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Volunteering in Lithuania does not have particularly deep traditions. The historic and economic situation in Lithuania played an important role in explaining this. Voluntary organizations in Lithuania began to be set up in the 18th century. They were charitable associations, with the aim of preventing poverty and begging. The volunteers in such associations took care of the poor, propagated religious ideas, and encouraged love of the country. In 1919 doctors founded the Lithuanian Red Cross, which provided aid to the injured in war. The Lithuanian Red Cross remains one of the largest organizations in Lithuania with more than 1000 volunteers.
In the interwar years (1918-1939), social care institutions were established thanks to private and state initiatives. During this period voluntary organizations expanded significantly. However, after the loss of independence (1940), the Soviet Union started to restrict volunteer initiatives. “Volunteering” activities became obligatory for all citizens, with obligatory accountability. Compulsory “voluntary” activity contradicted the volunteering idea itself and ruined the foundations of genuine voluntary activity. The strict control of people’s lives in the Soviet Union had a great impact on voluntary initiatives. This decreased people’s trust in each other.
An understanding of the nature of volunteering activities has also been distorted due to a comparison with volunteering to serving in the army. Since the Lithuanian National Defence Volunteer Forces (army) were set up in 1918, persons serving in this army were called “volunteer soldiers”. Part of today’s Lithuanian armed forces is comprised of “volunteer soldiers”, and one of the meanings of the word “volunteer” in Lithuanian is often understood as a person in military service.
Although historical experience and the economic situation for volunteering in Lithuania have not created a particularly friendly environment, an increasing number of young Lithuanians are interested in and getting involved in volunteering activities. According to data collected in 2011, 34% of the population stated that they had participated or were participating in volunteering activities ats some point in their lives.
Volunteering activities in Lithuania are most developed in the largest cities of Lithuania (Vilnius and Kaunas). There is not much information about volunteering in small towns. Most of the organizations involved in volunteering are in the social work and health care sectors. Other sectors include education, environmental protection, sport and culture, animal welfare and civil rights organizations. Voluntary organizations differ significantly from each other by the number of volunteers (from 3 to 1000). For example the Order of Malta has 700 volunteers, with branches in 24 Lithuanian towns. Those active in just one locality have an average of 18 active volunteers. University students and secondary school students are the most active in volunteering. The lowest participation rate is amongst older and unemployed persons.
In 2011 the Law on Volunteering was adopted. The new law defines the basic principles of voluntary work and the special characteristics for the organization such work, the rights and duties of a volunteer and of the person organising the volunteering, and provisions for volunteers’ insurance and reimbursement of expenses. Volunteering activities are not regulated in great detail in order not to restrict them within narrow definitions.
The Law on Volunteering defines voluntary work as: socially useful activities carried out by a volunteer free of charge, under the conditions and procedures agreed between the volunteer and volunteering organizer.