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EACEA National Policies Platform


2. Voluntary Activities

2.1 General context

Last update: 23 December 2021

Historical developments

Specifically concerning the development of youth voluntary work, little information could be found. However, Flanders has a rich and long tradition of volunteering in youth work. Although youth work is done by thousands of young volunteers, they do not consider themselves as volunteers.

Subsidiary and pillarisation

At the end of the 19th century, Belgian society was characterised by the principles of subsidiarity and pillarisation.

  • The principle of subsidiarity means that state intervention was limited to the recognition and encouragement of the actions of essentially private operators, including associations.
  • This went hand in hand with a relatively compartmentalised society, or pillarisation, based on three major ideological movements: Catholics, Liberals and Socialists. Citizens evolved around these politically marked pillars and all their associations (school establishment, health care funds, workers federations, trade unions, leisure time and so forth), which organised social life according to the same ideology.

As a result, the state tended to delegate a large part of its policies to the pillars, especially concerning youth. Voluntary activities were mainly developed through catholic and socialist movements, in the shape of charitable or philantropic initiatives.

From charity towards self-fulfillment

Gradually, a shift could be noticed from the altruist initiatives of middle-class citizens (often women) targeted at families in poverty, towards activities that can also contribute to the self-fullfilment of the volunteer. Volunteering became an important way to participate in society and an instrument of social integration. More and more, participation in voluntary work became more important than the ideological message or the connection to one of the pillars.

Public authorities increasingly encouraged voluntary activities, under which voluntary work in the youth sector.

A political evolution

The UN International Year of Volunteers 2001 was an important trigger in Belgium. Public authorities became aware of the interest in voluntary activities and the necessity to think about a legal framework. During this year, the federal level took formal initiatives to improve the social and legal situation of volunteers. In 2005, the Act on the rights of volunteers has been adopted.

In 2015, the law on the rights of volunteers existed for ten years. On the occasion of this anniversary, Minister of Social Affairs Maggie De Block and Minister of Work Kris Peeters asked the High Council for Volunteers to analyse the law thoroughly and to indicate which points could be improved, taking into account the concrete problems in the field. At the request of Minister of Social Affairs, Minister Maggie De Block, the high Council for Volunteers has worked out an advice on the need for clarification and the creation of a separate semi-governmental organisation. They argue in favour of employment status that clearly distinguished itself from volunteering on the one hand and regular employement status on the other hand.

On the basis of this evaluation, both ministers have now adjusted the voluntary statute on various points. The draft was voted on January 2019 in the competent committee in the Chamber. This strengthened statute was implemented in the spring of 2019. Since 15 April 2019, this new statute for volunteers has been in force.

Main concepts

There is no specific definition of youth volunteering.

However, the law related to volunteer’s rights of 3 July 2005 introduced a common definition to be shared by everyone involved in voluntary work, included youth work. It defines volunteering as follows:

  • Volunteering is unpaid;
  • it does not involve obligation;
  • it is undertaken for others or for society;
  • there should be always a distinction between volunteering and professional activities.

Since the development of the Voluntary Service Act in 2005, the Federal Government has been applying a clear definition on volunteering, which has the following basic competents:

  • an activity
  • performed by a natural person
  • on the basis of their own free will
  • for the benefit of others or of society
  • in a more or less organized context
  • provided that such an organized associatio is non-profitmaking