Voluntary Organizations Research Paper

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Voluntary organizations are groups within which individual members associate of their own volition with others in the pursuit of common objectives. Participation in such organizations is structured according to agreed norms and is normally intended for public benefit. Voluntary organizations engage in a wide range of activities: those that are most often associated with voluntary endeavor include healthcare, education, religion, the arts, sports, and a wide range of social welfare services.

Voluntary organizations are self-governing and are not controlled by government. In a particular jurisdiction, depending on the nature of charity law, a voluntary organization may be categorized as charitable, in which case it may be eligible for specified tax privileges. The work of voluntary organizations may be supported by contributions provided by individual donors, corporations, or philanthropic foundations. Unpaid board members normally govern voluntary organizations; their work, however, may be accomplished either by volunteers or paid staffers.

The main forms of voluntary organization activity include service philanthropy (helping others); social solidarity (helping self and others in the same situation); changing (altering the basis of society); mobilizing (rallying other people or resources to support a cause); creating (bringing something new into play); and intermediary (coordinating or organizing activity as research and development, provision of administrative service, or representation) (Knight 1993). Voluntary organizations are ‘voluntary’ in a dual sense: (a) much of their human resources are contributed by members as volunteers and (b) they are nongovernmental and not-for-profit (cf. Van Til 1988). Thus, voluntary organizations may be seen as mainstays within what is increasingly referred to as civil society (noncommercial, nongovernmental) and key components of what has come to be called society’s ‘third sector’ (business and government being the other two sectors).

1. Intellectual Antecedents And The Theory Of The Third Sector

Voluntary organizations are central to a number of important theoretical perspectives in social science (Sills 1968, Van Til 1988). Writing at the end of the nineteenth century, the French sociologist Emile Durkheim, following in the footsteps of his countryman Alexis de Tocqueville, gave a major role to associations in his studies of social solidarity, in turn giving birth to the influential theories of sociopolitical pluralism. The observations of Max Weber laid the basis for later neocorporatist thought, and the studies of Robert Michels illuminated aspects of elitism and populism within voluntary organizations. Karl Marx, although hardly an enthusiast for voluntarism, nevertheless relied upon the power of voluntary social movements to accomplish the revolutionary tasks he predicted and prescribed. And, in the twentieth century, social theorist Talcott Parsons envisaged voluntary organizations playing a major role in the ‘integration’ of societal institutions, a task extended by the contemporary communitarian theories of Amitai Etzioni, Roger Lohmann, and Jennifer Wolch.

Distinctions between formal and informal organizations, nonprofit and for-profit groups, and public and private purposes (the boundaries between each being often unclear or ‘blurred’) suggest that voluntary organizations may occupy space where they act very much in ‘hybrid’ or ‘multi-sectoral’ ways, as Victor Pestoff has demonstrated visually (in Kramer 1998). Voluntary organizations may assume specific characteristics of organizations in the other sectors. Rudolph Bauer has observed that volunteers tend to experience voluntary organizations as providers of charitable service, board members tend to see them as though they were political organizations, and staff may behave as though the same organization is primarily a business.

2. Voluntary Organizations: Scope And Scale

Around the world in diverse societies and in contrasting political cultures the final two decades of the twentieth century saw a remarkable growth in the range and number of voluntary organizations, leading some commentators to speak of a ‘global associational revolution of extraordinary scope and dimensions’ (Salamon 1995). This pace of development shows no sign of slowing. In the developing world and throughout Eastern Europe locally based voluntary organizations work in partnership with international agencies and philanthropic foundations whose policies increasingly stress empowerment and the participation of local people in development projects. Throughout the developed world the retrenchment of public welfare regimes and pressures on public funding have encouraged the formation of partnerships between public authorities and voluntary organizations to deliver social welfare and other services with increased flexibility and less bureaucracy.

The development of close relations between government agencies and voluntary organizations has promoted concerns about the ‘incorporation’ of voluntary organizations by the state, and the danger that they would lose their role as advocates. Although generally represented as a part of a ‘private’ nongovernmental sector, many voluntary organizations increasingly are described as becoming ‘interdependent’ with government. This interdependence most often has been linked to the service provider role that voluntary organizations play under contract to government programs (Kramer 1998). Billis and Harris (1996) have identified the linkages created through voluntary organizations’ roles as advocates for public policies and as representatives of special interests.

Prominent among the contemporary ranks of voluntary organizations in a number of Western nations stands a subcategory that is governmentally identified as exempt from corporate taxation. These are conventionally identified as ‘nonprofit organizations,’ that are certified to perform a wide range of functions in society, and in return for their exempt status are required to provide public accounting of their actions.

Contemporary estimates identify over 1.2 million nonprofit organizations in the United States, many of which employ paid staff as well as utilize volunteer employees and board members. In the United States approximately half the population engages in regular volunteering for the benefit of others outside their families; and nine percent of all meaningful employment (and seven percent of all salaries) emerge from the third sector (Hodgkinson et al. 1996). Much additional activity is conducted within grassroots associations, which need not be formally chartered, and whose number has been estimated at 7.5 million or more in the United States (Smith 2000).

3. The Growth Of Voluntary Action Research

Since 1970, the study of voluntary organizations has become an increasingly active arena for scholarly research. Professional associations like ARNOVA (Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action) and ISTR (International Society for Third Sector Research) have grown rapidly; scholarly journals like the Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, Voluntas, and Nonprofit Management and Leadership have emerged; and organizations like Independent Sector and CIVICUS have grown to play key roles in asserting the role of voluntary activity in society.

The phenomenon of global associational development has been charted in an extensive series of country studies under the aegis of The Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project directed at the Johns Hopkins University in the United States. These studies have established that the numbers of voluntary organizations and the importance of this sector are much greater than previously thought, both in the developed and developing world. Academic centers for the study of voluntary organizations now exist in many countries. In the United States there are many well-established academic research centers such as those at Indiana University (where the Nonprofit Academic Centers Council is located), and at Case Western Reserve, Duke, Harvard, Georgetown, and Yale Universities and the City University of New York. In the United Kingdom, academic centers exist at the London School of Economics, London’s South Bank University, Aston University in Birmingham, and the University of Ulster. Elsewhere there are university research centers or academic research concentrations in many countries including Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Egypt, India, Israel, the Republic of Ireland, South Africa, and Spain.

4. Challenges And Future Directions

Most, but not all, voluntary organizations are benevolent or benign in their objectives. Whereas all voluntary organizations tend to feature common bonds of interest, solidarity, and commitment among their members, sometimes described as ‘bonding social capital,’ not all voluntary organizations generate or facilitate the building of ‘bridging social capital,’ which, by its nature is broad and reaches out to other groups. Bridging social capital encourages linkages with networks and tends to be tolerant of differences (Putnam 2000). In some organizations the common interest is either so narrowly cast or pursued by such dubious means that many members of the wider society find their actions inimical to the public good or even to be a danger to public safety. Members of ethnic minorities or groups which consider themselves to be oppressed may form voluntary organizations to pursue social and/or political objectives, sometimes using peaceful, legal, and nonviolent means, and at other times adopting paramilitary forms of organization and discipline and using violent methods (Gidron et al. 1999). The Middle East and Northern Ireland provide examples of violent political movements closely linked to voluntary welfare organizations established to provide much-needed social, cultural, and educational services to disadvantaged populations. Voluntary organizations thus serve two purposes: they respond to social need as they assist political movements in building and strengthening their constituencies. But the purposes of voluntary organizations can also be twisted into the service of those in governmental power, as was the case in Nazi Germany (Bauer 1990).

The increasing commercialization of modern life has affected nonprofit organizations, which have become increasingly dependent upon income from fees and, particularly in the case of hospitals and higher education institutions, have adopted many ‘business-like’ structures and practices (Powell 1986). Furthermore, in an era in which ‘everything is for sale,’ for-profit corporations often insist that their charitable donations must benefit themselves as well as others, by practicing what has been called ‘cause-related marketing.’ Philanthropic giving is itself encouraged by tax-deductibility, and individual programs are often required to support themselves as ‘profit centers’ within specific nonprofit organizations.

In the climate of resource uncertainty that prevails among many paid-staff voluntary organizations, fundraising (increasingly referred to as ‘development’ or ‘advancement’) often becomes a central staff activity, and a high emphasis is paid to the quality of ‘nonprofit management’ credentials and skills, often provided by the many university centers that have emerged since 1980.

The futurist J Rifkin (1995) has argued that the twenty-first century is likely to see a continuing decline in the amount of paid work made available to individuals by both governments and corporations. This restructuring of economy and society will provide increasing scope, he contends, for participation in voluntary activity. By providing shadow wages (e.g., tax deductions) to support voluntary action and a social wage to facilitate volunteering by under- employed people, the social economy provided by the third sector may play an important role in maintaining social peace and order in an age threatened by the divisiveness of increasing socioeconomic inequality. In such a time of change and challenge, it is important to recall that it is voluntary action that powers the third sector, and that the third sector is relied upon by society as a crucial developer of its distinctive goals. Voluntary organizations resemble, in part, businesses, governments, and families—and interact directly with all three of these organizational forms.

Voluntary organizations receive their unique stamp, however, from their shared value of advancing the common good by means of reflective and significant voluntary group activity. The core values of voluntary organizations distinguish these organizations from firms that operate in the marketplace and from other kinds of social service organization. These values should be reflected both in the objectives of the organizations and in their operational policies. For example, a typical volunteer or paid practitioner within a voluntary organization would likely consider as of central importance values such as caring, social justice, fairness, and the involvement of users in planning and delivery of services. Similarly, voluntary organizations normally will prioritize marginalized and minority individuals, people in need, and those who feel excluded or disadvantaged.

A particular challenge for voluntary organizations is to interpret and apply their values and to ensure that in their day-to-day work, management and care practices, and personnel and other policies, they are consistent with the values they say they stand for. When voluntary organizations succeed in defining their goals and meeting needs responsively, they can contribute significantly to the quality of life in modern society.


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