Five things to know about working for an NGO in Germany

The world of non-governmental organization, or NGOs, in Germany is diverse and complex, just like in the rest of Europe. Here's what you need to know.

Five things to know about working for an NGO in Germany
Photo: Depositphotos/gopics

To understand its nuances – where it differs from other European-based NGOs – and to grasp its relationship with the German government is important if you want to know what it’s like to work for such an organization.

German NGOs by the numbers

It’s worth noting that Germany doesn’t need NGOs to take care of basic necessities like clean water, or access to education. Yet there are plenty of organizations that provide these services that have their headquarters in Germany – an indicator that the German government is willing to facilitate the existence of non-profits on its territory.

As of 2019 there are roughly 620 NGOs actively operating in Germany, and there is an organization for almost anything. They range widely in size, and their goals include AIDS counseling, homeless shelters, family planning centers, pregnancy conflict counseling centers, to counseling centers of any kind.

READ ALSO: Find an English-language job in Germany

Salaries for employees in non-governmental organizations range anywhere from €24,000 to €65,000, depending on your position at the non-profit.

Financing: A prevalent issue

As any NGO employee knows, one of the main challenges working for a non-profit is scarce funding. Rarely is there full financing for both staff and material costs, and at most centres, it's necessary to raise money through membership fees and donations. 

However, whilst funding is always an issue, the German government does support NGOs in other ways. For example, in a recent paper entitled “Strengthening Agroecology” 59 German NGOs called upon the government to make agroecology the centerpiece of the fight against hunger and poverty around the world, as well as to help fight climate change via a radical transformation of the agri-food system.

Even though the relationship between NGOs and the government may not always be easy, they often do work together to tackle both humanitarian and environmental issues.

Greenpeace activists in front of the Brazilian embassy in October. Photo: DPA

Politics is crucial

Politics plays a crucial role in the financial support of an NGO. So much of the financial support an NGO benefits from depends on which party currently holds political power.

Generally, left-wing parties, such Die Linke and Die Grünen, tend to support social counseling centers, whilst the CDU and other right-wing governments are perceived as being less encouraging of finances allocated towards social counseling projects.

Unfortunately, most counseling centers or social institutions periodically fear for their existence because, after an election, they may find themselves unable to finance themselves. Every four years there’s a complete redistribution of financial resources necessary for NGOs and charity organizations to survive.

Day-to-day challenges

For many employees, the most pressing challenge of day-to-day operations when working for humanitarian organizations or counselling centres around Germany, is the fear of losing funding. NGOs need to constantly prove their social value. This is true in Germany as well as all over the world. 

Typically, the main action that restores some of the necessary funding are protests or strikes. Fighting for financing is a daily struggle.

This can create a work situation that does not do justice to the seriousness of the mission. Especially from a clientele standpoint. The general consensus is that many NGOs feel socially marginalized and have no way to achieve their end goals. Most NGOs therefore rely on the dedicated and hard-working employees who want to see real change in society.

Making an impact

While working in an NGO can seem to be a lot of work with few financial perks, it’s important to remember that choosing a career in this particular field is not about recognition or money. It’s about making the lives of others less fortunate better. 

If you wish to pursue a career in this field, generally, there are three ways to go about it. The first is to go on an online platform where it’s extremely easy to upload your CV, along with a brief letter of presentation to showcase your passion and get noticed by employers and recruiters all around Germany and Europe.

Aside from well-known platforms like LinkedIn, and, if you’re looking for English-language vacancies there’s also an interesting search engine platform here on the where you can find jobs in any sector, NGO included.

Photo: Depositphotos/Y-Boychenko

READ ALSO: How to reach out to German employers on LinkedIn or Xing

Secondly, you can write an Initiativbewerbung, or a speculative letter, which is a way to propose your candidacy to an organization without them showing their interest first. It might sound a little “too forward”, but many people choose this route as it shows an intrepid and confident spirit.

Lastly, if you volunteer enough, give it your all, and build your network properly, then there’s a good chance you’ll get a good recommendation from someone you know and might believe that you’re the right person when a job opportunity presents itself!

Having a genuine passion for volunteering is crucial if you want to be able to adjust to the frantic rhythm of life in an NGO. And although it can be frustrating to see hard work and effort not being compensated adequately, there can be no doubt about the satisfaction that comes from making the world a bit better.

By Nicola Clothier, CEO of Accurity GmbH, a Swiss-based employment service provider.

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7 tips for how to survive as a freelancer in Germany

Taking the decision to go it alone and freelance in Germany can be a daunting prospect. But, if you do it right, it can be an exciting and liberating path. Here are some of our top tips on how to survive.

7 tips for how to survive as a freelancer in Germany

1. Get a tax advisor

The German tax system is complicated, even for Germans. All the associated paperwork uses the Amtsprache (authority language) which is more like legalese than ‘normal’ German, and mistakes when filling out tax forms can cause you, at best, a massive headache and, at worst, a costly fine. So it’s best that you employ someone who knows what they’re doing to help you out.

That person is called a Steuerberater (tax advisor) in Germany. They will help you register with the tax office, correspond with them and submit your tax declarations.

Be aware that, in Germany, different deadlines apply for tax returns depending on whether you employ an official tax advisor or not. If you are doing the tax return on your own, the deadline for submitting your annual tax return is earlier than if you use a tax advisor’s services. 

READ ALSO: What NOT to do when you’re freelancing in Germany

When looking for a tax advisor, a top tip is to use your network to get recommendations. Ideally, you want someone who will do more than just fill in the forms for you, but who will actually advise you on how best to manage your business finances so that you can make tax savings.

2. Keep your accounting in order

The better you keep your own accounts in order, the easier it will be for your tax advisor to compile your tax declarations and therefore the cheaper their services will be.

As a freelancer, there are a lot of costs you can deduct from your taxes – from train tickets, working materials, to meals out – so it’s best to keep hold of all your receipts and to keep them in good order.

2 euros and 50 cents lie on a receipt in a beer garden. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Peter Kneffel

In Germany, you’re obliged to keep hold of receipts for two years, in case of a tax inspection, so it’s a good idea to photocopy the type of machine-printed receipts you get from restaurants so that they stay legible for a long time.

There are also a few things to be aware of when writing your own invoices. Firstly, make sure that you include your tax number. This isn’t the 11-digit Steueridentifikationsnummer that everyone gets when registering in Germany, but the 10-digit Steuernummer you get from the Finanzamt after registering yourself as a freelancer. 

Most companies won’t pay you if you don’t have this on your invoices so make sure you include it.

You should also make sure that you number your invoices properly – ideally in ascending order so that you can easily keep track of them. You are not allowed to issue two invoices with the same number and if you do so and the finance office notices, you could face an inspection of your whole accounting system.

There are numerous great accounting software programmes you can use to help you, such as Lexoffice and Sevdesk and, even if you have to pay for them, the costs will be tax deductible!

3. Find out if you’re eligible for financial support

In Germany, there are several opportunities for freelancers to gain financial support and to cut their outgoings, and its worth finding out if you’re eligible for them.

If you’re claiming unemployment benefits under ALG 1 and are thinking about becoming a freelancer, the employment office offers a special type of financial support to help you to get your freelance business off the ground.

Called the Grundungszuschuss (“foundation grant”) the payment is a six-month grant equalling your monthly entitlement under ALG 1 plus €300 towards your insurance costs can be applied for those in receipt of this unemployment benefit.

READ ALSO: Will freelancers benefit from Germany’s €300 energy allowance?

If you are engaged in some form of artistic profession in Germany – which can include journalism to pottery – you may be entitled to membership to the Kunstlersozialkasse (artists’ social insurance).

Being a member of the KSK means you only have to pay half of your health insurance and pension contributions, and the KSK will pay the rest.

4. Work out how much you think you will earn

As with starting any business, you need to have some idea of your expected earnings from the outset.

If you’re just starting out as a freelancer, or have some freelance gigs on the side of an employment position, then it might be worth considering registering yourself as a Kleinunternehmer (“small business”).

As a Kleinunternehmer, you can currently earn up to €22.000 per year without having to charge VAT and having to submit only yearly tax declarations. 

An income tax declaration form lies on a table. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Hans-Jürgen Wiedl

Be aware that if you are registered as this kind of freelancer, you must include the following sentence in your invoices: ‘Gemäß § 19 UStG wird keine Umsatzsteuer berechnet’ which means ‘In accordance with Paragrah19 of the German VAT law, no VAT has been added to this invoice.’

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about your German tax return in 2022

If you think you will earn more than €22.000 per year, you will need to pay Umsatzsteuer (VAT) and will have to submit tax declarations in advance and more often. Depending on how much you earn, this could be every month or every quarter. 

5. Get your insurance in order

In Germany, it’s a legal requirement to have health insurance.

If you’ve just made the move from employment to being a freelancer and want to keep the same health insurer, you should get in contact with your health insurance provider straight away to tell them about your change of circumstances. They will ask you to re-register and to tell them your projected freelance earnings for the year, so they can amend your monthly fees.

If you don’t keep your health insurer provider updated, you could continue to be charged the higher rate that you had from your previous salary.

The insurance cards of the health insurance companies DAK, AOK, Barmer and Techniker-Krankenkasse TK lie with euro notes under a stethoscope. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Daniel Karmann

It’s not just health insurance you need to think about as a freelancer. It’s also wise to think about protecting yourself from any sort of claims that could arise as a result of any working mishaps. 

If, for example, you lose your laptop which contains confidential client information, you need to be protected against claims.

That’s why it’s good to have both Betriebshaftversicherung (business liability insurance) and Rechtschutzversicherung (legal protection insurance).

6. Plan your time wisely

All of these bureaucratic obligations take time. So it’s really important that you take account of that when planning your time. For example, planning half a day a week to deal with your invoices, filing, emails to clients, and conversations with authorities can be really beneficial when scheduling your working time. 

7. Grow your network

As a freelancer, networking is absolutely crucial to success. 

Keep an up-to-date profile on websites like LinkedIn and German equivalent XING and keep in contact with anyone you’ve ever worked with, no matter how brief the contact was. 

Having a network is not only about getting more clients, but also about building a support network in your field to exchange advice, tips and generally for your own enrichment. 

Participating in workshops related to your field, going to seminars, and meet-ups, can be great ways of broadening your network.