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Volunteering as an activity has a long history in Estonia. However, only since the turn of the millennium, has volunteering been approached in an organized way.
In Estonia, the first steps towards obtaining an evidence-based overview of volunteering were based on studies of individuals volunteering in the context of NGOs and civil society. The First National Forum of Volunteers gathered on April 25, 2003, to discuss the problems of communication between individual volunteers and organizations. It was organized by the Peipsi Center for Transboundary Cooperation, an NGO established in 1993, Tartu Volunteering Center, an NGO established in 2000 and Network of Estonian Nonprofit Organizations, NENO, established in 1991.
The first national strategy on volunteering – Estonian National Development Plan for Volunteering 2007-2010 (Eesti vabatahtliku tegevuse arengukava aastateks 2007-2010) – was adopted in 2006. It followed the Concept of Development of Civil Society in Estonia which was adopted in 2002 by Estonian Parliament Riigikogu.
Since the very beginning, the Ministry of Interior has played an important role in the process of institutionalization of volunteering and civil society, as a partner to voluntary organizations and civil society.
In Estonia, there is no legal definition of volunteering in general.
At the moment, the highest administrative level definition appears to be the one which is used in the National Civil Society Development Plan 2015-2020. The volunteering has been described on the level of laws also, for example in the rescue services. A new program for the years 2021-2024 was also approved in summer 2020, but volunteering is being addressed there in general, not specifically towards youth (although youth volunteering is also mentioned).
Volunteering is defined as the commitment of time, energy or skills, out of one´s free will and without getting paid. Volunteers help others or undertake activities mainly for the public benefit and the benefit of society. Helping one´s family members is not considered to be a voluntary activity.
A similar definition of voluntary activity in Estonia is provided in ILO report: “activity voluntarily is undertaken without pay to help someone other than members of your household or relatives". It can be any kind of help to individuals directly or through organizations or associations, also self-initiative joint action for improving the environment of your neighborhood or community or activity for the benefit of society. The same definition, used at the end of the 1990s, is also valid today and is used in the National Civil Society Development Plan 2015-2020.
The Youth Field Development Plan 2014-2020, which is the national strategic document in the field of youth, does not contain a definition of youth volunteering. However, volunteering is mentioned in three contexts:
- Youth volunteering as a way of taking part in youth work activities, which have the potential to contribute to the development of skills and personal features (p.5, 6);
- Youth volunteering as preparation for work-life, as an opportunity to obtain work experience which is especially relevant for specific youth groups (p.9);
- Youth volunteering as a way of participation in local community life and strengthening local democracy (p.9).
The draft document for the new development plan for the years 2021-2035 (Noortevaldkonna arengukava 2021-2035 eelnõu, pages 14-15) brings out volunteering much more:
- youth volunteering is a way to encourage youth entrepreneurship, creativity and ideas;
- youth volunteering is a way to empower young people to be active citizens, to participate and contribute meaningfully to the community;
- the share of young people participating in voluntary activities is one indicator for the development plan's strategic goal no 2 (the starting ang goal levels are to be defined yet);
- creating youth volunteering possibilities is a way to ensure quality youth work that is available equally in different regions.