After natural disasters, Germans are usually quick to answer the calls for donations from aid organizations. But their reputation for generosity may also be a little exaggerated.
Images of people in despair, standing before the ruins of their livelihoods, along with reports of disease and plundering - the devastating consequences of Typhoon Haiyan can be seen on the news every day. It brings many donations. Disaster reports from Southeast Asia are one single prod, as Daniela Felser of the German Donation Council - an umbrella organization for charities - puts it: "Oh God, that could happen to me, too. How can I help?" People will certainly react to an emotive headline or picture. One alliance of aid organizations - "Aktion Deutschland Hilft" (Action Germany Helps) has received 3.5 million euros ($4.7 million) since Saturday (09.11.2013).
The media plays an important role following disasters, and Felser hasn't seen any sign of "donation fatigue" in the face of the many natural disasters in the past few years either. On the contrary: "In Germany in particular we are realizing that there are more and more storms." This has raised identification - which is an important motivator for donations.
Burkhard Wilke of the German Central Institute for Social Issues (DZI) confirms this: "With such natural disasters, when the media is reporting that there are so many victims, the willingness to donate is usually very high."
The close connection between media reports and donation volume was shown by the flood disaster in Germany last summer, where Bavaria and eastern Germany suffered billions of euros worth of damage. Over half of the donations were generated through the media, said Felser: "Through donation galas and calls in both state and private broadcasters." This, she said, was an astonishing and unprecedented outcome.
Fewer donations for conflict zones
Even though the Philippines is 10,000 kilometers away, the donation mechanism in Germany has been very effective, because other circumstances have helped, explained Wilke. "There are no disturbing reports, such as there are in civil war situations, where the donors don't know who is good and who is evil."
When the political situation is complex, comprehensive coverage can have the opposite effect and lead to reluctance among donors. Syria is an example of this, where the images of the civil war have made potential donors unsure. "Sometimes they see the government as to blame, and sometimes the rebels," said Wilke. On top of that there is an impression that it is very difficult to actually reach those who need help. In those cases, it doesn't help much that organizations on the ground, like Doctors Without Borders, are dependent on donations. The earthquakes in Pakistan and Iran also brought comparatively few donations from Germany.
But donations don't just come after major disasters. "The majority of donations come from unspectacular sponsoring partnerships with smaller organizations," said Wilke. These include regular donations to smaller organizations. Altogether, a third of German donations in 2012 went to aid organizations, churches, or charities - that was the conclusion of a joint study into donation behavior from the German Donations Council and market researchers GfK. Including cash, goods, and time, Germans donated some 4.2 billion euros in 2012.
"The 60-plus generation donates a lot in particular," said Felser, a conclusion that Eckhard Priller of the WZB Berlin Social Science Center can confirm. He says that the typical donor is over 60 and financially secure, because older people usually have more money - and they can often remember Germany's lean post-war years.
"Your own life experience plays a big part," said Priller. On top of this, a culture of donation is not as well anchored in Germany as it is in other countries, for instance in Scandinavia.
The German media likes to peddle the cliche that Germans are particularly generous - after all, there are around 600,000 charities in the country. - the Netherlands, by comparison, has only 30,000. But this gives a false impression. "We Germans are more in the middle of the league table, if you look at the amount of per-capita donations," said Wilke.
Even though some 670 million euros were collected in Germany in 2004 and 2005 following the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, countries such as Norway, Switzerland, and the Netherlands actually donated two or three times as much per capita. The US, meanwhile, has a much more well-developed "charity culture."
But even if it is not true, this media cliché doesn't hurt - on the contrary, those that see themselves as part of a "great thing," a great movement of donors, also become more generous, thinks Priller. "It sounds good, and it has a way of moving people to donate," he said - and in the end that could benefit the desperate people in the Philippines.