7 April 2020

Sociologists are mapping out volunteer work and community spirit during the coronavirus outbreak


In collaboration with the Danish Institute for Voluntary Effort, sociologists at the University of Copenhagen study the Danes' informal help and volunteering during the COVID-19 crisis through a large survey. What drives the work, and who receives help?

Photo: Colourbox

What drives many Danes to help the elderly, sick neighbours or socially disadvantaged people by shopping for groceries and offering other practical assistance during the COVID-19 outbreak? How does help manifest itself in practice? And who does the help reach?

These are some of the questions that a broad survey of the Danish population’s voluntary social work will seek to answer in the coming weeks in a project titled 'Solidarity and Volunteering in the Corona Crisis'.

The aim is not only to look into the efforts carried out by established social organisations, but also to map the broader work that many Danes spontaneously perform now, for example through neighbour-to-neighbour assistance or new, informal networks on social media like Facebook.

“When society is in a crisis situation, we pull together and the community spirit flourishes. Then we see a flurry of spontaneously organised help. The exceptional nature of the COVID-19 crisis gives us a unique opportunity to explore how it unfolds,” says Postdoc Jonas Toubøl from the Department of Sociology at the University of Copenhagen.

Toubøl is behind the study along with Postdoc Hjalmar Bang Carlsen, Associalte Professor and Head of Department Benedikte Brincker and scientific assistant Snorre Ralund, who have received support for the project as one of seven ‘emergency research’ projects on the COVID-19 crisis initiated by the Faculty of Social Sciences. In addition, the Danish Institute for Voluntary Effort contributes as a project partner.

Solidarity with your neighbours or the whole of Denmark?

Central to the study is a representative survey that Statistics Denmark sends to 8,000 Danes. It will identify who are particularly involved in informal voluntary work, how aid and voluntary work is transcending across the country, and identify what motivates the individual.

A key question in this regard is how well the help matches the needs of those who receive it and how well it reaches groups like the elderly, lonely or socially vulnerable.

“The survey also covers those who receive the help, which is often an overlooked group. This gives us some new opportunities to study the match between the voluntary initiatives and the informal help on one side, and the needs of those who receive the help on the other,” says Toubøl elaborating:

“How important is your social network for getting any help or being in a position to ask for help from a voluntary organisation? And who o we primarily solidarise with when we offer informal help or do more organised volunteer work? Do I solidarise with those I know personally? With special groups like residents of my neighbourhood or socially disadvantaged people? Or do I prefer to help all Danes very broadly, for example? Such factors probably have a big impact on who Iand how I help,” says Toubøl.

New digital platforms

A certain aspect is the new, informal ways of organising volunteering relief work that have emerged in recent years through digital platforms. Here social media like Facebook has become a way to establish informal and citizen-driven networks.

To look into this, the project maps the Facebook groups that organise help for vulnerable citizens affected by the COVID-19 crisis. At the same time, the Facebook groups are invited to disseminate the survey among their members. It will provide the researchers with a much more accurate picture of the Facebook users and the help they do offer.

“We are excited to see if this crisis results in a lasting digitalisation and social mediatisation of volunteering. We can already see that over 100 corona help groups have emerged on Facebook during the COVID-19 outbreak, and generally, there is a growing interest in using digital solutions within the voluntary sector. However, this also creates some new challenges. In particular older and socially vulnerable people do not use digital platforms and may be excluded,” Jonas Toubøl stresses.

Close partnership on project and dissemination

How big this and other challenges actually are, will be revealed by the project later in April. The ambition is to disseminate the findings as widely as possible in order to give the volunteering sector an opportunity to learn from the first weeks of the COVID-19 crisis.

In this respect, the Danish Institute for Voluntary Effort (DIVE) will play a key role with its wide network and comprehensive knowledge of voluntary social work. As partner in the project, the institute also contributes to with financial support and counselling.

"With the DIVE’s specific practical knowledge combined with the University of Copenhagen's research approach, we can together get new and important knowledge about the power of civil society and, not least, the informal volunteerism in Denmark," as Laura Auken, the managing director of the DIVE, says in a press release.

Read more about the study in the box to the right.