10. September 2020

Not every commitment is voluntary work

Adrian Fischer, you have scientifically compiled the fourth Swiss Volunteering Survey. For the first time, the Survey has also been published in French. And for the first time it can be downloaded free of charge from the SSCG website and from the editor’s house Seismo. What were the motives?

It was of particular concern to us authors and the sponsors of the Volunteering Survey that the Survey should not be written for an academic audience only, but that it should be easily accessible and comprehensible to all interested individuals and organizations throughout Switzerland. The figures and findings in the Survey should be easy to find and tangible for everyone.

For 20 years now, headlines have been reading that the number of volunteers has been falling permanently. However, the Swiss Volunteering Survey 2020 states that the amount of volunteer work in Switzerland has remained practically constant over the past 20 years. Who is right?

If we look at the whole spectrum of volunteer work in associations and organizations, we find an astonishing constancy. This is particularly evident in the Swiss Labour Force Survey (SLFS) of the Federal Statistical Office, which includes a module on unpaid volunteer work about every four years. However, the situation varies depending on the area and type of organization in which one volunteers. While we are observing a decline in volunteerism in sports clubs, the civil service or interest groups, there is growth in the cultural sector, hobby and leisure clubs and social, charitable organizations, for example.

46 percent of over 15-year-olds in Switzerland volunteer outside organizations and associations, many of them in care work. The differentiated survey revealed now that one in four of them cares for their own relatives, such as fragile parents or grandchildren. Subjectively, many people actually perceive these activities as voluntary work. In the Volunteering Survey 2020, they refer to caring for relatives as informal volunteer work in the broader sense. Some sociologists, for whom volunteering is clearly a commitment to people and the environment outside the private sphere, will probably contradict you.

It is precisely because these discussions exist in professional circles and there is a different perception in the general population that we have for the first time distinguished in the Swiss Volunteering Survey 2020 between “informal volunteering in the broad sense” and “informal volunteering in the strict sense. “Informal volunteering in the true sense of the word” excludes the care of grandchildren and elderly parents. Without this care work for relatives, about one third of the population does informal volunteer work.

39 percent of the over 15-year-olds in Switzerland volunteer in organizations and associations. Around 17 percent receive additional remuneration and compensation such as attendance fees or lump-sum expenses in addition to expenses. In the Swiss Volunteering Survey 2020, they still refer to these people as volunteers, even though volunteering is defined as unpaid work. How do you respond to this objection?

Here, too, the transitions are fluid and the perceptions are different. In both the Swiss Volunteering Survey and the SLFS, volunteer work is recorded if it is unpaid or in return for a “small expense allowance”. A high school student and a senior manager may have different ideas about what a “small expense allowance” is. In both cases, the work is perceived as a voluntary commitment to help other people. Financial compensation is cited as one of the motives for volunteering by just two percent of the volunteers in clubs or organizations.

In many media it can be read at present that during the Corona lockdown, volunteer work has flourished. I dare to doubt this. First of all, around half of the 60-74 years old persons and around 40% of the over 74 years old are involved as volunteers. They had to stop their commitment during the lockdown. And secondly, I would argue that shopping for at-risk groups during the Corona crisis was not voluntary work, but rather neighborly assistance, such as when you occasionally empty the mailbox, feed the bird or shovel the snow away for neighbors. What do you think the many Corona assignments are?

The pandemic and the measures adopted had both an exclusionary and a solidarity effect. In some cases, the solidarity commitment probably went beyond neighborhood assistance. People who were not personally known before also benefited. We suspect that this kind of commitment was often made by people who had already volunteered before. A survey is planned for this fall, in which we will be able to examine these questions in more detail.

In the Swiss Volunteering Survey 2020, you asked the non-volunteers under what conditions they would volunteer. Most of them mentioned that they would have to be able to combine paid labor work, family work and volunteering. Is that a hint with the fence post to companies for more flexible working time models?

To a certain extent, yes. The time available has an impact on volunteer work. Full-time workers are less likely to volunteer than part-time workers, housewives/men and retired people, and “enough time” is most often cited as a prerequisite for (re)involvement in clubs or organizations.

Other non-volunteers emphasized that they would get involved if the assignments were organized flexibly. Is this a hint with the fence post to the nonprofit organizations that have not yet adapted much to the mobile and flexible “digital natives”?

The field of interested parties is broad and the possibilities and forms of voluntary work should be correspondingly broad. This also applies to the ways and channels for recruiting volunteers.

One figure startled me in the Swiss Volunteering Survey 2020: half of the people over 60 years who do not volunteer today said that they would not do so in the future. They cited lack of time, the need for flexibility or incompatibility with family responsibilities as reasons. Shouldn’t we be worried if in future fewer and fewer older generations are willing to do voluntary work? And how could the willingness to volunteer be encouraged among the 60+?

I’m not quite as worried about that. It’s important to realize that life situations, resources and needs are very different in old age. We will examine the voluntary work of 55 to 74-years old persons and the potential in the second half of life in more detail in an in-depth study conducted by the Beisheim Foundation. It can already be said that the commitment of older people is already above average.

English abstract of the Swiss Volunteering Survey 2020 

The Swiss Volunteering Survey 2020 provides information on the current state of voluntary activity. It is already the fourth Volunteering Survey the Swiss Society for the Common Good (SSCG) has published since 2006 with the support of the Migros Culture Percentage, the Beisheim Foundation, the Federal Statistical Office and 30 other partner organisations. For the latest edition of the Swiss Volunteering Survey, in 2019 some 5,000 people answered detailed questions about their social engagement. Participants were selected randomly by the Federal Statistical Office from population registers and represent the Swiss residential population from the age of 15. The most important results can be summarised as follows.

  • Volunteering is a broad field. Not only does the Swiss Volunteering Survey show how much voluntary work is being done in Switzerland, but also that there are many different forms of engagement and areas of activity, and that the respective motives, potential, challenges and support measures can differ greatly.
  • The Swiss population are very socially engaged: 39 percent of the population from the age of 15 do formal voluntary work within clubs and organisations; 46 percent carry out informal voluntary work outside the context of clubs or organisations by working as carers, looking after or providing assistance to others, or helping out with events and projects. Donations are another form of voluntary activity: 71 percent of the population donate money, 7 percent give blood.
  • Switzerland is a country of clubs and associations. The fact that so many volunteers come from clubs, associations and non-profit organisations can partly be explained by their high membership rates. Three-quarters of the Swiss population above the age of 15 are members of a club, association or non-profit organization, with 61 percent of the population playing an active role in them. Sports clubs have the most members, followed by games, hobby and leisure clubs, cultural associations and religious communities, churches and church-affiliated organizations.
  • The number of volunteers has remained astonishingly stable. The past ten years have seen neither a marked decline nor a clear increase in voluntary activity. There has not been an obvious rise or fall in the proportion of people making donations or carrying out formal or informal voluntary work. However, what is true of voluntary work in general does not apply to the different areas of voluntary work. While there has been a decrease in formal volunteering in sport, interest groups and public service, there are now more volunteers in games, hobby and leisure clubs, cultural associations, and social and charity organizations.
  • The social profile of those performing formal voluntary work may change in the coming years. A disproportionately high number of men, people aged between 45 and 74, and residents of rural areas and German-speaking Switzerland belong to clubs, associations and non-profit organizations. Better educated people, higher earners, Swiss passport-holders and parents of children aged over six also display greater-than-average engagement. However, the potential of these population groups seems to be increasingly exhausted. Women, younger people, residents of French- and Italian-speaking Switzerland, city dwellers, and foreigners living in Switzerland are very willing to perform more formal voluntary work in future.
  • Although voluntary work is by definition unpaid, the Swiss Volunteering Survey also looked into various forms of non-profit activity which were compensated either financially or materially. Recognition for the work most often came in the form of gestures such as lunch or dinner invitations. One in five people who carry out formal voluntary work receive financial compensation beyond their expenses. Men are more likely to receive financial compensation, and the payments are higher than those made to women. Honorary roles are generally more likely to be financially compensated, especially if these are political or public in nature. Strictly speaking, voluntary work that is financially compensated in the form of fees, fixed remunerations or attendance fees should be considered as a not-for-profit commitment and not as voluntary work, even if the survey respondent views and characterizes it as such.
  • Informal voluntary work often takes the form of unpaid care work, and the people who are supported and cared for are often relatives or acquaintances of the helper. Unlike formal voluntary work, informal voluntary work is more often done by women. Many informal volunteers are retired and care for their grandchildren as well as their elderly parents. Established moral obligations mean that this kind of care work, which takes place within the family, cannot strictly be considered voluntary work, even if the survey respondents subjectively viewed and characterized these services as voluntary work. The Volunteer Survey therefore distinguishes between informal voluntary work in the strictest sense and informal voluntary work in a broader sense.
  • Helping out in the neighborhood is a widespread phenomenon. During the course of a year, 72 percent of the population from the age of 15 perform small tasks in their neighborhood such as helping with minor chores, emptying letter boxes and watering plants. Neighborhood help is as common in the city as it is in the countryside.
  • The willingness to donate and the size of the donation increase with age and available income. Proportionate to their respective incomes, though, high-earners are no more generous than people with low incomes. Older people donate very often to help young people and children, to fight disease, and to care for the sick.
  • The internet and the sharing economy offer promising new forms of voluntary activity. Internet volunteers are often young men who live in cities. A great deal of internet volunteering happens within the framework of formal volunteering in clubs and organizations, though a good third of it is done online only. With regard to the sharing economy, younger people are not alone in showing a great willingness to share personal items such as books, tools, their car or even their apartment. However, the more personal an item is, the less likely someone is to want to share it.
  • People who carry out formal voluntary work want to get involved with others to make a difference, help them, better themselves while doing so, and develop their knowledge and skills all while having fun. Financial compensation, on the other hand, is rarely mentioned as a motivating factor; the challenge, variety and responsibility involved are stronger incentives. The great majority of people who hold a voluntary post are satisfied with their voluntary work and would return to the role in future.
  • The reasons for ending a voluntary commitment are primarily personal in nature – most notably the difficulty of juggling voluntary work with a job or family. Other reasons for stopping include excessive bureaucracy or a lack of time, recognition or team spirit.
  • Although many people are already volunteering in one form or another, there is still unexploited potential: the fundamental willingness to begin or renew a voluntary commitment is present. The conditions for starting (or restarting) voluntary work are: sufficient time, a good cause, flexibility and a functioning team. An engagement in social, charitable, environmental and animal protection organizations seems to appeal particularly to those new to volunteering.
  • The idea of helping is central to informal volunteering. The focus is on social contact – often intergenerational – and on the sense of being needed and giving something back. But it is also about developing one’s own knowledge and experience, fostering contact networks, enjoying different experiences and having fun. A sizeable number of volunteers would like more support from other relatives or the government in their work as caregivers.
  • Voluntary activity encourages trust in other people: people who carry out voluntary work are significantly more trusting of others than those who don’t. Those who volunteer in clubs, associations and organizations are particularly trusting. Volunteering also has an effect on people’s trust in political institutions, but not on their trust in science and the media.
  • The broad presentation of volunteering and voluntary work in the 2020 Survey makes it clear how strong the engagement of the Swiss population is, as well as how varied the forms of engagement and the motivations behind it can be. But it also shows that the boundaries it shares with gainful employment on the one hand, and caregiving in the immediate family on the other, are fluid. There is a need here for a more in-depth discussion on how voluntary work is characterized and defined in future.

Book in German
Lamprecht Markus, Adrian Fischer, Hanspeter Stamm (2020).
Freiwilligen-Monitor Schweiz 2020. Zürich: Seismo. ISBN 978-3-03777-215-7

Book in French
Lamprecht Markus, Adrian Fischer, Hanspeter Stamm 2020.
Observatoire du bénévolat en Suisse 2020. Zurich: Seismo.
ISBN 978-2-88351-095-1

Open-Access German: www.seismoverlag.ch/de/daten/freiwilligen-monitor-schweiz-2020/

Open access Frenchwww.seismoverlag.ch/fr/daten/observatoire-du-benevolat-en-suisse-2020/

The Swiss Volunteering Survey 2020 as well as 12 factsheets on voluntary commitment in the various areas can be downloaded free of charge from the SSCG website.