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Study on Volunteering by People with a Migration Background

Background of the Study

Volunteering can make an important contribution to the integration and participation of people with a migration background. The extent to which people engage in volunteering is influenced by a variety of factors that are often mutually dependent. On the one hand, socio-economic factors play a role, such as level of education, employment and income. Socialisation through the family and educational institutions also has an influence, as do personal networks. Basically, the better people's resources are, the more likely they are to volunteer. Cultural aspects also play a role. Austria, for example, has a well-developed system of associations in which many people volunteer. Whether people with a migration background engage in voluntary work depends on their personal resources, but is also significantly influenced by the voluntary organisations. In practice, it is clear that it is not enough for organisations to be "fundamentally open" to the involvement of migrants. Rather, they must take specific measures to recruit migrants as volunteers. This is especially the case when there are language barriers and the migrants are not very integrated, for example because they are not employed.

In the context of the present study, which was commissioned by the Austrian Integration Fund, possibilities of improving the involvement of people with a migration background in voluntary activities were sought. The aim of this study was to examine how organisations approach people with a migration background, whether this is part of their self-image or even part of their strategy, whether they take special measures to reach people with a migration background and integrate them into the organisation, what hurdles there are in doing so and what experiences they have had. Furthermore, the significance of the voluntary engagement of people with a migration background for selected key stakeholder groups was also elicited within the framework of the study. Specifically, the impacts of volunteering were recorded and analysed for the volunteers with a migration background themselves, but also for the volunteer organisations and their beneficiaries and addressees, and for society as a whole. In twelve semi-structured interviews, representatives of large voluntary organisations from different fields of activity were interviewed.


The results show that the participation of people with a migration background is rarely part of a targeted strategy, but that there is a very high level of awareness and sometimes a lot of experience with the participation of people with a migration background in most of the organisations surveyed, although it was repeatedly pointed out that this is not a homogeneous group. Since the refugee movement in 2015, some organisations have addressed how to engage people with refugee experience, but this is not the case for all organisations.

Organisations that primarily fulfil advocacy functions, for example those that are activist and want to achieve certain social changes, such as environmental protection, human rights, etc., more often report that they tend to reach more highly educated people, because their activities are, among other things, about highlighting complex issues. When people with a migration background get involved, they usually have a very good knowledge of German or English and a higher level of education. However, it is precisely these organisations that emphasise again and again that it is important for them to reach as many population groups as possible with their topics and to win them over to their cause.

It is apparently easier for organisations that are more active in community building, such as sports and cultural organisations or those in the community sector, to involve people with a migration background. Sometimes these are membership organisations that offer various services to their members, such as sports courses. Membership alone does not constitute voluntary engagement, but it is often an entry point for low-threshold activities, such as helping at festivals or maintaining sports facilities. Here, experiences were reported where young people with a refugee background from a neighbouring institution were initially integrated into the organisation as members very proactively and taking their interests into account, and in the course of this took on voluntary activities. Organisations that offer various services for people with a migration background also reported that former service recipients subsequently volunteered with the organisation. Some of these organisations stated that many people with a migration background have recently actively approached them because they are interested in volunteering.

According to the organisations' reports, the volunteers' motives are very diverse and depend on their respective circumstances. They range from the desire to make a contribution to society or to give something back, to the desire to spend their free time in a meaningful way, to the desire to increase their chances on the labour market, to learn the language and to get to know other people. These motives are in line with the motives for volunteering mentioned in the research literature, but they often have a special meaning for volunteers with a migration background, because there are also various hurdles to overcome.

On the one hand, language barriers were mentioned, which sometimes make it difficult to find suitable activities or to reach potential volunteers. Reservations on the part of other staff or members of the organisations were also mentioned. In the case of organisations that provide services to clients, prejudices and resulting problems can also arise in contact with them. Barriers can also be caused by personal factors of the volunteers. These include time restrictions that arise because people with a migration background have to deal with many bureaucratic matters in order to organise their lives in Austria. In the case of people with refugee experience, it is sometimes also legal restrictions that limit the possibilities to engage in voluntary work. Personal - sometimes traumatic - experiences, especially of refugees, require a very sensitive approach on the part of the organisation to its volunteers.

In order to overcome barriers like these, organisations need to take various measures. These include special training measures for volunteers but also for the staff who work with volunteers with a migration background, buddy systems through which volunteers with a migration background receive support or a mutual exchange is promoted, supervision offers, etc. The approach of an organisation to support people with a migration background in implementing their own ideas in the best possible way has also proved very successful. It is important to create space and to listen to the needs and concerns of the volunteers.


Some organisations see it as their social mission to involve volunteers with a migration background, but they also recognise specific advantages for the organisation. These are, for example, the creation of better access to clients (with a migration background), higher credibility, awareness-raising for different target groups and the introduction of new ideas. In turn, beneficiaries with different cultural backgrounds also benefit from improved services and greater satisfaction with them through the use of volunteers with a migration background. The volunteers themselves also gain significant benefits from their voluntary work. For example, they develop a better understanding of the values and culture of the host society, acquire or improve their language skills and establish social contacts. Broadly speaking, the greater involvement of people with a migration background at the societal level often leads to a better understanding and acceptance of other cultures and to a reduction of doubts and prejudices about other cultures.

Mag.rer.soc.oec. Eva More-Hollerweger

Eva More-Hollerweger

Senior Researcher, Chairperson of the NPO Institute (Association)
Responsibilities: Responsibilities: NPOs, Civil Society, Volunteering, Evaluations and Strategic Management.
Dipl.-Ing. Stefan Schöggl, B.Sc.

Stefan Schöggl

Responsibilities: Impact Analyses, SROI Analyses, Social Innovation, Thematic Areas: Education, Culture, Social-Ecological Sustainability