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Exploring informal help 

By Marlou Ramaekers

Imagine: you’re standing in front of a committee of six senior researchers. All of them have scrutinized your work and are ready to ask you about every nitty-gritty detail. And behind you, all your friends and family, watching how you respond to these questions. If that sounds like a nightmare to you, I’d understand. But it wasn’t a nightmare; it was my PhD defense and quite the opposite of a nightmare.  

Now, before you question my sanity, I’ll admit that PhD defenses in the Netherlands are largely ceremonial. The committee already approves the dissertation beforehand, and the defense generally does not affect the outcome. Not entirely a safe space, but I wasn’t worried about failing. I was worried that I wouldn’t defend well. Fortunately, that fear was unfounded; I passed the defense, received the degree, and compliments on how well I did! I couldn’t have asked for more. 

Looking back… 

Now that the ceremony is over and I can use the title of doctor, it’s time for some reflection. After all, my dissertation didn’t write itself. I worked hard on it for four and a half years and it wasn’t always easy. For example, a pandemic in the middle of your project isn’t ideal. So many research ideas, theoretical arguments and analytical strategies are formed and refined in discussion with others. Working remotely made that more difficult. Fortunately, research networks, such as ERNOP, found new ways to connect researchers. I was able to attend online conferences and workshops and received other opportunities to share my work, for example through the ERNOP Research Notes and Philanthropisms podcast that features ERNOP members research in the podcast series. Overall, I’ll never take opportunities to meet other researchers (in person) and discuss our work for granted. 

Another struggle I had concerned my research topic: informal helping. For those who unfamiliar with the term, it refers to voluntary work that isn’t organized by formal organizations or institutions, such as a nonprofit organization. I specifically focused on practical help that people give directly to family members, friends, and neighbors. Examples include assisting a neighbor with gardenwork or babysitting a friend’s children for an afternoon. In my dissertation, I aimed to understand how the social environment (i.e., norms and values in families, behavior by receivers of help and societal norms) shapes informal helping.  

My struggle stemmed from two issues. First, informal helping is often overlooked in research and policy debates. Yet, it is crucial for understanding how tightly knit societies are and is sometimes seen as a steppingstone for formal volunteering: from helping people you know directly go to volunteering for the public good. Moreover, understanding who provides and who receives support from personal networks can inform governments and nonprofit organizations for whom informal arrangements don’t suffice and thus who requires their help most. 

Because informal helping is often overlooked, it is not featured in many large-scale surveys, which brings me to my second struggle. By training, I am a quantitative sociologist. I enjoy working with large data sources and survey data. Therefore, the lack of existing large-scale data posed a challenge in my PhD project, especially because I wanted to study changes in informal helping as well. Data on that topic is difficult and expensive to collect in a PhD project. But that didn’t stop me of course. In the end, I managed to collect some of my own data and found various datasets that include information on informal helping over multiple time periods. 

Don’t forget about the recipients! 

Using these data sources, I studied several ways in which the social environment can influence informal helping. For example, I examined the impact of the family, demonstrating that people whose parents and partners engage(d) in volunteering are more likely to provide informal help and do so more regularly. Furthermore, experiencing divorce doesn’t affect informal helping, except when people do not have adult children at the time of divorce. In such cases, there is a slight tendency to increase informal helping.  

I also investigated the recipients of informal help. Differentiating between recipients is common in formal volunteering research (e.g., between secular and religious organizations) but it is less frequently done in informal helping research. My dissertation reveals that this is a limitation: people are less likely to provide informal help to neighbors and friends than to relatives. Even within these groups, they consider recipients’ characteristics, such as potential reciprocity and deservingness, to determine whether they will help. 

What lies ahead? 

I hope to continue studying informal helping in the future. To some extent, I already do this as a researcher at the Centre for Philanthropy Studies (VU Amsterdam). However, I aspire to expand my research further, specifically to the conditions in which people are willing to help friends and neighbors. Given population ageing and decreasing family sizes, this type of support is becoming increasingly important in European societies. Therefore, I aim to understand who helps friends and neighbors, under what conditions and to whom help is provided. New insights into these questions can shed light into who may become more vulnerable due to demographic transitions and smaller family sizes, thus requiring more support from formal organizations, such as nonprofit organizations.  

Marlou Ramaekers is a postdoc and data manager at the Centre for Philanthropic Studies (VU Amsterdam), where she works on Giving in the Netherlands. She recently defended her PhD dissertation, titled ‘Informal helping. Insights from a dyadic, family, and societal perspective’. Her research interests lie in understanding why people engage in voluntary work and how societies and personal relationships shape this engagement.