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Volunteer Centers: Changing Rationale and Roles

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Volunteer centers exist around the world, although they rarely connect with each other across national borders. In Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States, the concept of a “volunteer bureau” – the most common original name – first gained traction to mobilize home front activities during World War II. In Japan, volunteer centers were (and to some extent still are) literally organizers of local community services. Newer in mainland Europe, volunteer centers evolved from the push towards civil society in formerly communist countries. Volunteer centers in the U.S. are transforming into “HandsOn Action Centers,” while centers everywhere are trying on new identities in a world of Internet access to volunteer opportunities. 

As volunteer centers continue to evolve, it seems like a good time to understand why and how they began. In this Voices from the Past, we reflect on their historical significance and consider where they might be going next.