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The social cohesion of a society is fundamentally based on a developed and safe social welfare system with legal entitlements for its citizens. If there is a need to obtain help, voluntary work is a meaningful supplement to paid work involving compulsory social insurance contributions. This culture of voluntary engagement, solidarity and mutual support is an important part of our social capital.
Volunteer and honorary services can look back on a great and long tradition in Austria. The commitment to such activity is deeply rooted in wide sections of the population. Austria owes its high quality of life not least to volunteers working in the areas of welfare, health, culture and sports, disaster relief as well as rescue and ambulance services. An enormously large proportion, namely 46% of the population over 15 years of age engage in volunteer work. This corresponds to more than 3.5 million people in Austria who help in providing voluntary services.
Approximately2.3 million peoplework for free in different organisations and associations. More than 2 million people are active in the area of neighbourhoodassistance. This means that voluntary services offer our society added value, but this must not be regarded as a substitute for paid work. The time input for voluntary work is considerable: seven out of every ten persons engaged in voluntary activities devote up to 30 days a year to these tasks. The majority of volunteers commit themselves to performing such functions on a regular basis. Many of them – often over and above – co-operate in specific finite projects.
Voluntary engagement in indispensable for Austria - but not taken for granted. To make sure that as many people as possible carry out voluntary work in the future, the Federal Ministry of Social Affairs, Health, Care and Consumer Protection (Bundesministerium für Soziales, Gesundheit, Pflege und Konsumentenschutz) ensures that the basic conditions are attractive. Innovative projects and measures to promote voluntary engagement are developed and implemented together with representatives of voluntary organisations.
Volunteers and voluntary organisations benefit from the national and international transfer of expertise and from the motivation of companies and institutions to support voluntary engagement.
The aim of all this is to ensure that invaluable voluntary engagement remains affordable for those carrying it out. Statistik Austria carried out the first national data collection (2006, Freiwilligenarbeit in Österreich). The Ministry implemented centres for voluntary workers in the federal states (Freiwilligenzentren), an internet platform in order for honorary members to communicate (Freiwilligenweb), and guidelines for the training of voluntary workers and coordinators (were established. A voluntary pass (Freiwilligenpass) including a definition of voluntary work was introduced. However, not all of the above-mentioned steps have caught on in all areas. The reason could be that they are non-binding and that further political priorisation could be needed. Apart from the strictly organised larger institutions such as the Red Cross, Caritas, or voluntary fire departments, volunteers still mostly work according to their own structures.
Voluntary engagement is especially important on a local level in Austria. A great number of organisations and projects are active in a large variety of fields, e.g. emergency aid, culture, nature, religion, social issues, politics, community, education or sports. Many associations of voluntary work offer specific programmes for youth, such as for example the Fire Departments (Feuerwehrjugend) and the Youth Red Cross (Jugendrotkreuz). Voluntary engagement allows becoming a responsible part of the society. It offers the opportunity to gain attractive competences.
Voluntary engagement among youth - as in other age groups - is widespread in Austria. The country thus holds a very strong position in the field: according to the most recent Volunteering Report (Freiwilligenbericht, 2019) by the Federal Ministry of Labour, Health, Social Affairs and Consumer Protection, 43% of young people bellow the age of 30 engage in formal or informal volunteering. Similarly, of young people aged 15 to 24 around 43% are involved in community service. Around three out of ten are active in organisations, while about a quarter provides (additional) neighbourhood assistance. The participation quote nearly meets the adult’s quote of 46%. In numbers, more than 500.000 young people are voluntarily active.
Volunteering is done if a natural person provides:
- voluntary merit for others
- within an organised framework
- with the purpose to promote the community or mainly driven by social reasons
- without this being achieved in the course of an employment or vocational training
Furthermore, the term voluntary engagement applies to measures for personal or professional training necessary for volunteer organisations and the implementation of voluntary activities. Additionally, the term volunteering applies for taking part in projects of the European voluntary service.
With the financial support of youth organisations, regulated in the federal law of youth promotion, an appropriate infrastructure for volunteering is provided.
In accordance with the youth strategy, processes and laws have been installed to guarantee the improved quality assurance of voluntary engagement.
Formal voluntary work refers to activities which are carried out within the framework of an organisation, a club, or an institution: such as disaster management, emergency medical services, environmental or animal protection, work in the church, in social services and the health area, political work, citizen initiatives, education, and last but not least the broad area of art, culture, entertainment and leisure time.
Informal voluntary work, often also called neighbourly help, occurs out of personal initiative without the framework of an institution. In the year 2001 (the national year of honorary work), the former Federal Ministry of Labour, Health, Social Affairs and Consumer Protection took steps in order to clarify and improve the unstructured basis for voluntary work in Austria.
There is no particular legal form for organisations working with volunteers in Austria. Most of them are associations or clubs. They are founded relatively easy and there are comparatively little formal requirements. Generally, organisations that work with volunteers are assigned to a sector called third sector or non-profit sector. This sector is the counter pole to the state and market, respectively an independent factor between these. Especially in an EU-context, the term social economy was established within the last years. As a part of the economic system, it shows various characteristics. Less common are terms as Freiwilligenorganisation (a voluntary organisation) and Freiwilligensektor (voluntary sector). Thus, the application and delimitation are by far neither distinct nor consistent.