Organized Germany: Nonprofit associations are a backbone of society

Legend has it that there is nothing more German than proper “order”, well sorted administration and neat bureaucracy. That might be true in some ways, especially when it comes to taxes and accounting, yet it’s painfully false for travelling on German trains, for example, or for councils trying to prepare the streets for snow in winter.

There is one area, though, where German bureaucracy peaks, and that’s the idea of a “Verein”. There’s no such thing in Britain, so the English language lacks a proper term for it. A Verein is a club, an association, an organisation that is not a business – a group of people caring for a special cause or issue. A British person would consider starting a Ltd, perhaps a charity, and while that is a straightforward solution, it would make them liable to taxes. That doesn’t apply for a Verein, at least not if you do it right.

Registered associations have a special status

Germany is home to some 600,000 registered associations. For sports clubs, founding a Verein is the only way to free usage of communal sports facilities and cheap sports insurance via governing bodies that are also organised in the same way (like the football association DFB or the Olympic Sports Association DOSB). Public funding is often connected to the status of an organization not only as a registered association, but as a tax exempt, charitable registered organisation, a “gemeinnütziger Verein”. The abbreviation “e.V.” has to be added to the name of this kind of of association.

They have to be strictly non profit, their field of work is clearly defined and members can’t be paid an “unreasonable amount” by the organisation, making it a tricky task to pay board members or employees. The most important bit for a charitable registered organisation is even more of a challenge: They have no owners.

By definition an e.V. is owned by its members, who have an essential say in the running of the club. They are entitled to regular membership meetings, much like a party conference, during which the board has to be elected and the accounts have to be checked by independent auditors (who cannot be member of the board, but can be members of the Verein). The members have a say in budgeting, name changes and other essential decisions.

Like in a shareholder owned corporation, there are of course ways of limiting the influence of the members, and that’s quite common for the bigger associations – the football clubs of the Bundesliga, for example, who are mostly still registered associations. They have multiple layers of professionalized, commercialized institutions that make sure that the leadership doesn’t get challenged too easily and the massive business interests of the club and its investors are not damaged. Of course, these clubs are not tax exempt. Their core activity might be, but it’s surrounded by profit centres who usually work as a regular company.

Beyond sports

The usability of the Verein as a concept goes far beyond sports. Literally everything that isn’t a business in Germany can be an e.V. – house owner associations, dog training groups, allotments, bunny breeders, Science Fiction enthusiasts; but even more so: charitable organisations, nurseries, care homes, even hospital trusts.

Every village or town will have at least one big registered association to organize the local sports offers, and local folklore usually also organizes as a Verein. It’s good practice for local business people and politicians to connect to these clubs – this is the place where personal connections are made, ideas are exchanged and backdoor deals are started. Cologne, for example, is basically ruled by its huge Carnival associations that work throughout the year not only to plan the big carnival season, but also to bring important influencers together.

So strong are these bonds that Germans have an own word for what happens in these circles: “Vereinsmeierei”. Meier, a common German surname, is the old word for someone concerned with administration, related to the English word “mayor”. A Vereinsmeier is someone who is deeply involved in the work of a registered association and has an over-inflated idea of its importance. Vereinsmeierei can also be the result of people sticking together in their groups, making it difficult for outsiders to get in or suggest changes. The next step up is “Klüngel” – a clique of people networking so closely that it borders corruption.

Just because this article wouldn’t be complete without it, we have to mention a special kind of Verein that is in the centre of many German communities: The Shooting Club. To understand the importance of these associations, you have to know that fun fairs in Germany are either called “Kirmes” or “Kirchweih” (when organized through the local church), or “Schützenfest”, the shooter’s festival. A highlight in village life, the Schützenfest is a competition of the local shooters, ending with the crowning of the “shooter’s king”. Funky traditional uniforms, music and of course beer are essential features of these celebrations.

More than two thirds of German clubs are older than WW2, but the trend to connect in official associations is far from over, even in modern times, with social media replacing traditional ways of interaction. Twitter, Facebook or Reddit are simply no competition for clubs like the “Street Bunny Crew”, where bikers ride their motorcycles in fluffy pink bunny costumes – or the “Belle Moustache e.V.”, a club of men with beautiful beards.

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