Characteristics of regions

By Katherine Gaskin and Justin Davis Smith
From A New Civic Europe? A Study of the Extent and Role of Volunteering, The Volunteer Centre UK, 1995

The countries do fall to some extent into regional blocs, with common patterns and profiles to their volunteering. But the most obvious finding is the distinctiveness of national volunteering.

Belgium is a high volunteering country, with about two and a half million volunteers in a population of around 10 million. Belgian volunteers appear to be in many ways different from those elsewhere. There is a strong civic dimension to the volunteering they carry out, with a lot of community development, advocacy and campaigning work, taking place mostly with local voluntary organisations or statutory ones. Visiting and befriending is common, while serving on committees is less so than elsewhere in Europe. Many volunteers get involved through membership of organisations, or through the church and religious bodies. More women are involved than men - unlike most of Europe.

Belgian volunteers take a brisk and pragmatic approach to their volunteering. They say they do it because they have the time, or are good at it, and in order to learn new skills. But they sometimes feel it takes too much of their time, and feel social pressure to volunteer. The perceived benefits are social standing, and staying active and healthy. There is evidently a strong social and moral responsibility to volunteer in Belgium; volunteering carries a sense of status and perhaps obligation. Along with this, the feeling is quite strong that voluntary work wouldn't be necessary if government fulfilled its responsibilities, so many volunteers feel they have to volunteer to compensate for shortfalls in statutory provision.

The Netherlands
The Netherlands shares some similarities with its neighbour: a high rate of volunteering, and of membership in organisations. The church similarly provides a common channel into unpaid work. But more Dutch volunteers serve on committees and carry out fundraising. They volunteer more regularly, mainly with local voluntary organisations. Moreover, community development and civic work - such a strong feature of Belgian volunteering - is negligible in the Netherlands. Sporting and recreational volunteering is very prevalent in the Netherlands, more so than in Belgium.

Dutch volunteers enjoy their work a great deal. People in the Netherlands seem somewhat sceptical about the distinctive contribution of voluntary workers in contrast to paid professionals, and there is less of a perception that volunteers are filling statutory areas of responsibility. Volunteering is strongly linked to playing an active role in a democratic society. It seems quite well organised, with many workers being offered expenses.

Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland
Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland have common features that distinguish them in the wider European context. The most outstanding is the concentration of volunteer effort on raising money - of much less importance elsewhere. Much time also goes into committee work, helping to run organisations. Both countries have a strong social welfare component to their volunteering, with high levels of activity in social services, education and religious contexts. But sports and recreation take up more Irish volunteer time while education is a more prominent area in Great Britain.

Larger, national organisations are often involved in Great Britain, with volunteers working at local or branch level; this reflects the existence of a well-established charitable sector, many of whose members' volunteering efforts are directed towards marshalling unpaid energy in fundraising. Many British volunteers have only a loose organisational affiliation, with low levels of membership, and neither country is good at paying volunteers' expenses. Social attitudes in Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland share the view that volunteering makes a distinctive contribution that is complementary to public provision. Neither country's population is particularly strong on the moral obligation or democratic dimension of volunteering.

Sweden and Denmark
The two Scandinavian countries also share some characteristics, but perhaps greater differences. They are both countries where a great deal of volunteering activity is focused on sports and recreation, with less emphasis on social welfare or civic volunteering than elsewhere. The voluntary sector dominates the scene, with nearly nine out of ten volunteers working within the sector, although the remainder in Denmark work for state-run bodies.

Danish volunteering seems to have quite a strong element of social responsibility: solidarity with the cause is a common reason, while in Sweden personal reasons are more important. Both countries' volunteers devote a lot of time to working on committees, to office work and organising and teaching. And in both countries, volunteering is particularly notable for its high levels of membership.

Both countries believe strongly that volunteering is linked to living in a democratic society, and emphatically endorse the distinctive nature of voluntary work. Its democratic nature is demonstrated in Sweden by participation across the income range, without the usual positive relationship between income and rates of volunteering. Attitudes to government reflect the history of strong welfare states in which the voluntary sector has played little role as a service provider; cuts in public spending, for example, have not bitten yet as they have in the new 'welfare pluralism' of Great Britain.

Eastern Europe
The Eastern European countries in the study form something of a bloc in terms of shared characteristics. The main feature which sets them apart from western and northern European countries is the generally low level of volunteering in the population. Volunteering is also not attached so much to local organisations, is often accessed through paid work and is higher in statutory and commercial settings than in Western Europe. This is evidence of patterns of volunteering under communism surviving in the new independent regimes. This legacy probably also accounts for the fairly high percentages of young people active in unpaid work, and also high numbers among the older members of the population; perhaps reflecting new energy for social reconstruction activities along with traditional, often church-related, volunteering.

Not surprisingly, recreational volunteering is much less prevalent in Eastern Europe. A lot of energy is focused on service delivery, especially education in East Germany, health in Slovakia and housing in Bulgaria. Interestingly, Bulgaria has the highest rates of volunteering in environment and conservation, and animal welfare, than any other country, either East or West. This reflects the growth of 'ecological' organisations in Bulgaria in recent years. Many East European volunteers are active in providing information and advice and teaching and training, with much less time spent in supporting organisations through raising funds and sitting on committees, probably reflecting the structure and operation of the volunteering context in those countries.

The former communist countries in our sample are not homogeneous. The former East Germany differs from the other two in a number of ways, and often - not surprisingly perhaps - has more in common with West Germany. Both the former Federal Republic and German Democratic Republic have a highly committed volunteer force, in terms of regularity, although overall rates are lower than in western and northern Europe. Educational volunteering is a common feature across Germany, as is advocacy and campaigning work and visiting and befriending people. Participation in sports and recreation and social services is also a common feature and notably higher than in the two Eastern European countries.

Volunteers in the former communist bloc are certainly less happy than most of Europe's volunteers: they get less satisfaction and enjoyment from their work, and things seem less well organised. Not many volunteers get involved for the social reasons of the West - meeting people and making friends is not high on the agenda of East European volunteers, but personal reasons and community need are important motivations.

The East European bloc has a less well defined perception of the distinctive nature of voluntary work, and indeed the voluntary sector. The link between democratic participation and volunteering is weakly formed as yet, and the relationship of government to the voluntary sector is not well developed. The good news is that many people living in Bulgaria, East Germany and Slovakia would volunteer if they were asked, so there are promising opportunities for expanding recruitment.

We see from this summary that there is a degree of homogeneity in the different regions of Europe - East, North, Great Britain / Republic of Ireland, Belgium / Netherlands. But these are largely tendencies to converge in certain attitudes and practices, not decisive regional patterns. The final verdict is that each country's volunteering has a special character - as indeed each region within countries appears to have - resulting from the unique interplay of social, economic, political and cultural factors responsible, no doubt, for so many other aspects of national identity.

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