Lack of Volunteers
End of Conscription Causes Headache for Charities
When Germany eliminated conscription this year, an extensive civil service program for conscientious objectors also came to an end. A new program launched to replace it, however, has not found enough volunteers. Now, many service organizations are facing shortages.
When Matthias Fritzsche began working as a volunteer helping the elderly in Berlin, he had no idea how many people were in need of assistance. Now, a year later, he says the experience has helped him find his calling.
Fritzsche, though, wasn't a willing volunteer when he began his stint with the relief agency Malteser International. For decades, young Germans who registered as conscientious objectors to mandatory military service were required to perform volunteer work instead. Without that policy, 26-year-old Fritzsche might never have decided to pursue a career in medicine.
"I wouldn't have chosen to do this, so it's good the government said I had to," says Fritzsche, who will continue volunteering for Malteser after serving in the civil service for 10 months.
That government requirement, though, is now ending. On July 1, the German government officially terminated its mandatory military service for young men -- which means the army of conscientious objectors, upon which the German social sector had relied on for 50 years, will also disappear. And just as the German military is struggling to attract recruits to fill the military ranks, the federal government is scrambling to attract volunteers to a federal program that is meant to fill the civil service void.
'Commit Themselves to the Common Good'
Many social service organizations are concerned that the effort will not be successful. The new Federal Voluntary Service is looking to eventually recruit 35,000 volunteers for placements across Germany. Unlike the civil service program, available only young men opting out of the military, the new service is open to women and does not have an age limit.
German Family Minister Kristina Schröder has said she invites others to "commit themselves to the common good" and to ensure that the new service "will be as successful as the civil service over the last 50 years."
Critics, though, argue that the government cannot expect to change the "culture of volunteerism" in just a few short months. An all-too-quick transition, they say, has led to miscommunication and confusion. And, looking to the Sept. 1 start date for the voluntary year, they worry that the young men who once opted to work in retirement homes, youth programs, and hospitals did so, at least initially, because it was required.
Now that the national volunteer service is, in fact, voluntary, who will sign up?
"This kind of voluntary work has to be established in Germany," says Claudia Kaminski, a spokesperson for Malteser, which relies on volunteers for its humanitarian aid work. "Our society is used to this mandatory military service, and now its end shows our society that everyone has to care."
Kaminski says that as of Aug. 18, about 320 volunteers from the Federal Voluntary Service had signed up for assignments lasting six to 24 months with Malteser, though the organization had expected 1,000 new contracts by Sept. 1.
"The way [the new service] was communicated was rather difficult," says Kaminski. "First the government told us we are going to shorten the service, and then it was quite surprisingly stopped in the middle of the year."
Forty percent of the civil service volunteers at Malteser agreed to stay on longer, which Kaminski says will help with the transition. But she expects it will take years for the organization to regain its annual number of volunteers, and until then, it will face challenges in serving the community at the level it has in the past.
The extended service of civil service volunteers like Fritzsche not only helps organizations during the transition, but also allows the government to keep lower-than-expected recruitment numbers hidden in the small print.
Hermann Kues, a state secretary in the Family Affairs Ministry, which oversees the new service, touted the fact that there were 17,300 Federal Voluntary Service contracts as of July 1. He said it was a sign of the nationwide interest in volunteering. But 14,300 of those contracts were with former civil service volunteers who extended their service, meaning only 3,000 new people had signed up to serve by the launch of the program.
The Ministry of Family Affairs said it expects 10,000 new contracts by the end of October, with an eventual goal of 35,000 volunteers.
"The Voluntary Civil Service is completely new and we have to do some publicity to make sure people know about the service," said Katja Laubinger, a spokesperson for the ministry.
Part The ministry has made marketing a priority for the new service in the hope that it will gain the national reputation of its two counterparts, the Voluntary Social Year and Voluntary Ecological Year, which have been around for decades and already have registered a combined total of more than 30,000 volunteers for the upcoming year.
The Voluntary Social and Ecological Years are also federally funded, but organized primarily on a state-by-state basis. They are available to young people ages 16 to 27. Like the new voluntary service, they offer a minimal stipend and state-sponsored health insurance to its recruits.
Laubinger says there were discussions about the possibility of merging the new service with these two existing volunteer programs, but the government ultimately decided to maintain the balance between having national and regional organizations.
Bernd Kuhlmann, who places young people in Ecological Voluntary Year assignments throughout Berlin, has a different take. "Young people know us, the schools know us, and we're very successful," he says. "We would have preferred to … make one organization of it."
Fearful of Losing Funds
In a perfect world, says Kuhlmann, the government would continue to provide funding without exerting control, as it did with the civil service, which was "integrated into the framework." Instead, he says, organizations did not receive some of the funds they had counted on for the upcoming year.
"We had 70 spaces here in Berlin for conscientious objectors," Kuhlmann says. "We made partnerships with new organizations and facilities, but now we have lost our funding."
Hartmut Brombach, who coordinates Voluntary Social Year placements across Germany, says he fears losing people in addition to funds. He says it will be more expensive for civil service organizations to take on young people who opt for the Voluntary Social or Ecological Year over the Federal Voluntary Service.
In a continuing back-and-forth that reveals the confusion surrounding this new Federal Voluntary Service, the government says this is not the case.
Hammond Schäfer, a spokesperson for the Family Ministry, counters that the government provides civil service organizations with €200 per volunteer each month regardless of the program they choose. "Quite a few civil service organizations are skeptical," he says, trying to address the confusion over numbers. "They're not very fond of the federal voluntary service."
"We must take part in this new program, because if we don't take part we won't get any money," said Brombach. "But I think the solution will not be one or the other but a third way between these two programs."
Despite the concerns and the confusion, there is some cause for optimism.
The number of young people signing up for volunteer programs has grown by tens of thousands over the last decade, and on average, three people apply for every one position offered by the Social Voluntary Year. Those numbers could increase more with the addition of women and senior citizens who were not able to participate in the civil service. And with a €350 million annual budget, the government is investing more than ever in volunteer services.
A Legitimacy Problem
Some organizations are confident that with continued coordination, the problems will work themselves out.
"The government was aware about the need of compensation relating the abandonment of military service and civil service," explains Gisela Graw of the humanitarian aid organization Arbeiter Samariter Bund. "There were, are and will be common meetings, efforts and modifications regarding the new national voluntary service and the challenge of establishing it with success."
But time is ticking for the Federal Voluntary Service to assert itself as a worthy replacement for the treasured tradition of the civil service.
"The government has a lot of money, they have a big office, and yet they only get 3,000 people to sign up," Kuhlmann says, sitting before a stack of brochures on environmental volunteer opportunities in Berlin. "Now, they have a problem of legitimacy."
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