What is a volunteer?
A typical Red Cross or Red Crescent Society today depends on volunteers for its leadership and its service delivery, although staff also play an important role in helping to run the organisation and its services. Indeed, several National Societies also run institutions such as hospitals which are based entirely on paid staff.
However, it is the huge network of volunteers which make any National Society what it is. Today, the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement has about 97 million members/volunteers. The definition of what constitutes a volunteer or a member may vary from country to country, as does the level at which these people are involved. The Federation's definitions are outlined in the Volunteering policy adopted in 1999.
Most countries have a traditional understanding of what volunteering means, deeply rooted in their history and traditions, and very much a reflection of cultural values. It varies, therefore, from country to country, and it is also changing over time as societies change.
What volunteering involves, and how it is organised, depends on the economical situation of the country and of the educational level and work experiences of the population in general. In North America and West Europe, for example, volunteering is based on the dominant middle class. In Africa and Eastern Europe, where there is almost no middle class, volunteering is organised in other ways.
What role do volunteers play?
At the local level, Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers are at the heart of activities to assist vulnerable people. Working under a volunteer group leader, service volunteers are usually assigned to a specific task. This could be fund-raising, first aid, driving ambulances, running a help-line telephone service, food distributions, disaster preparedness, visiting old people, to name but a few, depending on the needs in the community. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of different tasks taken on by local groups all over the world.
Service volunteers are usually recruited to well-structured volunteer services which are developed and managed by volunteer and/or programme managers. However, front line service volunteering can also be done by self-managed groups of members or by vulnerable people organised into self-help groups. Which form is best depends on the situation and several forms can coexist in a National Society.
At the leadership level, volunteers also play a key role, and the president of a National Society is often a volunteer. Volunteers who are members of governing boards are responsible for the work and behaviour of the organisation and attend general assemblies to adopt statutes and decide on major policies and future work. They can be board members at the local, regional or national level, and can be elected to committees.
Lawyers, fund-raisers and public relations professionals are among those who help the National Society as expert volunteers at local, regional or national level.