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2. Voluntary Activities

2.1 General context

Last update: 28 November 2023
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  1. Historical developments
  2. Main concepts

Historical developments

Polish volunteering goes back to the 12th century, when social problems were first recognised as an issue. However, for centuries the attempts to solve them through social work or mutual help have not had any legal or formal basis nor nomenclature that would resemble the terminology we use today – those involved in relief efforts were referred to as ‘social activists’ and ‘altruists’, such as Henryk Jordan, Janusz Korczak, or their literary incarnations: Stanisław Wokulski or dr Tomasz Judym. The noteworthy forms of activity that preceded, but, to some extent, still influence, contemporary volunteering (and the closely related charitable activity) in Poland include the initiatives and attitudes of the first kings; the educational and care-giving activity of the religious orders brought to Poland; the charitable activity of the 19th and 20th century industrialists; and the initiatives of outstanding Poles from the interwar period. All of which formed the early institutional framework for volunteerism.

In the contemporary sense of the term, volunteering has been present in Poland since the early 1990s, and NGOs, and especially association movements, have become its natural field of action. It was only then that their activity in Poland could be completely independent of the will of the political power. It is worth stressing, however, that the approach to volunteering has evolved over the last twenty years to promote pro-social attitudes, primarily rooted in the axiological basis of systemic solutions that facilitate co-operation with volunteers in various areas of social life, thus combatting social exclusion by involving citizens in participatory processes.

In 1996, the BORIS Foundation (Stowarzyszenie BORIS) published “Roczniak”, which was devoted entirely to volunteering and contained what was most likely the first legal analysis of the relationship between the volunteer and the organisation and the first model of a volunteer contract of mandate. In 2000, provisions on volunteering for the first time made it into legal acts, including a Regulation of the Minister of Labour and Social Policy (Rozporządzenie Ministra Polityki społecznej z 14 lutego 2005r. w sprawie placówek opiekuńczo-wychowawczych), which regulated the work of volunteers at institutions of care for children and youth. However, it was not until 2003 that this phenomenon became fully regulated in legal terms, upon adoption of the Act on Public Benefit and Volunteer Work, Journal of Laws (Dz.U.) of 2003, No. 96, item 873, as amended; the provisions of this Act are discussed in Section 2.4 (Ustawa z dnia 24 kwietnia 2003r. o działalności pożytku publicznegoi o wolontariacie). The first institution promoting this idea, which was, at the same time, the first manifestation of its institutionalisation, was the Volunteering Centre (Ogólnopolska Sieć Centrów Wolontariatu) founded in Warsaw in 1993, whose main area of activity still remains as the intermediation between volunteers, on the one hand, and institutions and persons needing their help, on the other. 

All the activities aimed at institutionalising and legal regulation of volunteering in Poland do not alter the fact, however, that it is still less common in Poland than in countries with more established democracy. Sociologists point out that this is due to the lack of recent widespread awareness of the tradition of volunteering, passed down from generation to generation, as previous experiences in this area were discontinued in the Polish People’s Republic (volunteering in Poland after World War II was limited to the Polish Scouting Association   (Związek Harcerstwa Polskiego - ZHP) and religious movements and organisations). Another factor is the material underdevelopment of the Polish society; and, consequently, the dominant attitude towards raising the standard of one’s living and satisfying the basic needs, coupled with the low awareness of non-governmental organisations, which are the natural environment for voluntary activity. A curious feature of volunteering in Poland is also the peculiar discrepancy between declared values and real behaviours. In one aspect “the belief in the effectiveness of joint actions is strengthening throughout society, and models that encourage the dissemination of such activity are also increasingly available; in addition, Poles are mostly socially-minded and support human solidarity rather than fighting for their own interests, believing that joint action for their environment can be effective and bring tangible benefits to the local community.” This disparity disappeared in 2022, due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Polish society, including a great number of young people, has spontaneously helped to host and support millions of Ukrainian refugees. Again in Polish history, the society acted on its own, paying no heed to the governmental structures. It was the work of non-governmental organizations, informal groups, and individuals, who put the government before a fait accompli and, in a sense, forced it to make certain decisions (e.g. financial support for Poles hosting refugees in their homes, regulating the status of refugees and the scope of aid to be dispensed to them, granting Ukrainian children access to Polish schools, etc.). This is confirmed by the authors of the report Hospitable Poland 2022+: “In the first weeks after the outbreak of war, the caring for war refugees from Ukraine was taken up by citizens, organisations and local authorities. They took on the main burden of assistance above all in the initial period, providing very important short-term material, social and psychological support to the war refugees. The grassroots initiative of hosting guests in private homes and flats took on a very large scale. NGOs immediately appeared at the border with emergency aid, and in the larger cities and towns began to set up crisis headquarters and the nucleus of reception points.” This system was still in place a few months “after the outbreak of war (…) thanks in large part to volunteers and staff from NGOs and local government.”

Data of the Main Statistical Office clearly shows the increase in voluntary activism with regards to helping the Ukrainian refugees. The office regularly conducts a research called Non-profit work outside of the home, and the last edition of this research was done in the first quarter of 2022. Authors of the release Voluntary Activism in 2022 (Wolontariat w 2022 roku) show that the level of voluntary activism in the four weeks preceding the interview was “the highest between 21st of February 2022 and 20th of March 2022 (37.1%), which was connected with the increase in helping strangers and in engagement with organizations and institutions due to the situation caused by the war in Ukraine.”

Main concepts

The first institution that promoted the idea, the Volunteering Centre (Ogólnopolska Sieć Centrów Wolontariatu) defines volunteering as “deliberate, voluntary activity that goes beyond the ties of family, friends and colleagues” and, as a consequence, define a volunteer as “any natural person who out of their own free will, voluntarily and for no fee provides services to organisations, institutions or individuals that go beyond the ties of family and friends”. This definition, which has been used for years, has given rise to a number of doubts arising, for example, from the difficulty in identifying the boundaries of ‘ties of family and friends’ – i.e, is helping our grandmother’s friend with her shopping ‘volunteering’? If not, then perhaps the key to a definitional distinction is how the potential volunteer comes into contact with the person, and even the group or environment, for which he or she will work. It is also not clear whether help given to neighbours during a natural disaster, which is a common practice in the Polish countryside, should be considered (one-time) volunteering, or whether regular work for the parish should be considered full-time volunteering. Another issue is the distinction between formal and informal volunteering, which is not mentioned in the 2003 Act on Public Benefit and Volunteer Work (Ustawa o Działalności Pożytku Publicznego i o Wolontariacie) but was widely discussed at the time of its adoption. According to the statutory definition, a volunteer is “a natural person who voluntarily and without pay performs services in accordance with the provisions of the Act” (Article 2.3), where a member of an association may also be a volunteer (Article 42.3). There are several significant differences between those definitions: firstly, the Act significantly formalises the volunteer’s actions by placing them in a clearly defined legal framework, describing the relationship between the volunteer and the institution that benefits from their work (this has resulted, inter alia, in some volunteer’s activities being referred to as “informal volunteering”, or even ‘grey area volunteering’). On the other hand, the latter definition does not impose the previously indicated limitation regarding close relationships between the volunteer and those who benefit from their help. Further problems arise (especially when trying to estimate the scale of the phenomenon) from the relationship between volunteering and membership in an association. The Act does not make a distinction between them, which, of course, has its justification in the real world – associations, as the most common legal formula for non-governmental activity, rely on the voluntary work of their members (for many years studies distinguished between those activities based on the assumption that one cannot be a volunteer for the association they are a member of). On the other hand, it would be difficult to set clear boundaries and determine which members of the association are volunteers and which are not.

It seems that in a situation of such significant doubts, it would be easiest to ask Poles directly whether they consider themselves volunteers, but the obstacle here is the lack of awareness of this concept, even among those socially engaged (due to the low level of civic education) – according to a report prepared by the Centre for Public Opinion Research (Centrum Badania Opinii Społecznej - CBOS), when asked directly whether they are a volunteer, only 5% of Polish men and women responded affirmatively. Such low rates of volunteer work experience have been maintained for over a decade. Since 2006, they oscillate between 4 and 9%. Relatively highest rates can be found in lowest researched age group – in 2020, 10% of people aged 18 to 24 have had at least a single experience with volunteer work.

Meanwhile the Main Statistical Office’s Non-profit work outside of the home research released as Voluntary Activism in 2022 (Wolontariat w 2022 roku) show that in the first quarter of 2022 26.7% Poles aged 15-24 was active as volunteers, which was one of the lowest results across all age groups (the population’s average was 28.4%, the highest result was for people aged 45-54, which was 33.6%). Those results are strikingly different from the previous MSO’s data from 2016, where the average for the whole population was 35%, and people aged 15-24 were the ones most commonly engaged in volunteer work (44.9%).

The decrease in volunteer work is shown by research conducted among NGOs active in Poland. Results from the report titled “The State of NGOs. Trends between 2002 and 2022”  (Kondycja organizacji pozarządowych. Trendy 2002-2022) show that “Organizations and foundations increasingly rely on the support of volunteers, but the number of people that an average organization can count on in this regard is decreasing”. Between 2006 and 2021 the percentage of organizations that use volunteer work of people from outside of them has risen from 40% to 63% in 2018 and then decreased to 61% in 2021. “For years, we have been observing the decrease of the number of people engaged in volunteer work in average organizations. Since 2002, the average number of volunteers active in an organization’s work has decreased three times (from 15 to just 5 in 2021). Similarly large decrease has been noted in the number of volunteers who closely work with an organization, that is work for it at least once a month”. This situation (as confirmed by the aforementioned CBOS research) may be due to limitations imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic (though the trend itself predates it). The authors of the report also suggest that this may be due to the trend which has become visible in the last few years of “more grassroots social engagement, which is not necessarily happening without the bounds of NGOs – that is engagement in informal groups, grassroots initiatives, and other such forms which became especially visible during the pandemic and after the Russian invasion of Ukraine”.  The decrease of voluntary work activism among the youth may also be due to the ongoing crisis in the Polish education system (which is not favorable to the development of school volunteering), as well as the disinclination of the youth to become active in NGOs managed by people from their parents’ (or even grandparents’) generation. rowanych przez organizacje pozarządowe – zaangażowanie w grupy nieformalne,

The last issue is the frequent misuse of the concept of volunteering to denote traineeships (such as student placements and traineeship) and unpaid internships. It should be emphasised that the above – just like ‘community work’ in the Polish People’s Republic or alternative civilian service at institutions such as care centres, community centres or hospitals in lieu of compulsory military service before it was abolished – do not meet (or meet but to a very limited degree) the voluntary condition of volunteering, and the concept is sometimes abused to obtain unlawful unpaid work, especially from young workers.

At the conclusion of the definitional considerations, it is worthwhile to place volunteering in the broader context of action for the social environment, especially the contemporary understanding of the concepts of charity and charitable action. Disregarding the historical evolution of those concepts (especially when it comes to the distinction between religiously and non-religiously motivated actions), simply put, both volunteering and philanthropy (a second branch of this kind of activity, involving financial or material assistance) are now part of them.