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EACEA National Policies Platform


2. Voluntary Activities

2.1 General context

Last update: 27 June 2024

Historical developments

Historically, in Italy volunteering has developed through three major cultural matrices. The Catholic matrix, linked to the work of evangelisation of the Church, the working-class and socialist matrix developed since the nineteenth century and the liberal matrix. 

The Italian Constitution promotes social solidarity (Art. 2 and 3) and assigns 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 predominant voluntary model was philanthropic, oriented mainly towards assistance. Since the late 1970s, volunteering has become increasingly important in the public sphere, also as an opportunity for commitment and exercise of active citizenship as well as for the promotion of social rights.

In 1991, the first framework law on volunteering (Law 266/1991) was approved after a 15-year parliamentary debate. The law defines the legal profile of voluntary organisations and regulates their relationship with public institutions by recognising the social value and the function of volunteering as an expression of participation, solidarity and pluralism. Art. 2, paragraph 1, clarifies: “[...] voluntary activity shall be understood as those provided in a personal, spontaneous and freeway, through the organisation of which the volunteer is part, not for profit or indirectly and exclusively for the purpose of solidarity”. Article 3, paragraph 3, states that the constituent acts of voluntary organisations must explicitly mention “[...] the absence of profit-making, [...] the democratic nature of the structure, the electiveness and gratuitousness of associative positions as well as the gratuitousness of services provided by their members [...]”. 

Legislative Decree 460/1997 defines the role of voluntary organizations and their tax rules.  

In 2017, a radical reform of the Third Sector was undertaken. The Code of the Third Sector (Legislative Decree 117/2017) provides for the reorganisation and the overall revision of the legislation on both civil and fiscal matters, defining, for the first time, the perimeter of the Third Sector and, in a homogeneous and organic way, the entities that are part of it.

The birth of the national volunteer program reserved for young people from 18 to 28 years is linked to the historical development of conscientious objection. In 1972, under the pressure of protest actions carried out by non-violent organizations, Law 772/1972 enshrined the right to objection on moral, religious and philosophical grounds and established the Civic Service, a substitute for military service and therefore mandatory. In 1998, Law 230/1998 established the National Office for Civic Service and entrusted its management to the Presidency of the Council of Ministers.  In 2000, Law 331/2000 established professional military service and, since 2005, compulsory military service has been suspended. In 2001, Law 64/2001 established the National Civic Service on an exclusively voluntary basis, in which women can also participate for the first time. Finally, in 2017 Legislative Decree 40/2017 transformed the Civic Service from “National” to “Universal”.

Main concepts

Volunteering is a deeply rooted and widespread phenomenon at national level. It has a long tradition recognised by legislation. Legislation recognises 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, or spontaneous and free activities undertaken for the benefit of others.

The Code of the Third sector (Legislative Decree 117/2017, art. 17) defines the volunteer as “a person who, by his  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, non-profit, not even indirect, and exclusively for the purposes of solidarity”. 

According to Legislative Decree 40/2017 the young volunteer participating in the Universal Civic Service is “a volunteer engaged in the implementation of the Universal Civic Service in Italy or abroad”.