Sweden ‘uninterested’ in volunteers: charity head

120 youth volunteers who are due to arrive in Stockholm this month with the "Up with People" charity organization have had their services refused by several Swedish companies, which are simply "not interested" in any help.

“I can’t understand it, this is unprecedented,” programme coordinator Veronika Westermark told The Local.

The group, which is set to arrive in Sweden on April 16th, has also not had enough offers from host families for housing. Forty of the group’s members, coming from 22 different countries, are still “homeless”.

“Up with People” is a global education organization, which, along with a “spirit of community and service” sends groups of 17-29-year-olds around the world to volunteer their help and showcase their performing arts.

Westermark added that the program has been an enormous success worldwide, with companies in Mexico, the US and Asia all eager to host and be helped. However, the trend has not continued in Sweden.

“The culture is so different in Sweden, there is more structure here. Perhaps this is why no-one wants help, and no-one wants to sponsor us – even though we’re asking for nothing in return,” she said.

She points to the possibility that Swedish companies prefer professionals when it comes to giving aid at child, animal, and refugee centres, and may be put-off by the concept of recently graduated high-school students doing professional work.

Westermark says that the team has been refused by companies including the Ronald McDonald house, the Salvation Army and Amnesty International, among others.

Sweden’s Volunteer Centre (Volontärbyrån), while sympathetic to the project, has stated that timing was a big factor in why they could not help out.

“We only received their requests fairly recently, and these things take time to sort out,” said Vanja Höglund of the Volontärbyrån to The Local.

Höglund adds that while there is possibly a difference stemming from country codes, with Sweden being more “traditional” than “community based”, this does not mean there is no interest.

“But people are definitely interested in volunteering here, and people do need help. Our website is full, and we have even expanded recently into an English volunteer program,” she said.

Meanwhile, Up with People will perform in Stockholm at Södermalm’s Göta Lejon theatre between April 16th and 22nd.

Westermark says that the team members are still looking for host families, and anyone who can provide a place to sleep, three meals a day, and a safe environment should consider contacting the organization.

Oliver Gee

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Volunteering for English speakers hits Sweden

Volunteering in Sweden has never been easy for non-Swedish speaking foreigners, but the founders of a new project in Stockholm are hoping to change that by creating a volunteer hub for expats who speak English, The Local's Oliver Gee discovers.

Volunteering for English speakers hits Sweden

UK-native Claire Thomas, who recently launched The English Volunteering Project in Stockholm, has volunteering in her blood.

Coming from an English family which has been involved with volunteering “for generations”, she claims that helping people is part of her life.

When she found herself in Sweden in 2010, thanks to her husband’s new job, it wasn’t long before she started scouting for volunteer opportunities on Swedish shores, but the initial searching proved fruitless.

“I realized fairly quickly that while Sweden does already have a great volunteer recruitment agency, the “Volontärbyrån”, there was no real opportunity to sign up and help if you were an English speaker,” she tells The Local.

At least not then.

After noting the interest and potential for English-speaking help around Sweden, Thomas proposed a collaboration with the Volontärbyrån – to add an English recruitment section to their website, and has since got the go-ahead for the project, dubbed The English Volunteering Project.

Thomas claims the concept will be a great way to help ease some of the initial challenges associated with moving to a foreign country.

“It can be hard to find any kind of work here when you don’t speak Swedish, and it’s often tough to meet people. When you can tick off these kinds of boxes, while at the same time giving much needed help, the experience can be really rewarding,” she explains.

However, many foreigners miss this opportunity due to not speaking enough Swedish to learn about or meaningfully engage in existing volunteer opportunities.

And while while some expats have gotten the impression that this means Sweden is simply not interested in getting help, that is not the case at all, according to Thomas.

“It’s just a matter of accepting that Sweden is different, in a good way. Many people don’t talk or brag about their contributions to non-profit organizations like they might in other countries,” she says.

“Volunteering in Sweden can seem invisible, but it really isn’t. There is a whole different culture behind the volunteer sector, but this is not a worry – it just means things need to be negotiated differently”.

And this is where Thomas steps in.

The English Volunteering Project is now well on the way to becoming a reality, and already has Prince Charles’s seal of approval, which he personally gave Thomas during his recent visit to Stockholm.

“He told me thought it was a brilliant idea – which was really encouraging,” Thomas says.

Vanja Höglund, spokesperson for Volontärbyrån, has big expectations too, claiming that the possibility of engaging English speakers with Swedish society is an opportunity that’s too good to miss.

“It’s incredibly nice when you hear of someone who wants to contribute their time commitment, and of course we want to be able to take advantage of that commitment,” Höglund tells The Local.

“Our vision at Volontärbyrån is that everyone who wants to be able to find a volunteer assignment that fits them will be able to, and if we can reach even more people with an English translation of the service, then we’ve succeeded with our mission.”

But it has been a long road, which started in November last year, and has occupied Thomas while juggling her first pregnancy.

However, Thomas is keen to get the project through the final stages so that it’s up and running before her baby is.

“We hope to be able to work on the English web section on Volontärbyrån in June, with the Project coming into full swing in September or October,” she says.

Now all that’s missing is the funding that will allow the creating of the English sub-section.

While interest in the project may be sky high, more donations are still needed before it can be created and officially launched online.

To achieve this, the Project is setting up an account with “Funded by Me”, an online crowd-funding programme, in which people can donate to the project through a web-based social media platform.

The account will be launched in a matter of weeks, according to Thomas.

In the meantime, Thomas is still working hard on the project and volunteering in her spare time, but is keen to point out that volunteering is a two-way street where everybody can gain something positive.

“I love volunteering, but it’s not just about giving. In fact, volunteering has actually given me quite a lot. It’s been a way for me to take the focus off myself when things haven’t been easy,” she explains, adding that her work on this project is completely voluntary as well.

“Volunteering enriches your life, and helps others at the same time. Hopefully English speakers in Sweden can jump on board and help get this project going.”

UPDATE: Click here for the The English Volunteering Project donation website