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EACEA National Policies Platform


2. Voluntary Activities

2.1 General context

Last update: 28 November 2023

Historical developments

Historical developments in viewpoints on volunteering and youth volunteering

In Flanders, young people engage in a lot of voluntary activities, organised or otherwise. Flanders has a rich and long tradition of volunteering in youth work (although most of these young volunteers in youth work wouldn’t describe themselves as volunteers. The federal voluntary law (Wet betreffende de rechten van vrijwilligers) regulates voluntary work throughout Belgium. Below you find a brief history of voluntary work in Belgium and of this law.

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

  • 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 compartmentalized society, or pillarization, 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 organized 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 philanthropic initiatives.

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-fulfillment 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.

Historical developments in legislation on volunteering and youth volunteering

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 (or in short the Volunteer Act) has been adopted. The Volunteer Act has been in force since 2006.

On the basis of a thoroughly evaluation, the Voluntary Act was adjusted and the voluntary statute strengthened in 2019. This strengthened statute was implemented in the spring of 2019. Since 15 April 2019, this new statute for volunteers has been in force (for more information see 2.3). Some important aspect of this new statute are

  • Organizations that work with volunteers must inform them about all kinds of aspects of the organization and their mission before they start their activities (e.g. professional secrecy, duty of discretion)
  • New rules about the imbursement of costs (e.g. travel allowances are equated with the amounts that apply to civil servants, the law explicitly provides that the cost reimbursements of volunteers are not susceptible to transfer or attachment in order to stimulate volunteer work among disadvantaged groups)

On 23 June 2023, the Flemish Government ratified the decree on the coordinated Flemish volunteer policy (Decreet over het gecoördineerd Vlaams Vrijwilligersbeleid; see 2.2 for more information).. This new decree lays down the cross-policy domain approach to the volunteer policy. For example, it regulates the coordination between policy areas, the subsidization of the Flemish Support Center for Volunteer Work and consultation with European, federal and local policy.

Youth and voluntary work

The Coalition Agreement 2019-2024 of the Flemish Government endorses the importance of voluntary engagement, including that by children and young people. This is also reflected in the Youth and Children's Rights Policy Plan (Jeugd- en Kinderrechtenbeleidsplan - JKP).  Every legislature, the Flemish Government draws up a In this plan, the Government of Flanders bundles its initiatives for children and young people. In the Youth and Children’s Rights Policy Plan of 2020-2024 “Civic engagement through volunteering” was included as one of the five priorities (for more information about voluntary commitment in this plan, see 2.3)

Research on youth volunteering

For a long time, no attention was paid to research into the voluntary engagement of young people. This has changed dramatically in the last decade, partly thanks to the fact that voluntary engagement became one of the five priorities in the Youth and Children's Rights Policy Plan. That’s also why all these studies were financed by the Flemish Government. Some examples:

  • Volunteering for young and old (2023): The Youth Research Platform recently compared the voluntary engagement of young people with that of other age groups on the basis of the Participation Survey. This showed, among other things, that there is no difference between young people and older age groups with regard to whether or not they do voluntary work. However, age differences do manifest themselves in the way volunteering is done. Younger age groups are more likely to volunteer occasionally, while older people are more likely to do this on a regular basis. The context in which volunteering is done is also age-related. Young people most often do voluntary work in sports and youth associations, older people more often do voluntary work in helping or welfare associations, religious or philosophical organizations. Thirdly, differences in motives can be detected. For example, younger age groups are more likely than older age groups to volunteer in function of their careers. Despite these differences in motives, it is important to emphasize that, on average, for volunteers from each age group, acting on the values they consider important is the most important motive for volunteering (Factsheet in Dutch)
  • Trends and evolutions regarding voluntary commitment by young people between 15 and 30 years old in Flanders (2022): Within the framework of the Youth and Children's Rights Policy Plan, students from VIVES Hogeschool investigated the needs and expectations regarding voluntary commitment of both young volunteers and organizations. They conclude that the perception of volunteers and organizations is generally positive, despite the fact that there are some limiting factors. Further, they notice a lot of common needs and expectations between volunteers and organizations. Voluntary organizations and volunteers both see voluntary engagement as added value. For volunteers this is mainly on a cognitive and social-emotional level, while for the organizations it is mainly on a financial and personnel level. However, voluntary engagement is also experienced negatively or less well because of high expectations, time-intensity, et cetera. A close connection is found between the thresholds, the reasons for stopping voluntary engagement and the needs and expectations of both volunteers and organisations. Finally, the students conclude that the concept of 'new volunteer' is partly outdated and partly supplemented by the research (report in Dutch).
  • Tackling regulitis in youth work (2023): Hogeschool VIVES Zuid investigated how local authorities enable the voluntary involvement of young people and mapped out good practices at the local level (more information in Dutch).
  • Recognizing competencies of young volunteers. Qualitative research  (2023). This study focuses both on the formal recognition of acquired competences as on the aspects that should make it possible for young people to use their talents through voluntary work and thus strengthen their competences. (report in Dutch)

Main concepts

Volunteering is only allowed from the age of fifteen years old and under the condition that one has completed the first two years of secondary education. From the age of 16 it is allowed anyway. 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 always be 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 components:

  • 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 association is non-profitmaking.