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EACEA National Policies Platform


2. Voluntary Activities

2.1 General context

Last update: 28 November 2023
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  1. Historical developments
  2. Main concepts

Historical developments

Volunteering enjoys a long tradition in Germany. According to the most recent volunteer survey (Freiwilligensurvey), the number of young people who volunteer rose strongly between 1999 and 2014:. In 2014, 46.9% of people in the 14 to 29 age were volunteers.

Germany’s current national volunteering schemes Voluntary Social Year (Freiwilliges Soziales Jahr, FSJ), Voluntary Ecological Year (Freiwilliges Ökologisches Jahr, FÖJ) and the Federal Volunteer Service (Bundesfreiwilligendienst, BFD) are rooted in the mid 20th century (BMFSFJ 2016, p. 15 et seq.)

The concept of a Voluntary Social Year for young people first appeared in 1954. Hermann Dietzfelbinger, the rector of the Protestant deaconry in Neuendettelsau, sent out an appeal to young men and women to dedicate one year of their life to serving their communities. Other organisations followed his lead. In 1958 the Catholic church established a campaign called “Young people for young people” (Jugend hilft Jugend). In the early 1960s, independent welfare associations and the organisations affiliated with them laid the groundwork for a voluntary year (Freiwilliges Jahr). On 1 April 1964, Germany adopted an act to promote a voluntary social year (Gesetz zur Förderung eines freiwilligen sozialen Jahres).

In response to dying forests and the nuclear disaster of Chernobyl, in 1987 a pilot project was launched to promote an ecological volunteer scheme (ökologischer Freiwilligendienst), which extended the options available to volunteers to include environmental protection and nature conservation projects. In 1993 Germany adopted a corresponding act in support of a Voluntary Ecological Year (Gesetz zur Förderung eines Freiwilligen Ökologischen Jahres).

The two acts (for FSJ and FÖJ) were superseded in 2008 by the Act to Promote Youth Voluntary Services (Gesetz zur Förderung von Jugendfreiwilligendiensten), which is the legal framework for opportunities for volunteers, the educational support they receive, and their social security. All young people can opt for an FSJ or an FÖJ provided they have completed compulsory full-time education and are in the 15/16 to 27 age group.

Germany’s Federal Volunteer Service (Bundesfreiwilligendienst) is rooted in the country’s community service scheme, which was introduced through an act (Zivildienstgesetz) on 1 April 1961 as an alternative to military service. All young men who chose not to complete mandatory military service were obliged to complete community service instead. In other words, instead of joining the army (Bundeswehr) they were assigned to work in care homes or other charitable organisations. 50 years later, Germany abolished both its mandatory military and the community service effective 1 July 2011 and introduced the Federal Volunteer Service scheme. It is open to all German citizens.

Main concepts

In the current civic engagement strategy (Engagementstrategie) of the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth (Bundesministerium für Familie, Senioren, Frauen und Jugend), volunteering is interpreted more or less as a form of civic engagement (Bürgerschaftliches Engagement). In other words, volunteering is done out of one’s own free will, without expectation of a material reward, in service of the community, and in the public domain. Raising public awareness of civic engagement is seen as vital in order to encourage more activities of this kind. Typical areas of activity include sports, schools, kindergarten, art and music, social welfare and health, and the religious, judicial and political fields.

The most recent volunteer survey (Freiwilligensurvey) shows that around half of young people in Germany are volunteers. 52.3% of the 14 to 19 age group have chosen to volunteer. In the 20 to 24 age group, the number is 48.8%; among 25- to 29-year-olds, 40.1% are volunteers. They typically work in the fields of sports and exercise, the emergency services, youth work, and adult education.

Voluntary services (Freiwilligendienste) are a specific form of volunteering. These schemes are subject to very clear rules. For a certain period of time, the volunteers spend a large number of working hours in their projects, equating approximately to a part-time or even full-time job. Besides their commitment to others and the community at large, they benefit personally from their activities, too. Germany’s civic engagement strategy (Engagementstrategie) stipulates that these schemes be further developed and strengthened. The volunteering placements, too, may take place in a variety of contexts, such as social care, healthcare, sports, culture, monument preservation, education, environmental protection and nature conservation.

This chapter on volunteering in Germany focuses on these kinds of voluntary services owing to their specific structure and significance. However, it should be noted that there are a large number of other volunteering schemes and formats that are not covered in detail here.