What is volunteering? Subbotniks, free will and benevolence

Future World Giving, World Giving Index, Philanthropy

When volunteering is involuntary – image by masha_k_sh via Flickr

The continuing use of government organised “volunteering” in former soviet nation’s raises questions about how we define volunteering.

In establishing levels of engagement in charitable activity around the globe the 2013 World Giving Index challenged perceptions about generosity and revealed trends in giving money, volunteering and helping a stranger internationally. But on closer inspection of the data a number of outliers stood out as meriting further explanation.


In a previous blog I analysed the trend for countries with a high proportion of Theravada Buddhist devotees among their population having high levels engagement in donating money to charity. In the case of Cambodia, Thailand and in particular Burma, community funding of local monasteries by lay followers of Theravada sees these relatively poor nations at, or near the top of the global rankings for engagement in giving money to charity. It could be argued that giving to monasteries to fund local religious and educational services is closer to an informal tax than to a western definition of “charity” but the same argument would render much of the giving in many nations uncharitable.

The above demonstrates that even a concept as clear as giving money to charity can be subject to cultural interpretation – it seems that the same is true for volunteering. Quite apart from debates about whether unpaid vocational work and interning should be included in data on volunteering, the high levels of engagement in volunteering seen in the World Giving Index for in some former soviet nations raises questions about individual choice as a qualifying factor in benevolence.


Legend has it that in 1919, whilst taking tea after finishing their shift at a Moscow railway depot, a group of workers decided to go back to work for another shift without pay for the good of their community. 1920 saw the concept rolled out to the whole Union and thousands of people volunteered to give up their Saturday to unpaid labour – hence the name “Subbotnik” which is derived from the Russian word “subbota” which means Saturday. As well as increasing productivity, subbotniks were seen as a way of uniting all aspects of society through labour with students and teachers, factory workers and senior management coming together to work side by side.

Over time enthusiasm for regular unpaid labour waned and under Stalin subbotniks became obligatory political events held annually on Lenin’s birthday. Refusal to participate could lead to the termination of employment.


In some former soviet nation mandatory subbotniks continue to this day. In Turkmenistan, it is not uncommon for compulsory local subbotniks to be called several times a month or for the entire nation to be called out to work even in “unusually cold weather”.

In Uzbekistan, the government has been known to issue orders for all citizens, and employers to engage in free labour. As recently as August 2013 the state not only compelled workers to give up a Saturday in the heat of the summer, but also “strictly” recommended that employer deduct a days pay from their employees salary and donate it to the Makhalla Foundation – a government organised non-governmental organisation (GONGO). Regional governments have increasingly used subbotniks to fill gaps in services by calling increasingly regular subbotniks, often to the personal cost of individuals.

Since 2003, official regulations related to subbotniks in Belarus stipulate that public involvement is voluntary. However, in practice many employers, especially state-owned enterprises, “order employees to work on Saturdays without even trying to package it as a recommendation”.

The effect on World Giving Index data for volunteering in nations where involvement in subbotniks is effectively compulsory is profound. All of the three countries that we have focused on are in the top 20% and Turkmenistan tops the global league table. But should they be discounted from our data completely?



Future World Giving

Data from the 2013 World Giving Index

To many, volunteering as a charitable activity is defined by choice. That is to say, a personal sacrifice that benefits others is only charitable, if those engaged in that activity do so of their own free will. But whilst we might understandably want to discount data on participation in volunteering from nations that utilise mandatory free labour, in doing so we risk discounting the efforts of not only those who engage in other volunteering outside of subbotniks, but also those who would have participated in the tradition of subbotnik even if it weren’t compulsory.


Subbotniks continue to be popular in former soviet nations where it is not compulsory but merely encouraged by government – much like the army of volunteers at the London 2012 Olympic Games. Given that we cannot separate out volunteering which is mandatory from that which is undertaken by choice, it would be unfair to remove data for the above nations from our lists. However, it is a factor worth bearing in mind.



Adam Pickering




2 responses to “What is volunteering? Subbotniks, free will and benevolence

  1. Pingback: 2016 World Giving Index shows Myanmar is most generous nation | Future World Giving·

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