German community foundations, Bürgerstiftungen, lie at the heart of civil society in the country1Turner, 2009. Whilst they are a relatively young form of participating in and shaping society, they are strong and powerful determinants in areas of crisis 2Walkenhorst, 2009. This became apparent not only during the 2013 floods but most recently in what has been described as the refugee crisis. Bürgerstiftungen have responded promptly to the large numbers of arriving refugees in need of food, shelter, clothing, and accommodation. They have also taken on the difficult task of integration by a variety of programmes and projects. At the moment, Germany is criss-crossed with activities by civil society on the whole and by Bürgerstiftungen in particular.
There is broad agreement that without the activities by Bürgerstiftungen, Germany would not have coped with the number of refugees that have come to the country.
This short report’s findings are the outcome of more than 35 qualitative semi-structured problem-centred interviews with members of staff and volunteers from German Bürgerstiftungen.
I. Development and legal framework
Germany is traditionally seen as a country with a strong third sector (Lück, 2008; Schauhoff, 2016). Since post-war times, there has been a gradual rise of charitable foundations in general. Bürgerstiftungen are, technically speaking, charitable foundations, set up under the legal framework of sections 80-88 of the German Civil Code (Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch, BGB). However, this charitable foundation is somewhat sui generis, of a unique nature, for several reasons. First, Bürgerstiftungen are a relatively new occurrence as they started to emerge only in the 1990s. Secondly, Bürgerstiftungen are small in numbers, compared to the total number of charitable foundations in Germany. By the end of 2015, there were 387 Bürgerstiftungen (Stiftung Aktive Bürgerschaft, 2015). They are, nevertheless, big in their effect. There is broad agreement that without the numerous ad-hoc initiatives by Bürgerstiftungen, in particular over the past two years, Germany would not have coped with the high refugee influx. Thirdly, there is a strong regional or local focus in the donations and operations of Bürgerstiftungen. Lastly, unlike the “prototype” of the German charitable foundation which is believed to be set up by an elderly childless owner of a company towards the end of his life, Bürgerstiftungen are set up by a larger number of “Bürger”, the literal translation being “citizen”, who aim to improve aspects of the local community – for example, literacy for children in poorer districts.
All of the interviewed Bürgerstiftungen have emphasised that they are committed to the idea of civic involvement, bottom-up change-making, and participation of all citizens. The first Bürgerstiftungen were founded in 1996 and in 1997.
The 387 Bürgerstiftungen vary considerably in age, size, assets, and activities (v. Strachwitz, 2016). Their common denominator is the self-determined shaping of society and participation in society through the activities of the individuals participating in them. The financially strongest Bürgerstiftung is Bürgerstiftung Hamburg with assets of 31m euro, the smallest Bürgerstiftung Erfurt with 40,000 euro. In all, Bürgerstiftungen in Germany had assets of 305m euro in 2014, with 69 having assets of more than 1m euro. Donations to them in 2014 amounted to 12m euro and they gave away14m euro for their projects. There are 45.000 founders and volunteers directly involved and active in the work of Bürgerstiftungen. The majority who give donations or funds to Bürgerstiftungen are individuals (80.4%), followed by companies (12.8%), public entities (5.6%) and other societies (1.2%). The county with the largest number is North Rhine-Westphalia with 111 Bürgerstiftungen3Stiftung Aktive Bürgerschaft, 2015. A large percentage of the interviewed Bürgerstiftungen have reported that they did not necessarily face a growth in volunteers within their organisations because of the refugee crisis, but saw a large rise in external donations.
The outlook for the future is that Bürgerstiftungen will continue to grow and play an ever greater role in German society. This is due largely to the degree of engagement not only outside of them but also within them. As Turner (2009) has put it, Bürgerstiftungen are a strong alliance of citizens who donate time, citizen who donate money, and citizen who donate ideas.
II. Conceptualising Bürgerstiftungen
In general, the Bürgerstiftung is understood as an independent, autonomous, non-profit foundation of citizen for citizen in a defined area and with a wide purpose working in the interest of all citizen in that area.
Even though there has been a considerable rise in numbers of Bürgerstiftungen and a rise in numbers of people acting as founders, donors, and volunteers over the past two decades, Bürgerstiftungen do face challenges in the future, some of which became obvious during the refugee crisis.
The first challenge is to provide for financial sustainability. As of today, only 15% of Bürgerstiftungen can operate on the basis of assets of more than 1m euro. The majority of Bürgerstiftungen have to counterbalance very low assets with voluntary work which can be a sufficient means only to some extent. During the refugee crisis it became public that an increasing number of volunteers were suffering from severe burn-out syndromes (Büscher, 2015). All of the interviewed Bürgerstiftungen have reported that, especially in summer 2015 until spring 2016, volunteers have repeatedly struggled with the massive workload in refugee aid and also with psychological issues. The fund Flüchtlinge und Ehrenamt that Bürgerstiftung Hamburg administers is an example that can inter alia address some of the problems connected to voluntary overwork. Via this fund, volunteers can access training and mentoring on how to deal with overwhelming situations. Bürgerstiftung Hannover, which runs a similar scheme, also stressed that because personal relationships are created, especially via buddy schemes between adults and children, when financing a mentoring scheme is not longer possible, people often need help to cope with the loss. Some Bürgerstiftungen that run improvisation theatre groups for refugees, for example Bürgerstiftung Erfurt with its unique project Schotte for refugee teenagers, organise mentoring for volunteers as contact with traumatised individuals is not something untrained workers can necessarily cope with.
The second challenge certainly is the involvement and motivation of “Generation Y and Z” to continue the work that has been done so far by Bürgerstiftungen 4Turner, 2009. When asked about the age structure of founders and volunteers, it became obvious that the majority of Bürgerstiftungen consists of people who are retired or close to retirement age and, to a lesser extent, people who are in their forties to sixties. Generation Y and Z are missing in the management of Bürgerstiftungen; however, they are certainly visible in the spontaneous aid movement throughout Germany, in refugee camps in Greece, Italy and Turkey, and will often join a well-established project on impulse. For the quality of voluntary work, both forms of involvement are needed. Whether the motivation behind involvement is personal salvation, salvation of others, self-esteem or recognition and reward is of subordinate importance. However, to maintain young people’s involvement is a major task for the future in the work of Bürgerstiftungen.
Lastly, Bürgerstiftungen are often perceived in their “complementarity function” by doing what the state does not do, which provokes state actors to rely on them – financially and logistically5Leat, 2001. Bürgerstiftungen must therefore be seen as what they are: civil society’s way to shape and participate in the state they live in but not to finance what should be covered by public budgets.
As Adloff et al. (2007) suggest, there is a strong link between Bürgerstiftungen and self-determination, civic involvement and participation. One could even argue that Bürgerstiftungen are the embodiment of civil society. One interview partner from Bürgerstiftung Vorpommern described them as a network partner and a “junction” for civil society. To define the scope of their involvement will be a crucial task for each Bürgerstiftung as part of their self- determination and in line with the principle of autonomy that is guaranteed by law6Lück, 2008; Jakob, 2016.
III. The situation in Germany
In 2015 and 2016, an estimated 1.2 million refugees came to Germany. More than half of them applied for asylum, a rise of 135% compared to 2014. The majority of refugees are Syrians at more than 30%, followed by refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and Eritrea (Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, 2015 and 2016).
Bürgerstiftungen and charitable foundations in general had identified the need for their activities in the field of migration and integration to Germany long before the years 2015/2016 7Walter, 2014; however there has been greater emphasis on refugees in 2015/2016 8Schauhoff, 2016.
As Speth and Becker (2016) have highlighted, there are two phases in the activities of civil society as a whole. The first relates to first aid measures and the second to integration. The large majority of Bürgerstiftungen have been and are active in both phases even though there is a feeling that because of the drop in numbers of refugees entering Germany currently, the emphasis of activities pursued or supported by Bürgerstiftungen is concentrated on the more difficult second phase of integration as a permanent and open process. The focus on the second phase also reflects the crusty state structures that are not necessarily open to volunteers or cooperation with the third sector in general. In places like Berlin, volunteers who sought to support aid for arriving refugees faced unfriendly, unwelcoming, and sceptical reactions by private companies running emergency accommodation. Co-operation between private companies, non-profit organisations in general and state actors seems to need progress for the future in order not to lose this vast potential.
IV. Phase 1: Upon arrival
“Eating, drinking and arriving are priorities. The people are exhausted.” Reinhold Feistl (2015) from the German Red Cross summarises the situation when refugees, after their long and often traumatising journey have finally reached Germany, are registered in one of the hot spots and then bussed to hostels that can be 600-1000km away from the registration centre.
In what Speth and Becker (2016) describe as the first phase in refugee aid, basic needs such as emergency medical care, food, clothing, and providing safety are crucial. During the interviews with founders and volunteers, it became apparent that all Bürgerstiftungen were and are active in this first phase and there is crossover between established civil society and spontaneous volunteers that the refugee crisis has generated. While Bürgerstiftungen have been part of the German third sector landscape since 1997 and therefore can be deemed as established, new Bürgerstiftungen are set up each year and within existing Bürgerstiftungen there is a not only a constant growth of assets but also an increase in citizens who get involved as donors or volunteers. The large majority of interview partners reported a considerable rise in the number of people who phoned and emailed to ask how to help refugees via Bürgerstiftungen and showed up. Interview partners from all Bürgerstiftungen have reported that their volunteers have often gone beyond their energy levels to help to provide the basic needs. The need for coaching, mentoring, and supervision of volunteers is therefore an element that is reflected in the schemes of many Bürgerstiftungen already while others are aware of the issue and are about to address it. One interview partner from Bürgerstiftung Bonn emphasised that apart from the mammoth task of integration, another challenge will be to maintain the involvement of volunteers for the future as the unprecedented wave of solidarity throughout the country had left many volunteers exhausted. The conditions in refugee accommodation vary considerably throughout Germany and there have been reports and secret filming about appalling conditions as far as privacy, sanitation, drinking water, and tent temperature are concerned9Agarwala, 2015. In addition, local authorities have repeatedly stressed that their capacities are limited and a collapse is likely to happen. For the refugees, the ordeal of leaving their home country ends initially in waiting: waiting to be registered, waiting to get documents, waiting for an appointment to apply for asylum, and waiting for the decision (Jabarine, Meschede and Puscher, 2016). Many Bürgerstiftungen have identified that the emptiness and frustration that waiting for days, weeks and sometimes months causes, is something that needs to be addressed to ease that phase between arriving physically and arriving mentally. Diverse projects from organising sporting activities like football tournaments or cycling to concert visits or afternoon activities for children try to address this transition phase. One project that is especially designed for newly arriving children and children that have lived in the region for some time is the project “Willkommensbuch” by Bürgerstiftung Vorpommern, a relatively small and young Bürgerstiftung. In this project, children who were born in the area, together with children who moved there a while a ago and newly arrived children were given space and opportunity to get together and define points of interests and what they like about the region. Those points were visited together and children now regularly meet in the afternoon in an arts studio where, with arts pedagogues as facilitators, they transcribe their ideas into a book with text and illustrations. The resulting book is made by children for children who arrive in the future and will be distributed accordingly.
V. Phase 2: A perspective
The second phase that is often described in managing integration of refugees into German society relates to giving refugees a perspective and the feeling that a new life is possible with all its necessary components: family life, work, the ability to communicate and to participate and, in cases of traumatised refugees, overcoming or coping with the past. All in all, this relates to a perspective that people need in order to feel welcome and permanent instead of tolerated and temporary. Bürgerstiftungen take a huge part in achieving perspectives for refugees. The analysis of the interviews revealed that in a large number of cases, little and not necessarily financially intensive projects often serve best to provide a sense of being welcome and having a perspective. As language is an identified element of participation, many Bürgerstiftungen have organised German language classes or provided stationery for language classes. The interviews have revealed that it is a common principle in the work of Bürgerstiftungen, whether it concerns operational projects or funded projects, that the work by volunteers is by the very nature of it not paid for, but material expenses are covered for things like classroom rent or tickets for public transport so that refugees can reach the classroom. The reason why there are no salaries or payments for volunteer work as such is twofold. Some smaller Bürgerstiftungen have stressed that they would reach the end of their financial capacities very soon if voluntary work was remunerated and others that it is the very essence of voluntary work that it is done pro bono, which is a view that is strengthening civil society in the long run. As Embacher (2015) points out, the instrumentalisation and commercialisation of voluntary work can cause significant damage to the whole third sector when voluntary work is seen as a service like any other. Disguised as voluntary work, a low-pay sector with no security is the consequence of taking the idea of pro bono work away.
In some Bürgerstiftungen, such as Berlin, projects to develop language competence for children have existed for more than ten years and the projects for refugee children have been integrated into existing schemes that have worked well. Bürgerstiftung Berlin works together with five refugee hostels with the project Bilderbuchkino that focuses on 8 to 12-year-olds but is also open to younger and older children. Parents are welcome to get involved and often parents enhance their own language abilities as well. Existing projects in a mentoring scheme for schoolchildren’s homework and a buddy system for reading (Leselust) have also been extended.
The rise of German Bürgerstiftungen is part of a transnational movement that started in the United States and is committed to thinking globally but acting locally. Bürgerstiftungen have responded promptly to the large number of refugees in Germany in 2015/2016. However, they had identified the need for various activities for migrants long before media attention increased and thus are a forerunner in achieving participation. The founders, donors and volunteers in Bürgerstiftungen played a significant role in the first phase of refugee aid in 2015. They have supported emergency accommodation financially and logistically, organised clothing, food, emergency health care, and help with administrative matters, in particular with asylum applications. Due to the refugee crisis, many Bürgerstiftungen have experienced a substantial rise in citizens who volunteer via Bürgerstiftungen. Hence, the strict classification between established civil society and ad hoc helpers has been blurred in Bürgerstiftungen. For the future, it will be necessary to use the synergy that has emerged in civic involvement over the past two years in order to provide a resilient network of refugee aid in both phases throughout the country. Whether this network works well will largely depend on the structure provided by that state actors and private companies mandated by public authorities.
In building this network, it is vital that projects also keep an eye on the training and mentoring of volunteers in order to avoid stress syndromes, and exhaustion. The training of volunteers in legal and administrative aspects of refugee aid is also fundamental.
Bürgerstiftungen function as a coordinator, a multiplier and as a forerunner in German “Willkommenskultur” (Welcome Culture). They are not only part of civil society, they also strengthen it by being inclusive and open to citizen and refugees.
Because of their independence from party politics or denomination, Bürgerstiftungen are an engine for integration and, more importantly, participation. They achieve participation with two easy principles: first, small projects matter and, secondly, engagement counts. It has become obvious that throughout Germany, there is a network of refugee aid via Bürgerstiftungen. They run their own projects, they support other non-profit organisations or charitable foundations, and they learn from each other. Projects are as diverse as financial support for citizen who repair bikes in order to go biking together with refugees to explore the city (Cologne), getting children together to define, visit and illustrate their favourite places (Vorpommern), to supporting needlework groups or a gardening group as organised by volunteers for refugees (Hamburg), improvisation theatre for unaccompanied minors (Erfurt), or special activities like “buy two tickets for a classical concert instead of one” (Leipzig) that enable refugees to participate in the cultural life of a city. All these projects build up personal relations and abandon the abstract.
Without Bürgerstiftungen, Germany would not have managed the current migration into the country. While the disputed “complementary function” that leaves civil society to do what the state does not or cannot do has become a reality in times of empty budgets, Bürgerstiftungen are pragmatic in organsing the help that is needed on-site and locally. In doing so, they cooperate with public authorities both logistically and financially, which is a way of ensuring participation without being stuck in dogma.
In the work of Bügerstiftungen in refugee aid there is a strong focus on children, the development of children’s language competence, engagement between children and mentoring schemes and buddy systems. This emphasis is a clear commitment to a diverse, pluralistic, and inclusive German society in the future.
The individuals in Bürgerstiftungen are “hands on” in Willkommenskultur. Hence, they are a powerful voice against rising xenophobic parties and groups (AfD, Pegida). In the long-run, Bürgerstiftungen might be forerunners in providing encounter between their activities and Germans who have drifted to xenophobic groups due to a lack of information and experience.
By its Menschen stärken Menschen approach, the German government has made a strong avowal not only to welcoming refugees in the country but also to acknowledgement of the strength and significance of civil society.
Bürgerstiftungen on the other side can serve as a role model for Germany’s crusty structures as they have demonstrated how a new integration concept – a multidimensional open and conversational process can evolve into a modern society.
Bürgerstiftungen are the epitome of civil society and, moreover, they are a catalyst for bottom-up change. They make a vital contribution to the evolution of philanthropic activity and to fostering global citizenship.