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Volunteer work in Denmark

Denmark has a very strong tradition for volunteer organisations and 35 per cent of the Danes do some kind of volunteer work. The explanation is found in tradition, social trust and the logic of the welfare state.

When kids in Denmark are practicing football or the homeless are getting a hot meal in a warm shelter the people behind are very often volunteer workers.

35 per cent of the Danes over 16 years do volunteer work in one of the around 100.000 volunteer organisations in Denmark. That means that 1,9 million Danes do volunteer work at some point during a year. Especially cultural activities, sport and leisure attract many volunteer workers but social, health and humanitarian work is also popular.

There is a very high degree of voluntary work in the Scandinavian countries compared to the rest of Europe, senior researcher at the Danish centre for social research Torben Fridberg explains.

There are several reasons for this. First of all we have a strong civil society and a tradition for making volunteer organisations of all sorts. Historically there has been a focus in Denmark on the necessity of volunteer work for the benefit of the greater society. But the many organisations have also been part of the democratic project. The volunteer work, negotiations within the organisations and their advocacy in relation to the government and administration have been a way for people to “practise democracy”

Second there is a connection between trust and volunteer work. The welfare state is based on a high level of trust. A high level of trust nurtures volunteer work which again creates more trust and strengthens the foundation of the welfare state. It is a positive circle and volunteer work fits right in, Fridberg explains.

Idealism and interest

The typical volunteer worker spends an average of 17 hours a month doing volunteer work. More than half of those who do not do volunteer work would most likely do it if they were asked. Only one in ten Danes find it unlikely that they would ever do any volunteer work.

Most people start doing volunteer work because they are encouraged by others and when asked, volunteers say they do it for the cause and for the sense of community.

Many people are idealistic about it. They do it because it is meaningful and helpful to other people. But they also want to have a good time doing it and they want to work with something that interests them, according to Fridberg.

Complementary to the state

Some social theories have suggested that the welfare state is bad for volunteer work because of the state’s size which leaves little work left for civil society. But in Denmark the volunteer work is often supported economically by either the state or the municipalities and the latter often use volunteer work, for example in connection with eldercare.

In Denmark the welfare state does not render volunteer work superfluous but it changes its nature. Old people´s so-called visiting friends is an example. The welfare state takes care of the professional caretaking so that the volunteers can concentrate on the social aspect of the visit and on having a good time with the older person. The volunteer person builds on top of the work by the welfare state, so to speak. In that way there is a division of labour between the state and the volunteers, Fridberg explains.
In addition to the social benefits and the cohesion of society volunteer work is also good for the economy. According to 2004 figures the economic value of the volunteer work in Denmark was around 2.5 % of GDP. In 2010 numbers that would be 5.2 billion USD.

More volunteers in the future

The percentage of Danes doing volunteer work was 25% in 1999 and 35% in 2012 and Torben Fridberg thinks that more and more people will do volunteer work in the years to come.

There is still a great deal of focus on volunteer work and that will keep attracting even more people. At the same time the population is better educated every year and therefore have more skills to offer, also in relation to volunteer work. The Danish civil society is very dynamic and good at adapting to the needs of the greater society and that will also attract volunteer workers in the future.