Charity: A little-known cultural difference between Germany and the US

how does charity differ between Germany and the US?

Germans devote less money, time, and energy to charity than Americans. Instead, Germans, rely on the government to address health, unemployment, and retirement issues while Americans compensate for a lower welfare state by donating private resources and volunteering.

Lately, my youngest child and I have been volunteering at our local school and making sandwiches for homeless people. Pauline is 6 years old and has a golden heart. When she asked me how I’ve helped “poor people” in the past, my answers have surprised her a lot. It’s not that Germans are less concerned about their fellow human beings, but charity and volunteering look completely different between Europe and the US.

In 2016, Americans gave $281.6 billion in charity—an average of $880 per person. For simplification purposes, I’ve decided not to consider charitable giving from foundations, bequests, or corporations and focus on comparable figures between individuals in Germany and the United States. In Germany, the average donation in 2016 was $75 (or €64) per person, which is around 12 times less than each American gave.

Besides raw figures, how does charity differ between Germany and the US?

First of all, Germans also pay between 8% and 9% of their income to the church they attend. In 2016, Evangelical and Catholic churches in Germany together collected $13.4 billion (€11.5 billion) in church taxes. Churches in Germany are wealthy and allocate money for priests’ salaries, daycares, hospitals, and nursing homes. Pauline’s brother, for example, went to an Evangelical daycare before we moved to the US.

Altogether, Germans gave $239 per person to charity in 2016. That’s still almost 4 times less than American donations.

In 2016, according to different reports I found on the subject, at least 60% of Americans gave to charity. Only 27% of Germans did the same that year.

Also, Americans give the most between Thanksgiving and Christmas. In 2016, their donations were allocated as follows: 32% for religious purposes, 16% for education, 11% for grants, and 9% for health. Germans, in contrast, react to humanitarian catastrophes: in 2015, disaster relief attracted 80% of charitable donations in Germany.

If you want to know more about American generosity, I recommend scanning a report from American Philanthropy Roundtable that you can check out here.

You can read more about the German perceptions of charity here (in German only).

Volunteering has also another perception in the two countries

According to the National Philanthropic Trust, “Approximately 63 million Americans—25 percent of the adult population—volunteer their time, talents, and energy to make a difference.” Most volunteers spent time collecting and distributing food (24%), fundraising (24%), or teaching and tutoring (18%).

In Germany, only 18% of the population invests time in volunteering. Germans spend an average of 5 hours a week supporting youth activities (25%), local initiatives (18%), and their church (15%).

Based on these data, Americans appear to be more engaged in supporting fragile or at-risk members of their community.

What motivates giving in the US vs. in Germany?

Germans pay substantial taxes and mandatory contributions for unemployment or health insurance and retirement plans. According to a new report from the German Confederation of Tax Payers (Bund der Steuerzahler), in 2017 Germans paid an average of 54.6% of their income in taxes and mandatory contributions.

With this in mind, it’s not surprising that they see health coverage, pensions, and unemployment benefits as the government’s responsibility. This also explains why Germans are more likely to give after a natural catastrophe that happened in a distant country.

In the US, the motivation behind giving is completely different and a little bit more complex.

Compared to Germany, the US has a smaller welfare system, and Americans rely more on private resources to pay for college and pensions or on their employer for health insurance. As a matter of fact, many Americans feel that their volunteer work and donations help their community. Children are taught in early age to give time and energy to food and gift drives, local shelters, etc. President Obama and his family served as role models in this area and were seen in several soup kitchens during his presidency.

Recent studies also found that social pressure, sympathy, guilt, and the desire to earn respect are also strong motivators for giving and volunteering.

However, charity has a longstanding tradition in the US, and I’m pleased to see my children engaging more and more in these activities. I think they take more pleasure from the act of giving itself than from seeing the good they do for others. In this respect, they share a similar motivation with Germans, who give mostly after humanitarian catastrophes.

This year, I chose to give only to St. Joseph’s Indian School in South Dakota. What about you? How do you give back to your community?

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2 Comments

  • Thanks Catherine for the interesting article. I do not know your statistics as good as you have researched them. You mention the “wealth” of German “state” churches. Their wealth is diminishing as Germany’s society is secularizing. As I learned from a friend working inside Evangelical Church Germany, very many German congregations are merging in order to financially survive which is due to a dwindling number in members. We, from the American Church Berlin, have experienced this when we bought the Luther Church from the local congregation. Now we, instead of them, work and serve inside a more and more non-Christian neighborhood. But yes, your practical experiences are so true that Germans still have the “church tax” in their minds and forget that personal commitment is still needed. (More to “church tax” on http://www.vonengelhardt.com/en/faq/private-legalities/private-taxes/church-tax) The advantage of the German system is a reliable budget while in the States, you never know what God has planed.

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