How Understanding European Attitudes About Volunteering Can Help Associations


How Understanding European Attitudes About Volunteering Can Help Associations

This article was first published in ASAE’s Associations Now! Newsletter in February 2023


By Michiel Gen


As associations become increasingly global so will their volunteer base. A better understanding of what motivates European volunteers will help international and U.S.- based associations manage, recruit, and communicate more effectively.


Any association professional who has engaged with volunteer leaders in different European countries or tried to recruit them will have noticed that there are great differences in attitudes toward volunteering between countries and cultures on the continent.

This article presents the highlights of research conducted for a session at ASAE’s 2022 Annual Meeting that explored the underlying causes and motivations for these differences. Ultimately, a better understanding of what drives (and hampers) volunteering will help international and U.S.- headquartered associations manage, recruit, and communicate more effectively to European volunteers.

How Europe Compares
We should start by differentiating between formal and informal volunteering. Formal volunteering relates to unpaid work through groups, clubs, or organizations, while informal volunteering relates to unpaid help as an individual outside the context of a formal organization to people who are not relatives, such as shopping for an elderly neighbor, clearing snow from the streets, and so forth.

According to a 2018 Eurostat survey, informal volunteering rates were higher (22.2 percent) than formal volunteering rates (19.3 percent) and significantly higher in some countries.

Although this article focuses on formal volunteering, it should be noted that the higher rates for informal, task-based volunteering could indicate opportunities for micro-volunteering where role-based volunteer positions may be hard to fill.

It is also interesting to note differences between the average formal volunteering rates in Europe and the US: 19.3 percent compared to almost 25 percent. Although the average rates are higher in the U.S. compared to Europe, some European countries do have significantly higher rates, including Norway (48 percent), Netherlands (40.3 percent), Denmark (38.7 percent), Luxembourg (36.5 percent) and Switzerland (35.5 percent).

Figure 1 (below) shows the volunteer rates overlaid on a map of Europe. The darker shades show higher rates of formal volunteering.

Formal Volunteering in Europe. Source: Eurostat Dataset ILC_SCP19

Three main factors contribute to volunteer rates:

  1. Cultural factors. These are the norms, attitudes, and values that you were brought up with, often based in history, tradition, and culture.
  2. Capability. These are the socioeconomic factors that underpin one’s capability to do unpaid work.
  3. Individual motivators. These include volunteering for altruistic reasons, maintaining/building a network, and activities that support one’s career or business.

Cultural Factors Explained
Among the cultural factors, three elements stand out:

Historically Catholic versus Protestant regions in Western Europe. Research shows that “Catholic values are … more weakly linked to volunteering” than Protestant and “historically Protestant and Catholic countries score differently, with the latter generally exhibiting slightly lower volunteer rates.” Parts of Europe may have become much more secular in the past half century, but religion still has a strong influence on culture, which contributes to volunteering rates.

East-West divide. Volunteer rates in central and eastern Europe are significantly lower than in Western Europe. These countries were under communist rule for half a century or more, which destroyed much of civil society. Under communism, the state controlled all associations and used them as an instrument of societal control. This has led to a severe mistrust in any kind of public or communal activity, which is not conducive to a thriving volunteer culture. To this day, the memories of mandatory volunteering give a very negative connotation to the concept of volunteer work.

Civil society traditions. In Europe, there are also different civil society traditions. We can identify four types and various hybrids between them (see figure 2 below): liberal, corporatist, social democratic, and statist. The liberal and corporatist traditions are most conducive to a thriving association landscape.

Civil Society Models Source: New trends in the development of volunteering in the European Union, Study by the European Economic and Social Committee (2021)

The Capability to Do Volunteer Work
An important factor in volunteer rates is the capability to do volunteer work. Here we have to distinguish between economic capital, social capital, and human capital.

Economic capital. Income is an important factor. There is a clear positive relationship between the prosperity of a country (measured in GDP per capita) and volunteering rates. People need to have the means to be able to volunteer.

Another factor is income equality. A country may have a high GDP, but if this income is concentrated in the hands of a small group of people, you are still going to have relatively few people who are able to volunteer. If that income is more evenly distributed (equity), you will see higher volunteer rates.

Social capital. Volunteering requires you to work with others and is dependent on social connections. Trust in others is an important indicator in the ability of people to work together towards a common goal. If there is no mutual trust, this is difficult to achieve. A 2021 study [PDF] positively links high levels of trust to volunteering. There is a similar link between rule of law and volunteering.

Human capital. This encompasses education, skills, and health. Education is a strong predictor of volunteering rates. A 2021 study by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) confirms this: “The better educated people are, the more likely they are to volunteer.” Employment status is important as well. This is an indication of having the financial means to volunteer, but it also helps to build social networks.

Individual Motivation
As part of our research, we collected the statistics from Eurostat on income, unemployment, education spending, and trust; put them together in the scorecard below; and then compared them to the volunteering rates.

Although Northwest Europe appears to be the sweet spot for volunteerism, this does not mean that it is impossible to find great volunteers in other parts of Europe; there are just fewer of them. This is when it becomes important to understand what motivates people to volunteer.

The 2021 EESC study mentioned previously identifies the following motivations:

Values. The organization shares and advocates for values that align with a volunteer’s own values. This applies mostly to political organizations.

Career. The organization helps the volunteer make the connections to land their next job or new business.

Social. The organization helps volunteers build and maintain a social network.

Enhancement and protective functions. The organization helps volunteers build leadership skills that will help them during their career journey.

Notably absent from the list of motivations is altruism or giving back—something that many U.S. associations use as an argument for why people should volunteer. That’s why using “what’s in it for me” messaging that puts less emphasis on altruism may be more effective in Europe.


If you would like to contact the author or discuss how Exempla can help you with your volunteer engagement in Europe, feel free to reach out


Michiel Gen

Partner, Stakeholder Management


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