Charity and voluntary action, while part of the historical roots of social work and social welfare across societies, is different from professional social work.  Many of the organized religions of the world have advocated charity as a great virtue.  Examples include:

  • the Hindu religion sanctifies charity
  • love for one’s neighbors is an important duty in Judaism
  • the Old Testament stresses caring for the needy
  • Christians tell of Jesus Christ who was cared for by strangers and encouraged brotherly love
  • in Islam, charity has been depicted as equivalent to prayer  Sikh history is replete with examples of voluntary service to all of humanity  Buddhism and Jainism advocate for compassion for the poor and needy
  • followers of Zarathustra, known as Parsis, have a saying, “Ushta Ahmai Yehmai Ushta Kehmaichit” (Fatha Ushtavaiti), meaning happiness unto him who renders happiness unto others.

Perhaps it is a part of basic nature to come forward and provide help to persons in distress, and to do so altruistically, but human beings also tend to be self-serving, and this adversely affects voluntary action.  Voluntary action is that action which is done by people voluntarily or of their own accord, out of feelings of compassion or concern for the well-being of others, and for which they are not compensated with wages.  Voluntary action is mainly characterized by:

  • the urge to help others and promote their well-being in all possible ways—not necessarily monetarily
  • the absence of any kind of expectation for any material gains in lieu of the help given
  • a sense of social concern and orientation toward helping others in need
  • belief in the virtue of service
  • belief in the primacy of one’s duty over one’s rights.

In India, there is a tendency to label Shramdan as social work.  The term is derived from Shram (manual labour) and Dan (donation), or voluntary manual labor to promote the collective good.  While aimed at promoting well-being and reflective of common public interest, Shramdan is different from social work not only in terms of objectives but also in terms of methods and techniques, as well as philosophy. Shramdan has the goal of getting concrete work done and the underlying philosophy is that it is the duty of every person to contribute their labor for the well-being of others and community.  Specialized knowledge and technical skills are not required, and meeting individuals’ needs, particularly intangible needs such as for love, affection, autonomy, respect, recognition, and self-actualization, is not the focus.  The means of supporting people or providing help also differs because with Shramdan, the means is manual labor.

Abraham Flexner was born in 1866 in the U.S.  He is known as a reformer of medical education because he wrote an influential document, the Flexner Report, that was highly critical of American medical education at the turn of the 20th century. Dr. Flexner was invited to speak at the National Conference on Social Welfare in 1915, and titled his speech, “Is Social Work a Profession?” In that speech, he listed six attributes of professions.  Professions:

  • have intellectual operations with large individual responsibility (free, resourceful and unhampered intelligence applied to complicated problems; discretion as to what to do);
  • base practices on science and learning;
  • use knowledge for a practical and definite end;
  • possess an educationally communicable technique;
  • tendency to self-organize (have a culture); and
  • [helping professions] are altruistic in motivation.

Although it has been common over the years to refer to social work as a “profession,” scholars have been debating for almost a century as to whether social work meets all of Flexner’s criteria.  In 1957, sociologist Ernest Greenwood, published, “Attributes of a Profession,” which further suggested that professions need societal sanction. Greenwood’s list of attributes of a profession included:  a systematic body of knowledge, community sanction, authority or credibility, regulation and control of members, a professional code of ethics, and a culture of values, norms, and symbols. Greenwood asserted that social work in North America appeared to marginally meet these criteria, although critics have continued to ask if social work is an art or a science and if there is enough unity among social workers to say they have a shared culture.  Others have suggested that since it is the purpose of social workers to advocate for social and economic justice through social reform, societal sanction may not be easily gained.


Distinguish professional from voluntary actions:

Professional actions and voluntary actions are two different categories of behaviors, each with distinct characteristics. Here’s a breakdown of the key differences between the two:

Professional Actions:

1.      Purpose and Context:


  • Professional actions are typically associated with one’s occupation or job. They are performed within a specific professional context and are often tied to job responsibilities and duties.

2.        External Expectations:


  • Professional actions are often guided by external expectations and standards associated with a particular profession or role. There may be codes of conduct, ethical guidelines, and professional standards that individuals are expected to adhere to in their professional activities.

3.      Compensation:

   – Paid Work:

  • Professional actions are frequently compensated with a salary, wage, or other forms of payment. Individuals engage in professional activities as part of their employment and receive compensation for their services.

4.      Accountability:

   Employer Expectations:

  • Professionals are typically accountable to their employers, clients, or the organization they work for. Failure to meet professional standards or fulfill job responsibilities may result in consequences, including disciplinary actions or termination.

5.      Specialized Knowledge and Skills:


  • Professional actions often require specialized knowledge, skills, and training associated with a specific field or profession. Professionals are expected to have a certain level of expertise in their area of work.

Voluntary Actions:

1.      Personal Choice:


  • Voluntary actions are driven by personal choice and are not necessarily tied to a specific occupation or professional role. Individuals engage in voluntary activities based on their interests, values, and preferences.

2.      Altruistic Motivations:

  Philanthropy and Charity:

  • Voluntary actions often involve activities that are undertaken for the benefit of others or for the greater good. Examples include volunteering for charitable organizations, community service, or helping those in need without expecting monetary compensation.

3.      Flexibility:


  • Voluntary actions are typically not obligatory or mandated by external entities. Individuals choose to engage in these activities based on their willingness to contribute to a cause or pursue personal interests.

4.      Informal Nature:

   Less Structured:

  • Voluntary actions may not be as structured or regulated as professional activities. They can range from informal, spontaneous acts of kindness to organized volunteer work.

5.      Personal Growth and Development:


  • Individuals often engage in voluntary actions as a means of personal growth, fulfillment, and contributing to the well-being of society. The motivation is often intrinsic, driven by a desire to make a positive impact.

In summary, professional actions are typically job-related, guided by external expectations and standards, compensated, and require specialized expertise. Voluntary actions, on the other hand, are driven by personal choice, may involve altruistic motivations, are often non-obligatory, and contribute to personal growth and societal well-being.

What are the attributes of a profession?

The attributes of a profession are characteristics and qualities that distinguish a particular occupation as a profession. While different sources may provide slightly varying lists, the following are commonly recognized attributes of a profession:

1.      Specialized Knowledge and Education:

  • Professionals are expected to possess a high level of specialized knowledge and skills in a specific field. This expertise is often acquired through formal education, training, and experience.

2.      Ethical Standards and Codes of Conduct:

  • Professions typically have established ethical standards and codes of conduct that guide the behavior of their members. Adhering to these ethical guidelines is essential for maintaining the trust of clients, colleagues, and the public.

3.      Autonomy and Decision-Making Authority:

  • Professionals often have a degree of autonomy in their decision-making processes. They are trusted to make informed judgments based on their expertise and experience.

4.      Service to Others:

  • Professions are often characterized by a focus on providing a service to others. Whether it’s healthcare, law, education, or another field, the primary purpose of many professions is to benefit individuals or society.

5.      Client-Centered Focus:

  • Many professions involve a client-centered or service-oriented approach, where the professional’s primary responsibility is to meet the needs and interests of their clients or the public.

6.      Continuing Education and Professional Development:

  • Professionals are expected to engage in continuous learning and professional development to stay current with advancements in their field. This commitment to ongoing education helps maintain and enhance their expertise.

7.      Professional Associations:

  • Professions often have associated professional organizations or associations that provide a platform for networking, collaboration, and the establishment of standards within the field.

8.      Licensing and Certification:

  • Some professions require practitioners to obtain licenses or certifications to practice. This formal recognition signifies that the individual meets specific educational and professional standards.

9.      Public Trust and Accountability:

Professions are entrusted with a level of public trust, and professionals are accountable for their actions. This accountability is essential for maintaining the credibility and reputation of the profession.

10.  Systematic Body of Knowledge:

  • Professions often have a well-defined and systematic body of knowledge that forms the foundation of their field. This knowledge base is continually evolving through research and practice.

11.  Professional Journals and Publications:

  • Many professions have dedicated journals and publications that contribute to the dissemination of knowledge within the field. These publications serve as forums for professionals to share research, best practices, and advancements.

12.  Social Recognition:

  • Professions are socially recognized and valued for the contributions they make to society. The work of professionals is often seen as essential to the well-being and functioning of communities.

These attributes collectively contribute to the professional identity and status of a particular occupation. It’s important to note that not all occupations possess all of these attributes to the same degree, and the definition of a profession can vary across different cultures and contexts.

Source: Egyankosh


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