More Than a Myth: Volunteerism in Greece

This piece was co-authored with Despina Tsalavoutis and first published April 4, 2013 on Huffington Post here.

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:

Volunteering In The European Union, Final Report submitted by GHK, 17 February 2010:

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.


Destination Greece: Sun, Studies and Service

As summer approaches, some us are fortunate enough to look forward to a visit to Greece. There are several study abroad or learning opportunities for students that would like to learn about and experience Greece – both classical and modern Greece. Programs are increasingly incorporating elements of local volunteering and community service to help their students establish deeper connections with the local communities that welcome them for the summer. I highlighted some of the stories of young visiting volunteers and interviewed a couple Greek organizations that offer volunteering opportunities for Reinventing Greece.

Journey to Greece students prepare for their volunteer service with the 2010 Special Olympics.

Here is part of that story and the link to the full feature (which is the best part!).

Young people are volunteering while visiting or studying in Greece.

The next generation in the U.S. – young adults from adolescents to about 30 years of age, often referred to as the millenials – want to change the world. Young Americans of Hellenic descent are among them. There are young people from this country volunteering while visiting or studying in Greece. In the process, they are gaining new understandings of Greek society, establishing relationships with people in local communities, deepening their ties to their heritage, and learning important lessons about teamwork, community, leadership and citizen diplomacy.

U.S. millenials volunteer more than any previous generation, according to USA Today, and corporations have found that one of the best ways to attract this next generation as employees is to offer paid time-off to volunteer.

National leaders are recognizing that this desire to have an impact and change the world for the better extends beyond borders. In May 2011, The Next Generation Initiative participated in the Global Diaspora Forum, hosted by the State Department and other partners. We saw national leaders and donors of international programs recognizing and discussing the value of diaspora organizations in strengthening U.S. relations and partnerships with other countries in many fields. One areas of discussion was youth volunteering. Young people are seeking opportunities to go back to their countries of heritage, or other countries, to volunteer.

This trend is evident among Hellenic American youth. In a national student research study conducted by the Initiative in 2010, young Greek and Cypriot Americans overwhelmingly expressed an interest in traveling to Greece for volunteer, internship, study and work opportunities. Students and young professionals report that it is challenging to find information, in English, on community organizations and businesses that offer volunteer or partnership opportunities for diaspora youth.

To address this interest, The Next Generation Initiative would like to help its next Reinventing Greece student and young professional team find opportunities to join their peers in Greece and give back to local Greek communities.

Welcome to phase one in this effort: ask questions and learn.

We asked local non-government organizations (NGOs), community action groups, educational institutions and others about their volunteer programs and community service experiences to learn about opportunities for diaspora Greeks or friends of Greece to give back while they are visiting or studying in Greece. We found that study and travel abroad programs are increasingly incorporating service work in their programs. We are sharing some of their stories here.

As we search for opportunities for our team, we invite you to read about the initiatives we are discovering, and reach out to them to join their efforts if you will be visiting Greece this year. We also invite you to share more of your experiences with us and our readers in the comment section below.

See the stories of young volunteers and read interviews with Greek organizations that offer volunteering opportunities on Reinventing Greece:

The Smile of the Child Needs Us.

In the fall of 2004, I spent the afternoon in one of the community houses of Hamogelo tou Paidou, or The Smile of the Child, a Greek non-profit that helps children when they are most in need. The founder of the organization knew the value of a child’s smile more than most of us ever could. Ten-year-old Andreas Yannopoulos, while suffering from terminal cancer, expressed with clarity his belief that all children, regardless of race or ethnicity, deserve to smile, and that if everybody came together, this could be accomplished.  Thus the organization was established in 1995 and began fulfilling Andreas’ vision.

After 16 years of growth and tens of thousands of children’s smiles, the organization is at risk of closing its doors in less than two months. The economic crisis is about to hit children who have already suffered abuse, neglect, abandonment, poverty, illness.

Six years ago, as the children played outside, the head of social services and the child and family counselor at the Kareas shelter discussed the organization’s latest activities in the free moments they had before they received a call to pick up a new child in need. I was with a member of the U.S. Embassy’s American Citizen Services section, which maintains contact with several Greek organizations offering services that could assist American citizens in Greece. The Smile of the Child is an invaluable resource in helping American children in cases where their parent or guardian is hospitalized or unable to care for them while in Greece.

With over 4,000 volunteers and teams of professional educators, counselors, psychologists, social psychologists, social workers and administrators, The Smile of the Child impacts the lives of thousands of children and families every year, and is one of the most trusted and recognized civil society organizations in Greece.

Since 1997, Smile of the Child has established 11 shelters housing 275 abused or neglected children, from infants to young adults, sent through court order.  Its 24/7 national emergency hotline, 1056, received 270,000 calls for help in 2010, including reports of abused or abandoned children. It also runs 116000, the European Hotline for Missing Children, in Greece. The website reports and tracks the cases of missing children in Greece. The group also activates Amber Alert Hellas at the request of the police, runs outreach programs for homeless children in Thessaloniki and Athens, and maintains a fleet of eight ambulances for infants and children and vehicles to reach and transport children in emergencies.

Please help a very important organization maintain its services.  If you are in Greece, you can make a donation via phone or SMS.  If you are outside of Greece, you can make a donation online or through a bank deposit. Instructions here.

Celebrating and Promoting Volunteerism

“There isn’t a culture of volunteerism in Greece.”  This is a comment I have heard many times in casual conversations with fellow Greek Americans and non-Greeks that have spent long periods of time in Greece.  It is a comment I said on a few occasions in the past.  It may have been true at one time, but this is changing.  The number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and youth volunteers has been growing in recent years. (See the “Legal Status of Volunteers in Europe” country report for Greece.) To some extent, programs and funding from the European Union helps facilitate this growth, though it is still the values, energy and dedication of the people that truly makes this possible.  Here’s a recent example, as well as a sign of things to come:

On June 5, over 60 organizations participated in the 9th annual Volunteering Festival in Thiseio in Athens.  The event, under the motto “Honor … By volunteering” included musical and theatrical performances, interactive games, dancing, and a flash mob that was all about hugs.  Organizations presented their work to visitors, informed them of how they can join their efforts and exchanged ideas with other organizations. The day ended with a concert by Magic de Spell.  And maybe there were more hugs. Visit the festival’s site for a list of participating organizations and sponsors, pictures of the event and a video from last year’s festival.

The 9th Annual Volunteering Festival Logo.

The volunteering festival was born in 2001, a year the UN proclaimed as the International Year of Volunteers.  That year, over 30 volunteer organizations came together, under the auspices of the Municipality of Athens, to organize a workshop on volunteering.

The theme of international organizations inspiring local or national action does not stop there.  The European Commission proclaimed 2011 the European Year of Volunteering and allocated 2 million euros for preparations in 2010 and 6 million euros for public awareness activities on in 2011.  In response, the General Secretariat of Youth is establishing a national steering committee to propose and implement an action plan to promote volunteerism. They invited the public to propose activities for 2011 identify best practices already implemented. Stay tuned here for updates.  I am looking forward to seeing what organizations contribute to the plan and how next year’s events turn out, so let’s hope for frequent updates.