As jobs and pensions dwindle, Greeks turn to something new: volunteering

Greeks are among the least likely in Europe to do volunteer work, but economic woes have spurred growth in civil society. Some Greeks are trying to make the change permanent.

Thanassis Stavrakis/AP
People wait for a soup kitchen to open, organized daily by the municipality of Athens, on June 9.

Greece is not known for its volunteerism. Among European countries, its citizens' participation in voluntary activities ranks near the bottom.

That has changed amid the ongoing economic crisis: Soup kitchens, social pharmacies, and free health clinics have popped up everywhere in response to a depression that has pushed one-third of Greeks into poverty.

But as questions loom over how and when the Greek economy will recover, young Greeks are mobilizing to make sure that the reaction to the crisis isn't just a flash in the pan. Instead, they hope to ensure the formation of a permanent new civil society that sees volunteer work and philanthropy as part of Greek culture.

“We are hoping that volunteering becomes a more permanent change,” says Ekavi Valleras, one of the co-founders of Desmos, which not only connects donors to more than 400 nongovernmental organizations throughout Greece, but is working to change the philanthropic culture through education and advocacy work. “We want it to be not just a reaction to what is going on but a more permanent behavior.”

Her group, founded in 2012, is collaborating on a three-part curriculum for school children ages 10 to 14. It includes course work and volunteer work. “We want them to think about how they can be part of the solution to the crisis,” says Ms. Valleras.

Shifting the culture

According to the latest Eurostat figures, Greeks are among the Europeans least likely to volunteer, with less than 10 percent of adults involved in voluntary activities. That compares to 40 percent in Britain, the Netherlands, and Sweden.

These numbers are, in large part, cultural. The family plays a significant role in the welfare of its members in Greece, playing the role that NGOs do in northern Europe. “Volunteerism has been very low because the center of society is missing,” says Myrto Papathanou, who co-founded Volunteer4Greece in 2012, an online platform that matches volunteers to 130 organizations in need of workers. “Traditionally, the family has taken care of each other, and the state has been the provider. But nothing has fallen in between those two.”

The sector has also been hurt by corruption scandals over the years. High-profile cases of NGOs getting paid by government coffers without doing the mandated work has sullied the reputation for all, says Valleras.

Desmos is working to rebuild trust, providing consultancy for corporations that want to donate and working with NGOs to be as transparent as possible about how their money is spent and what their exact needs are.

Local government is also helping to redefine notions of giving in Greece. George Patoulis, a mayor of an Athens suburb and the chairman of the local authorities association, recently organized a conference to address the role of municipal governance in Greece’s crisis.

Many municipalities have reached out, he says, planting vegetable gardens to feed the homeless, organizing clothing and grocery donations, and finding new sources of funding for medical clinics.

“No matter the results on Sunday, we know the humanitarian crisis will stay, and we need to continue with new programs to help people until we get out of it,” says Mr. Patoulis. “If the municipalities weren’t providing solidarity we’d have even bigger problems in our country.”

Work for idle hands

While economic crisis has brought new burdens to residents, it’s also left a huge number of workers – both young and old, including pensioners pushed out of the labor market and into early retirement – twiddling their thumbs. New groups have formed specifically to harness their talents.

Stavrianna Charalampopoulou, a 23-year-old Athens resident, had a journalism internship at a weekly newspaper, but she knew she wasn’t going to be hired afterwards. Instead she continued volunteering for GloVo, an organization founded in 2012 that helps match students and young people to mega-events, from university conferences to musical festivals, where they volunteer their time as organizers.

Most of the youths, who face bleak prospects with half of young people out of jobs, see GloVo as a way to utilize skills that would otherwise go underused, to network, and to get access to events they might not otherwise by privy to. “These places won’t hire [youths],” she says. “They won’t even [offer them] internships. And people don’t want to sit home and do nothing.”

Nearly 4,000 have registered with the group and many had never before done volunteer work. In her case, volunteer work actually got parlayed into a job. As of this July, she’s now the community manager for GloVo, a paid position.

Recently, says Ms. Charalampopoulou, the group has started matching each event with social actions, which they call “sparks.” That might be painting daycare centers or cleaning up parks. She says such work is as much in demand as the big conferences and events. “Young people,” she says, “want to do something more for society.”

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