Aleksandra Kozyra from the EAEA draws some comparisons between volunteering practices in adult learning in Finland, Belgium and Greece.
Without a doubt, the non-formal adult learning sector in Europe is strongly supported by volunteers. In countries where adult education lacks adequate funding, volunteers are the backbone of adult learning providers or associations, as we frequently hear from our member organisations. How does volunteering in adult learning differ across Europe, and what challenges are similar? My colleagues from Finland, Belgium and Greece, who share a personal and professional interest in volunteering, reflected on the topic.
The Nordic secret
‘Personally speaking, I’ve been volunteering since I was a teenager,’ told me Marion Fields from the Sivis Study Centre in Finland. As it turned out, we share the experience of having volunteered for Amnesty International – although I have to admit that Marion was much more active than I was, working for local groups, serving on the national section’s board, doing surveys, translations, and more.
Marion is not the only one with this type of experience – at least not in Finland.
‘At my organisation we commissioned a study on volunteering in Finland, in which 1000 people were interviewed,’ shared Marion. ‘Around 40% of adults (those over 15 years old) had had volunteering experiences in the past month; the number would probably have been even higher if they had been asked about the past 12 months.’
‘From a sociological perspective, this has always been the case in Finland – volunteering is high in all Nordic countries,’ she explained. ‘One of the reasons is that we have been more used to working for others, outside of the family. This has been due to different political, religious and cultural factors.’
‘One of the specifics of civil society in Finland is that it is strongly organised. Historically, it goes back to our civil war 100 years ago. Both sides wanted to show that they had power in setting organisations, representing different sides. The tensions have diminished, but as a result we have a formal civil society.’
The Sivis Study Centre is a good example of a structured civil society. It does liberal non-formal adult education, offering for example study circle activities, the majority of which are organised by volunteers: self-directed learning on arts and culture, how to manage associations, family peer support. ‘I studied lifelong learning in civil society organisations for my PhD, and during my research I learnt it was three times more common to have study circles here than in the UK. I think this is because in Finland there is state funding available,’ shared Marion.
A strong tradition of volunteering is also present in Belgium. Looking at the local level, DINAMO, an independent non-profit organisation in Turnhout, has been active for almost 40 years, with all adult learning activities being led by volunteers.
‘Out of our 250 volunteers, 80 are teachers, and others support us during coffee breaks, social or cultural activities, excursions,’ said Bieke Suykerbuyk, who works for DINAMO as a coordinator. ‘A lot of people do volunteering for different organisations. They know us well already, and sometimes they just show up and ask – can I do something for you?’.
‘There is no hierarchy in our courses, and our adult learners are frequently volunteers themselves in the organisation. Sometimes it’s through our courses that we can find teachers. For example, during an English class we might find out that one of the learners is very creative, and we might invite them to organise an art workshop.’
The approach seems very successful, with about 6,000 enrolments per year.
Building solidarity in Greece
‘Following the crisis, volunteering emerged as a sign of solidarity,’ said Vassiliki Tsekoura from DAFNI KEK, an adult learning centre based in Patras, Greece. ‘In Patras alone we have around 80 organisations that do volunteering, sometimes working together. A lot of social activities and events are organised to support families that are in unemployment, or older people who face loneliness.’ A lot of the activities, as Vassiliki explained, are encouraged by the state, with more support for social enterprises in the past few years.
/epale/en/file/dafni-kek-activitiesDAFNI KEK Activities
Activities in DAFNI KEK
For DAFNI KEK, working with migrants has been a special area of focus. ‘It’s been a big challenge in Greece. The community has to get involved; to be more sensitive, we need to meet with each other to avoid stereotypes. When developing our new project, we got in touch with our former learners of Greek language, who are now Greek citizens or in the process of obtaining citizenship, and with migrant associations in Patras. They are especially interested in specific tools related to skills identification and guidance. We’re supporting them through our course, and they, in turn, can be more skilled in supporting their migrant community as mentors.’
To train or not to train?
When discussing volunteering with my European colleagues, a few recurring issues quickly came up. How important, for example, is training volunteers, and how is it approached?
‘At the beginning we didn’t train them,’ told me Bieke. ‘We used to say: since they are our experts, they already know how to do it. We work mainly with retired people, who might, for example, have many years of teaching experience in the formal sector. We also felt that we were already asking a lot from them. But for the past few years we’ve been focusing more on quality, and we’ve also had a more diverse group of volunteers, now all of whom have a teaching experience. In terms of training, we found that appreciative enquiry can bring great results.’
‘My colleagues are doing appreciative class visits – they observe a class, and then have a conversation with the teacher that will focus on the positive things. It gives a lot of motivation to the volunteer as well. At first they might be afraid that it’s our way of controlling them, but with time they see that it actually brings appreciation for what they did well,’ shared Bieke.
‘We need to make citizens think as adult educators, to help them understand how to share their knowledge, to understand the diversity in learning. For that we need to use non-formal adult education methodologies,’ added Vassilki.
Bringing validation close to the volunteer
Our Finnish colleague brought up the question of validation of competences. ‘Many of our organisations already do validation. For example, we work with open badges that we have developed together with our member organisations and are issued by them.’
‘When validating competences gained by volunteering, it’s good to be close to the volunteers. It’s more reliable if our members do it rather than we – for us it’s impossible to do it alone, as we have between 100,000 and 200,000 volunteers in all member organisations. So we train the members. We have our own badges that have to do with NGO, management skills – people can show us their portfolios and we can give them the badges.’
This, as Marion underlines, is increasingly requested by volunteers. ‘We just published a survey of skills needs in the voluntary sector. Young volunteers and organisations whose training is geared towards young people say that validation is important at the moment. There is demand especially among young people – almost 60% said that validation of skills is needed in their organisations. For example, volunteers who are unemployed would most likely enjoy having the option of validation, but there are other audiences, who want to fulfil their personal learning goals.’
‘One of the really important things is that validation needs to be voluntary – otherwise there is a risk of extension to the formal sector. Sometimes, even though I’m an advocate of validation, we must look at it critically. We should keep it voluntary. You can’t make it all about competences,’ emphasised Marion.
More incentives needed
The three colleagues I spoke to agree that the benefits of volunteering can reach far. ‘Volunteering can really be a way of being recognised as a person. It’s important that people can feel they can offer something. But it takes time and sincere goals,’ said Vassilki.
‘There are a lot of studies on the benefits of volunteering, which say that volunteers might have longer life expectancy, they’re happier and feel healthier,’ added Marion. ‘There are similarities to what we know about adult learning. It’s the same pattern: the higher your education level, the more likely you are to volunteer.’
If the famous Matthew effect is true for volunteering as well, should we be worried about the participation rates in volunteering – just as we raise concerns over the participation in adult learning?
Marion is optimistic – but calls for even more attention to volunteering across the continent. ‘Encouraging new generations to volunteer doesn’t happen overnight, it needs incentives, even here in Finland. If we think of it as a form of democratic participation, especially in the current European context, it will not happen automatically – there’s still a need to educate people.’
Aleksandra Kozyra is a Membership and Events Officer at the European Association for the Education of Adults and is responsible for organising EAEA conferences and the annual Younger Staff Training. She has previously worked with adult learners as a language trainer in Poland.