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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 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, which regulates 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 (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). The first institution promoting this idea, which was, at the same time, the first manifestation of its institutionalisation, was the Volunteering Centre 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.”(Boguszewski, 2016). It is worth noting, however, that “an egoistic approach to life is mostly displayed by the youngest respondents (35% of them claim that nowadays one should focus on their own issues, without regard for others), as well as pupils and students (38%).”
The first institution that promoted the idea, the Volunteering Centre, 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. According to the data of the Central Statistical Office of Poland (Główny Urząd Statystyczny - GUS), in 2012 only 2% of people involved in such activity declared that they had signed an agreement in this respect. Another issue is the distinction between formal and informal volunteering, which is not mentioned in the 2003 Act on Public Benefit and Volunteer Work, 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 6% of Polish men and women responded affirmatively (Boguszewski, 2016).
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.