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EACEA National Policies Platform


2. Voluntary Activities

2.1 General context

Last update: 28 November 2023
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  1. Historical developments
  2. Main concepts

Historical developments

Sweden has a long tradition of volunteering and active citizenship among its population. In the 19th century, popular mass movements began to appear, inspired by those in other countries.

The general pattern of volunteering is characterised by a focus on membership in a civil society organisation. Volunteering is thus not necesserily associated with voluntary social work. Voluntary activities have traditionally been –  and still are – to a great deal directed at the internal, democratic and political life of the civil society, or have at least been performed within the framework of an organisation.

During the last 20 years, a targeted volunteering infrastructure with volunteer agencies and centres has emerged. Today, there are both public volunteer centres and centres managed by civil society organisations. Their aim is to match individuals interested in volunteering with volunteering opportunities, without the need of becoming a member of any organisation. This means that young people today can choose between different options for getting involved in voluntary activities.  

It has been suggested that the Nordic welfare model, that offers a comprehensive provision of social services funded by the state, could imply that volunteering has less of a role to play in Swedish society. However, studies have affirmed that this is not the case. Voluntary activities are considered to be an important driver in active citizenship and integration.


Main concepts

There is no official definition of the concept ‘volunteer’ in Sweden. Traditionally, the concept has often been associated with non-profit development aid work. Nowadays however, different actors may use the term in different ways.

The report from the Nordic Council of Ministers (Analysis No. 01/2020) emphasizes the structural changes in traditional organisations. Regardless the structural changes, voluntary work is still at a high level in the Nordic region. In Sweden, a proportion of the population that are members in an organisation is declining. The main idea of the membership as a foundation for voluntary work is changing and takes new forms in the Nordic region, according to the report. Voluntary work seems to be a new-old way for describing the relationship between individuals and organisations, rather than a membership. Changes are also taking place in different fields of voluntary work. Voluntary work in the welfare area has increased somewhat in Sweden, Denmark, and in Norway the recent years.

In pace with contemporary societal changes and the establishment of the European voluntary Service first, and then the European Solidarity Corps, the meaning of the concept has broadened. This means 'volunteer' may be used to refer to those working on a voluntary basis covering periods ranging from one or more occasions per month to full-time involvement over several months. Most common is that voluntary work is unpaid. At some occasions though, there may be a symbolic compensation for the voluntary effort.  

Furthermore, there is no official definition of the voluntary sector as a whole. In Sweden, it is generally accepted to divide the society into four different sectors; the public sector, business sector, the third/non-profit sector and the household sector. The third/non-profit is nowadays usually called civil society, which is considered to be the context where most voluntary activities are carried out.

There is a clear distinction between informal work and voluntary work. Informal work is closely linked with the household sector and characterized by being unorganised, unpaid help or support that is performed on a regular basis. Voluntary work on the other hand is characterized by being performed under the auspices of an organisation or otherwise structured.