SLOVAKS are eager volunteers who are active in working with children and teenagers as well as protecting the environment or providing help to those with health-care needs. But many Slovaks would not regularly define themselves as volunteers because recognition of voluntary activities is still very low in Slovakia and the status of volunteers is not yet properly addressed by legislation. A law on volunteering is under preparation which could help support more volunteering and the National Volunteer Centre is planning a new survey next year that will gather more detailed information about volunteer activities in Slovakia.
The Slovak Spectator spoke with Alžbeta Mračková, the executive director of C.A.R.D.O., the National Volunteer Centre, about volunteering in Slovakia and the challenges she sees.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): What is the current awareness about volunteering in Slovakia?
Alžbeta Mračková (AM): In Slovakia the status of volunteering is still very low and people still know very little about what volunteering actually means. Only a few people know what it means to be a volunteer. This is linked with the tradition and history of volunteering in Slovakia. The situation is similar in neighbouring central and eastern European countries but awareness of volunteering is much higher in western Europe or in the US. Nevertheless, in spite of the lower awareness a lot of Slovaks are volunteering. But they are not able to define their volunteering. We also actually lack current information on volunteering as the most recent data comes from the 2007 Eurobarometer survey, which found that about 33 percent of Slovakia’s population join in some form of volunteering and I consider this to be a sound proportion. Within the European Union Slovakia is somewhere in the middle. But we would like to collect fresh data next year about the number of Slovaks who are volunteering and about their specific activities.
In Slovakia, most volunteers are from among the youth and from the older generation and the latter do not tend to regard themselves as volunteers.
The situation has changed compared to the past also thanks to germinating volunteering centres which have increased awareness about volunteering and also organised more volunteer activities.
TSS: In which areas do Slovaks volunteer?
AM: The surveys undertaken so far, as well as my personal experiences, indicate that volunteering in Slovakia most often includes activities with children, young people and leisure-time activities. These include organisations like Scouting Slovakia. Then there are senior organisations and activities in the fields of education, environment, social help and health care. Especially in the latter I see space for further development. For example, more volunteers in nursing homes would mean a break for seniors in their lonely lives.
TSS: What factors influence the willingness of people to volunteer?
AM: First of all it is the economy of the country. Basically, if a country is well off and its citizens have satisfied all their basic needs, have proper jobs and do not need to have two jobs to cover their expenses, and have grown-up children, then volunteering is more popular. Otherwise, people do not have the time and energy to volunteer. This factor plays a very important role in Slovakia. The age of the volunteers also stems from this. Young people who want to influence what is happening in their country have a different attitude to volunteering than those in their productive ages who need to take care of their families. The latter, naturally, have less time to volunteer. Then there are people over age 50 or 60 who have grown-up children and who have satisfied their basic needs and then have time again to volunteer.
Here I would like to say that volunteering should be only in fourth position in our lives. The family should be in first place, followed by job or career, than yourself, your hobbies and your free time in order to have additional resources from which to draw energy and willingness to help others. Thus, volunteering should be in the fourth position. If people have not solved these first three matters in their lives, they do not have energy or time to volunteer.
Now a lot of people come to us and say that they want to volunteer but when we give their time schedule a closer look we find out that they are working for 10-12 hours per day and that they have hardly time for themselves. Because these people usually have good salaries, I suggest to such people that they give money and then give their time only after they have it. Another factor affecting volunteering is linked with us, the volunteer organisations, meaning whether we properly invite people to join concrete volunteer activities and whether we have enough money to hold proper campaigns to support volunteering. Money is also important so that volunteer centres, NGOs or foundations have management teams able to properly manage volunteers. The matter of this proper management has not been very well addressed in Slovakia so far. The network of volunteering centres in Slovakia is only partially developed at this time in comparison with abroad. There are only four centres – in Bratislava, Banská Bystrica, Prešov and Košice. These centres can, among other tasks, train other organisations so that they are able to work with volunteers. These four centres are functional but usually the people who work there are doing these activities along with their main employment because the centres are not able to pay them for their work.
Better cooperation with state bodies and regional governments would help as well. In other countries such centres cooperate with state or regional governments and they are supported financially from this side, too. This is still missing in Slovakia.
TSS: What could be done to improve the situation?
AM: Improving the centres’ financial stability and strengthening the weak cooperation between the centres and the state and regional administrations would help. To improve the position of volunteering in Slovakia we are working with the Interior Ministry to prepare a law on volunteering, some-thing that so far has been missing here. It would be ideal if such a law could become effective already in 2012. It helps that 2011 has been declared as the European Year of Volunteering and the Slovak cabinet has labelled support for volunteering as one of its priorities.
TSS: What will this new law address?
AM: It will define the concept of volunteering as a whole as well as the position of a volunteer. It sometimes happens now that volunteers are identified by the labour inspectorate as illegal workers. For that reason the law should give volunteers a status that is not illegal. The new legislation may also address the issue of payment of compulsory social and health insurance as well as perceiving volunteering as a [covered] job when calculating years worked by volunteers for their future retirement.
Volunteer organisations also have a difficult time including costs linked with volunteer activities into their accounting books for items such as travel expenses because now a proper status for a volunteer does not exist. Right now these issues are being solved via various kinds of employment contracts but actually, volunteers are not employees. Our idea is not to burden volunteer organisations with paperwork, as we would be acting against ourselves, but we want long-term forms of volunteering to be put on a proper contractual base.
Maybe here I should say that being a volunteer does not mean working for 30 hours per week. It often means than somebody volunteers, for example, for one hour per week or does some one-off activities. But volunteer centres can also deploy volunteers either within the country or abroad to help with catastrophes such as floods, earthquakes and other situations. We also can send volunteers within an EU voluntary programme or send people to volunteer in developing countries for a longer period of time. But in these cases volunteers need to resolve the question of payment of compulsory social and health insurance and similar issues.
TSS: Next year will be the European Year of Volunteering. What are the plans of C.A.R.D.O. for 2011?
AM: We have a number of plans. Due to the crisis we will receive less money, about €100,000. The European Union should contribute €80,000 and the Education Ministry €20,000. We would like to use some of this money to carry out the aforementioned survey to get detailed information about volunteering in Slovakia. Its results will help volunteer organisations to better address people willing to volunteer. We also want to find partners and organise volunteer activities as part of Days of Volunteering. We also plan to organise some activities in cooperation with the Education Ministry, which will be the national coordinating body of the European Year of Volunteering in Slovakia. Awards will also be given to volunteers: this year, on December 3; and next year on, we expect, December 5.
And we also want to have the law on volunteering drafted and adopted.