Charitable Germany: The culture of giving

Christmas is coming, and with it the talk of love and care for others, of charity and compassion. It is a time of huge spending not only for gifts and consumerism, but also in donations. The amount of charitable spending usually triples in December in Germany, to more than a billion Euros collected by hundreds of organisations. Interestingly, in England the month of November is a strong competitor for the Christmas holidays, with Remembrance Day and the BBC appeal „Children in Need“ driving the numbers up.

Children are an important issue for Germans as well. The charity „Ein Herz für Kinder“ (A Heart for Children) is one of the most iconic organisations, born in the 1970s to help reduce the numbers of children injured in road accidents all over Germany. Cars and children, a combination that fit perfectly to the German mindset of the time, and while „Ein Herz für Kinder“ indeed did lots of good, at its heart it is a rather populist venture driven by the biggest German tabloid. The BILD-Zeitung is as noisy and often toxic as the British Sun.

Yes, charity is a huge driver for Public Relations and advertising, in Germany just as much as in England. Celebrities are as commonly engaged in good causes as they are accused to just do it for PR reasons. And the question whether it should be really up to privately organised fundraisers to care for the most important causes and the most vulnerable in a society is as relevant today as it was in the past, when the welfare state emerged as a result of the industrial revolution.

„Benefiz“ as religious virtue and humanitarian philosophy

Today, there are three terms in the German language that describe charity: The rather bulky term „Wohltätigkeit“ that has a slightly bureaucratic odor, the old-fashioned „Benefiz“ (rooted in the Latin word „beneficium – gift or donation) and last not least: The English word „Charity“. Germans love English terms as a way to sound fresh and modern.

ZDF Spendengala 2019 (Credit: ZDF/Sascha Baumann)

Before radio and TV, before the introduction of the famous „Benefiz Gala“ (charity event/show/gala), before famous singers or actors appeared on stage to ask for help and support for those less lucky, collecting donations and looking after the poor and ill was mainly historically driven by religious, humantarian and political organisations. The latter mostly hail from the big worker’s movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, the former are based in the massive Christian tradition in Germany and in the humanitarian movements of the age of enlightenment. Catholic and protestant churches still run huge parts of health, education and social work all across the country, even in East Germany, where religious influence was limited during socialist times. These traditional NGOs have a special place in Germany’s welfare state.

They are deeply interwoven with the Wohlfahrtsstaat (the welfare state) that goes back to the social democratic movements of imperial Germany, when Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismarck introduced the first modern social insurance system. The state taking responsibility for the well-being of its citizens was a philosophy closer to Clemens Attlee’s and Aneurin Bevan’s NHS than to Margaret Thatcher’s “no such thing as society”. The idea still has a strong momentum in the German population, surviving years of neo-liberalism. So strong, that more than 40 per cent of Germans state categorically that „caring for the poor and vulnerable is responsibility of the state, not private charity.“

A cultural difference between England and Germany that shows clearly when comparing charity in both countries. Brits donate on average £540 per year to charity, which is more than double the amount that Germans give. Britons, however, pay much lower taxes than Germans and receive on the other hand much lower benefits on many levels. While the NHS is an excellent system in its own right, it also leaves gaps that the German health system doesn’t struggle with.

25 % of Britons donate for medical research, with cancer being the main recipient of support throughout the population. Animal welfare, hospitals and hospices take up another 46 % of donations. With 26 %, children and young people are another huge cause Britons care about deeply. (The percentages don’t add up to 100 % because many of the people asked named more than one cause they cared about).

In numbers, it is Cancer Research UK that tops the table of British charitable foundations with a brand worth of £2.3 billion, followed by the British Heart Foundation, Macmillan Cancer Research and the British Red Cross.

German charitable donations go less to continuous issues like this – disaster relief and humanitarian aid make up 75 % of all donations, with 38 % of this going to international projects. Animal Welfare, cultural preservation, the environment and sports share another 15 %.

Part of the welfare state

Germans are obsessed with transparency and the efficiency of the money they invest. This lead in 1998 to the introduction of the „Deutscher Spendenrat“ (German Donation Council), a governing body that supervises all charitable organisations in the country based on a moral and organisational charter. This approach is in itself very German and mirrors similar organisations in press and advertising. The Spendenrat publishes a yearly study looking into the details of the charity business in Germany. The „GfK Charity Scope“ is a yearly statistical undertaking that aims to show trends and possible issues in the market.

And this is not the only way German charities are being scrutinized. The Deutsche Zentralinstitut für Soziale Fragen (German central institution for social issues) audits NGOs regularly. Press and media publish rankings and criticism constantly. The tax authorities are extremely strict when it comes to donation income, which is not a surprise, as charitable donations can be deducted for income tax purposes. Non-profit organisations also enjoy tax relief.

The German term here is „gemeinnützig“, which goes a bit further than its English counterpart „non-profit“. Straightforward it translates to „for the common good“, which leads us back to many German charities and non-profit ventures being part of the traditional welfare state.

Some of the biggest employers in Germany are at home in this category. Religious organisations like Caritas or Diakonie deliver comprehensive services in healthcare, education and social work. They are mirrored by humanitarian organisations like the German Red Cross or the „Paritätischer Wohlfahrtsverband“, an umbrella organisation for non-government welfare work in Germany. In the very same niche operates the „Arbeiterwohlfahrt AWO“ (which translates to worker’s welfare), with strong roots in socialist and social democratic movements of the 20th century.

Together, these big institutions cover more than 50 % of all social facilities, hospitals, schools, nurseries, care homes, youth centres and other services.

The future of German charity

Nearly 3.5 billion Euro have been donated in Germany in 2019. While this sum isn’t considerably lower than the donation volume in past years, there is a trend that generally less people are willing to make donations at all.

Trends like crowdfunding for issues that matter to the individual and direct donations via internet appeals seem to take over especially in the younger generations. This might become an issue for the established model of NGOs and government organisations cooperating within the German welfare state.

Surprisingly, the will to donate for church and religion is still very high in Germany. This is especially interesting knowing that the Lutheran and Catholic churches in the country are financed by a church tax collected by the tax authorities. A small part of this is based in the Muslim community. The Islamic faith sees charitable donations as an obligation. The organisation „Islamic Relief“, for example, well known in Britain and headquartered in Birmingham, runs a small organisation in Germany, with 60 employees and donation boxes mostly in Turkish restaurants and cafes. The average amount donations per person is much higher in the Islamic community than in the Christian surrounding. As compared to the average of the German population with roughly 200 Euro per year (highest in the group of senior citizens older than 70 with 255 Euro), Muslims donate on average 452 Euro.

The Covid age, however, has brought another kind of charity to the centre of public attention: The enormous influence of billionaires on charitable causes, investing amounts that most governments around the globe would not be able to afford. While this sends conspiracy theorists spinning, their worry is shared by many reasonable people. Should really a wealthy few decide what kind of welfare is given to those in need?

The mismatch between the duty of society to care for the most vulnerable and the disparity in wealth has been a matter of concern all throughout history. Private charity or the welfare state – where will future priorities be? The German answer will probably be a mix – time will tell how it will be balanced.

Return to the blog main page for more articles on German every-day culture.

Did you know that all your donations to our Freitagsklub events are forwarded to our partner charity “Emmeline’s Pantry” – a foodbank for women and their families.

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