Maurizio Ambrosini
Professor of Sociology, University of Milan, Italy

Volunteers are the life and soul of Expos who give their time and energy to welcome visitors, organise events, assist with management and much more. The individuals who engage as volunteers in Expos do so for various reasons, often in reflecting a desire for personal, social or even professional development. Here, the experience of volunteering at Expo 2015 Milan is analysed based on a research study into the more than 5,000 volunteers who contributed to the success of the mega-event.1

While a large body of literature contrasts episodic volunteering to classic volunteering organised by associations of the civil society, I will argue that this volunteering is certainly different from traditional forms of civic engagement, and hence can be identified as “post-modern volunteering”. Nonetheless, the relation between the two types of volunteering is more articulated than a binary opposition. Post-modern volunteering attracts people who never took part in volunteering before, but also people engaged in other, more classic forms of volunteering. My claim is that it can rise a wider interest in volunteering and stimulate people towards other experiences in this field.

The article is organised as follows. The first section is dedicated to an essential literature review on episodic volunteering. The second section presents the method and the sample of the research study and introduces the third section, in which I analyse perspectives and attitudes towards volunteering as displayed by participants. The final section draws the main conclusions of the research study.

Post-modern and classic volunteering

Large international events, such as Olympic Games2 or International Exhibitions (Expos)3, have stimulated a relevant social phenomenon in the last decades: a mobilisation of volunteers towards a single issue, for a short period, but with an intense level of dedication. All over the world, the involvement of volunteers has become a relevant factor in making events successful, and consequently many types of events have become highly dependent on volunteers. On the one hand, organisers need to attract and recruit high numbers of volunteers and consequently they have to train, support and supervise their activity, taking care of their satisfaction and retention.4

On the other hand, this form of volunteering matches with emerging attitudes by potential participants: increased time constraints and pressures on individual lives are changing forms of participation, provoking a decline in average hours volunteered in several countries, and intensifying a demand to more flexible and short-term forms of commitment.5,6

"All over the world, the involvement of volunteers has become a relevant factor in making events successful"

Scholarship has talked at this regard of “episodic volunteering”7,8, placing volunteering in international events alongside other forms of ad hoc mobilisation: community events which raise funds for research or other purposes, organisation of local sport competitions, or spontaneous help provided in humanitarian emergencies, as in the “Summer of Welcome” in Germany for refugees’ reception.9

Macduff10 identified three types of episodic volunteering. The first type is temporary episodic volunteering. In this case, volunteers offer service that is short in duration, usually for a few hours or a day at most: for instance, passing out water to runners in a marathon, or collecting litter off a beach. Volunteers do it in single events and are not otherwise engaged in the organisation that offers such opportunities.

The second type is the interim volunteer: people who provide service on a regular basis for less than six months, for instance a student who interns at a social service agency for a semester to gain experience.

The third type is the occasional episodic volunteer: a person who provides service at regular intervals for short periods of time, for instance working at an event to raise money for a charity once a year. Her or his service can take a month or two in duration, or be concentrated just the day of the event, but the organisers can count on this person returning year after year.

"Expos can be identified as one of the actors which trigger non-conventional forms of volunteering"

Several studies have inquired about the differences between this type of volunteering and the traditional dedicated involvement in volunteers’ associations.11,12 Summarising a body of literature, Hustinx13 points out that the transformation of volunteering is usually described in problematic terms: “Present-day volunteers would demand a considerable amount of autonomy and freedom in their roles and responsibilities. The willingness to participate increasingly depends on personal interests and needs, instead of traditional values such as service to others and a sense of duty to the community. In their quest for self-realisation, volunteers demand a substantial freedom of choice and a clear set of tasks with tangible results. In addition, they tend to take a more instrumental view of volunteering, using it primarily to further their own interests”.14

As she states, episodic volunteering is not only an expression of disembedding and individualisation of civic engagement. Actually, it is also fostered by third parties, such as public powers, corporations, and institutions of higher education. A process of “institutionally individualised volunteering” is taking place, and Expos can be identified as one of the actors which trigger these non-conventional forms of volunteering. Eliasoph15, in particular, pointed out the distinction between traditional grassroots associations and “top-down civic projects” promoted by the State or by large non-profit organisations.

In this vein, episodic volunteering can be conceived as a post-modern form of social engagement, in opposition to the paradigm of “classic” volunteering (Table 1), as it corresponds to several emerging features of what a wide literature has called “post-modern society”.16,17,18,19

In classic volunteering, the distinction between volunteer and member of an association is usually blurred: volunteering implies belonging to an association. Consequently, volunteering entails also a commitment to association meetings, rituals, internal elections, and tasks required for the functioning of the association. Often associations have a cultural, political or religious background: volunteering is fostered by a proximity to such ideological capital, and encompasses sharing visions, logic and language with people who display the same ideal orientation. Furthermore, classic volunteering typically requires a regular attendance, often on a weekly basis. These elements make classic volunteering a typical site of production of civic values, which in turn shape a vibrant civil society.20

In post-modern volunteering, episodic forms of involvement are the typical case, and events represent an opportunity in this sense. Involvement is flexible, often related to single events, and does not demand regular frequency through time. Volunteering is not connected to membership of an association, and it is freed by associational tasks: all the volunteers’ time is devoted to external activities. Participation is not linked to cultural or political belonging, and corresponds mainly to the individual’s aims or needs: it is chosen in a perspective of personal fulfilment or well-being. Finally, participants are recruited mainly through marketing-type campaigns, based on advertisements in the mass-media or on the internet.

"Expos offer new opportunities of socialisation, social networking and acceptance of social responsibility"

In this article, presenting the results of a research study on volunteers at World Expo 2015 Milan, I recognise that episodic volunteering displays different features from traditional forms of volunteering, channelled through civil society associations. Nevertheless, I would like to oppose a static binary opposition between old and new forms of volunteering. I will show how episodic volunteering on one hand mobilises people who were never engaged in other forms of volunteering. On the other hand, people engaged in classic volunteering also gave service at Expo 2015 Milan. After the experience, many participants manifested an interest in other volunteering opportunities. In sum, the relation between classic and episodic volunteering is more complex and multifaceted than a simply binary opposition. I argue that episodic volunteering can represent an entry door to the sphere of civic engagement, or be combined with other forms of pro-social behaviour. Expos, triggering episodic volunteering, offer new opportunities of socialisation, social networking and acceptance of social responsibility.

Method and sample

The research study was conducted on the occasion of the World Expo 2015 Milan, themed “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life”, which took place from 1 May to 31 October 2015, and received 21.5 million visitors. Ciessevi Milan and CSVnet, on the Organiser’s request, took charge of the recruitment, training and supervision of the 4,975 Expo 2015 Milan volunteers and the 822 European Union pavilion volunteers.21

Data were collected between May 2015 to March 2016, through three surveys, based on structured questionnaires: before the experience; just after the experience; and five months after the experience. Questionnaires were filled out online by participants. A total of 2,376 volunteers filled out the first questionnaire, representing 48 per cent of the total. Furthermore, their gender, age, education, residence, corresponded to the profile of the whole volunteer population.22

The first questionnaire collected demographic data and inquired about previous volunteering experience, motivations for volunteering in general and for Expo 2015 Milan, civic culture, social and political engagement.

The second questionnaire, after the experience, measured satisfaction about the participation, representation of volunteering and intention to take part in other forms of volunteering in the future.

Finally, the third questionnaire investigated the realisation of the intention to continue or to start volunteering activity in the period that followed the experience of volunteering at Expo 2015 Milan, together with levels of satisfaction at a distance of some months and the effects that volunteering had in the personal and social sphere.

Furthermore, 31 in-depth interviews were collected, to analyse motivations, experience, and the satisfaction aspirations of volunteers. Interviewees were divided into three groups: young people who took part in an experience of volunteering for the first time; young people and adults who had started to volunteer again for Expo 2015 Milan; and adults and pensioners who were also engaged in classic forms of volunteering.

"The proposal of episodic volunteering at Expo 2015 Milan was notably met with the interest of young people"

The social profile of participants was quite clear: they were mainly women (66 per cent: two out of three); young (the average age being 27.55 years); well-educated (91.5 per cent held a high school diploma at least); mainly students (64.6 per cent), and born in Italy (85 per cent).

The age of participants was of special interest: while most volunteering associations in Italy report that their membership is getting older, and that they face significant problems in recruiting new members among younger generations, the proposal of episodic volunteering at Expo 2015 Milan was notably met with the interest of young people.

Participants showed a weak interest in politics: only 2.5 per cent declared being politically engaged, and 25.5 per cent would have liked contribute to improving the political system; the biggest group (46 per cent) said they stay informed, but are not directly engaged in politics; the other respondents displayed negative attitudes towards politics more explicitly. From a religious point of view, volunteers at Expo 2015 Milan appear quite secularised: only one out of four (25 per cent) indicated that they attend religious rituals quite regularly. These are other relevant points, because classic volunteering is often linked to political engagement or religious beliefs, in Italy as in other countries.

Those surveyed came into contact with the opportunity of volunteering at Expo 2015 Milan through a variety of channels. Among them, the internet was the most frequent (43 per cent), and the media was relevant (press: 11.9 per cent; radio: 2.7 per cent), but also interpersonal networks supported the matching between Expo 2015 Milan and would-be volunteers: friends (17.1 per cent); relatives (16.5 per cent); colleagues (5.8 per cent); members of the same association (3 per cent). These results confirm the crucial role of new media in volunteer recruitment campaigns for big events, but do not dismiss the role of personal networks, words-of-mouth, and imitative behaviours.

Visions and attitudes towards volunteering

Participants reported different past experiences in terms of volunteering. With regards to episodic volunteering in events, 85 per cent of respondents declared that Expo 2015 Milan was their first experience. Probably the most interesting aspect indeed is that 45 per cent never took part in any form of “classic volunteering”; 30 per cent had done so in the past, but abandoned it; another 25 per cent were taking part in other forms of volunteering at the same time. This means that for one participant out of four, episodic volunteering at Expo 2015 Milan was not an alternative to other forms of volunteering; for four out of ten, on the other hand, it was their first experience of volunteering in their life. As a consequence, two groups of participants were detected: experienced volunteers (59 per cent, N= 1,394), and newcomers (41 per cent, N= 982).

Looking at their motivations, through a cluster analysis, three profiles were singled out. The first profile can be labelled as scattered (33.2 per cent): it identifies people who combine altruistic values, ethical reasons, and self-interested goals, such as improving knowledge and personal fulfilment. Furthermore, they are inserted in social networks which recognise and esteem volunteering.

The second profile can be termed as self-employers (36.6 per cent): it gives more importance to personal reasons, and in particular to benefits for professional career.

The third group can be called promoters of their own development (30.3 per cent), where individuals emphasise a wider vision of personal fulfilment, not particularly linked to professional career and combined with altruistic values.

After the event, 1,391 participants filled out the second questionnaire. They displayed a high level of satisfaction of their experience of volunteering at Expo 2015 Milan: the average score was 4.64, on a scale ranging from 1 (minimum) to 5 (maximum level of satisfaction). Most declared that the experience met their expectations completely or almost completely (average score: 4.22). Almost all (98 per cent) said that they would have recommended participation to their friends and relatives. Newcomers were even more satisfied than experienced volunteers (average score 4.7 versus 4.6).

"98% of surveyed volunteers said that they would recommend participation to their friends and relatives, with newcomers being even more satisfied than experienced volunteers"

High levels of satisfaction drove the aspiration to carry on volunteering activities. Almost all the respondents (96.5 per cent, N= 1,342) declared that they wanted to volunteer in the future, and 91.3 per cent said they would like to be engaged in some volunteer service one year after Expo 2015 Milan. The episodic form of volunteering, however, was preferred by the majority (64.4 per cent, N= 803). Newcomer volunteers in particular were interested in episodic volunteering, while experienced volunteers were more interested in classic forms of volunteering.

Some months after the experience (from five to eleven months), as already explained, participants were invited to fill out a new questionnaire. A total of 738 people responded, and their demographic profile corresponded once again to that of the whole volunteer population. They confirmed high levels of satisfaction (average score: 4.71). The opportunity to take part in a large international event, personal relations with other participants and knowledge of other cultures were the aspects most cited by respondents as the reasons of their satisfaction.

Participation in Expo 2015 Milan, even if for a short period, favoured the establishment of social relations. Almost all the respondents to the third survey (90 per cent, N= 669) kept in contact with their fellow volunteers, mainly through virtual channels: WhatsApp (61.4 per cent) and social networks (39 per cent). Young age and geographic distances weigh on this confidence in virtual channels.

In terms of the realisation of their intention to volunteer again, some respondents had already moved in this direction: 16.9 per cent (N=125) declared they took part in one or more events, and 25.3 per cent (N= 187) said they had applied in order to be selected as volunteers in other events. In a short period, more than four out of ten respondents, consequently, followed up their intention to volunteer again, at least in episodic forms.

Elaborating on these results, six groups of volunteers were identified:

  • Multifaceted volunteers (21.8 per cent of respondents to the third survey, N= 161): participants who, after Expo 2015 Milan, took up a new volunteering activity, different from previous experiences and from volunteering in big events;
  • Non-stop volunteers (15.7 per cent, N= 116): people who, after Expo 2015 Milan, continued with volunteering activities in which they were previously engaged, it being classic or episodic;
  • Volunteers on stand-by (35.5 per cent, N= 262), namely the biggest group, who did not look for other forms of volunteering after Expo 2015 Milan, because they were not available at the time, but declared that they wanted to search for more experiences in the next future;
  • Look around volunteers (9.5 per cent, N= 70): respondents who, after Expo 2015 Milan, looked for new proposals of volunteering, but did not find any opportunities matching their aspirations;
  • Dormant volunteers (10.8 per cent, N= 80): people who, after Expo 2015 Milan, did not carry on with volunteering activities and were not searching for them for various reasons, but not due to lack of time or interest;
  • Disengaged volunteers (1.5 per cent, N= 11): participants who, after Expo 2015 Milan, were no longer involved in volunteering and were not searching for any other opportunity in this field, declaring that they were not interested in volunteering.23

Some other interesting elements come from in-depth interviews. Interviewees were asked to explain the motivations that brought them to volunteer at Expo 2015 Milan. A first motivation was the pleasure of participating in itself: here curiosity and the will to become somehow protagonists in this large international event were mentioned as the main drivers. For some others, it was simply an opportunity to fill a period of free time. In any case, volunteering gave the opportunity to pass from the role of spectator to the role of actor in the event of Expo 2015 Milan. A second motivation, for people who had never volunteered before in their life, was the opportunity of accessing the experience of volunteering. Expo 2015 Milan represented the catalyst of the will of experiencing a community service, together with other people who shared the same purpose.

A third motivation lies in the area of knowledge, meeting people on one hand and grasping opportunities for learning on the other hand: practicing foreign languages, or complementing their studies with a practical experience. Students mentioned the purpose of enriching their CV.

These motivations fall mainly on the side of personal benefits to be earned by volunteering in a big event. Among participants, especially adults, civic values were also mentioned: giving support to the city, which was hosting Expo 2015, making themselves useful to the community, displaying an attitude of active citizenship, providing a contribution to such a prestigious event. Personal aims and social values were often combined, as motivations are not mutually exclusive.

Conclusions: A continuum, not a contrast, between classic and post-modern volunteering

Expo 2015 Milan attracted a wide participation of volunteers, who cooperated in spreading information, orienting visitors and giving help in case of need. They were mainly young people, students and in four cases out of ten, people who were volunteering for the very first time.

This form of volunteering, being episodic, concentrated in a short period of time and disengaged from membership to a formal association, displays different features from classic volunteering. Its flexibility, low structuration, weak ideological commitment, and clear connection with individual attitudes and needs, justifies the label of “post-modern volunteering”.

A simplistic contrast between these two types of volunteering, however, would be misleading. For a substantial share of volunteers, it opened the doors to the experience of volunteering. For other volunteers, it was combined with other forms of social engagement. Most participants, furthermore, declared being open to other volunteering experiences, and some of them were actually involved just a few months after their service at Expo 2015 Milan.

"Large events, such as Expos can develop into 'social hubs' that spread a culture of volunteering and strengthen the connection between the event and the society at large"

These results highlight that, rather than being seen as a binary opposition, the relationship between classic and post-modern volunteering can be conceived as a continuum, in which participants can position themselves in various points: they can choose one of the “pure forms” of volunteering, or combine them, or transit from one to the other. It is particularly interesting that young people can start with episodic volunteering, and then discover other opportunities for serving the community.

Large events, such as Expos, not only offer opportunities of service to the volunteers they require, but can develop into “social hubs”, that spread a culture of volunteering and strengthen the connection between the event and the society at large. They can enhance the side-effect of triggering new volunteering, gathering people around a social aim, as well as favouring the aspiration to give time and energy to other opportunities of community service. A stronger alliance with civil society associations and their representatives could support these purposes.


This article is adapted from a text that was first published in the 2020 edition of the BIE Bulletin entitled “Expos, citizens and social capital”.



1 The study was funded by Ciessevi Milan and CSVnet, and directed by the author of this article. Ciessevi Milan and CSVnet are centres of services to volunteers’ associations: the first is based in the local area of Milan, the second is the national network of such centres.

2 Fairley S., Kellett P., Green, B. C., Volunteering abroad: motives for travel to volunteer at the Athens Olympic Games. Journal of Sport Management 21 (1), 2007, pp. 41-57.

3 Wang C. and Wu X. (2014). Volunteers’ motivation, satisfaction, and management in large-scale events: an empirical test from the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 25 (3), 2014, pp. 754-771.

4 Ramli N., Abdul Ghani W.S.W., Bahry N.S., Ghazali A.R., and Rashid N.M., Evaluating Volunteer Motivation and Satisfaction at Special Event, Proceedings of the Australian Academy of Business and Social Sciences Conference 2014, 2014.

5 Dunn J., Chambers S.K. and Hyde M.K., Systematic Review of Motives for Episodic Volunteering. Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 27 (1), 2016, pp. 425–464.

6 Macduff, N., Societal changes and the rise of the episodic volunteer. Emerging Areas of Volunteering, 1 (2), 2005, pp. 49–61.

7 Handy F., Brodeur N., and Cnaan R. A., Summer on the Island: Episodic volunteering. Voluntary Action, 7(3), 2006, pp. 31–46.

8 Hyde M.K., Dunn J., Bax C. and Chambers S.K., Episodic Volunteering and Retention: An Integrated Theoretical Approach. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 45 (1), 2016, pp. 45–63.

9 Pries L., Refugees, Civil Society and the State. European Experiences and Global Challenges. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Pub, 2016.

10 Macduff 2005, op. cit.

11 Putnam, R. D., Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.

12 Eliasoph N., Top-down civic projects are not grassroots associations: How the differences matter in everyday life, Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 20 (3), 2009, pp. 291-308.

13 Hustinx L., Institutionally individualized volunteering: Toward a late modern reconstruction. Journal of Civil Society, 6 (2), 2010, pp. 165-179.

14 Ibid. pp.1-2.

15 Eliasoph 2009, op. cit.

16 Lyotard J.F., La condition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir, Paris: Les éditions de minuit, 1979.

17 Jameson, F., Post-modernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.

18 Beck U., Giddens A., Lash S., Reflexive Modernization. Politics, tradition and aesthetics in the modern social order, Cambridge, Polity Press, 1994.

19 Bonetti M. and Guidi R., Organizzare il volontariato “post-moderno”. Sfide e prospettive a partire dal “Programma Volontari per Expo Milano 2015”, in Ambrosini M. (ed.), Volontariato post-moderno. Da Expo Milano 2015 alle nuove forme di impegno sociale, Milan: FrancoAngeli, 2016, pp. 15-35.

20 Putnam 2000, op. cit.

21 Ambrosini M. (ed.), Volontariato post-moderno. Da Expo Milano 2015 alle nuove forme di impegno sociale, Milan: FrancoAngeli, 2016.

22 Meneghini A.M., Morgano A., Stanzani S., Pozzi M., Marta E., Lenzi M., and Santinello M., Il volontariato episodico per grandi eventi e i volontari a Expo Milano 2015, in Ambrosini M. (ed.),Volontariato post-moderno. Da Expo Milano 2015 alle nuove forme di impegno sociale, Milan: FrancoAngeli, 2016, pp. 36-53.

23 Meneghini A.M. and Morgano A., Dopo Expo Milano 2015: soddisfazione ed esiti nel mondo dell’impegno sociale, in Ambrosini M. (ed.), Volontariato post-moderno. Da Expo Milano 2015 alle nuove forme di impegno sociale, Milan: FrancoAngeli, 2016, pp. 80-101.

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