If things had turned out differently back in 2011, tbd* might never have happened. If, back then, there had already been something like tbd*  to help us get it off the ground, you might now be reading something from the Migreat e.V.

That’s right. tbd* isn’t our first baby. Back in those heady days, Nicole, Nadia and I had recently graduated from our Masters Programme and through both our academic experiences and our on-the-street experiences of early Twennies Kreuzberg and Neukölln, we decided something had to be done about “the integration problem” and everyday racism permeating the city. Knowing that Germany isn’t the only place to suffer these problems, we took inspiration from other countries and found a really cool visual campaign in the UK called I Love Migrants. We got in touch with the people who ran it and asked if they would mind if we set up something similar in Germany and they said “go for it”! So we did. Or at least we tried.

Never having set up a charitable organisation before and with a limited professional network, we set about meeting, and planning and concept-writing. That bit was fun. We were full of optimism! We had a great idea, it was already tried and tested and it was tackling Germany’s biggest social problem. So what was to stop us? Bureaucracy, a lack of a relevant network and information and inaccessible funding. That’s what. Which meant that we never actually did anything useful to stem racism or make “migrants” no longer feel like foreigners in their own country. But what we did do, was to found a Verein. And of that we are proud. Because, people, it ain’t easy. So, since we founded tbd*  to help people like our 2011 selves, to do good more easily, we have created a quick and practical how-to guide to help you through this process, so that you won’t have to experience the same pain we did.

Founding a Verein

First things first, you should know this is not going to happen in a day. You should expect this whole process to last minimum 6 weeks, and if you are going for the charitable status probably longer. So plan accordingly, and accept that you will either have to wait or just plough on without the status. It’s annoying because it means you can’t really get funding - or at least nobody will be very willing to give it to you since you can’t give them a Spendenquittung (donation receipt which allows them to save taxes) and foundations want to see the papers. But on the other hand, we made the mistake of waiting too long and running out of steam, time and energy. It’s worth trying to figure out what smaller, low-cost activities you can do to keep you ticking over so you don’t get frustrated or out-of-touch from being consumed by paperwork. If you are not a German speaker you will definitely need one.

What is a Verein?

A German "Verein" is a club or society - literally it comes from the German meaning “people coming together”. It can be a sport club (in fact according to the statistics that is what it is most likely to be) but it is also the most common legal form for a charitable organisation. It is the organisational structure you will need if you are starting a nonprofit in Germany.

It’s basically a club or society - literally it comes from the German meaning “people coming together”. It can be a sport club (in fact according to the statistics that is what it is most likely to be) but it is also the most common legal form for a charitable organisation. There isn’t really a direct translation in British or American English but for our purposes it’s the organisational structure you will need if you are starting a nonprofit. You can just create a Verein without having to go through the formalities of registering it and making into an e.V. (registered Verein) but then as members you are liable personally for any debts or other difficulties. Fine for a short term protest or small one-off event but if you are thinking about doing something bigger or longer term it is probably worthwhile going through the process of registering it, which is what the following is all about.

Why form a Verein?

  1. As a member of a Verein, you are not personally responsible if the Verein gets into debt or legal difficulties (unlike a GbR).
  2. It is possible to register a Verein as “Gemeinnützig” giving you charitable status and all of the donation-related tax benefits that entails.
  3. It is quite cheap to found (no need for expensive legal fees).
  4. You don’t need any capital to get started.

Why not?

  1. You can’t do it on your own… you need at least 7 other founding members who will do it with you.
  2. It’s bureaucratic. You need to create a “Satzung” which has to fill quite a few criteria and pay a few visits to Ämter and obviously do things like tax returns (all of which becomes more complicated if you apply for the charitable status)
  3. Making money can’t be the main aim of the Verein… you are allowed to but this is more like a by-product of your actual activities and aims.

How much does it cost?

Notary fees (around 30 EUR)

Registration Fee in the Vereinsregister (around 75 EUR)

Total: Around 100 EUR

How does it work?

1. Get your 7 founding members together

2. Write a “Satzung” (Statutes) - this contains all the information about what the Verein is there for, how decisions are taken, becoming a member, member fees etc. Should follow a specific form and the Vereinszweck (mission) should be very clear. If you are planning on going for charitable status make sure you include all of the elements of the work you are planning to do, because the Finanzamt will check at the end of the year that you are doing what you said you would, and if you have been doing other stuff as well, they might take away your charitable status and make you pay taxes retrospectively.

3. Get together with your founding members for your first meeting, vote for the Vorstand (between 1 and 7 people - we had 3) and sign the “Satzung”.

4. Make sure to keep notes and create minutes as the “Gründungsprotokoll” also needs to be attached and sent with the Satzung to the authorities.

5. If you are planning on applying for charitable status, you should send your Satzung to the relevant Finanzamt first. They might want you to make some changes and you should do that before registering, otherwise you will have to pay to make changes once it is done. In Berlin the relevant Finanzamt is:

Finanzamt für Körperschaften I
Bredtschneiderstr. 5
14057 Berlin

You can send it in or if you have specific questions, make an appointment and bring it with you. Allow up to six weeks before it is cleared (this is optimistic).

6. Take the above documents, with the rest of the Vorstand, to a notary (we went here: https://www.robe.org/de/). Again you will need the Satzung, Minutes from first meeting including names of all members present, identity documents for all of the Vorstand).

7. Send all of the above to the Amtsgericht Charlottenburg (or your Notary will do it for you):

Amtsgerichtsplatz 1
14057 Berlin

Tel: +49 (0)30 90177 0
Fax: +49 (0)30 90177 447

8. Wait for the documentation - you will need this in order to open a bank account. (If you get the charitable status, some banks such as GLS waiver the banking fees)

The Satzung (Statutes)

The Satzung must contain the following elements:

  1. Name of Verein (should be different to any other already in the register)
  2. Town/City where it is based
  3. Aim/Mission of the Verein
  4. How members can join or leave
  5. Membership fees
  6. Vorstand
  7. Information about when and how the yearly member meeting takes place

In the Satzung, avoid mentioning anything about making money  and if you are going for the charitable status, make sure you are very careful when writing your Vereinszwecke (mission) to ensure that these are very clearly "for the greater good".

That’s the long and short of it really. It might not sound like a lot, but we have tried to keep it simple. Definitely one to go for if you are planning to be dependent on donations. But if you don't want to be dependent on donations, maybe it’s worth trying to think about other ways of monetising your idea and turning it into a social business. We hardly even knew there was such a thing back then, let alone that there was support available for people who wanted to found one. If you are interested in starting a social business, check out our funding guide here.

Originally published August 28, 2014

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