Voluntary unpaid work is part of the fabric of modern Norwegian identity. This is especially important for foreigners settling in Norway to understand, as it opens opportunities professional and leisure environments to become integrated into society. Integration on the other hand, is a given and a part of the cultural expectations of all immigrants. Learning Norwegian, volunteering for social, sports or work activities are an essential part of finding your place in Norway.
Norwegian identity is based on the idea of equality. In elementary schools, either all children are invited to a birthday party, or none are. The expectation is that everyone in the class is included. Everyone on the soccer team gets a participation medal for after school soccer. When attendance at an event like the Norway Cup is expected, all students are expected to attend regardless of family income. Because there are in fact income differences between people, those who earn less can be subsidized to attend, but not directly. A committee is established, a treasurer named, and selling toilet paper, greeting cards or other common goods is expected of every family to generate the income necessary to pay for the event’s expenses. Large Norwegian families tend to split the costs of these fundraisers by dividing up the lot of toilet paper or greeting cards to sell amongst grandparents, aunts and uncles, neighbors, and friends. The resulting fund is used to pay the expenses of all children attending the event. This is vastly different than, for example, setting a price for event attendance and expecting parents to produce the amount for their child to participate, and a decision on attendance depending solely on the parent’s ability to pay the bill. This is how the idea of equality is implemented in the organization and financing of group activities that necessarily cost money, like trips to visit Oslo’s museums.
For many other activities though, it is volunteer work that makes them happen. The after-school soccer team is organized by parents who want to see their children play, are willing to coach the rest of the team, and have the motivation to take the time to do this daily after work, rain or shine (mostly rain where I live). This presents a vast opportunity for immigrants with skills that are not as valued in their own countries of origin. This is how a Latin American who grew up watching soccer as part of their leisure and family activities and playing it with friends can find themselves volunteering to assist the soccer coach. Each volunteering activity provides opportunities to be known by Norwegians (“blir kjent med Nordmenn”), practice their language skills, and take up a place in the voluntary organization. With regular attendance and participation, the voluntary contributions start to add up to the goodwill necessary to become acquainted with the people one works with. Eventually, someone will get sick and there will be an opening to take their place for a day. You as a volunteer will be invited to step up to the plate and this will result in other opportunities.
For example, in my case, taking all the available education in kayak paddling from the Norwegian Paddling Association resulted in being invited to co-lead a basic sea paddling class. While I could not have given the whole class by myself in Norway due to my limitations in understanding the different dialects spoken by participants, leaders at my local paddling club gave me the opportunity to attend their classes as a co-instructor. I heard how they gave their course, saw how they instruct their students, and immersed myself in the whole experience of a leisure social activity with other Norwegians. Eventually when I can give the whole course, I stand to earn occasional income from teaching as well.
There are many volunteer organizations which means that many Norwegians are members of one or more of them. Normally there is a small annual fee to belong to an established volunteer organization, but the benefits far outweigh the cost. Whether it is free activities offered by the group or a significant discount on paid activities organized by the group, being a member makes a difference. It also offers a sense of belonging to a group which helps with the integration process into a society that can appear indifferent or closed to your integration efforts. This is where associations of your fellow expats come in handy and where you will find a supportive ear to talk about your experiences and understand the new normal of being in Norway.
While in theory no one can survive without income, a volunteer’s path will inevitably involve many free hours of work, especially in volunteer after work activities. Do all that comes your way, for you never know where your work opportunities will come from. As a registered unemployed person with NAV, the Norwegian labor directorate, you may receive “activity support money” («tiltakspenger«) amounting to about USD 15 per day when you volunteer at a workplace. A contract between you, NAV and the place of employment will be drawn up, and you will sign that you will show up and complete the training activities that have been specified. They may or may not happen. You might find yourself doing something else or just using your time to figure out how to understand computers with a Norwegian interface. Eventually, if you are invited to meetings, that is a good sign. If someone asks you for help, it is even better. You will start engaging with your colleagues, and they will get to know you. That would appear to be the key to getting a work opportunity once a shift is vacant and you are asked to take it. When you do, make sure you arrive 15 minutes before your shift starts!
While there are equivalent concepts in the United States and Latin American countries, the way to work is more direct as a native through applying, interviewing, and being hired. Internships are sometimes paid, sometimes not, and a way of demonstrating your worth to the organization. But the difference in Norway appears to be that as an unknown quantity to your potential employer, becoming known for who you are as a worker, regardless of your nationality or proficiency with Norwegian, is a key step to being offered opportunities. It is not just what you know but who you know is an often-quoted maxim in the Americas. The Norwegian corollary of that, when your social circle is small as an immigrant to Norway, would be to be volunteer so that Norwegians get to know you and trust you enough to want you as part of their team.