Norwegian civil society

Norway has a long tradition with a strong civil sector. Voluntary organisations, sometimes also referred to as non-governmental organisations or non-profit organisations, are an important part of Norwegian society. These organisations played a vital party in the political and social development over the last few hundred years.

From grassroots movements to online volunteering 

Some organisations were established already in the mid-19th century. These organisations had their roots in the temperance, mission and labour movement, but also organisations dedicated to cultural heritage, outdoor life and poverty. These grassroots organisations received their funding largely from donations and membership fees. 

At the beginning of the 20th century, organisations started focusing on health, social care and humanitarian work. After the Second World War, the number of voluntary organisations in Norway increased drastically. Interest organisations which maintained close contact with the state and dedicated to influencing public policy was a new phenomenon. The growth of the welfare state led to changes in the relationship between the state and organisations, where the public realm was increasingly moving into areas where voluntary organisations had been in charge, including health, children and youth, culture, sports, cultural heritage. Some of the services that had until then been offered by voluntary organisations were taken up by the state, especially services related to health and welfare.

In this period, a typical Norwegian NGO was an organisation with a broad membership base and a local scope. These organisations often had local branches with democratic and representative structures and an overarching national organisation.

With societal changes, the voluntary organisations evolved as well. Currently, people are more issue-driven and less likely to be a member of an organisation their whole life. Young people are increasingly mobilised through campaigns and events, rather than the traditional work in the organizational structure and in the association. The internet has also enabled a new type of volunteering.

Current trends and challenges

Despite a more globalised and individualistic society, the time dedicated to volunteering in Norway has been relatively stable and consistent the last few decades.

Some of the current challenges in the third sector are adapting to changing modes of participation and how to ensure a broad participation of all layers of society.

Some key facts and figures

Today, the voluntary sector in Norway consists of 115 000 non-governmental and non-profit organisations. The largest sector is culture and leisure (43%). Large parts of the funding still come from membership fees and sales of foods and services but many organisations also rely on government funding.

On average, there are 88 members per organisations in Norway. Around half of the organisations have less than 50 members, no employees and annual revenue of less than 7000 euros. Norwegian NGOs rely on volunteers, and their contribution amounts to almost 5 per cent of the BNP annually.

  • There are 10 million memberships in NGOs and 80 % of the Norwegians are members of one or more organisation(s).
  • Around half of the grown-up Norwegian population participates in voluntary work annually.
  • The total contribution of Norwegian volunteers is equivalent to 115 000 full time employees.
  • Just over a third of the funding of the voluntary sector comes from central and local governments, just under ten per cent comes from private donors, and just under two-thirds of the funding comes from membership fees and sales.
  • 84% of Norwegians are member of one organisations, 60% are members of two organisations and 38% are members of one or more organisations (figures from 2004).

The Nordic Model

Today, Norway is characterised by a well-developed Nordic model: organisations that both receive funding from the government, but also cooperate with and frequently criticise the government.

A vibrant democracy needs impulses from its citizens, and voluntary organisations create communication channels to democratic governments and the public sphere for interest groups and citizens who are passionate about certain cause. In this way, the organisations also help their members to understand democracy and encourage them to help shape the public opinion, as schools of democracy.

Despite new challenges and changes in how and why people engage, voluntary organisations continue to promote good governance and respect for human rights. Voluntary organisations are channels of influence and participation and contribute to the development of society, culture and politics. Voluntary organisations create social capital and builds communities.

Interested in a Norwegian project partner?

Please visit the database if you are interested in searching for a potential Norwegian partner organisation. 

Sources (in Norwegian):

Stortingsmelding nr. 39 (2006-2007). Frivillighet for alle
Dag Wollebæk og Karl Henrik Sivesind (2010). Fra folkebevegelse til filantropi?