Why Volunteering Is the Pulse of Democracy

Photo by Thomas Meyer/Ostkreuz

During the last financial crisis, Germany was saved by its solid small and medium-sized enterprises. During the current political crisis, this could be achieved by citizens joining hands and helping each other. Volunteering is the pulse of democracy and now is the time to increase one's social engagement – argues Sebastian Gallander, head of the nebenan.de Stiftung, a foundation that promotes neighborliness and community building.

Ten years ago, the bank Lehman Brothers collapsed and the oceans of the global economy were battered by a rough and stormy sea. Germany pulled through relatively well, not least because over 90 percent of its companies belong to a particularly solid fleet: the small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).


Volunteering in Germany

Around 31 million people in Germany volunteer in their free time. More than half of the volunteers are active in clubs and associations, followed by volunteerism in individually organized groups, churches, and religious associations as well as municipal or state institutions. Many people are involved in long-term projects. A third of the volunteers has been active for more than ten years. 

Today, we find ourselves once again in a major crisis, this time not caused by economic threats from without but by social divisions within.

In public, there is a conflict between irreconcilable political camps, which is further exacerbated by a few, albeit loud, voices.

What is often overlooked is that many people do a lot of good every day – on a voluntary basis. They support disadvantaged children, help homeless people, care for the elderly.

They do all this on a voluntary, pro bono basis and without making a big fuss about it.

This way, they not only create added value for other people; they are also the heartbeat of democracy. Democracy, after all, not only means voting every four years but taking matters of the general public into one’s own hands.

Volunteers are far from being just nice little helpers that take care of the soft (read: less important) issues and that patch up the holes left by the government.

"Democracy, after all, not only means voting every four years but taking matters of the general public into one’s own hands."
Sebastian Gallander

Once you really internalize this, there emerges a wholly different self-image and self-confidence: The volunteer sector is at least as important for democracy as the SME sector is for the economy. True, the two cannot be compared directly, but there seem to be parallels.

Both are considered to be very far-sighted. SMEs generally and primarily do not look for quick, maximum profit but for the long-term stability of the company. Volunteers get down to work and, through many little actions and deeds, try to make society as a whole a little bit better.

Climate Action
Volunteers address issues such as climate protection and... Lubomirkin/Unsplash
...support disadvantaged children, as here at the 2014 Paralympics. Jörg Brüggemann/Ostkreuz

Both are often rooted locally, but this does not at all mean that they are provincial.

For example, more than half of all jobs in Germany are created by SMEs.

According to the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs, SMEs contribute about 44 percent to the export success of the German economy, either directly or as suppliers, and some of them are even global leaders in their field.

Volunteers, too, are strongly committed to their communities and at the same time frequently address global issues such as fair trade or climate protection.

In addition, both SMEs and volunteers can be drivers of integration.

According to a recent study by the German Economic Institute, more than 75 percent of refugee employees from eight countries of origin – from Afghanistan to Syria – have found jobs in small and medium-sized businesses.

In Germany, many refugees have found jobs in small and medium-sized businesses. Ryan Doka

In the field of civic engagement, the latest German Survey on Volunteering shows that while there are big differences, there is also much potential, and among people with a migration background born in Germany and possessing German citizenship, the rate of volunteering is 43 percent, almost as high as the figure for people with no migration background.

More than ever, now is the time to realize the power of volunteering. While there are already many volunteers in Germany, we need many more.

But like the SME sector, the volunteer sector, too, needs support – for example, in the following three major areas:

1. Targeted financial support

There are many tailor-made funding instruments for SMEs, from start-up funding to indemnity bonds. Nonprofit organizations, on the other hand, need to scrape through from one project subsidy to the next and rarely receive long-term funding to cover their administrative expenses – which is, however, badly needed.

2. The shortage of young talent

SMEs take this issue into their own hands and commendably provide more than 80 percent of all apprenticeships in Germany; at the same time, they advance their own interests and benefit from the fact that half of the training takes place in tax-funded trade and vocational schools.

Obviously, the situations cannot be compared directly. But K-12 schools, which are increasingly turning into all-day schools, could step up their efforts to introduce young people to civic engagement. Expanding volunteer services such as the Voluntary Social and Ecological Year is also important.

3. Digitization

To make companies fit for the digital future, the federal government has established so-called SME 4.0 Centers of Excellence, providing 38 million euros of annual funding. According to a recent survey, the overwhelming majority of nonprofit organizations, too, are in dire need of further training but see their lack of resources as the biggest barrier on the road to digitization.

Conceivably, some right-wing radicals, too, refer to their activities as civic engagement. There is no simple remedy against these dark sides of civil society. But one can try to strengthen in particular those volunteers who are guided by the Basic Law and human rights.

Franziska Giffey, the Federal Minister for Family Affairs, has already made it clear that she wants to do exactly that and further expand support for volunteerism and democracy.

This is a very good investment into the future of society as a whole.

But she cannot do it alone. It’s on all of us. Businesses, which, after all, take an interest in a healthy society, could give their employees more time off for their civic engagement.

Almost every single one of us can increase his or her social engagement. Together, we will be able to master the crisis of democracy just as we mastered the financial crisis.

This op-ed was originally published in one of Germany's leading newspapers, the Süddeutsche Zeitung, on September 16, 2018.

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