A close look at volunteering

Why do people volunteer to help in their villages? A study by the cultural geography working group at Kiel University examines this question in order to recommend actions for policy-makers.

Rustic-looking sign with the inscription "Feuerwehr" (Fire brigade)
© Florian Dünckmann

Focus on voluntary work in villages: The commitment of people, for example in the voluntary fire brigade, is the subject of a study.

Around 16 million Germans are doing it – just because they want to: they volunteer, whether with fire brigades, sports clubs, church communities, litter picking or to help neighbours. Since May 2021, the unpaid commitment of time, energy, advice and action by people in rural areas has been the focus of a joint project by the universities in Kiel and Leipzig. Set to run for two years, the "Selbst ist das Dorf?” (do-it-yourself village) project is funded under the Federal Programme for Rural Development of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture. The cultural geography working group under the direction of Professor Florian Dünckmann investigates the "embedding of voluntary engagement in everyday village life". The same study is also running in Leipzig.

Selbst ist das Dorf / do-it-yourself village

Why the study is focused on villages is quickly explained by Jens Reda, research associate in cultural geography. "The social context in a village is different from that of a town or city. As a general rule, there is a good sense of community in villages that often arises out of the fact that public services are not guaranteed to the same extent as they are in the city. There is also a tradition of mutual support and caring for each other that is born out of necessity," Reda knows from an earlier project on social commitment in a village context. "We are interested in what getting involved and volunteering means to the people in the villages and what makes them decide to volunteer – or not," said Reda. Just what this commitment looks like and how, for instance, new arrivals in a village integrate in an established village community are just a few of the questions the researchers are addressing. "We are currently working our way through an extensive list of questions," said Reda.

It is not yet quite clear in which villages these questions are being asked. The team in Schleswig-Holstein picked out two regions for its investigations. "We chose North Friesland, a very rural region, as one of them, and the district of Herzogtum Lauenburg near the city of Hamburg as the other," explained cultural geographer Florian Dünckmann. Preliminary investigations are currently underway to learn more about the different villages and their structures. The same thing is also happening in Saxony, where one very rural village and another one near a big city are being closely observed in order to draw an east-west comparison at the end. "But that's just a side effect of the study," explained Dünckmann. "What we are really interested in is understanding the fabric of the village by documenting it, its structures and community, and by interviewing the residents. Not just by looking at the community from above, but from the perspective of the local people." This enabled the group to identify further wishes and needs.

What factors strengthen commitment?

"We also want to identify specific factors that strengthen, complicate or change the commitment in local structures. This is important so we can also include the results of the study in political discussion," added Professor Dünckmann. At the end of the project, recommended actions will be formulated to policy-makers for the promotion of rural areas. "This is intended to improve funding. Because only if the state's actions – be they providing financial support, through a form of appreciation or through the more flexible application of existing regulations – are close to the village environment and to the needs of the people will the support actually reach the local people."

Author: Jennifer Ruske

The "Selbst ist das Dorf?" project is part of a large-scale federal research programme into voluntary commitment in rural areas. In eleven projects, 15 research institutions are developing insights into and facts on how civic involvement in rural areas can be strengthened in the long-term.