Norwegian Dugnad Explained

Norway does have some cultural oddities that might seem very strange to both tourists and foreigners who travel to Norway, and one of these is the dugnad.

There’s not really a good English word for dugnad, and the best explanation is that it’s a type of community day where people get together to tidy, repair, clean up or upgrade a community like at a kindergarten, a school, a sporting arena or the neighborhood.

It’s common for Norwegian to have dugnad either at spring, or one at spring and another at fall (most common is during May and September). Any community can have dugnad, and it’s often based on a combination of people wanting to help the community and a fear of getting a fee and social reprisals for not attending.

Dal kindergarten
Kindergartens tend to have dugnads where parents help fix the outside area of the kindergarten every spring and fall. Photo: Frogn kommune / CC BY-SA 2.0.

Since dugnad is a pretty foreign concept for most people who are not Norwegian, we’re going to take a closer look at it in this post. So be prepared to learn all about how the dugnad works, what you are expected to do during a dugnad, and what types of places that hosts dugnads.

Places that tend to have dugnad

Dugnads are pretty common for certain types of places, and you often find dugnads at:

  • Kindergartens.
  • Schools.
  • Hobby clubs that have a physical location they own. Like football teams for children, aquarium clubs with a member house, or anything like that.
  • Apartments and residential areas that own a type of shared outdoor space.
  • Cabin residential areas. Cabins tend to be organized into small hyttegrender where a committee organizes dugnad to keep the roads, shared supplies and communal spaces in shape.

Some dugnads are on the evenings on regular work days, and often last 4 to 5 hours. Others are on the weekend, and can be as long as a regular work day.

It is common for places to have a fixed date where everyone participates on the dugnad, but at the same time also provide alternatives to people who for some reason are unable to participate on that particular date.

Some example of work you might do on your dugnad

The type of work that is most common to see on dugnads are manual intensive labor that often take a bit of boring and repetitive work. You usually don’t really do skilled labor on dugnads, so expect to do things like:

  • Mowing the lawn.
  • Raking laves.
  • Picking up litter.
  • Removing old paint.
  • Painting buildings.
  • Removing weeds from flower beds.
  • Washing the driveway with high pressure water.

There’s not really any definitions to the types of tasks you can be tasked with on dugnad, but the ones above are the most common ones. The organizers tend to let people do what they are good at, so they will have tasks that are less labor intensive for older people or people with special needs.

The tasks are often tied to the changing of season, since places tend to need a lot of maintenance when spring arrives and just before winter comes.

Raking leafs
Raking leafs is a common task for dugnad. Photo published with permission.

You might get forced to pay a fee if you don’t attend the dugnad

Some dugnads are based 100% on volunteers, but most are not. As a matter of fact, most dugnads are part of a contract that you sign when you sign up for that particular kindergarten, apartment complex or club, so you are somewhat legally obligated to participate on the dugnad.

Most places operate with a fee for not being able to attend the dugnad. This is typically bases on what is will cost to hire a worker to do your job (expect around 250 NOK per hour), so it can be pretty costly to miss out.

The fees are highly controversial, but still common. Several lawyers have recently explained in national media that these dugnad fees are not really legal, but most places still use them for people who don’t participate on the dugnad.

Do people enjoy participating in dugnads?

Some people really enjoy dugnads, and take pride in participating making the area a better place for the community. Other find it boring and annoying, but most people are somewhere in-between: they think it’s OK, and find it to be a decent way to make the area better even though they don’t really enjoy doing the work.

It’s worth mentioning that dugnads are a very social experience where you get to chat up your neighbors or the other people at the dugnad, and it’s a nice way of getting to know different people int he community.

It can be a bit annoying to do a lot of dugnad if you own a cabin, live in a place with a shared communal space, have children that attends football and also have a child that are in kindergarten. This leaves you with up to four different dugnads for spring, and maybe even another four for fall.

Many places to have a small type of celebration after the dugnad is finished, so don’t be surprised if you get served coffee, some hot dogs, a few slices of pizza or even a few beers when the work is about to be finished.

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