Brussels: learning through volunteering

ICVolunteers at the MOVE Conference
Lwiise Swai
10 July 2007

ICVolunteers representative, Lwiise Swai, attended the MOVE conference in Brussels on 22th to 24th of May 2007. The three day meeting, that was coordinated by the European Volunteer Centre (CEV), brought together 100 experts and practitioners from the voluntary sector to discuss why is it crucial to identify, assess and document the extensive range of skills and knowledge that can be gained through volunteering and the myriad ways to involve volunteers. The main objective of the international forum was to create a space for the exchange of approaches, needs and knowledge between different actors from the voluntary, business and formal educational sectors.

Volunteering is a key activity when it comes to formal and informal learning, also in terms of making learning opportunities available for all and especially for those that fall out of the formal educational sector or that find it difficult to enter the labor market. Unfortunately volunteering's contribution to skill-building and experiences often remains invisible.

"Volunteering should be formally recognised" pointed out Frank Moe, advisor at the Norwegian Center for International Cooperation in Higher Education and a panelist at the MOVE conference, "and a set of procedures and guidelines for the handling of applications should be developed. But universities still consider that real life experience lacks an academic dimension".

According to Andrea Reupold, research associate for adult education at the University of Munich, the questions that should be asked are: "What is learning? Where can learning take place?" and she emphasized that "70% of work experience is informal and we can't ignore it".  While working for the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, Ms Reupold developed a project that enables the creation of a portfolio of specific volunteer capacities. It is a tool that helps to make capacities transparent, verifiable and measurable, and therefore acceptable to many more businesses, companies and organizations. It now exists both in book format and digital version.

At the conference the Accreditation of Prior Experimental Learning (APEL) was also discussed. APEL is a means of awarding credit for learning and capabilities gained through experiences in work, volunteer, home or leisure environments. Tools like APEL or Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) could threaten the value of volunteer experience, say the skeptics, and whether volunteer efforts and commitment should even be measured or judged remains controversial.

Lies Graafsman, a consultant and trainer from the Institute for Individual Development (IVIO) in the Netherlands, conducted a survey about the EVC model (EVC stands for "recognition of competencies gained elsewhere") whose main goal is the formal recognition of personal competencies and skills. The EVC procedure identifies 12 core capacities, such as working systematically or dealing with deadlines. Volunteers are assigned to a coach who assists them in building their portfolio.

The business perspective was raised up by Rob Compton, Employee Volunteer Manager at Business in the Community (BITC), in the UK. BITC is a network of around 400 companies that have the leadership to translate corporate values and commitments into mainstream management practices. "More people are interested in volunteering due to lack of motivation and drive in their jobs," explained Mr Compton. "They are seeking other experiences that offer them a sense of purpose, a change of environment, personal challenge, or simply a way to escape the every-day monotony. Community work doesn't only benefits volunteers, but is good for employers and community partners as well. "It is a real win-win situation" said Compton, "the volunteer gets a chance to get to know and understand the community, to develop skills in a different environment and receive recognition from the organization as well as the employer. The employer on the other hand finds that the staff are more motivated." Other positive aspects are the contribution made to the community, the good reflection that is cast upon the organisation and that more talented employees Are attracted to work for the company. Examples of employee volunteering that exist in the UK include skills workshops, tutoring for students and job coaching. Last year more than 30,000 employees volunteered through BITC.

Erin Van Beek, from the Dutch Ministry of Social Affairs, expressed her firm belief that "volunteering is one of the best learning experiences in life". For Kess Schurr, from Ecommotivation, "the only person who has the control over volunteer recognition is the volunteer himself".

Does this mean self-evaluation? The answer is controversial. While Ms Schurr recommends a recognized portfolio, Torild Nielsen Mohn, from the Secretariat of the Norwegian Validation Project at VOX Institute for Adult Learning in Norway replied by explaining the Norwegian Initiative on Competence Reform, that aims to set up a common procedure for identifying, documenting and recognizing competences learned through volunteer work.

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