Sheer Population Volume and the Future of Volunteerism?

Andy Fryar February 1, 2011 2
Sheer Population Volume and the Future of Volunteerism?


By OzVPM Director, Andy Fryar

I was fortunate enough to recently attend the 21st IAVE World Conference on Volunteering held on Sentosa Island in Singapore. It was a great event and one where I met many new people and had my thinking stretched in new directions.

The session which stuck most in my mind was a lunchtime ‘chat’ with Asian movie stars Michelle Yeoh and Jet Li, who spoke about their charity work and passion for various volunteer projects.

Yeoh, who was once named one of the 50 most beautiful women in the world by People magazine, is best known as an actress for her roles in the James Bond film ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’, ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ and ‘The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor’ in which she starred alongside Jet Li with whom she shared the stage. Michelle talked about her work with the international ‘Make Roads Safe’ campaign, which in and of itself is worth further investigation (see

However it was some of the work that Jet Li spoke about that really got me thinking. Li is a superstar in Asia, an acclaimed martial artist in his own right and a movie star right around the world having starred in multiple movies which include ‘Lethal Weapon 4’ alongside Mel Gibson, ‘The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor’ with Brendan Fraser and most recently ‘The Expendables’ with a superstar cast including Sylvester Stallone.

Li is not only a global ambassador for the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, he is also the founder of his own charity called the ‘One Foundation’

The One Foundation  has at its core, a mission to encourage each person to give just one dollar (or yen) and one hour of time each month to other causes. It believes by encouraging ‘giving’ as a core and fundamental shared value, that collectively we can do much good. For Li, this focus is largely on China, and already in the few short years that the One Foundation has been established, this has already translated into a campaign which has reached more than 10 million people, created some 140 million days of volunteer time and raised many billions of dollars of donations.

Jet Li (right) at the conference

What this particular conference discussion did for me, was got me thinking about how the vast population of China might play a part in demonstrating volunteerism on a scale we have never imagined before, should they ever be in a position where they are able to embrace volunteering in a way where this effort is more structured than it appears to be at the moment. Just consider for a moment the figures I just cited – a program that has reached 10 million people is amazing, yet in a population of more than a billion, the One Foundation has only just scratched the surface!

I think about how the economy of China continues to grow at a rate which they can barely keep up with, and which we can barely get our heads around. They continue to be major importers of our metals and other natural resources. Their appetite for fuel is second to none and their need for increased infrastructure as a result of this growth is staggering.

But what of volunteering?

We all know that the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games placed an international spotlight on the need for western style management systems to be placed around the leadership of a volunteer program in China, perhaps for the first time on that scale. The verdict was mixed, and I clearly remember at that time, several clear examples of how the language of volunteerism was different in that part of the world. As for the Games themselves, well largely they were successful and the volunteer program appears to have gone relatively smoothly. But what was the legacy of the Olympics on volunteering?

The term ‘volunteer’ has quite different connotations in communist countries than it does here in Australia and in other parts of the world, but the ‘act’ of volunteering (or giving time to another) is a universal language.

Other parts of Asia have certainly embraced a more western volunteering culture, including Hong Kong, which today remains a part of China. The recent (2009) East Asia Games in Hong Kong, for example, generated more than 35,000 volunteer days of contribution to making those Games a huge success, while countries like Singapore appear to have an incredibly well structured, supported and funded voluntary sector.

Yes it is true, Singapore and Hong Kong operate in government settings which are a long way from ‘strict communist rule’, but let’s not forget that what the One Foundation has achieved to date has been largely within mainland China.

Quite simply, what Jet Li’s work with the One Foundation reminded me of is that there appears to be no limit to what the Chinese (or anyone for that matter) can do when they work collaboratively, and that perhaps with time, as China continues to grow and develop, there may be more of a space for volunteering (whatever it may be called) to exist in a more visible place than it does at the moment.

As an aside, let me also make mention of that other great emerging superpower called India. Once again with a population of more than a billion and in a country where the needs are out of control, but for India the problem does not appear to be communism, but rather Indian bureaucracy!

So in this hot topic I simply raise the point and ask the question of whether or not, as we move forward and China and India continue to become superpowers, is there a place for the growth and continued development of volunteering in these countries?

What might they be able to achieve if they ever had a more coordinated approach to volunteerism?

What role might we in the ‘west’ play?

What might we in the ‘west’ learn?

I look forward to hearing any thoughts you may have to add to this dialogue


Another resource on this topic can be found at



  1. andyf March 13, 2012 at 1:35 pm - Reply

    Response posted on February 16 2011 by Rob Jackson, Director of Development and Innovation at Volunteering England

    Andy, thanks for this piece.

    What interests me about the issues you raise is the extent to which China and India might develop new approached to volunteerism and volunteer management & leadership.

    I’m not convinced the western ‘work-place’ model (as some have called it) works particularly well in the west! So I hope it isn’t imported wholesale into these emerging volunteerism superpowers without any adaptation for local circumstances, culture etc..

    We need new ideas, innovation and creativity if we are to rise to the challenges volunteer managers face in this second decade of the 21st century. I sincerely hope our colleagues in India , China and many other non-western cultures can help us find new ways of working that make volunteer leadership and engagement even more effective in future.

  2. andyf March 13, 2012 at 1:35 pm - Reply

    Response posted on March 10 2011 by Sue Hine, Volunteer Management Commentator, Wellington, New Zealand

    Thank you Andy for outlining the East/West divide in volunteering, and also what we might learn from Jet Li’s initiative and how the new China and India are evolving. Here in New Zealand we understand cultural differences (most of the time…) and both government and the voluntary sector have learned to accommodate different ways of doing things.

    In my travels through SE Asia and China I have seen how the idea of community is very different from my Kiwi experience. The lack of government support for basic welfare needs is something we could / would not tolerate. Disability services in Viet Nam for instance, are charities run by private individuals. At the same time I think we have lost a lot of the family and community values still prevalent around Asia , particularly in rural areas.

    So if China and India are touted as world super-powers we should be listening to their views on volunteering, and how they manage volunteers. I’m sure we can learn a thing or two.

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