Volunteering is good for you, your community, your region's economic development and your national economy. It also helps build the "social capital" that public policies need to succeed. Over 100 million EU citizens volunteer, and every €1 spent on supporting them generates a return of between €3 and €8 - a contribution that should appear in national accounts, says an own-initiative report approved by the Regional Development Committee on Wednesday.
Promoting volunteering through Community policies, supporting voluntary action using EU funds, and recognising and committing to voluntary activity at EU level helps to establish direct links between citizens, their communities and the Union, explained rapporteur Marian Harkin (ALDE, IE).
Volunteering nurtures solidarity
Volunteers help to implement projects under EU-funded initiatives such as the LEADER (rural development) programme, INTERREG (linking European regions) and the Northern Ireland PEACE Programme, notes the report, which calls on the Commission to put in place a system across all funds that recognises the contribution of volunteering towards co-financing EU-funded projects, and to devise mechanisms for costing and using it as a means of matching funding for them.
Volunteering is also "a major force nurturing civil society and strengthening solidarity", and supporting community development programmes, says the report, which notes that "re-stimulating" volunteering may be especially necessary in those Member States, such as those emerging from a post-communist transition period, where voluntary activity "has come to be associated with actions of a compulsory nature".
The report stresses that volunteering and voluntary activity should in any event not take the place of paid work.
The report encourages firms to help fund initiatives to promote and enhance volunteering, as part of their corporate social responsibility strategies. It also urges Member States to create incentives for business to fund and support the voluntary sector, so as to help transfer corporate skills and know-how to the public sector and to improve the quality of life locally, by encouraging "self help" solutions to local problems.
The report recommends that all Member States produce regular non-profit institution (NPI) "satellite accounts", and include volunteer work in them, to enable policy makers to take account of NPIs in policy formulation. It also suggests that volunteering be made a specific category in EUROSTAT accounts.
Volunteering as an education
The report calls on the Commission, Member States and regional and local authorities to promote volunteering through education at all levels, including degree programmes, so that learning during volunteering is recognized as part of lifelong learning.
Making life easier for voluntary bodies
The report encourages Member States, regional and local authorities and voluntary organisations to develop plans to recognise, value, support, facilitate and encourage volunteering, and to work in partnership to do so.
It also urges Member States, regional and local authorities to help voluntary bodies to access sufficient and sustainable funding, without excessive form-filling, red tape or bureaucracy, while maintaining controls on public expenditure.
The European Commission is asked to put in place a Plan V for Valuing, Validating and ensuring Visibility of Volunteers, to mainstream "volunteer-friendliness" across all areas of policy and legislation, and to investigate the introduction of a legal basis in Community law whereby voluntary organisations would be exempted from paying VAT on purchases.
The report encourages Member States to promote volunteering within all communities, both real and virtual, e.g. family volunteering, or volunteering in marginalised groups or groups that might not traditionally volunteer.
It also asks the Commission to review its visa policy for non-EU participants in recognised EU volunteer programmes with a view to introducing a more liberal visa regime in particular towards volunteers from EU neighbouring countries.
Finally, the report calls on local and regional stakeholders, voluntary organisations and the media to inform citizens about opportunities to volunteer.
The Harkin report was approved with 51 votes in favour and one abstention.