Weaving patterns of resilience

Volunteers are at the forefront of every major conflict, natural disaster and other acute shock. Less visibly, everyday and everywhere, all types of people are volunteering to tackle stresses that test their resilience, such as poor education, ill health and poverty. In many communities, particularly where public support and safety nets are absent, volunteering emerges as a fundamental survival strategy, because it enables collective strategies for managing risk.

The 2018 State of the World’s Volunteerism Report, The thread that binds: Volunteerism and community resilience, looks at how the distinctive characteristics of local volunteerism help or hinder communities in crisis. For the first time, the report draws on field research carried out by volunteers with 1200 participants in 15 diverse communities. The report also explores how governments and other development actors can partner with locally owned solutions to strengthen community resilience.

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Key Findings

Read about the key findings of the report, and share them among your networks.

Key Findings



Volunteerism as a global development asset

Who are the world’s volunteers? What do global estimates and trends tell us about volunteerism in 2018?

“As we seek to build capacities and to help the new agenda to take root, volunteerism can be another powerful and cross-cutting means of implementation." - Road to Dignity by 2030 (A/69/700)

Volunteerism forms part of the fabric of all societies. It can be a critical resource for peace and development, yet more evidence is needed to understand the distinctive value of volunteer contributions to the economy and society, particularly in fragile contexts.

Analysis by the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) programme shows that the efforts of the more than 1 billion volunteers around the world are equal to that of 109 million full-time workers.

To put this in context, the volunteer workforce is nearly three times the number of those employed globally in financial services, and more than five times of those working in mining and extractive industries.

Volunteerism is universal and people of all ages and backgrounds volunteer. Access to different types of volunteering opportunities is likely to differ, however, by nationality, income, gender and social status. The vast majority of volunteer work, 70%, does not involve any organization but happens informally between people in their communities. Globally, women take on the majority of volunteer work, 57%, and an even bigger share of informal volunteering, 59%, often as an extension of unpaid care roles.

Social, environmental and technological changes are all influencing volunteering in 2018. More than 90 countries around the world now have policies or legislation on volunteering. Younger generations are developing and engaging in new forms of issue-based volunteering, often using digital technologies to connect. This looks quite different from the regular, local volunteer work that their parents did in their communities.

Though more efforts are needed to increase data and evidence on volunteering by governments and others, these numbers, trends and patterns are a starting point for better understanding the impact of volunteering on global peace and development issues in 2018.

Scale and scope of volunteerism globally

Majority of volunteering globally happens informally

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Total full-time equivalent volunteering by region

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Formal and informal volunteer work as a percentage of total volunteering by region

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Women's share of total volunteering is higher across all regions except Asia and the Pacific

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Women take on the majority share of informal volunteering across all regions

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The global volunteer workforce exceeds the number of people employed in more than half of the 10 most populous countries, 2016

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Local volunteerism in communities under strain

Volunteering in communities encompasses a broad array of activities to support community resilience. But beyond the immense scale and scope of volunteer efforts, do communities in crisis value volunteering, and why?

Community volunteers were the only ones putting their hands up... there were also a lot who said, ‘No-one else will do this. It has to be us. This is our community’." – Red Cross aid worker

Community members feel that volunteer work has two distinctive values that helps them to be more resilient:

Firstly, all types of communities value volunteering because it gives people the ability to self-organize around their own priorities. By coming together to volunteer, individuals can create collective strategies for dealing with risk. This is important in times of crisis for the speed of response, flexibility, ownership and agency of efforts, particularly in the most isolated communities where other types of support are limited. In other contexts, self-organization is more important for marginalized groups.

Secondly, by its nature, volunteerism is formed around human connections. Research participants highlighted that the solidarity, empathy and connections generated through social action are a protective factor when times are hard. Human connections and networks enable communities to share information on risks, to reach out to their most vulnerable members, and to act based on empathy and shared values.

The vast majority of volunteers are working day in, day out in their own communities. But because volunteerism is part and parcel of communities under strain, it means that it also cannot be romanticized. In some contexts, volunteering might have a less positive impact on resilience.

For example, local volunteer efforts can be effective at responding to shocks and stresses, but with insufficient resources they may not help communities prevent crises and to adapt. New and emerging risks such as increasing climate variability are also putting traditional volunteering strategies under strain.

Furthermore, because volunteering is rooted in social relationships, volunteering can also be exclusive, exploitative and burden the most vulnerable. Power dynamics within and across communities mean that women, and marginalized groups are often taking on the majority of lower-status volunteering. At the same time, volunteer roles that increase skills and leadership opportunities are not available to all.

These findings challenge the assumption that focusing on the local will automatically enhance participation and empower volunteer groups in a transformative way. To help communities bounce back, it is important to create an environment that recognizes and maximizes the most positive characteristics of volunteerism, and addresses its challenges.

What communities value about volunteerism for resilience

This graphic shows how the human connections and self-organization characteristics of local volunteerism enhance or limit community resilience.

Human Connections

Positive Contributions
  • Trust

    A high level of trust among volunteers is linked to enhanced collective action.

  • Solidarity

    Voluntary action can enhance solidarity or “power with others” through mutual assistance.

  • Cohesion

    Voluntary action helps renegotiate relationships between groups that have been divided and encourages the formation of networks of people with shared causes.

  • Emotional support

    Community-based volunteers are likely to identify with and help those who are suffering, which can reduce feelings of alienation and isolation.

  • Local access

    Local volunteers have linkages and access to vulnerable groups.

  • Contextual knowledge

    Local volunteers can contextualize information about the community for external actors.

  • Links to wider networks

    When local volunteers are organized, they can play a bridging function between local and national or international actors.

Limits and threats
  • Short-term vision

    Volunteerism based on social solidarity and emotional ties may prioritize immediate and urgent needs over long-term prevention and adaptation.

  • Exclusion

    Solidarity and collective voluntary action can lead to the exclusion of out-groups.

  • Division

    Facing stresses, there are few incentives for local volunteer groups to embrace people with different identities or divergent views.

  • Neglect of local voices

    Voluntary relations are often focused internally, and power imbalances and lack of affiliation can limit the uptake of volunteers’ local knowledge.

  • Internal conflict

    Volunteer groups composed of marginalized populations can cause intercommunity conflict when they organize against broader community decisions or disrupt the status quo.


Positive Contributions
  • Speed and immediacy

    Local volunteers provide frontline and immediate first response in a crisis.

  • Scale

    Spontaneous volunteering can mobilize large numbers of people during a crisis; wide geographic dispersion of volunteers enables early recognition of threats.

  • Availability

    Local volunteers are often the only sources of help available in a crisis and can organize when centralized authorities are unavailable to guide and coordinate an emergency response.

  • Flexibility

    Informal local voluntary action is less tied to standard methods and procedures and can more readily adapt to changing local conditions.

  • Innovation

    Local volunteers often problem-solve based on immediate needs and resources.

  • Ownership

    Self-determined priorities and limited control by external actors foster a voluntary response and ownership of solutions.

  • Cost-effectiveness

    Efforts to organize draw on the available and in-kind resources of volunteers.

Limits and threats
  • Exploitation

    Local volunteers who organize to meet particular needs can be used as low-cost labour with insufficient compensation or support.

  • Substitutive

    Local volunteers fill gaps in government services, potentially discouraging public investment.

  • Compulsory

    Some local community resilience strategies require “voluntary participation”, with people who fail to participate being fined, shunned socially or denied access to collectively produced goods or services.

  • Scale

    In some contexts, self-organization can mean an inability to effectively use large numbers of local volunteers during crises.

  • Isolated

    Volunteers not connected to mainstream services are dependent on local resources.

  • Segmentation

    Local volunteering is often a survival strategy for vulnerable or minority groups that self-organize to meet specific needs that are not being met by the wider community. This may not counter processes of marginalization and instead increase the burden on the most vulnerable.



Collaborations with volunteerism for community resilience

If local volunteerism is a fundamental resilience strategy, the manner in which external actors engage with it matters. How can governments and their development partners best complement local voluntary action?

“As volunteers, we can easily see the limits of what we do. We lack the needed resources; we really need external assistance in case of crisis." – Focus group participant, Burundi, SWVR field research

When local capacities are pushed to their limits or when shocks and stresses originate from outside their communities, collaboration between external actors and local volunteerism becomes important.

Directly or indirectly, many governments and their development partners are already influencing local volunteerism. Policies, programmes, norms and standards all impact on the ability of volunteering to strengthen resilience.

Done well, collaborations can be highly complementary, enabling local volunteers to move from merely coping, to preventing shocks and helping communities to adapt. Partnerships can also help embed more inclusive and equitable norms and standards that allow all types of people to benefit from volunteer opportunities.

Conversely, when actors engage with local volunteerism as simply a cheap and readily available resource, local volunteerism may be undermined. Volunteers may become over-burdened, exploited, and have little opportunity to nurture their distinctive contributions such as local knowledge, human-centred connections, agency, autonomy and flexibility. Volunteerism itself may become less resilient.

Partnerships between local volunteers and external actors should be structured in a spirit of true collaboration that builds on the strengths of volunteerism for resilience. Giving sufficient space to local volunteers to come together to innovate and solve problems, while linking and supporting their efforts to those of complementary actors, is key.

Examples of effective collaboration with local volunteerism

The critical role of voluntary community health promotion workers

Health promotion volunteers were active in nearly every low-income field research community, particularly in remote and vulnerable areas beyond the reach of state services. These volunteers transmit information about nutrition, maternal and child health, reproductive health and other areas of primary health care and disease prevention. They are often perceived as having a better understanding of the needs and problems of the community than medical professionals from the state health service.

Despite these benefits, the health promotion volunteers struggled to do their work. Most received initial training and support from the government or development agencies, but they commonly reported having to end their health promotion activities soon after due to a lack of support. Volunteers who managed to continue often did so at considerable personal cost. As one of the many volunteers from the field research community in Guatemala described their situation:

Why doesn’t the government give us more support? Imagine that we’re doing this job, saving lives, yet there is no incentive. I pay for my transportation myself. When I started, I bought my scissors, a gabacha [apron], a pot for boiling water and an umbrella because sometimes we have to go out in the rain, a backpack, a pair of boots. We just pay for it ourselves. But what can we do when the mothers themselves come and look for us?

Linking diverse skills and knowledge through online volunteering

The United Nations Volunteers programme manages the UN Online Volunteering service, a dedicated platform that mobilizes more than 12,000 online volunteers every year. Online volunteering is a simple, universal and effective way for organizations and volunteers to work together to address sustainable development challenges anywhere in the world from any device.

Since June 2014, UN Online Volunteers have been providing technical support to Cameroon’s Agriculteurs Professionels du Cameroun, a rural development project in Tayap village in the Congo Basin, an area that has suffered widespread habitat and biodiversity loss. The project aims to promote sustainable livelihoods and community resilience. The UN Online Volunteers include: an information technology expert from Burkina Faso who is creating maps of the village; an agricultural engineer from Togo who analyses satellite images of forest coverage; and a renewable energy expert from France who is developing a solar energy project for the village. The sustained multidisciplinary support provided by these international online volunteers has been critical to the success of the project, which has won several awards and grants.

Using open-source software to monitor and report during crises

Open-source mapping software is a powerful tool for volunteers responding to crises. Ushahidi is an open-source platform that has enabled voluntary participation in data mapping for over a decade. Launched in 2007 to track reports of post-election violence in Kenya, Ushahidi has been refined by volunteers and expanded to other uses and contexts. People used the platform to monitor and report on voting during the 2017 general election in Kenya, including reporting on voter suppression, ballot problems and cases of violence.

Building from this model, open-source software is now increasingly employed in emergencies around the world. For example, during the 2017 earthquake in Mexico, thousands of volunteers translated thousands of text messages and social media posts from people needing help. Volunteers were able to geolocate these messages, tag their location and communicate the mapped information to responders on the ground. There are similar accounts of how open-source software has helped communities to cope with and recover from other recent crises such as the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, the 2014–16 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, violence in the Syrian civil war and hurricanes Harvey and Irma in 2017.

Cross-community volunteering to protect shared natural resources

Many risks that affect resilience cross community boundaries. Effective management of these risks therefore demands cooperation between communities. Volunteering is one way to achieve this.

In Sudan, the Wadi El Ku Catchment Management Project works with several communities surrounding the most important water source in arid North Darfur. Initiated by UN Environment together with the Darfur Regional Authority and the Government of North Darfur State, and funded by the European Union, the project has mobilized strong cultural norms of collaboration in working with volunteers from the different communities to assess water levels, provide basic services and advocate for a holistic and cooperative approach to natural resource management. In this way, volunteers help to link and improve relations between neighbouring communities that share such a key natural resource.

In Myanmar, volunteers from six creek-side villages formed the Creek Network to deal with the problem of pollution from illegal gold mining, which was affecting people’s health and livelihoods and the environment. Over two years, the Creek Network worked with local administrations to confront illegal gold miners. With support from non-governmental organizations, volunteers learned how to sample and test creek water, document mining violations and report findings to the authorities. They succeeded in having the illegal mines shut down and subsequently monitored the creek on a regular basis. The Creek Network has now become part of national and regional networks and has shared its experiences with other communities facing similar problems.

Data collected by volunteers hold polluters to account in China

Across the world, communities face severe environmental challenges that threaten human health and livelihoods. The Chinese environmental NGO Friends of Nature works with local volunteers to map and monitor environmental risks at the community level. Friends of Nature has initiated more than 30 legal cases against polluting factories and industries. These legal challenges have built on evidence collected by volunteers that relies on their local knowledge, connections and flexibility and is coordinated through new mobile and smart technologies. This volunteer-led model has inspired other environmental NGOs and demonstrated to policymakers and local authorities the value of working with volunteers on environmental protection.



Volunteerism as a renewable resource

This report demonstrates that the world’s 1 billion volunteers are not just a major resource in times of crisis, but that volunteerism is itself a property of resilient communities. So how can both resilience and volunteerism be nurtured together over the longer-term?

“This work can’t be measured by a financial ruler. We know what we are doing – we value ourselves.” – Local volunteer, Myanmar

Like other forms of civic participation, volunteerism is both a means and an end of development. This duality means that while voluntary action can be a renewable resource and a positive force for inclusive and equitable development, it can also squander the resources of the most vulnerable people or be exploited by external actors.

Policies and practice need to focus on ensuring both mutually reinforcing ‘volunteerism for resilience’ and ‘resilient volunteering’. This can be achieved in several ways:

Firstly, by recognizing that volunteerism is a fundamental resource for resilience in all communities. This means that there is a need to move from ad-hoc and ‘project by project’ approaches that work with volunteers, to a national infrastructure for volunteerism that enables all citizens to contribute and to partner with others.

Secondly, by ensuring a fairer distribution of resources between actors. Where volunteers are bearing the brunt of the risks, technical and financial support should be more readily available at the local level to sustain volunteer efforts and to avoid depleting the volunteers’ limited resources.

Thirdly, by better integrating volunteerism into national resilience strategies and plans, in ways that give volunteers a voice in decision-making based on their own knowledge and contributions, rather than being expected to implement others’ priorities in a top-down way.

Finally, by working to shape a more equitable distribution of volunteer labour within and across communities, including opening up development and leadership opportunities for disadvantaged and marginalized groups.

Without such efforts, local volunteerism is unlikely to be sustainable, especially where the burden of community coping is disproportionately borne by the most vulnerable. This report provides an alternative vision for governments and their development partners – one where volunteerism continues to be a core property and protective factor for resilient communities everywhere.

Optimizing the relationship between volunteerism and resilience

The figure below maps the conditions that help or hinder volunteerism and resilience to be mutually reinforcing

More resilient
Less resilient
  • The contribution of local volunteers is recognized and integrated into national and sub-national resilience strategies.
  • Volunteer work is resourced but on a time-bound, project-by-project basis.
  • Speed and availability of local volunteers help communities in crisis.
  • Local voluntary efforts are utilized in external actors’ projects and initiatives in a top-down way with minimal voice and upward feedback.
  • The space for volunteer action is highly controlled by governments and other actors.
More resilient
More resilient
  • Complementary roles are established between different resilience actors based on their strengths and contributions.
  • Partnerships are more strategic and cross-sectoral rather than ad-hoc and time-limited projects that involve local volunteers.
  • Approaches are built from volunteers’ own priorities rather than using them as implementers of top-down initiatives.
  • The focus of volunteer engagement covers prevention and adaptation, and long-term issues rather than immediate response and mitigation.
  • The distribution of resources is commensurate with responsibilities, giving greater control to local volunteers who are taking on the burden of work.
  • Inclusive volunteering opportunities are created to benefit marginalized groups, such as specific schemes and initiatives.
  • Connections are created across different groups of people volunteering together, rather than with people from the same background.
Less resilient
Less resilient
  • Volunteering opportunities are exclusive, for example, the most vulnerable are only involved in lower-status and informal volunteering.
  • Volunteering is exploitative, for example, volunteers are expected to carry out roles for other actors but without training, resources, safety and security.
  • Volunteering is extractive, for example, external agencies seek inputs and information through early warning systems but do not share back with communities.
  • Volunteering is under resourced, further depleting the limited resources of already vulnerable people in communities as they work to manage risks.
  • Volunteering is underrecognized and undervalued, and may even be stigmatized.
  • Volunteers are focused on short-term actions, such as coping in crises, potentially leading to reduced impact and potential burn-out.
Less resilient
More resilient
  • Volunteering creates strong cohesion between people of the same background who volunteer together.
  • Communities have the ability to determine priorities but this includes decisions on who they extend help to within and outside the community.
  • The lack of coordination between wider actors and local volunteers reduces impact.
  • Volunteerism is vibrant but is not integrated into strategies and plans for resilience.
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Views from around the world


Volunteerism and statistical production in the Global South


Tshepiso steps back and admires his handiwork. As part of his contribution to Mandela Day, he has painted the interior walls of a corrugated iron shack that serves as a crèche for young children in an informal settlement in Johannesburg. In the spirit of ubuntu,a he regularly ferries his elderly parents, aunts and uncles to hospital or assists them with shopping. Just last weekend he repaired a broken kitchen cabinet door for his neighbour, Mrs Potts.

Enabling people such as Tshepiso to drive their own development priorities and agenda for change is one of the cornerstones of sustainable development. An active civil society is an essential component of a cohesive and well-functioning state. By encouraging an active citizenry, the state can potentially achieve more, using less financial resources, and also achieve greater social cohesion in the process. Volunteerism asks: how can I make a difference in my extended family, in my community, in my country and at a global level?

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Women's solidarity plants the seeds of resilience in Guatemala


Ten years ago, nobody cared about the community’s forests. We kept cutting down trees. Then I decided to create a volunteer group to plant trees. I spoke with women in the community and many were interested to participate, which motivated me more. At the start we were 50 women, and a member of the community lent us a piece of land to plant our trees. That is how our group was born.

Volunteering helped me a lot. Ten years ago, I was a different person. I ignored my rights. Before, a man could tell me that I didn’t know anything and I used to cry and think: “Yes, he is right”. I was afraid to say anything in front of men, but not now. Now we discuss and I am not afraid to say what I think. For example, one day someone offended the women in the community and I defended them. The women told me: “Roselia, you are no longer afraid of anything”.

In our group women make their own decisions. Before we had nowhere to go and no way to participate. Before it was only “casa y casa” (house and house). Now we have a place where we can talk, meet, relax and exercise our rights. In the plant nursery, we share our joys and problems. We are united.

We want more people to reforest their mountains across the municipality, so we will spread the message of our volunteer work.


Volunteering as a tool for social integration in cities


Together with the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, my role is to bring together all Londoners and strengthen our communities. One of the most important lessons I have learned is the power of volunteering in achieving those goals. Earlier this year, we launched our social integration strategy. Based on considerable research, it sets out a new definition of social integration, emphasizing that it is about more than simply the degree of contact between people but also includes promoting equality and improving people’s levels of activity and participation in their local communities. But encouraging social integration is a meaningless exercise unless people are provided with opportunities to come together. Volunteering does just that.

Volunteering helps citizens to connect with others in their local communities who may be from entirely different backgrounds. It creates bonds and shared identities that go beyond superficial differences that might otherwise seem important. Volunteering also provides a meaningful way of grappling with social problems – for example, reducing social isolation or improving mental health – for both the volunteer and the person benefiting from the volunteering.

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Volunteers driving geospatial mapping efforts for emergency response


As a geospatial specialist, during emergencies I volunteer to map affected areas using satellite data.

On 20 Sep 2017, at close to midnight, I received an email:

“Dear GISCorps Volunteers, ...seeking assistance for conducting damage assessment of ... health center locations affected by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico...If you are interested and available, please send an email..”

I immediately responded, as did five other volunteers fromdifferent corners of the world. Working together through an online group we scanned through miles and miles of data in just a few days - which would have taken weeks to gather from the field. Getting this kind of information at the right time can fast-track recovery efforts and even save lives. Online volunteering is a cost-effective and efficient way to get the important information from the satellites to the people on the ground. It also gives me a way to use my technical skills meaningfully and to be part of a bigger picture. I believe that future disaster response and recovery efforts will increasingly rely upon remotely sensed data - such as from drones. Analysing this information through crowd-sourced geospatial mapping platforms, volunteers like me can play a significant role.

Volunteerism connects people, enabling them to work together to tackle the pressing issues of our time. To make good on the promise to make the Sustainable Development Goals a reality for all, we need everyone to follow the lead of the current estimated 1 billion volunteers and make a difference in each of our communities.

Achim Steiner Administrator, United Nations Development Programme

Volunteering is not the only way to improve social integration, nor does it solve every problem. But it is a hugely important tool that government and local authorities can use to bring people together. We know that all Londoners want to feel like valued members of their community and to play an active role in the decisions that shape our city.

Matthew Ryder Deputy Mayor, London

By encouraging an active citizenry, the state can potentially achieve more, using less financial resources, and also achieve greater social cohesion in the process. Volunteerism asks: how can I make a difference in my extended family, in my community, in my country and at a global level?

Isabel Schmidt Director, South Africa Stats

Volunteerism and the 2030 Agenda

The 2030 Agenda requires all actors to build on the commitment, agency and innovation of citizens all over the world.

Understanding and partnering with volunteers based on standards of inclusion and equity drive forward a people-centred approach to development.

Will communities be the last line of defense or the first line of prevention?

This will depend on how governments and development partners choose to support the volunteers working day in, day out, to strengthen resilience.

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