In Switzerland, community aid is booming

A few ‘soft’ factors have a huge impact on people’s living situations and quality of life, such as do the neighbours know each other? This year, the importance of community aid and voluntary work has drastically increased.

Jürg Zulliger

When the coronavirus crisis erupted in March, thousands of people suddenly realised how much they value their neighbours. Some people were all alone at home, felt socially isolated and at times unsafe. So it’s great when there are people in the community who care about your wellbeing. People who needed to protect themselves from contracting the virus more than others were happy to accept help from their neighbours. One of the volunteer platforms that was put together very quickly saw around 900 groups join up within a very short space of time. Over 100,000 dedicated volunteers organised shopping trips and provided other forms of assistance for people’s everyday lives – all in the name of solidarity.

Community aid: helping out with everyday life

What does community aid actually involve?

  • Generally speaking, it involves helping out with everyday tasks, including jobs around the house, food shopping, childcare, communication and meetings within the community, community recreation projects, having lunch or cooking together, running events, looking after gardens and surrounding areas, shared hobbies etc.
  • Community aid is very different from gainful employment and overly structured schemes. Anyone who is involved does so voluntarily, and no one is obligated to ask for assistance or to take part in any way.
  • Generally speaking, community aid is simple and doesn’t require a lot of work; it’s an addition to state services and aid. It is created within the community and geared towards the needs of the neighbourhoods.
  • Community aid makes a crucial contribution to social contact, to well-being in the neighbourhood and social solidarity. When people know each other and nurture a good neighbourliness, many things become a lot easier.
  • Community aid might not require a lot of work, but it is often well organised and structured; people form work and project groups, join an association together and take advantage of professional support etc.

Community aid: case study of cooperatives

An essential part of the culture and life at the Allgemeinen Baugenossenschaft Zürich (ABZ) – Switzerland’s largest cooperative residential association – is voluntary work and community aid. ‘In order for community aid to work, the administration has to create scope for it,’ says Ariel Leuenberger, Head of Communication at ABZ. The Zurich cooperative employs three professionals at its office, who exclusively work in the areas of community work and voluntary work.

Furthermore, certain infrastructure and, in some cases, spaces are also required. That’s where gardens, residential areas, publicly accessible community spaces and outdoor spaces come into play. Without these spaces, it is hard to implement initiatives and ideas.

Community aid: what about the pay?

Voluntary work is, as previously mentioned, not gainful employment and is generally unpaid. However, there are a few projects that require a certain budget in order for them to come to fruition. Maybe a group of volunteers will incur material costs or expenses; they might have to make certain purchases or structural changes – for example, something for gardening or playground projects, for advertising etc. ‘In cooperatives, there is usually an annual budget for such neighbourhood projects and other requests,’ says Ariel Leuenberger.

Over the last few years, the way in which people network and how they communicate and develop ideas has changed. Digital platforms have more and more sway with all tenants. Today, this is mostly a comprehensive platform: a place to exchange information, network with neighbours and volunteers, a type of bulletin board for requests and, of course, the ideal communication platform for the whole residential area. ‘Alongside the necessary structures and requirements of the administration, communication ultimately plays a key role,’ explains Ariel Leuenberger from the ABZ. If people want to start a regular games evening or Sunday meet-up, their initiatives will not get very far if they can’t use communication channels to let people know and motivate them to come.

Checklist for action:

Formulate requests and goals: What needs to be achieved or improved? Who can benefit from this?

Target group: Which group of people (age, household, and family structure), and with which interests, is the focus target group?

Infrastructure: Does the project need specific spaces or specific infrastructure? How realistic is it that this infrastructure can actually be made available (for example, a practice location for music, for a communal garden, an animal enclosure etc.)? This includes the question of which internal or external authorities and partners the self-help group wants to work with.

Finances: Will certain expenses and investment costs arise? How can the money be raised? How high would the budget be?

Advertising and communication: Those who want to do good for the common interest also have to communicate this. Even the best self-initiative is not beneficial if people don’t know anything about it.

Organisation and planning: Every self-help group has to have a firm idea of whether it is a long-term project or, for example, a one-time event. In addition, the time required and the estimated number of essential volunteers and participants need to be planned. If this is not thoroughly explained and discussed, anticipation about the great project could turn into disappointment. The goals set must be achievable with reasonable costs and effort.

Evaluation and analysis: Networking also includes asking about similar projects and ideas. How were their experiences? What problems did they have and what was successfully achieved?