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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

Some 28.8 million Germans, or just short of 40 percent of the total population, work as volunteers in their free time, thus shouldering responsibility in society. The figure has grown appreciably over the last 20 years – from about 31 percent in 1999.  At the same time, today the volunteers spend a little less time in such activities: About 60 percent of those polled in the 5th German Volunteers Survey which came out in 2021 commit less than two hours a week. Another of the study’s central findings: The involvement is very diverse and a variety of groups benefit from it: The most volunteers are to be found in the fields of sport and mobility. This is followed by culture and music, social activities, and schools and kindergartens.

Clubs and associations play a special role in promoting voluntary involvement. 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.

Involvement with foundations

Foundations in particular have become increasingly significant. With more than 23,000 incorporated foundations under civil law, the classic legal form of a foundation, Germany has one of the highest numbers of foundations in Europe. In 2018 and 2019 alone, more than 1,000 new foundations were set up. On a national average, there are 28 foundations for every 100,000 inhabitants. Taken together, all foundations regardless of their legal structure manage assets amounting to approximately 107 billion euros. More than half of foundations (52.1 %) pursue primarily social objectives. The areas of education and child support (34.7 percent) and art and culture (31.8 percent) frequently form the focus of their work. The five largest foundations under private law in terms of expenditure are the Volkswagen Foundation, the Robert Bosch Stiftung, the Samariterstiftung, the Carl Zeiss Stiftung, and the Bremer Heimstiftung.

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-2020 there were already more than 272 community founda­tions bearing the seal of 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. With the major influx of refugees in 2015/2016 in particular, numerous people in Germany got involved on a voluntary basis in local initiatives supporting the asylum-seekers. The Corona pandemic has brought new tasks and forms of volunteer work, such as help with shopping for at-risk groups.