Firebrands and volunteerism

Henning Rasmussen / Oktober 1, 2018

Firebrands and volunteerism

2052 2371 Civilian

People who participate in social activities such as firebrand projects and voluntary activities, develops what is called social capital. A civil society with high social capital creates stability, happiness, welfare and prosperity. While the market is based on rationality and economy and the state on laws and regulations, civil society is based on gifts. In civil society, something is done for others, for example. working for more sustainable energy or stop food waste, but you do not necessarily get anything in return. You do it for free will. In civil society, one is more free than in the other 2 sectors – the state and the market. You do things because it creates meaning and personal joy.

Social capital is derived from the fact that people investing in creating new relationships get tenfold again. When doing something for and together with other people the brain releases oxytocin, also called the love hormone, and you feel happier (1).

Approx. 85% of those working voluntarily do so to make a difference / help other people (2). But if you do something for other people, you’ll get it well too. Doing good feels good – it’s in your own interest. Civil society offers many people the opportunity for meaning and joy. Meaning, vicinity and joy are important factors in life and the community.

You can a volunteer in several ways. The most active are the firebrands, they are the ones who get things started. They are not necessarily very good at managing, organizing and all the practicalities. Therefore, it is important that there are some volunteers who can support the ideas and projects of firebrands. There are volunteers who are continuously active. It is those who are active for a longer period of project life, for example. as board members, but there are also the episodic volunteers, for example, at fundraising or festive exposures (2).

And then there are citizens who are participating but not actively engaged in civil society. It is the ones who come to the parties, and who may be potential volunteers. Nearly half of the young people between 16-29-year old in Denmark will answer yes if asked for voluntary work (2). Finally, there are those passives who never participate in civil society activities. 41 pct. of the population in Denmark are volunteers in 2017 (4) and 65% have at one time in their lives engaged in voluntary work (2). Almost half of the volunteers engage in disorganized projects, they are not in an association and the like.

There is a fluid boundary between the different way’s civilians act in civil society. There may be several reasons for e.g. the lack of time, as in a lifetime, you can take different positions, for example. depending on how personal or working life develops.

Volunteering in Denmark in 2012 corresponded to approx. 5 % of the workforce. Economically, it corresponds to approx. 2.3 % of gross domestic product (GDP) (3).

It is therefore not without reason that today there is a lot of focus on volunteers and firebrands, as they represent an important work resource and have significant economic impact. But it has also helped to make the concept of firebrands so much more influential in terms of entrepreneurs in society in general. A distinction can be made between 3 types of initiators of new projects. A firebrand is a daring and creative person in civil society. Internally in private companies and public institutions you have a similar term for intrapreneur. An intrapreneur is the creative soul within the organization. If a person starts his own business, we call him an entrepreneur.

If an employee cannot exploit his creative potential in the organization, he or she can either become entrepreneurial or use his creativity in his or her civilian life. Some firebrands start projects that develop into social economy companies or nonprofit organizations. Nonprofit organizations’ revenue amounted to nearly 10% of gross domestic product (GDP) in Denmark in 2013 (3). The many civilian projects not only create welfare but also have a great deal of significance for Denmark’s prosperity.

What drives a firebrand?

The big question must be, of which the single firebrand’s desire to unfold into civil society.

Experienced, there are four different and important reasons for engaging – the desire for Altruism, Authenticity, Agility and Autonomy (5):

  • Altruism. Firebrands are acting out of its own interests, but most often it is the society that gets the biggest “profit”. Just contributing to society’s best seemed to be important for firebrands. However, when there are no economic incentives, it is easier to work, for example, from a sustainability agenda. Firebrands know that when they act in civil society, they do not necessarily get anything again. They do it for their own free will. They make things because it creates meaning and personal joy.
  • Authenticity. Firebrands typically work from a basic authenticity and originality. When you work of free will and without any financial incentives a task that can prove to be both large and complex, one cannot “pretend” or copy others if the project is to succeed. A firebrand project must be unique and adapted to the site, but it’s also fun.
  • Agility. Firebrands are often engaged in thought and action, which is an advantage in a society undergoing rapid change. They are attracted to the direct action. When the project no longer has any “value”, the project stops, and the community is dissolved without the major consequences and formalities. The informal attracts especially the young people, including acquires new skills that can be used in, for example, a job context.
  • Autonomy. In society there is a generally rising individuality that creates a need for self-realization and individual and creative desire. As a firebrand, you are independent, nobody can control or decide for you. But anyone who has time, desire and interest can jump on the project as a volunteer. In this way, firebrands – despite their individualized approach – are generating communities, typically of the loosely linked kind (without permanent organization). Autonomy, independence and unbureaucratic gives a more light-minded approach.

In the future volunteer communities will primarily develop in so-called loosely linked networks based on a bottom-up approach, where meaning and the creation of something in a social community will be at the center. If you are interested in the “case”, you will be welcome. In general, the case may be both geographically defined – local, regional or global – or thematically defined, for example. energy, food or art.

The characteristics of firebrands are often a disruptive and creative approach with diligent use of digital communication. Although the community is not necessarily a part of the primary purpose firebrands very often initiate the change that inspire and encourage all of us to live up to at least some of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals for achieving a happier and healthier world.

In a time of great change and new challenges, civil society and especially the innovative and creative firebrands will be an important resource and an equal player for both the market / businesses and the state / public sector.

The firebrands are often the first to see opportunities and redeem positive forces in society. Nevertheless, they often live under the radar, traditionally outside the media and the awareness of politicians.

A greater awareness and recognition of the significance of the firebrands will be for the benefit of the whole community.


  • Fælledskaber, Søren Hermansen og Tor Nørretranders.
  • Tal om det frivillige Danmark, Center for Frivilligt Socialt Arbejder, 2017.
  • Civilsamfund, medborgerskab og deltagelse, Thomas P. Boje, 2017.
  • Frivillighedsundersøgelse 2017, Børne- og Socialministeriet, 2017.
  • Ildsjælene er civilsamfundets iværksættere af Henning Rasmussen i Fremtidens Fællesskaber, Futuriblerne juni 2018 red. Karen Lumholdt.