Around 31 million Germans are involved in voluntary work in their spare time, thus assuming responsibility for society. This commitment is often long term – one third of volunteers has been active for ten years. Almost 60 percent of those polled in the Federal Government’s 14th Volunteers Survey spend up to two hours a week on voluntary work. Together with charities, churches, cooperatives, aid organisations, non-profit organisations, and private initiatives, the members of more than 600,000 associations form the backbone of this “third sector”. Civil society refers to the section of society that is not shaped by government or party politics, but gets involved in social and political issues voluntarily and publicly.
Foundations in particular have become increasingly significant. With more than 21,000 incorporated foundations under civil law, the classic legal form of a foundation, Germany has one of the highest numbers of foundations in Europe. Since the turn of the millennium some 13,500 civil-law foundations have been established; more than half of all foundations of this kind in existence today. On a national average, there are 26.5 foundations for every 100,000 inhabitants. Taken together, all foundations have assets amounting to approximately 68 billion euros. They spend around 4.3 billion on charitable causes, traditionally social issues, education, science, and culture. The five largest foundations under private law in terms of expenditure are the Volkswagen Foundation, Robert Bosch Stiftung, Bertelsmann Stiftung, Hans Böckler Foundation, and WWF Deutschland.
Community foundations are strongly on the rise, foundations in which several citizens and firms act as joint funders to support local or regional projects. The first foundations of this kind were established in 1996 – in mid-2016 there were already more than 300 community foundations recognised by the Association of German Foundations. Civil commitment has slightly increased in recent years, but is shifting more strongly away from the larger associations and towards small, self-organised groups and alternating projects. Currently there are numerous people in Germany involved on a voluntary basis in local initiatives supporting refugees.
Involvement in parties, trade unions, and non-governmental organisations
Socio-political involvement in parties, trade unions, and NGOs enables people to help shape things on a strategic and political level. Here volunteering opens a door to intensive democratic participation. The major established organisations however are finding it increasingly difficult to get volunteers on board.
There is particular potential for volunteer work in the 14 to 24-year age bracket. The interest in volunteer services shows that young adults are willing to get involved in society. The Federal Volunteer Service has been in place since 2011. It is open to all age groups and complements the model, in existence for over 50 years, of the voluntary social year for young people and young adults. In early 2018, more than 43,000 such volunteers were serving. It is also possible to do voluntary work abroad, for example through the International Volunteer Service of the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth, the Weltwärts programme of the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, or the Kulturweit volunteer service by the German UNESCO Commission in cooperation with the German Federal Foreign Office.