What exactly is a volunteer?
How do you understand the term "volunteer"?
When people use the term volunteers, they think of one or several or possibly even all of these terms at the same time:
- Chapter member
- Active member
- Board member
- Community member
- Committee member
And the term does not only relate to their main affiliation, but may also refer to their main activities. Volunteers can be described by one, two or several of following categories:
- Online volunteers
- Offline volunteers
- “Newbie” volunteers
- One-off volunteers
- Long-term participating volunteers, heavily involved
- Project initiators and leaders
In addition, almost any combination of the above is possible, the spectrum is huge. So when talking about “empowering volunteers”, what exactly is meant by that?
What does volunteering mean?
As mentioned previously, all Chapters operate in an individual context and therefore need to deal with different sorts of conditions, which, in turn, influence the understanding of volunteering.
- Regulatory policy: Does the government promote volunteering activities? Are volunteering activities receiving support?
- Cultural habits and society: Volunteering can be applied to more or less any area, ranging from providing shelter and food to people, helping after a hurricane, taking care of old or disabled people, teaching school children and many more. But what about Free Knowledge? And is there a culture of volunteering at all?
- Economy: Are people wealthy? Do they have time for volunteering?
- Education: What does Free Knowledge mean to people? Is it about providing basic education for people without access to it? Or is it about engaging in activities that promote e.g. free licences and the corresponding laws?
- Size of the country: Is it easy to coordinate (volunteer) people and activities or is it a logistical nightmare?
These questions have a big influence on the understanding of volunteering. Each Chapter needs to find answers, and these answers influence what type of activities a Chapter focuses on, what services it offers to volunteers and how it forms its strategy in general. There are no common guidelines on the meaning of volunteering, but they would be needed if a solid basis for creating a movement strategy and defining measurement of its success were to be created.
The definition of the term community has been similarly ambigue. There are several questions arising from listening to Wikimedians talking about the community:
- Who is part of the community and who is not?
- Editors? Chapters? Partner organisations? Only volunteers? Or staff members as well?
- Are WMF staff part of the community? What about the Board of Trustees?
- Is there a unified community? Or several sub-communities?
- How do Chapters relate to “the community”? Do they have “their own” community?
- How does WMF relate to the community?
- What do “serving the community” and “creating value for the community” mean?
- How does the term “movement” relate to the term “community”?
The consequence of this is fuzziness and everyone is free to bring in their own interpretation. And if everyone is drawing their own conclusions, next steps and actions are individual rather than streamlined among movement entities.
Another challenge is the number and diversity of affiliates in the Wikimedia movement. As described previously, Chapters differ not only in size, age and scope of activities, but also in the pre-conditions under which they are operating in. There are several aspects that influence the goals, activities, practices, tasks and tools of Chapters. To give just a few examples for each category:
- Regulatory policy: Is foreign currency allowed in the country? Can the organisation receive foreign currency funding (from WMF)? Is there any financial support for non-governmental Organisations (e.g. law providing for 1% of taxes to go to non-profits; gift aid)? Is an NGO that cooperates with an American foundation considered a political risk? Which areas are regulated? Censorship? etc.
- Cultural habits and society: Is there a culture of volunteering? Do people care about Free Knowledge? What does Free Knowledge mean for people? How open is the society? What role does technology play in society and in daily life?
- Economy: What is the wealth level? Do people donate? Do people have time for volunteering? Can people pay membership fees? Will institutions collaborate for free or do they expect something in return (e.g. advertising, influence on content)? What stage of development is the country at?
- Education: What is the level of education? Do all people have access to education? Is education (e.g. about history) influenced by the current political leadership? What does this country need most in terms of knowledge and education?
- Meaning of volunteering: Does volunteering mean to provide shelter and food to people, rather than Free Knowledge? (see above)
- Size of country: Is the country large and makes coordinating people and activities very difficult? Or is it small, with a good transportation system making it easy to coordinate meet-ups?
- Language: Is more than one language spoken in one country? Does the country share its language with other countries? Do people have English skills in order to communicate with the international community?
All these dimensions come into play when Chapters come to interpret the mission and will have a big influence in defining the respective goals, priorities and activities.
The variety of activities is almost countless, making it a big challenge to compare, to measure and to evaluate. One Chapter will be offering students the opportunity to fulfill their university-required “social service” by editing Wikipedia; another Chapter will set up a Wiki for a local indigenous language and therefore increase the chance that the language will get governmental support; a third Chapter will invest in advocacy activities concerning copyright issues; a fourth will have many like-minded organisations in proximity and building collaboration, a fifth with be the “lonely nut” fighting all alone for the idea of Free Knowledge, and so on.
Given the situation that there is no movement-wide agreement about goals and activities, each of the Chapters selects goals and activities that seems to be the most meaningful for its own situation.
Learn more about
Or go back to