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EACEA National Policies Platform


2. Voluntary Activities

2.1 General context

Last update: 19 March 2024

Historical developments

In Italy, volunteering has historically developed through some influential cultural roots: the main ones are those of Catholic origin, linked to the work of the evangelization of the Church and based on the concept of Christian pietas; and the ones of worker and socialist origin developed from the nineteenth century and the liberal characterisation.

The Italian Constitution provides an important stimulus for social solidarity. Articles 2 and 3 provide for compliance with the fundamental duty of solidarity and assign joint responsibility to the community and public administrations. In this regard it is also worth mentioning Art. 18 "Citizens have the right to associate freely [….]".

In the first decades of the Republic, the prevailing model of volunteering was of philanthropic nature, mainly oriented towards assistance. Since the end of the 1970s, volunteering has become increasingly important in the public sphere, also as an opportunity to engage and exercise active citizenship as well as a subject for the protection and promotion of citizens' rights.

In 1991, the first framework act on volunteering was approved (law 266/1991) after a parliamentary debate that lasted fifteen years. The law defines the legal profile of volunteering organizations and regulates their relationship with public institutions, recognizing the social value and the function of volunteering as an expression of participation, solidarity and pluralism.

Art. 2, paragraph 1, clarifies: “[...] voluntary activity must be understood as that provided in a personal, spontaneous and free capacity, through the organization of which the volunteer is a part, non-profit, even indirectly and exclusively for solidarity”. Article 3, paragraph 3 establishes that the articles of association of volunteering organizations must explicitly mention “...the absence of profit, the democratic nature of the structure, the electivity and gratuitousness of associative positions as well as the gratuitousness of services provided by the members [...]”.

Legislative decree 460/1997 defines the role of voluntary organizations and the related tax regulations.

Subsequently, a radical reform of the Third Sector was undertaken. In 2017, the Third Sector Code (Legislative Decree 117/2017) brought together in a single text all the types of Third Sector Entities, i.e., those organizations dedicated to volunteering in the broadest sense. The Code also repealed the previous legislation, including two historical laws: that on voluntary work (l. 266/1991) and that on social promotion associations (l. 383/2000).

At a national level, the involvement of young people in social and civil life is linked to the historical development of conscientious objection and civil service. The Italian Constitution provided for compulsory military service. This led to the birth of the movement of conscientious objectors and to the law 722/72 which recognizes those who do not want to carry out any form of military service for reasons of conscience and substitute it with civil service as an alternative.

With the suspension of conscription in 2005, civil service became voluntary for young people of both sexes in the 18 to 28 age group. In 2017, Legislative Decree 40/2017 transformed “national” civil service into “universal” civil service, setting itself the goal of offering this experience to all young people who intend to do it.

Main concepts

Volunteering is a deeply rooted and widespread phenomenon on a national level. It has a long tradition recognized by legislation. The law recognizes the social value and function of volunteering as an expression of participation, solidarity and pluralism. In Italy, there are also various forms of unorganized volunteering, with spontaneous and free activities undertaken for the benefit of others.

After the repeal of the framework law on voluntary work 266/91, legislative decree 117/2017 defines the volunteer as “a person who, by his own free choice, carries out activities in favour of the community and the common good, also through a Third sector entity, making his time and skills available to promote responses to the needs of the people and communities benefiting from his action, in a personal, spontaneous and free way, non-profit, not even indirect, and exclusively for solidarity”.

The Voluntary Operator of the Civil Service has a distinct status from other forms of volunteering and is governed by specific legislation.

Legislative Decree 40/2017 defines the “Volunteer Operator” of the Universal Civil Service as “a volunteer engaged in the implementation of the Universal Civil Service in Italy or abroad”. The same decree establishes Universal Civil Service for the unarmed and non-violent defense of the homeland, education, peace among peoples, as well as the promotion of the founding values of the Republic.