Wooing the volunteers

Libraries and other public institutions in Norway focus on collaboration with volunteers like never before. Volunteerism is far more than just unpaid work. Why are groups and associations of volunteers attractive partners, and what opportunities do they represent for the libraries?

The Norwegian Trekking Association (DNT) and the minority organization LIN (Equality, Inclusion and Networking), collaborate on a joint outing in the forest. Photo: LINSome years ago, the group of Sea Scouts at Holmlia in Oslo thought they would not be able to put their boat on the water. Sea scouts are basically like other scouts – the difference being that they use the sea for their activities. That spring, their boat was in need of a major overhaul. The scouts knew exactly what was needed, but they did not have enough people to do the job.

Coincidentally, the scout group leader ran into the head of the local psychiatric outpatient clinic. Together, they came up with an idea: perhaps a poster in the waiting room at the clinic could recruit helpers to overhaul the boat?

As a result, forty patients enlisted as volunteers, helping scrape and paint the boat as well as making waffles and serving coffee to those who were working. It was a classic win-win situation. The scouts achieved their dream of seeing their boat on the water, and the patients could engage in a social and meaningful activity that helped ease their troubles for a day.

A diverse civil society

The scope of voluntary work in Norway is as diverse as the nature of our long and narrow country with more than 80,000 voluntary groups and associations. Here, people meet to engage in activities that interest them or to fight for a shared cause – such as human rights, poverty alleviation or protection of the environment.

All the NGOs share such characteristics as having a non-profit objective, being based on voluntary effort in the form of unpaid work or gifts/donations, and not being established or governed by state or local authorities.

Among the most recent shoots on the tree of Norwegian organizations are the more than 1,000 groups and associations established by and for various groupings of immigrants. They have unique networks and skills that make them especially interesting as collaboration partners. Altogether 36 per cent of immigrants engage in voluntary work in the course of a year – a very high proportion, even by international standards.

Participation and equality

According to Statistics Norway, the voluntary sector generates NOK 101 billion of financial value (approximately 12.5 billion Euro). However, the NGOs also help build a vibrant democracy, safe local communities, networks, social capital and engaged citizens, and they are key arenas for non-formal learning. By working with volunteers, the libraries and others can help to reinforce these values.

The Norwegian tradition of volunteerism is based on participation and equality. Volunteers wish to decide for themselves what to do, and they want to have a say in setting goals and defining tasks. In Norway, anybody can establish an organization, and the great diversity of organizations bear witness to the fact that it is done quite frequently. In this way, the voluntary sector in Norway, Sweden and Denmark differs from the Anglo-Saxon tradition which is more generally based on charities which tend to be established by people who hold a prominent position in society.

Much more than free manpower

When municipalities and public institutions seek cooperation with volunteers, they tend to be motivated by access to unpaid manpower. However, a public institution that only wishes to find someone to perform pre-defined assignments for free will most likely face difficulties in finding a partner among the NGOs.

There are many more reasons than this for cooperating with volunteers. One of them is to become familiar with new target groups. Cooperation can help establish contact with the organization’s members and stakeholders. Most likely, this was the motivation that spurred the Oslo chapter of the Norwegian Trekking Association (DNT) into entering into partnership with the minority organization LIN (Equality, Inclusion and Networking), which is primarily engaged in self-development training for immigrant women.

Outdoor activities

The two organizations met through a collaboration on a joint outing in the forest. While many Norwegians enjoy taking a walk and enjoying nature during weekends and holidays, immigrants rarely participate in this traditional activity. LIN leader Bibi Musavi decided to do something about this.

The organizations now jointly arrange outings and outdoor activities, for which DNT provides instructors to the families of LIN to teach outdoor skills. In this way, LIN receives help for a popular activity among its members, while the Norwegian Trekking Association can introduce its activities to a new group. Herein, there are lessons to be learned by others who wish to reach out more widely with their services and activities, for example the libraries.

Volunteers with professional skills

Another reason for working with volunteers is quality. The organization Books for everyone is a prime example. It works to make good books available to everybody, and its initiatives include a scheme to provide a reading ombudsman, who is a person who reads aloud to others who cannot read themselves, for example because of visual impairment.

Many of the voluntary reading ombudsmen are retired librarians or teachers, and they bring their professional skills and experience to the task. However, they also come as fellow humans. As a voluntary and unpaid activist, one can credibly claim to be there of one’s own accord – not because somebody has ordered it. This establishes an equality and mutuality that cannot be achieved when the person in charge of the activity is salaried.

Successful cooperation with volunteers starts by recognizing that voluntary effort is not about free manpower, but is grounded in completely different values. Libraries that wish to cooperate with NGOs ought to start by getting to know such organizations that are active in their local community: their concerns, their activities, their objectives, challenges and needs.

Perhaps there is a history association that may wish to disseminate knowledge on local history, a theatre group seeking an arena for their performance, or a minority organization which is interested in literature from their members’ country of origin?

The key to success is to ensure that the cooperation will help both parties solve a problem or have a wish fulfilled. In this way, new values can be created – in the libraries, in the voluntary sector and in society as a whole!

Deputy General Secretary of the Association of NGOs in Norway