Whether collecting food, driving home merry revellers or dressing up as St Nicholas, volunteers make a strong contribution during the Christmas period.
Statistics show that around one third of the population in Switzerland give up their time for worthy causes each year – with many of the volunteers passionate about what they do.
Volunteering has been in the spotlight in 2011 – the tenth anniversary of the International Year of Volunteers as well as the European Year of Volunteering, which was also marked in Switzerland.
Federal Statistics Office figures released earlier this year show that around 33 per cent of the resident population in Switzerland aged over 15 did formal or informal voluntary work in 2010.
The European Union average is estimated at around 25 per cent, according to the European Year of Volunteering website.
In all, people in Switzerland spent around half a day a week carrying out formal work for organisations or providing informal help to relatives and friends.
Herbert Ammann, director of the Swiss Society for Public Good, which helps promote volunteering in Switzerland, said that the Swiss could be designated a nation of volunteers.
“The concept of volunteering in Switzerland is very deeply rooted,” he told swissinfo.ch.
This has to do with how the state was created, he explained. Communities were given a lot of autonomy to decide on how to carry out local projects.
“In the mountain areas, for example, protecting forests from natural catastrophes and avalanches was work done by the whole community [for free].”
In the 19th century anyone who wanted to make something of himself in society had to take on a voluntary role, Ammann added. Informal work also has its historical roots, in helping each other out in times of need.
But nowadays, urbanisation and less social pressure means that there are fewer volunteers than in earlier times. Indeed, official statistics show around 41 per cent of the population contributed time to worthy causes in 2000.
“Those who volunteer now perhaps do so more from conviction and have fewer ulterior motives concerning careers or similar,” said Ammann.
Ammann estimates that unpaid work contributes around on average three to four per cent of gross domestic product. But it also contributes to community building, with Ammann citing examples of football training for children or helping migrants learn German.
Christmas is a particularly busy time for unpaid helpers: hundreds of men, for example, volunteer to dress up as St Nicholas to visit children in and around St Nicholas’ Day on December 6.
Charities, such as Tischlein Deck Dich, which takes foodstuffs near their sell-by-date that have been rejected by retailers and gives them to those in need, are also in demand.
“We have around 1,600 volunteers in Switzerland and we need them because otherwise Tischlein Deck Dich wouldn’t exist. They do the whole distribution work,” the organisation’s Caroline Schneider told swissinfo.ch.
Schneider says there is no shortage of people, mostly women of pension age, wanting to help out at the organisation, which operates all year round.
“It’s an activity which has a purpose, is social and environmentally friendly. Secondly, it’s an investment of around two hours per week or every two weeks and thirdly, the volunteers meet lots of people, either the other volunteers or they have direct contact with our clients,” she explained.
“So it’s really one-on-one help, which is something they like to do.”
Daniel Terrapon organises the Fribourg section of Nez Rouge, a free service in which volunteers ferry Christmas revellers who are over the drink-driving limit home using the person’s own car.
He himself has been a volunteer driver for eight years. “I have always volunteered in different areas, such as sport, but a few years ago I thought spending December 31 doing something else, with a different mindset, would be a good idea,” he told swissinfo.ch.
“The relationship you develop with people during your Nez Rouge work is very worthwhile and very quickly you feel like doing more.”
He now has 400 drivers who work once or twice a year to drive 800-1,000 people over the Christmas period.
For Terrapon, the experience is very rewarding. “You feel useful and if you have been able to avoid just one accident thanks to our service you can be happy,” he said.
It is hard to make a direct comparison because of the different definitions used by countries. Switzerland’s 33% figure is for both formal and informal work.
However, in terms of formal volunteer work, the Federal Statistics Office offers the following statistics for Switzerland’s neighbours in its latest report on regional differences (March 2011):
Germany: 36% of the population, Austria: 43%, France: 26-27%, Italy: was noted as having a “relatively small percentage of volunteer work”.
Switzerland: in the report the 2007 figure of 24% was given. The 2010 figure for formal work alone is around 20%.
(Source: Federal Statistics Office)end of infobox
Swiss stats in detail
Around 33 per cent of the resident population in Switzerland aged over 15 did formal or informal voluntary work in 2010. On average people spent around half a day a week doing unpaid work.
One in five people performed an unpaid activity within an organisation or institution. Men were more actively involved in this formal voluntary work than women (23 per cent compared with 16.9 per cent).
There are also informal, unpaid activities for other households such as helping neighbours and relatives. In this sector, 18.4 per cent of the population helped out. Women were more active than men (22.7 per cent compared with 13.9 per cent).
On a regional scale, there were proportionally more volunteers in German-speaking Switzerland than in the French- and Italian-speaking parts.
(Source: Federal Statistics Office)end of infobox