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EACEA National Policies Platform


2. Voluntary Activities

2.1 General context

Last update: 28 November 2023

Historical developments

Volunteering in Austria has a rich history and is deeply rooted in a significant portion of the population. The Volunteer Report 2019 (3. Bericht zum freiwilligen Engagement in Östereich), which provides the latest data on voluntary engagement in Austria, reveals that 46% of individuals aged 15 and above participate in volunteer work. Among young people aged 15-24, the volunteering rate stands at 43%. These statistics highlight the significant role of volunteering in the country, particularly in sectors such as health, culture and sports, disaster relief and rescue services, as well as ecological and religious initiatives.

It is therefore in the interest of the state to focus on adapted framework conditions that favour voluntary engagement. In this context, youth volunteering is essentially linked to the general promotion of volunteering and thus integrated within a national approach.

Historically, the activity of 'honorary office' goes back to the 19th century and has its roots in honorary administrative office. Here, respected, mostly male citizens assumed responsibility for public tasks within the scope of their office (Simsa and Rameder 2018). Such activities evoked feelings of honour and recognition, as they were considered particularly important and these "men of honour" could serve the public and the state. Later, voluntary work also became established in the context of humanitarian and charitable Christian aid to the poor (ÖIF-Research Report 2022:6). Christian relief work, on the other hand, developed into a specifically female field of activity. Besides religious backgrounds, patriotically motivated aid work also played an important role (More-Hollerweger and Sprajcer 2009:2f.). To this day, churches are an essential part of the Austrian voluntary sector and provide additional services in the social, health, nursing, care and education sectors (ibid.:33).

Legal Framework and Support for Volunteering

The introduction of the Basic Law of the State in 1867 (Staatsgrundgesetz) laid an important foundation for volunteering in Austria by granting citizens the right to assemble and form associations (Article 12). This enabled the initial founding of voluntary associations, many of them still play an important role in Austrian society today (e.g., the Austrian Volunteer Fire Brigade and the Red Cross, founded in 1880) (More-Hollerweger and Bogorin 2019:83).

In the Second Republic (after 1945), the structure of volunteerism developed greatly due to the longstanding split between the two major parties in Austria (SPÖ and ÖVP). As a result, many clubs and umbrella organizations in Austria each have a ‘red’ (SPÖ) and a ‘black’ (ÖVP) counterpart: sports clubs, youth groups, cultural associations, educational centres, etc. Other party affiliations do exist today, but only in small numbers (More-Hollerweger and Sprajcer 2009:33).

The proclaimed 'International Year of Volunteers 2001' set a milestone in the work of the volunteer structure in Austria. In this context, the Austrian National Committee published a 'Volunteer Manifesto', which elaborates on the promotion of structural conditions for voluntary engagement. Hereby, local municipalities, provinces and ministerial-led bodies worked together, contributing to the development of an ‘Austrian Council for Volunteering’ (Österreichischer Freiwilligenrat), which was established in 2003. With the Federal Act on the Promotion of Volunteering 2012 (Freiwilligengesetz, BGBl. I Nr 17/2012, FreiwG), the Council was enshrined in law under the premise to improve framework conditions for volunteer activities.

The introduction of the Volunteers Act in 2012 was the first comprehensive document to regulate the legal framework for formal voluntary services and structures of the voluntary sector. It also defines the basis for the introduction of the Voluntary Social Year, the Voluntary Environmental Protection Year,and the Memorial Service, the Peace and Social Services Abroad. In addition to the establishment of the Volunteer Council, the measures set also include the publication of the Volunteer Report (Freiwilligenbericht) and the development of a Volunteer Passport (Freiwilligenpass). To sustainably secure volunteering in Austria, the Volunteer Recognition Fund (Anerkennungsfonds für Freiwilliges Engagement) appreciatively contributes to innovative measures, special activities or initiatives in the voluntary sector.

Main concepts

In the Austrian context, there are various terms surrounding the concept of 'volunteering' (e.g. honorary office, voluntary work/activity, civic engagement, neighbourhood assistance), each with a different focus. Overall, the term 'volunteering' refers to services provided voluntarily and unpaid by people outside their own households, including measures of personal and professional education and training for these activities. All forms of volunteering, and thus also youth volunteering, fall under the Volunteering Act (FreiwG 2012, Section 1, §2), which defines 'voluntary engagement' more precisely when natural persons perform:

  • voluntary merits for others;
  • within an organized framework;
  • non-paid;
  • 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.

Moreover, participation in the European Voluntary Service under Regulation (EU) No. 1288/2013 on ‘Erasmus+’, OJ No L 347, 20.12.2013 p. 50, is also considered as volunteering.

In its published brochure on ‘Volunteering in Austria’, the former Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs, Health and Consumer Protection differentiates between informal and formal volunteering:

  • Formal volunteering and/or honorary activity refers to unpaid services situated in organizations and associations, such as activities in the voluntary fire brigade, social welfare institutions, sports clubs or environmental groups.
  • Informal volunteering and/or neighbourhood assistance is also unpaid but takes place in private settings outside the family household. This includes activities such as running errands, providing help with housework or gardening, personal assistance, shopping in the supermarket etc.

In addition to formal and informal volunteering, there are a number of unpaid activities that are often discussed in the context of youth volunteering. For better understanding, a conceptual distinction from ‘volunteering’ is made here:

Volunteering vs. unpaid internship (Praktikum)/traineeship (Volontariat)

In contrast to a compulsory internship as part of a school education or a course of study, young people may complete a voluntary internship in a company setting. These internships take place on a voluntary basis and without remuneration, but unlike volunteer work, they are of short duration and serve to expand practical knowledge and skills. Without any obligation to work, these internships are training relationships (and not employment relationships), so the provisions of labour law do not apply. Traineeships are generally training relationships. In this context, the Children and Young Persons Employment Act (Kinder- und Jugendlichen Beschäftigungsgesetz) applies to young people under the age of 18, which regulates i.e. working hours and resting periods.

Volunteering vs. civilian service (Zivildienst)

In Austria, civilian service can be performed as a voluntary substitute for mandatory military service, which applies to male Austrian citizens. Here, young men from the age of 18 and up to the age of 35, who deliberately refuse military service generally perform 9 months of civilian service (with basic remuneration and bonuses) in a selected institution. The focus is on rescue services, social welfare and aid for the disabled, and disaster relief. In recent years, about 45% of conscripts have performed civilian service, thus offering an important contribution to the Austrian society, especially in the social and health sectors (Zivildienstserviceagentur 2022:6). As a sovereign, state service, civilian service can only be performed on the territory of the Republic of Austria, but, according to the Volunteer Act (Freiwilligengesetz) and the Civilian Service Act (Zivildienstgesetz), the following voluntary services can be performed as a substitute for civilian service in Austria or abroad:

According to the Civilian Service Study 2021 (Studie zum gesellschaftlichen und ökonomischen Nutzen des Zivildienstes 2019 in Österreich) by the NPO Competence Centre of the Vienna University of Economics and Business Administration, around 30% of young men volunteer after their civilian service. Civilian service thus acts as a door opener for voluntary engagement, as young people get to know the institution and various fields of activity during their service experience.