Kjersti Tandberg
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Volunteering neighbourhood mothers
A capability approach to voluntarism, inclusion and quality of life in rural Norway

Central topics in research on the quality of life, well-being and health are the importance of interaction, social networks, inclusion and trust. This chapter presents some former research on the connection between voluntary work and quality of life. Further, it introduces some of the characteristics of participation in Norwegian volunteering by ethnic marginalised groups and some contextual characteristics of the voluntary sector in Norway. The capability approach of Amartya Sen functions as an overarching theoretical framework, highlighting both individualistic and contextual elements and how they interconnect and produce certain structures for social inclusion. The empirical contribution in this chapter consists of a case study on volunteering performed by ethnic marginalised women in a voluntary organisation called Neighbourhood Mothers. The data used for this chapter was collected in the municipality of Kvam Herad (a town of 8,467 citizens) in Western Norway county, and Oslo, the capital of Norway (a city of 693,494 citizens). The case study has found that inclusion in a voluntary organisation has a huge impact on ethnic marginalised women’s experienced well-being and quality of life. There are more marginalised minorities in Oslo than in Kvam. Still, the voluntary organisation seems to be a more important arena for social inclusion in rural areas than in cities, which is crucial for people’s experienced well-being and quality of life.


Central topics in research on the quality of life, well-being and health are the importance of interaction, social networks, inclusion and trust. The voluntary sector constitutes a field in society outside the family, the state and the market, where so-called secondary social relations are produced and maintained. Research on the connection between voluntarism and quality of life has thus received increased attention in recent years and is being studied both at a societal and individual level.

In this chapter, we will propose a theoretical framework introducing some of the former research on voluntarism from the perspective of quality of life. A starting point for this presentation is our own research on voluntary organisations in a Nordic context, more specifically in Norway. Together with the other Nordic countries, Norway is characterised by extensive democratic participation and high levels of volunteering, and most of the volunteering takes place within voluntary organisations (Enjolras & Strømsnes, 2018). We will present some former research on the connection between voluntary work and quality of life and further introduce some of the characteristics of participation in Norwegian volunteering by ethnic marginalised groups and some contextual characteristics of the voluntary sector in Norway. The capability approach of Amartya Sen will function as an overarching theoretical framework. This theoretical approach highlights both individualistic and contextual elements and how they interconnect and produce certain structures for how and who are included in social groups that may improve the quality of life for the volunteers. Individual factors in focus are, for example, gender, language skills and minority background. The contextual factors are investigated by comparing participation in a specific voluntary organisation, the Neighbourhood Mothers, in a rural community (Kvam Herad) versus in a larger city (Oslo).

The empirical contribution in this chapter consists, besides building on secondary data from former research on the Norwegian voluntary sector, of a case study on the voluntary organisation called Neighbourhood Mothers in Norway, an organisation with a head office in Oslo and several local organisations in different parts of the country. The data used for this chapter was collected in the municipality of Kvam Herad (a town of 8,467 citizens) in Western Norway county and the organisation in Oslo (a city of 693,494 citizens). The data stems from an ongoing PhD project on volunteering performed by ethnic minority women, some with limited Norwegian language skills. This is a group of citizens with the lowest participation in Norwegian volunteering and a group that has been difficult to include and mobilise into voluntarism (Eimhjellen et al., 2021).

This chapter presents some of the results from this ongoing qualitative case study on how marginalised women with low language skills are included in a specific voluntary organisation in two different contexts and, further, how they view this participation’s effect on their well-being.

Case description: Neighbourhood Mothers in rural Norway

Neighbourhood Mothers (from now on referred to as NM) is a voluntary organisation where ethnic marginalised women labelled as neighbourhood mothers work through a combination of volunteering, local participation, networking and empowerment (Andersen & Banerjee, 2020; Neighbourhood Mothers, 2020). The organisation operates in the voluntary and public sector intersection, combining networking and dialogue across different sectors, citizens and professionals. The main goal is to mobilise these groups of women to voluntary work within the framework of a formal organisation and develop and foster collaborations between the voluntary neighbourhood mothers and public service institutions in different areas such as work inclusion, education and health. Strong learning and skill training runs through the NM education programme, which must be completed before volunteering as neighbourhood mothers (Neighborhood Mothers, 2020; www.bydelsmor.no). Stakeholders from local community organisations and the health and welfare services provide lectures on family, health, welfare and government structures. After gaining tools and ideas for how to engage in local outreach work and in-depth knowledge of the service institutions and the local community, the neighbourhood mothers go back to their neighbourhood to help women and families with whatever they need: information about the healthcare system, organised activities for children, education opportunities and so on.

The original idea of NM was developed in Germany in 2004 as an early protection intervention to integrate ‘hard to reach’ immigrant families and as an employment opportunity for ethnic marginalised women (Evers et al., 2014). Working as neighbourhood mothers in the community counted as an employment creation measure, earning an extra small fee on top of their regular welfare money (Evers et al., 2014). In 2008, the NM initiative got imported to Denmark, where a manual to help others replicate the initiative on a voluntary basis was created (https://bydelsmor.dk/english). Today, the Danish NM organisational model has been successfully reproduced in all the Nordic countries. In 2016, the Norwegian NM was established. The organisation started with its head office in Oslo, the capital of Norway, and is now expanding to different parts of the country. The project ‘Neighbourhood Mothers in rural Norway’ was initiated in 2019 to make adjustments to the NM concept to make it transferable from the city to the countryside. The eleven neighbourhood mothers in Kvam Herad (from now on referred to as Kvam) were the first women to complete the NM education programme outside Oslo.

The capability approach

A starting point for much research on the quality of life is the so-called Stiglitz Commission’s report, ‘The Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress’ (CMEPSP), which is a report representing the capability approach and seeking to include a broader spectrum of resources than what is expected in economic models. Sen first introduced the concept of capability in his Tanner Lectures on the subject of Equality of What? (Sen, 1979), and argued that what is missing from traditional economic models is a notion of what activities people can undertake (‘doings’) and the kinds of persons they can be (‘beings’). This notion, concerning both individual and contextual aspects, is what Sen calls ‘capabilities’. By focusing on what people can do and be, rather than merely on the distribution of goods and resources, the capability approach recognises the diversity of people’s ability to convert those resources and goods into real opportunities (Sen 1979). In the Stiglitz report, capabilities are linked to the following eight dimensions: (1) material living standards; (2) health; (3) education; (4) personal activities; (5) political voice and governance; (6) social connections and relationships; (7) environment; and (8) insecurity, of an economic as well as a physical nature (Stiglitz et al., 2009). In this chapter, we focus on the voluntary sector and how it may improve the quality of life, conditioned on the capability to volunteer, including both individual and contextual factors. In the perspective of the Stiglitz report, it can be argued that the voluntary sector (voluntary organisations and voluntary work) fulfils several vital functions that affect people’s quality of life, welfare, well-being and happiness, e.g. dimensions 2, 4, 5, 6 and 8 concerning health, personal activities, political voice and governance, social connections and relationships and security, but the environment dimension (7) is also covered by, for example, environmental organisations.

Differences in the context of local communities affect access to voluntary participation on the one hand and the demand for volunteer work in different local contexts on the other hand. Determinants of who is doing voluntary work seem to be conditioned on human, economic, social and cultural capital (Wilson & Musick, 1997; Wollebæk et al., 2015). However, the individual forms of social and cultural capital are influenced by structural features that impact their availability and distribution in each context. This could be about the size of the existing population of voluntary organisations, e.g. in different municipalities, or characteristics of the organisations such as levels of formalisation or number of members.

Voluntarism, health and quality of life

Research on the correlation between volunteering, well-being, good health and individuals’ quality of life often shows that volunteers report better health and quality of life than non-volunteers do (Fladmoe & Folkestad, 2017). However, it is challenging to uncover a causal explanation in this connection: Is it possible to improve health and well-being by doing voluntary work, or is it instead individuals with solid health and quality of life that are included or choose to participate in a voluntary organisation? Although it is difficult to uncover such a causal connection, several studies find that for people, who for various reasons are marginalised in society and local communities, such as the unemployed, the elderly, young people in isolation, the chronically ill, or newcomers, can benefit particularly from participation in voluntary organisations (Loga, 2010; Fladmoe & Folkestad, 2017).

At the societal level, there is much research, for example in the field of social capital research, claiming that a high level of voluntary work and a large number of voluntary organisations contribute to increasing the quality of life in a society. Putnam (2000) considers participation in voluntary organisations as both a cause and an effect on the quality of society: a sizeable voluntary sector creates trusting communities, and trusting communities produce collective action and active civil society. Research on well-being and the quality of life identifies ‘happy societies’, that is, countries that score high on indicators measuring the quality of life and happiness, as democratic, trusting, stable, inclusive and characterised by a decentralised authority. Living in such societies is the most crucial prerequisite for individual quality of life (Rothstein, 2010; Kumlin & Rothstein, 2010). Thus, this research gives arguments for local governments to build a policy for voluntary engagement, including minorities and public health.

Individual and contextual factors for volunteering in Norway

This chapter discusses volunteering performed by marginalised women and how they experience the effect of voluntary participation on their quality of life. Second, the chapter discusses the contextual capabilities of their participation in volunteering. In the following, we will describe some individual characteristics of this group of volunteers in Norway, building on the recent research on the voluntary sector in Norway. To start with, the establishment of Neighbourhood Mothers has a background in the fact that ethnic marginalised women with limited Norwegian language skills are among the least active participants in the voluntary sector in Norway. Voluntary participation in Norway is extensive compared to most other countries, and most of the voluntary work is performed within formalised organisations. Thus, compared to many other countries, voluntary work in Norway is characterised by a high degree of formalisation, even though the scope of voluntary efforts carried out outside the framework of an organisation is increasing (Enjolras & Strømsnes, 2018). Seventy-eight per cent of the population in Norway is a member of at least one organisation, and 48 per cent of the population is a member of at least two organisations (Statistics Norway’s Living Conditions Survey, 2020). The main areas where voluntary work is performed in Norway are culture and sports, especially in leisure activities concerning children and youth (Enjolras & Strømsnes, 2018). In general, the typical volunteer in Norway is a (native-born) married man between 35 and 49 years, with children in the household, high education and high household income, doing voluntary work in a sports organisation (Folkestad et al., 2015). Research investigating the immigrant population’s participation in voluntary organisations shows that, in general, half as many of the immigrant population as in the rest of the people engage in one way or another in a voluntary organisation (Eimhjellen & Arnesen, 2018). Thus, being an adult or older woman with lower education, newly arrived or a short period of residency in the local community, and no or little knowledge of Norwegian language skills, gives a significantly lower probability of doing voluntary work in a voluntary organisation in Norway.

When it comes to individual resources with significance for whether one participates in voluntary work, the question of motivation is also relevant. Wollebæk et al. (2015) find that the experience of the benefit of doing voluntary work, and the satisfaction and feelings of belonging to a voluntary organisation, are important for the individual’s willingness to continue as a volunteer. The volunteer’s life phase is also crucial for motivation, such as the fact that full-time workers may lack time to do voluntary work or that health conditions prevent many older people from participating.

The importance of social networks is strongly emphasised when it comes to conditions for voluntary participation. Most voluntary work comes about because someone has asked them, or they hear about the possibility of participation from someone they know. Therefore, young people and newcomers to the community more often state that they have not been asked (Wollebæk et al., 2015).

Finally, when it comes to research on the contextual conditions for voluntary participation in Norway, there is less research available compared to research on individual conditions. Research on voluntary work in Norway has shown that a special feature of Norwegian organisational life in recent times is that voluntary engagement has been almost the same in sparsely populated areas as in densely populated areas (Wollebæk & Sivesind, 2010, p. 52). However, the tendency in these numbers is that there is an increasing difference between urban and rural contexts where the decline has taken place in the urban and densely populated areas. The national survey of voluntary work in 2004 shows that residence in sparsely populated areas has become a variable that positively affects the probability of voluntary work (Wollebæk & Sivesind, 2010). More individuals in urban contexts claim they have not been asked to participate in voluntary work (30 per cent in big cities and 20 per cent in sparsely populated areas). The interpretation of this is that local communities where everyone knows each other have a more stable organisational community than communities with weaker social ties. Although there is a more extensive and more diverse offer of voluntary organisations in large cities, looser social relations may affect the probability of being asked to participate in volunteering. In larger cities, there are also several competing cultural activities such as cinemas, theatres, gyms, restaurants, concerts etc., that may replace the forms of social interaction central to many people’s motivation to participate in a voluntary organisation.

Method and data collection

The empirical data in this chapter stem from a qualitative case study on the Neighbourhood Mothers initiative in Norway. The data material is collected from Kvam in Western Norway county and the organisation’s head office in Oslo. The case study is examined using semi-structured interviews on Zoom (video and audio-conferencing). In Kvam, interviews were conducted with nine neighbourhood mothers, the project coordinator, twelve representatives from the local health and welfare services, stakeholders from the voluntary sector involvement in the NM initiative and the mayor in Kvam. Participatory observation was conducted at two NM online dialogue meetings with the neighbourhood mothers and the project coordinator. In Oslo, the data consists of ten interviews with representatives from the local health and welfare services and stakeholders from the voluntary sector involvement in the NM initiative in one of the boroughs, including the project coordinator and five neighbourhood mothers from the same borough. There was also participatory observation at two digital meetings with the neighbourhood mothers and two digital meetings with the NM Norway organisation board. Besides this, data on the NM initiative in Oslo and Kvam was drawn from several inquiries, including the organisation’s annual reports, newspaper articles and self-reported publicly accessible websites.

In this chapter, our primary focus is on the NM initiative in Kvam. While the context of Oslo is more familiar through several former research projects on immigrants’ participation in voluntary organisations in Oslo (Ødegård, 2010; Ødegård et al., 2014; Eimhjellen et al., 2021), there are no similar studies performed in Kvam. Therefore, the data for this chapter builds primarily on the data collection from Kvam.

Volunteering in Kvam

In Norway, only 20 per cent of the municipalities have developed a policy for the voluntary sector (Selle et al., 2018). Both Kvam and Oslo are among these municipalities. In Kvam, the local government refers to a high level of voluntary engagement both outside and within the framework of voluntary organisations. They have mapped the voluntary sector and registered 180 member-based organisations. These organisations operate in various fields such as sports and culture, humanitarian work and welfare, and activities for children and youths in the local community. In the action plan for public health in Kvam, the local government highlights engagement in voluntary organisations as important. Engagement in voluntary organisations is also highlighted as an important arena for integration in Kvam municipality’s Strategy for Migrant Integration (2020–25). The strategy states that:

Through consistent participation in civil society, the volunteers gain valuable knowledge and experience about local democratic processes. This implies that participation through voluntary organisations and activities can work as a ‘school in democracy’. The organisations are also political actors that can influence local political processes. If certain groups participate less in the local community over time, there may be consequences to those groups’ sense of belonging and trust in the local community. This could result in reduced participation in other areas such as education and employment and increased social inequality.

(Strategy for Migrant Integration, 2020–25, p. 19)

Referring to former research on integration and the voluntary sector in the largest cities in Norway (Ødegård et al., 2014), the action plan of Kvam highlights both the political ambition of mobilising the voluntary sector in the municipality’s effort to achieve better integration of migrants, as well as the attempt to implement a linking social capital where the municipality establishes collaboration with the voluntary organisations and helps to empower marginalised groups (Ødegård et al., 2014). The mayor also reflects this political ambition in Kvam on the NM initiative’s anticipated impact:

We hope that becoming a neighbourhood mother and training in democratic processes could help people get more involved in society, where they can participate more actively and get a better understanding of local social structures. In addition, I am hoping that the NM initiative can give these groups a boost in their interest in politics. There are a few people from other countries that run for office, but none have been elected.

The public health and social services informants also express a hopeful attitude towards the future collaboration between the services and the NM. The public professionals underline that the neighbourhood mothers can contribute with the necessary knowledge to improve public services. As one of the informants illustrates: ‘Yes, this is a totally new form of public service collaboration with volunteers. I think it is a great addition to working towards integration of migrants, as the public sector is just not that good at it. We have realised that we, as providers of public services, need the neighbourhood mothers as much as they need us’ (family therapist at The Family Centre).

All the health and social services informants share common challenges reaching out to ethnic marginalised groups regarding language, cultural barriers and misunderstandings. They all seem to acknowledge that NM as a voluntary organisation is a good platform for reaching out to citizens they have difficulties in reaching. One of the informants explained: ‘The volunteering neighbourhood mothers are resources that we can listen to, contributing with knowledge regarding ethnic minorities in various projects in the municipality. They have become representatives of their ethnic groups, helping us as public service providers to reach those groups’ (family counsellor at The Family Centre). In other words, the municipality of Kvam focuses on empowering migrant women through engagement in voluntary organisations, both through the municipality’s voluntary policy, integration policy and action plan for public health. This work is further reflected in our interviews with public employees within various service institutions. As a factor in Kvam, a rural context, this does not differ from the corresponding work that has been done over several years in Oslo, where the NM was first established.

Work inclusion through social networks

Several of the informants underline how access to paid work in a small community largely depends on inclusion in social networks. Furthermore, there was broad consensus among the informants on the difficulties of building a social network in the local community. A recent survey conducted for The Strategy for Migrant Integration in Kvam also points to access to paid work and difficulties of building a social network as two of the main challenges regarding migrant integration in Kvam (Strategy for Migrant Integration, 2020–25, p. 19). Several of the informants in our case study also point to an underrepresentation of migrants in voluntary organisations and activities as a reason for the social marginalisation. The connection of (membership) participation in a formal voluntary organisation, inclusion in social networks and access to paid work is highlighted by one of the informants:

First, there are few jobs here, so there is competition for every job. It’s hard for everyone to get employment, but it’s even harder if you don’t speak the language well. A working environment is important for building a network to get to know people. If a colleague invites you to go for a bike ride or something, you get the opportunity to get to know them. If you don’t have that arena, you don’t get a network. Also, a survey has recently been sent out to all the voluntary organisations regarding the new Strategy for Migrant Integration here in Kvam. They all say they have integration goals, but when we ask if they have members from non-western countries, they say no … I have many strange experiences with volunteer organisations that say that ‘THEY [referring to the migrants] have to get integrated’ and so on. But how do you do that when you don’t get taken in?

(general manager at The Centre for Volunteering)

This is underpinned by one of the neighbourhood mothers: ‘I am a job seeker, and I have been applying for many jobs. And you know, this is a small rural community. All the Norwegians here know each other. They went to school together or worked together, you know, from childhood. So they know each other, and that makes it easier for them to get jobs’ (neighbourhood mother).

Social networks are also highlighted by the general manager at The Centre for Volunteering as more crucial for work inclusion in a smaller community than in the larger city:

For example, you have the case of mothers not taking their children to birthday parties, which leads to the other parents don’t get to know their child, and it’s maybe the man of that house who years later is going to be offering internships or a work position to some of these children, right. So, if the other parents don’t get to know their children, it could have consequences later in life, especially in rural areas. It’s maybe not as crucial in the larger cities, but here it is.

On questions regarding employment opportunities in Kvam, the informants from the health and welfare services all agree that the NM initiative can lead to greater employment opportunities for the women involved. As one informant highlights: ‘NM has become visible through their Facebook group, advertisements, and articles in our local newspaper, and so they are seen as resources to the whole community. Which could make a difference when applying for jobs’ (family counsellor at The Family Centre). And as another informant states: ‘They get a lot of practice speaking Norwegian, and I guess it broadens their networks rather quickly too, making it easier for them to get jobs’ (youth social worker). These informants highlight that the ethnic marginalised women receive individual resources by participating in the local voluntary organisation that contribute to strengthen their ‘capabilities’ both in the form of material living and insecurity (getting a job), education (learning the language) and social connections and relationships (getting to know the local citizens) (Stiglitz et al., 2009).

Several neighbourhood mothers also share the hopes for better social inclusion and employment opportunities by gaining more knowledge about society and getting to know several professionals throughout the NM education programme. Thus, they also point to possible improved capabilities in social connections, less insecurity both in a psychological and material form, and health (well-being). As one of them shared:

I’ve noticed that more people are coming up to me when I’m out walking to work, for example, after becoming an NM. They say hi and smile at me because they know who I am after being in the local newspaper. Earlier, one of my colleagues wouldn’t talk to me because she was a little scared of me. One day, after I was in the paper, she passed me with her car and smiled and waved at me. She wanted to have a chat and said that she had read about me in the paper. Then she opened up and told a bit of herself too. That was very nice.

(neighbourhood mother)

The same experience is shared by another neighbourhood mother who also experienced the local citizens’ positive attitude towards her when they learned that the woman is engaged in the voluntary organisation of NM: ‘After being interviewed and pictured in the paper, several people have come up to me at school and told me they’ve read about me, complimented what I said. That’s been very nice’ (neighbourhood mother). In other words, participation leads to both a more positive attitude and increased trust, and furthermore, better social inclusion in the local community. It also seems that the local newspaper is an important information channel for this trust to be established. The local population’s reference to the local newspaper seems more central in Kvam and is not similarly emphasised by informants in Oslo.

Social arenas and local attitudes

The characteristics of the context of Kvam versus Oslo, for example in the form of what kind of social arenas exist in the different local communities, are an essential factor for how local citizens view and value the migrant women’s participation in NM. In a larger city, a comprehensive and diverse cultural service exists where citizens participate socially and connect, whereas in Kvam the voluntary organisations seem to be more important as arenas for social engagement:

Like everyone else in Kvam, we meet on the football pitch or the cross-country skiing tracks. We have very few informal meeting places. There are almost no cafes, and the few we have are only open during the day. And then you have the hotels, which the men are using. They hang out, drink coffee, but the women [referring to the migrants] don’t really have any meeting places .

(general manager at The Centre for Volunteering)

This informant reflects on the characteristics of the social arenas in Kvam. There are very few informal, non-organised social arenas, and most social engagement happens within the frame of a formal voluntary organisation. In line with research on the voluntary sector in Norway, this is the very characteristic of the so-called ‘ membership model’ as the typical form of civic engagement in all the Nordic countries (Selle, 2013; Henriksen et al., 2019). This is also in line with research that points to an increasing difference between city and country when it comes to voluntary work, and that participation in voluntary organisations is more important in rural areas than in large cities, where social interaction also takes place in other arenas. In other words, this indicates that voluntary organisations are more important for migrants to be socially included, but also for the opportunity to get a job and to be met with a smile and not scepticism from the local population. All these three factors have a great impact on the quality of life of every human being.

The lack of meeting places for social interaction in the local community is also strongly emphasised as an explanation for less interaction between different ethnic groups. One of the informants highlights this when asked if it was easy to get to know people when she moved here, answering: ‘No, it wasn’t easy. I have gotten to know a few other migrants like me. I went to the “language cafe” a few times and took Norwegian classes, but there were no Norwegians there, only women from other countries’ (neighbourhood mother). The lack of social arenas in the local community for the ethnic marginalised women is also reflected on by several of the neighbourhood mothers. When asked whether they have a meeting place outside the home, one neighbourhood mother replies: ‘No. We have a mosque, but it’s only the men that go there. It’s because the mosque is only one tiny room. There’s not enough space, and men and women aren’t supposed to be there together. So, a lot of women just stay at home with the kids’ (neighbourhood mother). This informant emphasises that participation in the NM organisation is important not only for building trust in the majority population but also for bonding social trust with other minority groups. In Kvam, the NM as a voluntary organisation also functions as an essential social arena for different migrant groups, and NM plays a central role, like the mosque, as a place where newcomers meet their first and often only acquaintances. Lack of social communities and friendships is one of the strongest variables that affects a person’s quality of life. While in Oslo many religious communities and minority organisations can fill this need for newcomers, NM is one of very few such arenas in Kvam.

Recruitment to voluntary work

The most important factor for becoming a volunteer and being included in a voluntary organisation in Norway is to be invited to join by someone you know (Wollebæk et al., 2015), as illustrated by the coordinator at The Centre for Volunteering:

I imagine that in smaller communities it is easier to get an overview of the people living here and to know who to ask to volunteer. I can just call someone, introduce myself, and they’ll know who I am. As mentioned, many of them I know privately too, you know. When we know each other, it’s easier to ask for voluntary participation.

This form of recruitment process also depends on social ties. It illustrates how it is difficult to be included when arriving as a newcomer and perhaps not communicating due to the lack of language skills. Therefore, newcomers to the community more often state that they have not been asked (Wollebæk et al., 2015), as reflected upon by another informant:

In rural municipalities, you could say that it’s easier to reach some of the migrant groups. However, in some rural areas, you can see that work migrants become very isolated. They’re not in contact with any organisation or public service other than schools or kindergartens, if they have kids. Other than that, they have no point of contact with the municipality and don’t get language training. And there are a lot of these in rural municipalities.

(senior adviser, Centre of Equality (KUN))

Whether one arrives as a refugee, for work or through family reunion, these groups are met with different integration policies. For example, immigrants arriving as refugees in Norway go through the mandatory ‘introduction programme’, with an emphasis on language training and social studies. In contrast, there is no such programme for working immigrants, which is the largest immigration group in Norway (and in the local community of Kvam). As a result, very few in this group receive any public offer of language and social training. As highlighted by the general manager at The Centre for Volunteering: ‘We [The Centre for Volunteering] know the refugees the best. They arrive through the refugee service and adult education training, so we get to know them at these arenas. So, it sort of comes down to our [The Centre for Volunteering] recruitment through those networks and arenas’.

Only one neighbourhood mother has been part of a voluntary organisation before, the Red Cross. The others say they have never been asked or know what the different organisations do. As one of the neighbourhood mothers explains: ‘No, none of the voluntary organisations has ever asked me to join because they don’t know me. I know they have a few groups at the Centre for Volunteering, but I don’t know what they do, that’s why I haven’t joined’.

The mayor argued that the effort and integration strategies of some of the other voluntary organisations in the local community of Kvam were not too successful: ‘I think many of the voluntary organisations could be more active in their efforts to try and recruit migrants. I think we still have a job to do when it comes to recruiting migrants here in Kvam.’ As one of the informants explains:

The Norwegian Women’s Public Health Association (Norske Kvinners Sanitetsforening) and the Norwegian Society of Rural Women (Norges Bygdekvinnelag) are usually represented in district municipalities. NKS, for instance, may have as many as six or seven divisions in a single town. They’re not trying to be excluding but are often perceived as somewhat excluding. Very few women from ethnic minorities are represented … When we organise seminars with these organisations, they often say that they don’t know how to recruit or reach out to ethnic minorities.

(senior adviser, Centre of Equality (KUN))

The coordinator for volunteering argues that one of the excluding factors is that there is an economical fee to become a member in many of these organisations: ‘Maybe 600–700 kroner a year to be part of the women’s and family association, and then they also go on excursions or trips that also cost a lot. If you are short on money, it’s holding people back.’

Individual factors, such as gender, minority background and the lack of language skills are relevant factors that decrease the possibility of being included in a voluntary organisation. In addition to this, for the ethnic marginalised women, income also seems to be a factor in participating, as most organisations are member-based and require an annual fee. This illustrates the interconnection of individual and contextual factors in the capability approach of Amartya Sen (1979), where the economy of the individual becomes an obstacle because of the forms, for example membership-based voluntary organisations, and the lack of multiple social arenas that exist in the context.

Motivation for volunteering

When it come s to individual resources with significance for whether one participates in voluntary work, motivation is also relevant. When asked in the interviews what the coordinator might have said to make them choose to become volunteering neighbourhood mothers, several of the women highlighted the notion of helping others and building community as the main reasons. As one of the neighbourhood mothers answered:

The coordinator sent me a video of NM in Oslo and asked me if I wanted to join. I watched the video and saw that I could join the effort to help others and society in general. I really wanted to become a neighbourhood mother … because then we become useful to one another and to society. Also, I want to give back what I have received. I have received safety, protection, education and work here in Norway, and my kids are safe here. So you want to give back to those who have given to you. We are now going to be useful to this society and make it even better.

Motives and values regarding helping other women and especially ethnic marginalised groups was also highlighted as one of the main motivation factors for becoming neighbourhood mothers. As one of the neighbourhood mothers stated: ‘It is exactly like the saying, When women thrive, all of society benefits’:

Therefore, I said yes to becoming a neighbourhood mother right away because I’m rooting for women who stand together. Helping and supporting each other through joys and sorrows, through everything. Because it’s needed. As women we must support each other. When I see another woman going through something, who’s feeling bad, I get hurt too. Even if it isn’t me hurting. I always think, ‘imagine if it was me’, so I like helping other women.

Several benefits of becoming volunteering neighbourhood mothers are also highlighted as motivation factors, such as gaining knowledge and language training: ‘When the coordinator asked me if I wanted to join the NM training programme, I thought I should join to practice my Norwegian, build my knowledge and learn more about existing services’ (neighbourhood mother). Others highlighted that their motivation was about becoming part of a social network. Wollebæk et al. (2015) state that satisfaction and feelings of belonging to a voluntary organisation are important for the individual’s motivation and willingness to continue as a volunteer. This is underlined by several of the neighbourhood mothers, exemplified by one of them:

What motivated me to become a neighbourhood mother was arranging activities for women here in Kvam. I want women to have a good time here, to enjoy themselves …. I’m going to discuss this with the other neighbourhood mothers and see what we can do. We haven’t initiated any activities yet because we have just completed the NM training programme, but we’re going to learn from the neighbourhood mothers in Oslo.


The case study has found that inclusion in a voluntary organisation has a huge impact on ethnic marginalised women’s experienced well-being and quality of life. Social belonging is a factor that most of our informants emphasise as a primary motive for wanting to become volunteers and members of the Neighbourhood Mothers voluntary organisation. Individual resources such as gender, background and language skills are known factors in voluntary research that contribute to exclusion. Our informants point out that personal economy also comes into play when it comes to member-based voluntary organisations. The study suggests that all the factors mentioned are getting stronger in rural areas where the few, and often member-based voluntary organisations, are the most important arenas for social participation and leisure activities. In urban areas there is a greater diversity of voluntary organisations and associations, including many minority organisations and several other cultural offerings that fill the need for socialisation. Therefore, organisations do not become the only central arenas for social inclusion. These findings underscore the interconnection of individual resources and characteristics in different contexts found in Sen’s capability approach. The individual resources, such as gender, minority background, language skills and personal economy, are relevant exclusion mechanisms in both contexts. However, the contextual factors are very different, such as the number of voluntary organisations, types of organisations, the development of a policy of volunteering, integration and public health, and the ability and awareness in the organisations to include marginalised citizens. There are more marginalised minorities in Oslo than in Kvam. Still, the voluntary organisation seems to be a more important arena for social inclusion in rural areas than in cities, which is crucial for people’s experienced well-being and quality of life.


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