Voluntary work in Germany and Norway – A comparative study

Opusculum 95 | 11.11.2016 | This Opusculum emphasizes on major differences in the socio-political context of each country, exploring and explaining the differences in the German and Norwegian voluntary sector workforce (paid vs. unpaid), the volunteer population (gender and age), the share of volunteers in each country and the different topical areas in which they volunteer.

1 Introduction

In recent years the voluntary sector has gained a great amount of attention in both the public eye and in national and international politics. The UN proclaimed 2001 as the International Year of Volunteers,[1] and was a strong contributor in increasing the recognition and promotion of volunteering. Ten years later, the European Commission and Council announced 2011 as the European Year of Volunteerism in order to celebrate the efforts of an estimated 100 million European volunteers, and to create an enabling environment for volunteerism.[2] In a time when European countries are facing various challenges—ranging from the financial crisis to the influx of refugees and rising pressure on social services due to demographic changes—one might question the sustainability of the welfare state, and question whether or not new economical solutions and structures for service delivery are necessary. Research suggests that voluntary work contributes to the economy[3], and that the engagement of volunteers additionally contributes to the production of social capital, which in turn is a critical precondition for democracy and political involvement.[4]

The national benefits of having a large figure of citizens volunteering are numerous. Since the benefits are context-driven, comparative country studies exploring the voluntary sector and the preconditions for voluntary work are important to understand the underlying mechanisms at work in different locations. Despite increased attention to volunteerism both at the national and international level, there have been few cross-national comparative studies conducted on the topic. The present thesis is an attempt to fill this gap in the scholarly literature, describing and analyzing the principle differences in voluntary work in Germany and Norway. The thesis ultimately seeks to uncover the major differences in the voluntary sector and volunteerism in each nation, and the reason behind these differences, as well as using this insight to pinpoint particular areas where the countries can learn from each other.

The thesis operates with four main research questions:

  • What are the major differences characterizing the volunteers in Germany and Norway?
  • Are there any differences in the topical areas in which the volunteers in Germany and Norway work?
  • How can socio-political factors explain the major differences in voluntary work in Germany and Norway?
  • Does Esping-Andersen’s welfare regime typology bring new insight for explaining the differences in voluntary work in Germany and Norway?

Since the research questions are quite broad, and there are multiple aspects and levels of volunteerism that one could compare and analyze—from micro-level motivational factors to macro-level political and economic contexts—careful operationalization of the research questions is necessary. This research emphasizes major differences in the socio-political[5] context of each country, exploring and explaining the differences in the German and Norwegian voluntary sector workforce (paid vs. unpaid), the volunteer population (gender and age), the share of volunteers in each country and the different topical areas in which they volunteer. In explaining the differences the thesis predominantly wishes to look at the welfare regimes the countries have established.

In order to perform the comparison and analyze the differences, the thesis makes use of mixed-methodology, combining the comparison of secondary studies with expert interviews. The rational for this choice is the assumption that the combination will provide the thesis with both the statistical data needed for a valid comparison, as well as more in-depth explanation of the reasons behind the found differences.

In terms of the theoretical framework applied, it should be noted that there has been an increased interest in voluntary work within different research disciplines over the past decades. Across disciplines, the principal questions asked have been why people choose to volunteer and what kinds of people choose to volunteer. However, different disciplines offer contrasting answers to these questions. Whereas psychology has been principally concerned with the importance of parents’ function as role models, and in the socialization of children and the teaching about volunteerism from an early age, economic research tends to emphasize the relationships between volunteerism, utility maximization and incentive systems.[6] At a macro level, differences in voluntary work has also been analyzed by looking at factors like political culture and national welfare regimes. This last approach, concerned with political culture and welfare regimes, has been chosen as the most appropriate framework for this thesis.

In his book The Three Worlds of Welfare State Capitalism (1990), the Danish political scientist and sociologist Gøsta Esping-Andersen classifies three types of welfare regimes. He bases his typology on what he identifies as the three pillars of welfare production: the state, the family and the private market. This thesis seeks to apply Esping-Andersen’s welfare regime typology as a basis to explain the major differences in voluntary work between Germany and Norway, and also discusses whether a fourth pillar of welfare production should be added, namely the voluntary sector.

The reasons for choosing these specific countries for comparison lie more in the differences, than the similarities. Germany and Norway differ in various ways, the perhaps most obvious in terms of population density, geographical location and national structure. Whereas Germany is situated at the heart of Europe, with a population of over 81,8 million inhabitants[7], Norway has a small population of only 5,2 million[8], spread out in a larger, mountain-filled area in the northern tip of Europe. Germany is a federal republic, divided into 16 constituent states, whereas Norway is a unitary monarchy. Furthermore, the welfare states in the two countries differ greatly. In Germany, the principal of subsidiary is dominating, which means that welfare tasks to a notable extend get allocated to non-profit stakeholders, and social benefits are more connected to preconditions such as one’s status and position. In Norway, on the other hand, the state is relatively strong. People pay high taxes in order to finance a comprehensive welfare state that provides all citizens with universal, social benefits. The contrasts between Germany and Norway can have had an impact on voluntary work, which again would signal possibilities for an exchange of strategies and experiential knowledge based on context. In this sense, the differences make Germany and Norway interesting entities for comparison.

Moreover, and from a more personal aspect, I have experienced the differences between these two countries firsthand. Growing up in Norway with a German mother, and having lived, studied and volunteered in both countries, I feel a strong personal motivation for wanting to do a comparative study of the two states. During my graduate studies in Berlin, I have learned about the various aspects of the third sector in Germany. Simultaneously, I have sought to keep an eye on the Norwegian voluntary sector, attempting to uncover the similarities and differences in the two countries. When the time came to hand in a thesis proposal, I saw it as an opportunity to use my research to answer the questions I have been asking since moving to Germany.

The following chapter will lay out the framework for this thesis, presenting key definitions and introducing Esping-Andersen’s welfare regime typology. This typology constitutes the theoretical framework, and builds the foundation for later analysis. The subsequent third chapter explores the chosen research methodology, and elaborates on the choice to apply a mixed methodology, analyzing existing research as well as conducting interviews. The fourth chapter examines the differences and similarities in voluntary work in Germany and Norway, applying empirical findings from existing research, as well as the information obtained in the expert interviews conducted for the thesis. Chapter five further analyzes the reasons behind the major differences in voluntary work in Germany and Norway, using the framework set forward by the welfare state typology. Finally, chapter six presents the conclusions to the research questions, whilst also putting forward some ideas as to how the countries could learn from each other, and suggesting directions for further future research.

[1] United Nation General Assembly, Resolution A/RES/55/57, International Year of Volunteers (2001).

[2] European Union, Council Decision, 37/2010/EC, European Year of Voluntary Activities Promoting Active Citizenship (2010).

[3] Lester M. Salamon, The Rise of the Nonprofit Sector (Foreign Affairs, vol.44, No.3, 1994).

[4] Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000).

[5] Socio-political signifies the combination or interaction of social and political factors.

[6] Ruth Simsa, Michael Meyer and Christoph Badelt, Handbuch der Nonprofit-Organisation (Schäffer-Poeschel Verlag, 2013), 384.

[7] Number of people registerd as living in Germany as per 30.09.2015, Statistisches Bundesamt, Auf einen Blick. Accessed July 5, 2016, https://www.destatis.de/DE/Startseite.html.

[8] Number of people registerd as living in Norway as per 01.04.2015, Statistisk Sentralbyrå. Accessed July 5, 2016, http://www.ssb.no/.