization-based volunteering, can thus be expected to be displaced by formal institutions, leaving more robust volunteering cultures in less-advanced societies than in advanced ones (Egerton & Mullan, 2008; Finlayson, 1994; Owen, 1965; Weber, 1978).
In the absence of systematically comparable cross-national data on both direct and organization-based volunteering, it has been impossible to verify or refute any of these theories, leaving different schools of thought free to advance their preferred interpretations. This chapter seeks to improve on this situation by providing a first, at least preliminary, empirical test of these various theories. To do so, it first paints in a bit of the context in which empirical study of volunteering is taking place at the present time, outlining why so little comprehensive, reliable, and comparative data is available on volunteering; and then describing the encouraging recent progress we have made with the aid of the international statistical community to put in place a far more robust and effective internationally sanctioned approach for measuring volunteer activity in both its direct and organization-based forms. Finally, the chap?ter describes the results of our preliminary efforts to develop a more comprehensive view of the scale of both direct and organization-based volunteering in both the North and the South drawing on newly tapped sources of empirical data.
Ultimately, we find that when both organization-based and direct volunteering are taken into account, differences in the absolute amounts of volunteering between well-off and less-well-off countries narrow significantly, but relative rates of volunteering remain stubbornly constant. We conclude that this may be due, however, as much to the volunteering overachievement of citizens of the better-off countries than any meaningful volunteering underachievement on the part of citizens in the less-well-off countries once account is taken of the relative obstacles each faces.
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