Volume 18 Issue 4, 2003

‘Working with communities’ to ‘build social capital’— Reflecting on old and new thinking about volunteers

Christine Fahey

Peer-reviewed Article

Archived Article


In recent years volunteers have received increasing recognition. The International Year of the Volunteer seems to have initiated a snowballing of accolades and awards. While the praise is richly deserved there is a tone of complacency at our nation’s ‘great treasure’. Researchers and social analysts point to declining trends in volunteering, while governments increasingly attempt to work with communities through volunteers. This paper explores some of the emerging debates in the literature, and points to the need for a deeper understanding of volunteering as a social phenomenon. Despite the reliance on volunteers by many services, including emergency management services, surprisingly little is known of the core relationship that volunteers have with their communities and organisations. Recent advances in thinking have shed light on the role of social capital in supporting strong societies, and voluntary associations have been strongly promoted as builders of social capital. However, with recent government policies aiming for increasing community self-reliance, there is a danger of stressing and ultimately destroying the volunteer culture that is so highly valued.