Volunteering for Climate Action – A Short Report on IVCO 2020 

Forum is grateful to our member organisation, AKLHÜ, for preparing this report. You can read their original report (in German), here.


Volunteering for Climate Action

Climate change is the greatest threat to our planet and people, but only three percent of the world’s international volunteers support environmental sustainability. The International Forum for Volunteering in Development (Forum) therefore offered a unique opportunity during the annual International Volunteer Cooperation Organisation (IVCO2020) conference – the world’s largest conference for volunteering for development – to raise awareness of climate-related issues to discuss possible solutions to increase the quality and quantity of voluntary work for climate protection, and thus to make a contribution to SDG13 (Climate Action). 

The three-day virtual conference took place from October 26th to 28th and was well attended with around 300 participants from 40 countries. A visually engaging digital conference centre made it possible to take part in live sessions and workshops in the ‘auditorium’. In the ‘World Café’ you could visit the stands of IVCOs and make personal appointments, and in the ‘Bula Lounge’ you could directly and specifically exchange ideas with various organisations, speakers and participants on specific topics. The programme included various lectures, panel discussions and interactive workshops that dealt with the following questions and topics, among others: 

Day 1 

  • How can volunteering contribute to climate action and more climate justice? 
  • How can volunteering be used to ensure that climate action initiatives influence politics and relevant systems? 

Day 2 

  • How can volunteering help strengthen the capacities of relevant organisations and systems? 
  • How can volunteering raise awareness among partner organisations and help them adapt to the effects of climate change and strengthen their resilience? 

Day 3 

  • Volunteering in the SDG Decade of Action – a global call to action (UNV update) 
  • Volunteering for Development in the Era of COVID-19 

The causes of climate change are largely to be found in the Global North, while the Global South is most vulnerable to its effects. IVCOs, which are active where the effects are most noticeable, have acquired a great deal of expertise due to their long-term cooperation with partners, volunteers and returned volunteers in the north and south, and have built trusting intercultural relationships and networks in order to advance effective measures against the effects of climate change. Through their commitment and their role in shaping global citizenship, civil society engagement and partnerships, they can jointly make a sustainable contribution to the achievement of the Paris climate goals. All speakers agreed on this. Research based on an online survey “Volunteering for Climate Action: Perspectives from a survey of volunteers involving organizations, which was presented and discussed on Day 1 of the conference, illustrates this. Accordingly, IVCOs are currently primarily involved in climate-relevant areas such as advocacy and awareness-raising, adaptation and resilience to the consequences of climate change, capacity building with and for partner organisations and volunteers, as well as political and lobbying work. However, the authors of the report also made it clear that it our first priority is to tackle the causes of climate change, i.e., the reduction of greenhouse gases and, secondly, to combat the symptoms of climate change, i.e., to develop and expand adaptation measures and resilience. Both must go hand in hand, with the former being the main focus in the programmatic and conceptual orientation of IVCOs. The fact that over half of all survey participants from IVCOs only pursue adaptive approaches is therefore a serious challenge. 

The survey also shows a tendency for IVCOs in the Global South to attach more urgency and importance to combating climate change than their colleagues in the Global North. The disproportionate distribution of the damage caused by the climate change leads to different demands in combating the causes. With this in mind, a returned volunteer noted that there was a contradiction in the hypocrisy of a wealthy nation that is already highly industrialised and one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world and then sends out volunteers to support climate adaptation strategies in the Global South (Joy 2020). In principle, however, all survey participants from both hemispheres agree that IVCOs will have to do more in the future to protect the climate. This is also reflected in the view expressed by many organisations at IVCO that they want to focus more on climate-relevant activities in their respective programs. These primarily include measures such as the acquisition of CO2 compensation certificates for air travel, increasing the capacity of partner organisations to build the resilience of communities and vulnerable populations, as well as awareness-raising campaigns for more climate protection, especially in the Global South. 

The report concludes with the following three recommendations in the form of strategic measures for IVCOs: 

  1. Set climate protection in the North and South as the standard for volunteering; 
  1. Discuss with returned volunteers how they can take action and share and use their knowledge and relationships to combat climate change; 
  1. Mobilise donors to support climate action at home and abroad in order to build alliances and partnerships. 

In the course of the day, various examples from the work of IVCOs were presented, illustrating how volunteering can support climate projects and measures and influence politics and relevant systems. Starting with a practice-oriented Gender & Climate Change Toolkit to develop conducive framework conditions for effective communication, to the presentation of a brochure that inspires action based on various examples of grassroots projects, to a manual for project coordinators with instructions, advice and educational methods on alternative and sustainable food consumption. France Volontaires also reported on their work and how they successfully recruit volunteers who contribute to the protection of communities and the preservation of fragile ecosystems. Oxfam shared experiences from a project in Peru in which indigenous women, with the support of volunteers, play a leading role in local climate action. And ActionAid Hellas spoke about the importance of Global Citizenship Education programmes for mobilising volunteers who are increasingly committed to climate justice. 

Day 2 started with an inspiring example from Vanuatu, the first country in the Pacific to completely ban single-use plastic bags, polystyrene take-away containers and plastic straws. This was achieved through the close collaboration of community members, non-governmental organisations, government agencies and Australian volunteers as part of the Australian Volunteers Program. A panel discussion explored how the ban was introduced and enforced, and how the contribution of Australian volunteers has made a significant contribution to the results achieved so far. With the support of volunteers, through targeted campaigns such as exhibitions, school fairs, field research and the use of social media, they have succeeded in directly influencing political decision-making processes. 

Furthermore, the role of volunteers in supporting capacity development in organisations and systems that work for more climate action was discussed. The topic of capacity building ran like a thread through all other conference topics, as most IVCOs focus on this approach. For example, Engineers Without Borders works with the Australian Volunteers Program on adaptive WASH solutions (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) which contribute to the more effective adaptability and resilience of communities and regions. If communities get access to climate-smart technologies and start using them with the support of volunteers, this enables them to independently develop further, corresponding technologies in the long term – this is the aim of the joint efforts. 

Another approach to capacity development was the training-the-trainer modelDelegates heard that local trainers, teachers and consultants inform and provide training on certain aspects of climate protection among the volunteers with specialist skills as part of advanced training programmes. Cooperation with environmental organisations was funded by the state, which with the help of self-created specialist reading, (online) workshops and other information material, convey climate-relevant knowledge to multipliers, who in turn disseminate knowledge in their areas and organisations, and thus create a broader knowledge base. Some of the trainers trained in this way were then involved in developing and reviewing the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) that each country that has signed the Paris Climate Agreement must submit. 

Day 3 was all about volunteering for development in the times of COVID-19, as well as in the SDG Decade of Action proclaimed by the UN. The last day began with a report on the Global Technical Meeting Reimagining volunteering for the 2030 Agenda, which was hosted by UNV and IFRC in July 2020. It was discussed how the global Call to Action entitled Volunteering in the Decade of Action can be kept alive through collective efforts, and how the previously abstract goals and resolutions that we have set ourselves can be implemented with concrete measures. The report once again made it clear that there are no interfaces for integrating volunteering into SDG processes. The core message was that more appropriate frameworks are needed in politics and society to enable the integration of all forms of volunteering, together with relevant stakeholders, partners and target groups in participatory and inclusive decision-making processes, on climate policy. 

Other important considerations related to the creation of new models that allow more opportunities for volunteering for climate action without leaving anyone behind, the need for comprehensive measurement of the effectiveness of volunteering, and the involvement of all relevant actors from different sectors. In summary, the speakers agreed that the Global Technical Meeting had succeeded in making volunteering for development visible and repositioning it so that it is more appreciated and recognised. Integration of volunteering into existing structures and networks is a work in progress. 

A final topic looked at the impact of COVID-19 on the voluntary sector, the response of various IVCOs to the pandemic, and longer-term effects on the way they work. Among other things, the first results of Forum’s investigation into COVID-19 and the future of volunteering in the development sector were discussed. In summary, James O’Brien (Forum Director) noted that IVCOs and the sector as a whole have demonstrated remarkable resilience and adaptability, especially considering the fact that the voluntary sector is characterised by peer-to-peer communication, relationships of trust, cross-border personnel collaboration, international travel, etc. According to a Forum survey, approximately half of all volunteers worldwide returned to their home country, and the other half stayed on site. There is still a high demand and need for volunteering of all kinds today. The Forum survey also showed that the departure of volunteers left a vacuum in deployment locationswhich could be at least partially compensated for by digital technologies and communication options as well as local volunteers. In general, sharp increase in online volunteering was recorded. Returned volunteers in particular made use of virtual methods in order to remain in touch with their assignment location and, where possible, to continue their work. According to the Forum survey, on the one hand, the new forms of communication were received very positively from all sides and many see it as a new instrument that they want to maintain and anchor more firmly in their future work. On the other hand, however, the disadvantages of e-volunteering, which should not be neglected, were also emphasised, such as the digital divide, which exacerbates existing inequalities, the strengthening of prejudices due to limited possibilities of expression and the associated irreplaceability of personal contact across different cultures. 

A trend that was already becoming apparent before the COVID pandemic and thus intensified is the greater support of IVCOs for volunteers at the local and national level. This can effectively complement international volunteering, especially since national volunteers do valuable work through their knowledge of local conditions, working methods and language. 

Forum’s COVID study revealed another trend towards increasing participation by IVCOs in the Global South, including platforms at the national level, supporting infrastructure and systems as well as increased South-South international cooperation without the involvement of IVCOs from the Global North. These two trends – an increasingly hybrid form in online volunteering, implemented by national and international volunteers, and the need for more and closer cooperation between IVCOs from the Global South and North due to uncertain future scenarios – should be actively considered and shaped, and thus reinforced to contribute to a local sense of responsibility and equality. As a further consequence of the COVID pandemic, more and more IVCOs are focusing primarily on issues relating to health and securing the livelihoods of severely affected communities and population groups. 


The COVID-19 crisis is therefore a wake-up call that brings far-reaching change with it – everyone agreed on this. But are our responses to the crisis incremental or really transformative? Three solution approaches or points that need to be weighed up for the future were presented: 

  1. The increased influence on and the strategic imperatives of governments, which are indispensable as the most important donor. In the negotiations with state funding agencies, the main importance of the services must be pointed out. This means its role in creating value and social capital for society at home and abroad, its contribution to cross-border international understanding, and its role as a personnel instrument for international development cooperation. This distinguishes IVCOs from other state development agencies. Therefore, governments need to be more involved in strategic discussions on the future of services. 
  1. Declining support for globalisation is a worrying trend for this industry. The effects of nationalism and populism as an antipole to globalisation are driving political change in many countries. That is why development cooperation, among other things, is under constant attack. However, there are also positive trends, such as youth activism, which is particularly committed to more justice, equality and peace in the Global South. IVCOs should benefit from this development and the increasing demand for closer transnational cooperation. 
  1. The 4th Industrial Revolution (hyper-connectivity, 5G, etc.) is also a changing force, which will fundamentally change IVCOs and NGOs alike. New possibilities can enrich the work to a great extent if IVCOs accept them and learn to use them for their purposes. Promising potential lies in the evaluation of data to measure the effectiveness of volunteering, increasing productivity with less money, the use of blockchain technologies (Bitcoin payments) for fundraising and more transparency, among other things, as well as intelligent algorithms, and the opening of virtual reality spaces for volunteering (capacity building, training, etc.), which can trigger positive developments, and much more. 

The three-day event once again made it clear to all participants that, overall, much more has to be done for climate action and justice. The COVID pandemic is also forcing IVCOs to rethink so that they remain relevant as an industry and emerge stronger from this crisis. Because one thing is certain: in times of crisis, binding and cross-border cooperation is essential for a more peaceful cooperation based on mutual understanding. Many IVCOs are already setting a good example by showing new paths, learning to deal creatively and flexibly with the enormous challenges of our time and addressing the climate issue in the form of innovative programmes.  

Climate change and its effects are closely related to issues of global inequality, which are particularly noticeable in the work in the Global South. International volunteers, development workers and specialists are at the centre of global climate change and, thanks to their solidarity, their professional expertise and their ability to work trustfully and on an equal footing with local communities, they can play a central role in combating climate change and other challenges. In view of the complexity of the new challenges, there is therefore a need to jointly develop new approaches, enter into closer partnerships, implement jointly conceived solutions and create beneficial and safe framework conditions for the effective involvement and development of volunteering.  


The IVCO Research Papers – on Volunteering for Climate Action and on COVID-19, can be found on the Forum Research page 

More information on IVCO 2020 can be found on the conference websiteIVCO 2021 will take place from 17 to 19 October on the theme Inclusive Volunteering for Global Equality. To register your interest and find out more, please email ivco2021@actionaid.org 


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