2.4 Youth volunteering at national level
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In Austria, there is no uniform nationwide program for youth volunteering that is organized, financed and monitored by the state. However, a legal basis for volunteering is provided by the 'Federal Act on the Promotion of Volunteering 2012' (Freiwilligengesetz), which regulates the framework conditions for voluntary engagement and supports it as a socially valuable and important societal contribution.
In this context, the law issues programs that are eligible for young people or for specific groups, such as the Voluntary Social Year, the Voluntary Environmental Protection Year and the Memorial Service, Peace Service and Social Service Abroad. In this framework, volunteering must be performed within the setting of an recognized institution granted by the Federal Ministry of Social Affairs, Health, Care and Consumer Protection (for the Voluntary Social Year, Memorial Service, Peace Service and Social Service Abroad) or by the Federal Ministry for Climate Protection, Environment, Energy, Mobility, Innovation and Technology (for the Voluntary Environmental Protection Year).
With the entry into force of the 2013 and 2016 amendments to the Civilian Service Act (Zivildienstgesetz), young Austrian men have the option of completing their civilian service alternatively in the form of a Social year, an Environmental Protection Year, a Holocaust Memorial Service or a Peace and Social Service Abroad as defined in the Federal Volunteer Act (§ 12c).
The Department for Family and Youth at the Federal Chancellery (Sektion VI: Familie und Jugend) supports youth volunteer-specific projects of nationwide significance as well as model projects of volunteer organisations and promotes training and further education measures as well as quality assurance measures.
As there is no nationwide specific programme for youth volunteering in Austria, no general government funding is allocated to this area. Instead, various public structures are used to fund and support different volunteer programmes and volunteer organisations in the youth sector.
In Particular, the Federal Ministry of Social Affairs, Health, Care and Consumer Protection plays an important role as promoter of voluntary services at the federal level (see Volunteering Act 2012 - FreiwG 2012). Within the framework of the Federal Youth Promotion Act (Bundes-Jugendförderungsgesetz), the Federal Chancellery financially supports voluntary services in the field of extracurricular child and youth work. The Federal Ministry of Arts, Culture, Public Service and Sport and the Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Research also support young volunteers through the "Erasmus+" programme (Erasmus+Jugend) of the Austrian Agency for Education and Internationalisation (OeAD). At the regional level, grants for voluntary engagement are also provided by the nine Austrian provinces.
However, most organisations where youth volunteering is carried out are subject to the autonomy of the non-governmental sector. In this respect, youth volunteering is also heavily dependent on charitable foundations and funding. For example, large national and international companies as well as the chambers of commerce and industry financially support volunteer work in this context. NGOs organised on the basis of private association law enjoy special tax advantages due to their non-profit status. All remuneration for voluntary activities is taxable like all other income. Due to the federal organisation of youth policy, the total amount spent annually on voluntary activities in the youth field cannot be estimated.
Grants and Funding for Voluntary Engagement
The promotion of volunteering in Austria involves various financial support mechanisms. The Voluntary Social Year, Voluntary Environmental Protection Year, and Memorial-, Peace-, and Social Services Abroad receive grants from the federal government, amounting to €1.2 million per year (as pursuant to section 27a  of the Volunteers Act 2012). These grants cover expenses such as travel costs and insurance for participants. Additionally, recognized institutions can receive up to €100 000 annually for education on coming to terms with National Socialism. However, there is no legal entitlement to the granting of funding (Volunteers Act 2012 § 27a.).
To ensure long-term financial security of Voluntary Services Abroad, Austria secured an annual funding ampunt of €72 000. This initiative laid the groundwork for a potential additional claim to the Labour Market Promotion Act, serving as an additional funding pillar (Spreitzer 2019:46). In January 2018, the federal funding amount increased to €1.2 million. Sponsors also allocate funds, up to a maximum of €100 000 annually, for information measures. Furthermore, the entitlement to family allowance was extended to cover voluntary service abroad (ibid.:47).
The Voluntary Social Year is financed primarily by monthly contributions from host organizations (in 2021: €695), covering costs such as pocket money, social insurance, seminars, and administration. The subsidies come from the Ministry of Social Affairs, the Ministry of Economics, federal states, and the Bishops’ Conference.
The Austrian Integration Fund (ÖIF) provides financial support for voluntary initiatives and organizations that promote voluntary work in the context of integration, particularly in rural areas (ÖIF 2021:2). Funding is limited to actual costs incurred, with a maximum of €2 500 per eligible integration initiative (ibid.:3-6).
Recognition and Support for Voluntary Engagement
To recognize and appreciate voluntary engagement, Austria establised the Recognition Fund for Voluntary Engagement (Anerkennungsfond für freiwilliges Engagement) in 2013. Financial grants, in the form of cash benefits, can be awarded for innovative measures and special activities to ensure sustainable voluntary engagement in Austria. Both legal entities and natural persons can receive funding, with maximum amounts of €15 000 and €1 000, respectively. However, there is no legal entitlement to funding.
In 2020, the Federal Ministry of Social Affairs, Health, Care, and Consumer Protection funded a total of €237 000 from the Recognition Fund for Volunteering, while €25 000 was funded in the following year (as of 28.10.2022). Figures for 2022 are not yet available.
Tax deductibility of donations has been regulated since 2017, benefiting volunteer fire brigades, charitable organizations, development and disaster aid initiatives, and charitable foundations. Legal entitlements for continued payment of remuneration during disasters have been established, and provisions for insurance coverage and other support for volunteers are provided by the federal government and provincial states.
In 2020, €600 000 from the Recognition Fund for Voluntary Engagement was allocated to support voluntary engagement during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Volunteering is widespread in Austria. According to the latest Volunteer Report 2019 (Freiwilligenbericht 2019) published by the Federal Ministry of Social Affairs, Health, Care and Consumer Protection, 43% of 15-24-year olds are involved in formal or informal volunteering (data collected from 2016). Among those under 30, the participation rate is equally high and thus also roughly corresponds to the overall average of the Austrian population (Feistritzer 2019:17). More precise, 28% of 15-29-year olds engage in formal volunteering and 28% in informal volunteering (see brochure ‘Volunteering in Austria 2019’).
Formal volunteering covers a broad spectrum of social areas. With an average of 7 hours per week, 15-to 24-year-olds are primarily involved in disaster and rescue services as well as in exercise and sports (8-9%). In the latter, there has been an increase among women since 2012 (Feistritzer 2019: 21f.). This increased attention to sports and exercise coincides with the willingness of young people to get even more involved (as before: 54%, more than before: 30%, and less then before: 14%). The same applies to the area of environmental protection, nature conservation and animal welfare; only in the area of disaster relief and rescue services, a quarter of the age group would like to get involved less or not at all in the future (ibid.: 26).
In regards to informal volunteering, 26% of 15-24-year olds engage in neighbourhood assistance for around 3,3 hours per week. However, compared to 2012, the number of volunteer hours per week has increased by 0,5 (Feistritzer 2019:31f.).
In addition to the reasons of being active, helping others, enjoying the activity and contributing something useful to the common good, 38% of the 15-24-year olds also cite the aspect of learning something in the process as important motivating factor for their volunteering (ibid:35).
According to the latest youth report (2021) as part of SORA’s Democracy Monitor for the Austrian Parliament, around one fifth of young people (here: 16-26 year olds) are involved in volunteer work despite the pandemic – with a focus on involvement in blue-light organizations and the arts and culture sector (31% of young people volunteering in each case) (Heinz and Zandonella 2021:25).
Trends of special Volunteer Programs
On behalf of the Ministry of Social Affairs evaluations were carried out in 2015 addressing the characteristics of young people’s participation in the Voluntary Social Year and the Voluntary Environmental Protection Year programs. In this context, the average age of participants was 19, while the youngest were 16 and the oldest 34. The proportion of women was very high here, at 95%. In addition to career and life orientation as the main motive for participation, many young participants also cited bridging a waiting period (e.g. for school or vocational training) as a decisive reason for their involvement (Spreitzer 2019:40).
In general, participation numbers rose steadily within the last years. While in 2016 there were 967 participants (822 female and 145 male), in 2019 a total of 1142 young people (908 female and 234 male) took part in the Voluntary Social Year program. The same applies to the Voluntary Environmental Protection Year program. While in 2015/16 a total of 40 participants (21 female and 19 male) completed a voluntary year, in 2018/19 there were a total of 60 participants (23 female and 37 male). This shows that despite the initial surplus of women in the program, more men were involved at the time of the latest survey. The majority of participants that year were between 18 and 20 years old (ibid.:43).
Additionally, participation numbers in the Memorial Service, the Peace Service and Social Service Abroad also increased (status end of 2019). Whereas in 2015, 131 young people (20 female and 111 male) participated in the Volunteer Service Abroad, 204 young people (58 female and 146 male) volunteered in 2019/2020. Of these, the Social Service program represented the most common form in 2019/2020 with a total of 140 participants, followed by the Memorial Service with 55 and the Peace Service with a total of 9 people (Spreitzer 2019:47f.).
Despite increasing numbers of participants in the above-mentioned volunteer programs, the numbers in the Voluntary Integration Year program declined completely. While there were 111 participants in 2016 (19 female and 92 male) and 153 young people took part in 2017 (29 female and 124 male), the numbers dropped significantly in 2018 to just 24 participants, albeit with a more even gender distribution than in the heavily male-dominated previous years (10 female and 14 male). The sharp decline in numbers can be linked to the introduction of work training as part of the Integration Year Act (§ 5, Section 3 pt.7). Regardless of this, there have been no new entrants to the Voluntary Integration Year since April 2019 (Spreitzer 2019:44).
In general, volunteering in Austria is aimed at all young people, but specific target groups are defined in the following special programs regulated by the Volunteer Act 2012 (FreiwG 2012):
- The Voluntary Social Year (Freiwilliges Sozialjahr) addresses all young people upon reaching the age of 17 (in case of special suitability even after the completion of the 16th year of life) without relevant completed vocational training. Here, participants are assigned to a one- time voluntary practical assistance (learning goal-oriented and under professional guidance) in a recognized institution in Austria, not longer than 34 hours per week and between 6 and 12 months. For more information visit the Plattform 'Voluntary Socal Year' (in German only).
- The Voluntary Environmental Protection Year (Freiwilliges Umweltschutzjahr) combines educational and vocational elements as well as elements of community service and personal development. It is aimed at all young people aged 17 and over. Like the Voluntary Social Year, the Voluntary Environmental Protection Year can only be completed once and has a maximum duration of 12 months.
- The Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service and the Peace and Social Service Abroad programme (Gedenkdienst, Friedens- und Sozialdienst im Ausland) addresses all young people after reaching the age of 17, who have not completed vocational education or training. In accordance with the framework conditions of the Voluntary Social Year, at least 150 hours of training and a maximum deployment time of 34 hours per week between 6-12 months are required.
In principle, citizens from other EU Member States also have the opportunity to volunteer in the above-mentioned special programs. For more information, see the freiwilligenweb (in German only), central portal for volunteering in Austria under the Volunteer Act.
- As of 2016, a new target group was addressed within the framework of the Voluntary Integration Year (Freiwilliges Integrationsjahr), regulated by the Volunteer Act (Section 4a, §27; BGBI. I No. 144/2015). Persons aged 17 and over who are entitled to asylum or subsidiary protection and whose recognition decision was issued no longer than 2 years ago are eligible to participate. For them as recipients of means-tested minimum benefits and without any immediate chance of placement in the first labour market, the training program is intended to promote integration into social life in Austria and foster labour market participation. Due to the introduction of the mandatory Integration Year (Integrationsjahr) in 2017, regulated by the Integration Year Act (Integrationsjahrgesetz), the number of participants in the respective program decreased from 2017 to 2018 (153 to 24 persons in total). Since April 2019, there have been no new admission to the Voluntary Integration Year (Spreitzer 2019:43f; Mara and Vidovic 2021:49).