More Than a Myth: Volunteerism in Greece

04/04/2013 11:22 am ET | Updated Jun 04, 2013

Co-authored by Despina Tsalavoutis

We have been in too many conversations recently where we have heard that there is no culture of volunteerism in Greece. Opinions differ in our daily conversations and in local and international media.

It is no surprise that there is a heightened interest in this topic as the European economic crisis continues to affect member states. In a time of increasing challenges, much attention falls on the relationships and structures in society that are not working. Yet this is a time when people also strengthen what works, and search for new connections and developmental support that enable them to solve problems together, based on shared passion, motivation and purpose.

In Greece, volunteerism is more than a myth. We see a sense of solidarity "αλληλεγγύη" and community "γειτονιά" that people are trying to redefine in the face of significant challenges. Volunteering through citizen sector groups is one form of solidarity that is growing.

The United Nations Volunteers (UNV) program describes volunteerism as "one of the most basic of expressions of human behavior and [it] arises out of long-established ancient traditions of sharing and reciprocal exchanges." In Greece, this behavior is traditionally expressed through family, local community and the church. Now there are more people engaging in community service through civil society groups responding to critical issues, including health, social services and inclusion, employment and mentorship, conservation, urban interventions, culture and more.

A gathering in Athens last week offered a fresh sign that people are keen to harness the power of volunteerism. Volunteer4Greece, in partnership with three other Greek organizations that promote and facilitate volunteerism, brought together local civil society organizations, including non-profit and non-government organizations and informal grass-roots initiatives, to meet, exchange, learn and collaborate. More than 90 leaders and managers of 40 groups attended the "Unleash Your Organization's Potential Through Volunteers" workshop and discussed the tools and methodologies to attract, train, engage and manage volunteers. This was the first workshop to provide non-profits, particularly smaller ones, with international best practices and practical tools to better organize and structure their volunteer programs.

The hosting partners launched within the last two years and already are collaborating to create a network of learning and exchange. Volunteer4Greece is the first Greek online volunteer opportunity board. Human Grid is a project of TEDxAthens to connect volunteers with opportunities in Athens. GloVo matches student volunteers to events globally. All three launched last year. Wonder Festival is an annual event and network inaugurated in 2011 to connect volunteers and promote collaboration among volunteer initiatives. It has helped organizations like Senior Citizens in Action find their first volunteers.

The perception of volunteerism in Greece is evolving as people's perspective on the value and responsibility for social change evolves. Discussions during the workshop indicated there is a real public interest in supporting sustainable citizen sector initiatives. Public sector programs to address social needs have diminished or proved ineffective. The responsibility for the success of a social cause is shifting to citizen and private sector stakeholders, partnerships, and communities of people. As these changes occur, the role of volunteerism gains more value and appreciation.

"A volunteer is not just someone who appears in your life to serve you or to make your job easier," explained Gerasimos Kouvaras, Managing Director of Action Aid Hellas, as he spoke about the benefits of properly orienting, training and managing volunteers. "At the same time, you have appeared in their life with an obligation to help them develop and evolve."

One participant observed that his organization is seeing less volunteers as people struggle to sustain themselves and their families in the face of decreasing salaries, lack of resources and unemployment. At the same time, some of the organization's beneficiaries become volunteers and use their experience to act as translators or mediators between the organization and the vulnerable groups it serves.

Tzanetos Antipas, Board Chairman of Praksis, an organization focusing on humanitarian, health and anti-poverty programs, said that awareness plays a role in activating peoples' sensitivity to social issues and volunteerism. Responding to the question, "Do you think we all have a volunteer in us?" Antipas observed that many people do not recognize their potential to be volunteers. It is up to the organization and current volunteers to "wake up" the volunteer in these people.

"Our experience in matching volunteers to organizations has showed that there is a need from the non profit side to acquire more structured tools and better organize their operations, to improve the way they develop their volunteers," said Volunteer4Greece co-founder Myrto Papathanou, after the event. "The workshop exceeded our expectations... We believe non-profits in Greece are hungry for knowledge and ready to take the next step, which is to use tools and standard operating procedures in their daily operations to grow in size and expand their scope and social impact."

The volunteer workshop and the new initiatives that hosted it are part of a longer trend towards volunteerism. For example, the organization ELIX has promoted volunteerism in conservation efforts for more than 25 years. Since its founding in 1987, it organized more than 300 voluntary work programs in 104 areas of Greece, and facilitated the participation of more than 6,000 young people in work-camps in Greece and abroad. In 2004, 160,000 people applied for volunteer positions with the Athens Summer Olympics, and 45,000 Greek volunteers became a part of the events. Approximately 25,000 people took part in volunteer action during the Athens Special Olympics in 2011. Atenistas, a group that organizes volunteer actions in Athens to improve public spaces, started in 2010. It recently created the first pocket park in Athens. There are similar groups in other Greek cities.

"In five years I believe the landscape for volunteering in Greece will be very different," predicts Papathanou. "I dare to say volunteering will have moved to the mainstream, as opposed to being something a small minority engages in."

What does the future hold for Greece?

We cannot say for sure, but we do believe that civil society has potential to engage growing numbers of people in the process of creating this future. However, new forms of engagement also require new institutions to facilitate trust among citizens. If trust between individuals and across communities grows and flourishes, people can collaborate. Trust requires transparency at all levels and sectors of society, as well as social and governance systems that are participatory and inclusive. If a reliable, fair system exists to create a safe space for public action, then people can build a shared vision and act together to achieve that vision. Citizen actions, of which volunteerism is one piece, and a fair system are inter-related elements of a society: they will grow and strengthen each other.

Additional Information:

List of organizations or programs offering volunteer opportunities in Greece: http://europa.eu/youth/volunteering_-_exchanges/index_he_en.html

Volunteering In The European Union, Final Report submitted by GHK, 17 February 2010: http://ec.europa.eu/citizenship/pdf/doc1018_en.pdf

Despina is professionally active in Marketing Communications & Venture/Partnerships Development. She works with organizations & startups to help 1) develop ventures, 2) extend synergies, 3) empower communications, & 4) accelerate extroversion. At heart, she believes that Entrepreneurship, Sustainability & Creative Education can address global challenges & create new possibilities. She supports endeavors that progress in this direction. She is a graduate of The London School of Economics (MSc Organizational Psychology), from the USA & lives in Europe. She's a trekker, dreamer, creative facilitator and HuffPost fan.