Volunteerism is a dynamic institution whose definition or appearance varies according to time period and culture. Generally, volunteerism refers to the institution or tradition marked by one's (either individual or group) voluntary action in response to a recognized need or set of needs. It typically involves the giving of time, energy, service, and on some occasions, resources, materials, and/or even one's body, as is the case in voluntary donations of blood or organs to the Red Cross or alternative organizations and institutions. Religious traditions and practices often engage individuals in volunteer activities and, in turn, volunteerism often triggers heightened levels of religious and/or spiritual development.
There are at least four different organizational settings associated with volunteerism: mutual aid and the self-help arena; philanthropic service aimed at others; participation; and lastly, advocacy, lobbying, or campaigning. One might encounter each of these settings in all regions of the world, although again, they may differ according to varying structures of economics, societies, cultures, and political systems. Volunteerism is as widespread as the issues that it attempts to address, and as varied as its host cultural settings. It is important to note that these four settings, in all their variety and diversity, need not be mutually exclusive-that is, one might be involved in more than one arena at once. Despite the range of possibilities and vast room for differences, volunteerism, in general, fittingly shares some fundamental characteristics or core elements. First, the act of volunteering is done out of one's own initiative, and is free from any authoritative dictum. Further, it is not done in the spirit of financial profit- one does not look to gain fiscally from volunteer activities. And while it may not be done fully in the spirit of exchange, volunteerism can benefit both the recipient(s) and the volunteer(s) in many ways. Volunteers typically experience an extensive desire to bless others, and through their act(s) of compassion, sharing, and caring, to be blessed themselves.
Considerable professionalization of volunteerism has occurred in recent times. Certain volunteer activities require a particular skill base and limit their opportunities to only those volunteers who possess the ever-increasing specialized skills demanded. One need only think of Doctors Without Borders or Volunteers for Prosperity, each of which involves voluntary medical and/or health professional services. It seems apparent that these organizations would accept only the most qualified of volunteers to administer healthcare practices in and among the circumstances they find themselves in, whether it be the most complex, lifesaving, surgical procedure, or efforts in meeting the most basic of healthcare needs.
While opportunities for volunteers lacking specific training and/or skills continue to diminish in conjunction with the rising need for volunteers with specific professional grounding, statistics show that the volunteer rate in the United States grew from 59.8 million (27.4%) for the 12-month period ending in September 2002, to 63.8 million (28.8%) for the 12-month period ending in September 2003. Of this figure, 34.6% worked principally in volunteering for a religious organization or institution; 27.4% for an educational or youth-services-related organization or institution; 11.8% for a social or community service organization or institution; and 8.2% for hospitals or other healthcare organizations or institutions.