The invention and institutionalization of local volunteer centres. A comparative analysis of Norway and Denmark

Lars Skov Henriksen, Håkon Lorentzen

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Both Denmark and Norway have seen a remarkable growth in the number of local volunteer centres over the past twenty years. Volunteer centres are a new invention in the local welfare architecture. They aim to mobilize volunteers by either improving the visibility and accessibility of existing local voluntary associations, or by inventing activities that can attract new (types of) volunteers. They also aim to improve the quality of services provided by local voluntary organizations and strengthen the cooperation between public and private providers of welfare. Volunteer centres have been described as part of a new “third party model” (Haski-Levenhal et al. 2009) in which it is no longer the exclusive responsibility of voluntary organizations to recruit volunteers and encourage volunteering, but increasingly also a matter for governments, corporations and educational institutes.

Volunteer centres, thus, represent one of several efforts by governments in the Nordic countries to enhance and facilitate volunteering and support a greater role for voluntary and non-profit organizations in meeting welfare service demands. The background of this interest should be found in years between 1980 and 1990 which brought a shift even in the deeply rooted Nordic social democratic antagonism towards voluntary and private organized welfare activities. Several reasons seem to lie behind. First, important ideological impulses came with the new liberalism of Thatcher and Reagan, arguing a need for a broader specter of welfare activities than those provided by the state. A second, less visible, motive was the growing acknowledgement of mutual dependence between public and private welfare resources. Not even the oil-financed welfare budgets in Norway could stand the pressure from the never-ending stream of public welfare demands. Professions and politicians seemed to reach a consensus that the resources of civil society should be re-activated. The question was how this could be done without giving in to philanthropic and liberal ideologies that would fundamentally challenge the governmental responsibilities for people’s welfare. After 50 years of belief in the all-embracing responsibilities of the state, a re-introduction of civic responsibilities was no easy undertaking.

The ambition to boost civil resources, furthermore, was challenged by the history and the composition of the voluntary sector in the Nordic countries. First, the voluntary sector in Scandinavia is based on a very strong membership model which means that voluntary organizations historically have enjoyed a monopoly when it comes to recruiting volunteers. For instance, a large survey in 2005 revealed that 80 per cent of the Danes that volunteered did it for an organization they were a member of (Henriksen et al. 2008). Similar figures account for the Norwegian case. As such, no tradition exits for other actors to engage in recruitment and encouragement of volunteering. Second, the voluntary sector only plays a small and supplementary role as service providers with the welfare fields. Although volunteering, in comparative perspective, is extensive in the Nordic countries more than half of all volunteers and volunteering hours are found within sport and recreation (Sivesind and Selle 2009). Third, because of the organizational model most voluntary organizations rely solely on unpaid volunteers and have very scarce administrative capacities. This makes it difficult for many voluntary associations to engage in public-private partnerships and meet the increasing demands for accountability and professional solutions.

Against this double background of the Nordic welfare state and civil society ‘regime’ we trace the history of the volunteer centres in Denmark and Norway from their beginning in the late 1980ties to the present and compare their development. We describe both similarities and differences but put special emphasis on explaining variations between the two cases.
Original languageEnglish
Publication date2011
Number of pages21
Publication statusPublished - 2011
EventThe voluntary Sector in the Nordic Countries. Change agents and contract partners? - Bergen, Norway
Duration: 18 May 201120 May 2011


ConferenceThe voluntary Sector in the Nordic Countries. Change agents and contract partners?

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