Voluntary care associations

There is a revival of the citizens’ initiative in care in The Netherlands. These are initiatives that usually have their ‘place’ in the social atmosphere in which ‘voluntary associations are dominant’ (Dekker, 2014). The characteristics of these free associations or citizen initiatives are:

  • Participation is voluntary;
  • Participation can be ended at any time;
  • Apart from paying contribution, there are no legal obligations;
  • Participants produce their own services;
  • Participants are not subject to the disciplines of the market or the state;
  • Principle values are: a better world, be good, friendship and care.

Reviving the citizens’ initiative

Several explanations count for the resurgence of this type of association. The first is that civil society continues to grow. For years, the Netherlands has been at the top of the global rankings when it comes to volunteering and membership of voluntary associations. From 1980 to 2006 the Dutch population increased by 16%. In the same period the number of participants of voluntary associations, with more than 50,000 members, increased by 40%. In ​​care and welfare with almost 70%. For these associations this means an increase of participants from 3 to 5 million. Examples are the Diabetes Association, De Zonnebloem, the Dutch Patients’ Association, and the Salvation Army.

Hurenkamp and Tonkens in 2011 researched voluntary associations with less than 20 participants in Smilde, a small village in the province Drenthe. There were 70 of them. At that time, in Smilde lived 4,500 people. Extrapolation to the total Dutch population yields, according to their estimation, the astronomical number of an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 initiatives of this size. Another example is the number of Dutch small-scale voluntary citizens initiatives that directly provide structural support to one or more developing countries. This is estimated at 6,400 to 15,000.

There are organizations that do not appear in these statistics. Although some of them already exist for over a hundred years. For instance independent regional care-associations, recovery care associations and care cooperatives. The care cooperatives have grown from a handful to 500 in the last ten years. They are voluntary associations whose main objective is that people can stay at home for as long as possible in good health and under their own guidance.

Civil society constantly renews itself

The second reason, for the resurgence of voluntary care associations, is that civil society is constantly renewing itself. In recent years, in The Netherlands, all kinds of initiatives emerged: in the field of public green areas, energy cooperatives, ‘bread funds’, and cultural facilities. It is precisely in this new wave that the emergence of care cooperatives must be situated.

Three contemporary changes in the welfare state explain the growth and continuous innovation of civil society.

The revival of the ideals of the civil society

Citizens’ initiative is again highly regarded, by citizens, but also by politicians. At the same time, we know that civil society revivals are always connected with shortcomings of the welfare state experienced by citizens. These shortages are of a financial, social, cultural or moral nature.

The emergence of individualism

The second major change in the welfare state that underpins the revival of the citizens’ initiative dates from the seventies of the Twentieth Century. This concerns the increased importance of the individual (Hustinx, 2009). In other words, we have come to find ourselves more important. That is the result of a shift in socio-cultural values. Autonomy, self-actualization and quality of life have become more important than tradition, collective identity and solidarity. This shift is to a large extent the product of the welfare state. Through better education and good social services people could shift their concerns from material to non-material.

The shift from state to community

The shift from the state to the community is the third change that is assumed to have an impact on the revival of civil society. An example of this shift is the Law for societal development (Wmo). Everyone must join in, is the motto of this law. This endorses the political-administrative plea for a greater responsibility for one’s own destiny and that of others. On the other hand, it also means increasing public interference with the daily life of citizens. Those who want to appeal to the state for assistance must tolerate a civil servant at the kitchen table.

Hybrid motivation

Why do people participate in this kind of associations? For a number of them the political administrative ideal of greater responsibility is in line with their socio-cultural ideal of more autonomy. Self-actualization is also cited as an important motive. Many initiatives focus on supporting people to live independently in their own homes and surroundings, for as long as possible and in good health. This shows that the quality of life is also an important motive. Not all old ideals of civil society are lost: helping each other in someone’s own direct social circle is still seen as an important motive.

However, the striking feature of participants’ motivation is that it’s hybrid. They combine an openly confessed, well-understood self-interest with strong social feelings for their fellow human beings. A feeling they convert into action in times of need. But they expect something back. When time comes, when they themselves are less well off, they also expect support. Reciprocity is an important incentive for active participation in voluntary care associations.

The resurgence of the voluntary care associations is best explained by the coincidence of these hybrid motives and the welfare state changes.


Dekker, P. (2014). Leren uit het buitenland: Burgerparticipatie. College voor DIVOSA/VU-cyclus. Amsterdam: Vrije Universiteit. [Lessons from abroad: citizens participation. Lecture at the DIVOSA/VU-cycle 2014. Amsterdam: VU Amsterdam.]

Hurenkamp, M. & Tonkens, E. (2011). De onbeholpen samenleving. Burgerschap aan het begin van de 21e eeuw. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Hustinx, L. (2009). De individualisering van het vrijwillig engagement, in Buys, G., Dekker, P. & Hooghe, M. (red.) Civil society. Tussen oud en nieuw (pp. 211-224). Amsterdam: Aksant.

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