Volunteering VS cooperation: differences

posted in: 5 W's, Volunteering | 2

The words “volunteering” and “cooperation” are often confused and used as if they were interchangeable.
What a volunteer and a cooperator have in common, especially seen from a not expert eye, is a generic wish to help in a situation of distress that doesn’t touch the two figures personally.
But good will and passion for the good cause, even though absolutely necessary, are not enough to properly intervene in the context where both volunteer and cooperator work.
Here comes the need to understand that these two roles are covered by persons with very different characteristics, goals, tasks and skills.

Volunteering and cooperation: the differences

Let’s compare volunteering and cooperation to see what they do have in common and what are the main roles, duties, attitudes and character features differences of those those man and women that works in both fields.

Comparison table: differences between volunteering and cooperating

“The volunteer’s best friend is whoever pose for a selfie with him.
The cooperator’s best friend is Excel” (quote Eugenio D.)

Let’s see few examples:

I’m a volunteer.

I remotely work with the Italian offices of the NGO Compassion International on a regular basis and sometimes for local or international projects both with Compassion or other organization connected mainly to Christian projects.
I offer my free time and/or my holidays.
If I have to travel, I pay myself.
Whatever I do while volunteering, I always have a reference person I can ask questions or help to.
I help out with tasks completely different from my full time “real” job, like translating, fundraising, manual works and children entertainment.

Tito is a cooperator.

He’s been working for the NGO AIFO for the past 2 years
He has a contract and works full time as a cooperator.
He’s country coordinator for Guinea Bissau e Tunisia and, together with the project managers, he leads the local workers on those countries.
He’s responsible for whatever the NGO does in Guinea Bissau e Tunisia, he handles, plans and deals with expenses, contracts, security, local laws, funds and, if needed, volunteers.
He has a degree in Intercultural Science and Communication, an MBA, about 10 years experience and he speaks 4 languages.

Michela is a volunteer.

She serves at Opera San Francesco in Milan, Italy.
She’s been volunteering about once per month for the past 10 years.
She helps at the free canteen, at the second hand cloths distribution, at the free medical ambulatory, at the job seeking center and during the collection of cloths, medicines and funds.
During every activity, there’s an expert volunteer coordinating and overseeing the team.
Michela’s not paid or reimbursed in any way.

Gian Paolo is a cooperator.

He works for ONG AISPO health services, in Milan, Italy.
He has contracts lasting as far as the projects go.
Gian Paolo has a salary and works as a cooperator full time.
He coordinates a group of technicians, engineer and architects to develops projects in all the countries where the NGO operates.
He’s responsible for the design of the electrical plans and air conditioning systems that the NGO builds.
He has a degree in engineer and another one in political science with focus on cooperation and international development, because “to work in the international development field, a good engineer needs extra skills”.

The volunteers are in the field working, while the cooperators is back at the office organizing everything else: the differences between the two roles are obvious!
Volunteering work on the field: the cooperator leading the projects is not present because he had to stay at the office to deal with the paper work and organize all the details of the work!

Questions and Answers (true stories)

Q – My daughter is 18. How can she finds a cooperation project for this summer?
A – She can’t.
But she can find a volunteering job, local or international, in a field she’s interested in: animals, archeology, agriculture, construction, compulsive hug of cute children….

Q – You are a cooperator? Wow! You must live exciting adventures every day in those places…..
A – Yeah, Excel gives me thrills every time I open it!

Q – But, why do you go there to help when even here in our country there are so many people in need???
A – …[embarrassment]…

Q – I’d love to travel like you do!
A – Oh, look. the NGO xyxyx is looking for volunteers for 3 weeks during summer holidays in Burkina Fas…. hello? hello?? ….

Q – What do you mean, you get paid? Shouldn’t it be like a donation?
A – …life is unfair.

Q – You’re a cooperator? Nice! My nephew would like to do a volunteering experience for a couple of weeks. Can I give him your number?
A1 – No
A2 – It depends, is he cute?
A3 – It depends, will he offer me a beer while I explain him why he can’t do my job for 2 weeks over summer holidays?

Pinterest image: differences between volunteering and cooperation

Special thanks to the Italian Facebook group Cooperanti si Diventa! for the assistance in figuring out which are the most common misunderstandings and stereotypes about cooperation and the differences with volunteering.

All the images in this page are owned by the author and therefore protected by copyright.
Some can be bought on
Shutterstock and Dreamstime.

2 Responses

  1. Vox

    It’s important to know the difference between the two. A volunteer requires a much stronger commitment to an activity or cause; being cooperative could just be a diplomatic position. Thanks for defining the distinction.

    • The Lady

      Yeah, I suppose that whatever people do for free, they do because they really like or believe in it! Cooperation can have diplomatic or even political push and position. It’s not necessary a negative point, though. Collaboration always needs good diplomatic skills!!

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