Democratic Participation in Voluntary Associations: A Multilevel Analysis of Sports Clubs in Europe

  • Bjarne IbsenEmail author
  • Karsten Elmose-Østerlund
  • Svenja Feiler
  • Christoph Breuer
  • Ørnulf Seippel
  • Jan-Willem Van der Roest
  • Jeroen Scheerder


Non-profit associations are usually democratically organized, and this feature plays a legitimizing role for the public support to associations. This article examines which characteristics at country level, organizational level and individual level can explain variations with regard to member engagement in the association democracy in sports clubs in Europe. The statistical analyses use data on 12,755 members from 642 sports clubs in ten European countries. The findings show that the majority of the members in sports clubs participate in the association democracy, but the level and form of engagement varies considerably. At the country level, no link between the democratic strength and quality of the countries on the one hand and member engagement on the other could be identified. Instead, characteristics at the organizational and individual level were found to be relevant. More concretely, (1) the size of the sports club, (2) the socioeconomic background of the members (gender, age and education), and (3) the way in which the members are involved in and affiliated to the club (engaged in voluntary work, participating in social activities, etc.) were found to be significantly correlated with the engagement of members in the association democracy.


Participatory democracy Organizational characteristics Macro, meso and micro level 



The authors wish to acknowledge the valuable contribution to this article from research partners in the project ‘Social Inclusion and Volunteering in Sports Clubs in Europe’ (SIVSCE): Elien Claes, KU Leuven, Belgium; Geoff Nichols, University of Sheffield, England; Matthew James, University of Wales Trinity Saint David; Dirk Steinbach, Leadership Academy, Germany; Szilvia Perényi, University of Physical Education in Budapest/University of Debrecen, Hungary; Harold van der Werff, Mulier Institute, the Netherlands; Monika Piątkowska & Sylwia Gocłowska, Josef Pilsudski University of Physical Education in Warsaw, Poland; Ramon Llopis-Goig, University of Valencia, Spain; Siegfried Nagel & Jenny Adler Zwahlen, University of Bern, Switzerland.


This study has been co-funded with 500,000 Euros by the Erasmus + Programme of European Commission (Grant No. 2014-3140/004-001).

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest and have not received funding that would influence their conclusions or data presentation for this research.


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© International Society for Third-Sector Research and The Johns Hopkins University 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Southern DenmarkOdenseDenmark
  2. 2.German Sport University CologneCologneGermany
  3. 3.Norwegian School of Sport SciencesOsloNorway
  4. 4.Mulier InstituteUtrechtThe Netherlands
  5. 5.Utrecht UniversityUtrechtThe Netherlands
  6. 6.KU LeuvenLeuvenBelgium

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