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Committed Civil Society

Civil commitment in Germany is high. Lots of people volunteer and the importance of foundations is growing.
© dpa

Around 29 million people in Germany – just under 40% of the entire population – take social responsibility by volunteering in their free time. The figure has grown appreciably over the past 20 years, from around 31% in 1999. According to the 5th German Volunteer Survey, which was published in 2021, around 60% of respondents commit up to 2 hours a week to volunteering, with 17% volunteering for 6 or more hours. A key finding of the study was that volunteering takes many forms and a wide range of groups benefit from it. Most volunteers contribute to sport and exercise, followed by culture and music, social projects and services, and schools and nurseries.

The term "civil society” refers to the part of society which is not part of the government or a political party, but rather acts in a voluntary and public capacity to take action on social and political issues. Clubs and associations play a significant role when it comes to voluntary action. Together with charities, churches, cooperatives, aid organisations, non-profit organisations and private initiatives, the members of Germany’s more than 620,000 clubs and associ­ations form the backbone of the “third sector”. 

Involvement with foundations

Charitable foundations in particular are becoming increasingly significant. With more than 25,000 incorporated foundations under civil law (the standard legal form for a foundation) Germany has one of the highest numbers of charitable foundations in Europe. In 2021 alone, over 800 new foundations were set up. For Germany as a whole, there are an average of 29 foundations for every 100,000 members of the population. Together, foundations of all legal structures have access worth roughly 110 billion euros. The main role of over half of Germany's foundations (51.8%) is to support social causes. It is also common for foundations to support education and childcare (34.5%) and art and culture (31.6%). The five largest foundations under private law in terms of expenditure are SRH Holding, the RAG-Stiftung, the Alsterdorf Evangelical Foundation, the Volkswagen Foundation and the German Federal Environmental Foundation.

Community foundations are a growing force, where members of the public act as joint funders to support local or regional projects. The first foundations of this kind were established in 1996. Since then, over 250 have been created and they bear the seal of the Association of German Foundations.

While levels of involvement in social projects and organisations have increased slightly in recent years, the main shift has been away from larger associ­ations and towards small, independently organised groups and project-focused activities. One particularly significant period was during the major influx of refugees in 2015 and 2016, when many people in Germany volunteered through local initiatives to support the asylum seekers. The Covid-19 pandemic has seen the emergence of new forms of voluntary activities, such as going shopping for people in at-risk groups.