March 26, 2015
Dr. Rupert Graf Strachwitz is director of the Berlin-based Maecenata Institute for Philanthropy and Civil Society, an independent academic center established in 1997. A political scientist and historian and the son of a German diplomat and English writer, Graf Strachwitz chaired the German Advisory Council on Global Change from 1995 to 2001 and has been a contributor to the Johns Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project since 1990. He was interviewed by Emily Keller, international data relations liaison at Foundation Center.
Emily Keller: What is unique about German philanthropy?
Rupert Graf Strachwitz: The huge diversity in function, size, operating methods, governance, and vision is arguably the most unique feature of the German philanthropic sector. A uniform foundation model does not exist in Germany, nor do German foundations conform to an international model.
EK: How would you describe the philanthropic sector in Germany?
RGS: The German philanthropic sector looks back on a very long history. The oldest foundations still in existence probably go back to the first millenium. The greater part of these foundations were connected to the established churches. People donated funds, real estate, building materials, and time, and engaged artists to build, embellish, restore, and maintain church buildings. An estimated fifty thousand of these foundations still exist under the auspices of the established churches, plus an additional fifty thousand that serve immediate church purposes. Through the many political upheavals and changes that have marked German history, these institutions survived.
Secular foundations in Germany also have a long history that goes as far back as the Middle Ages. Approximately two hundred and fifty of these remain and many of them are more than five hundred years old. Some had a single donor back in the day, while others were started by what we would call crowdfunding efforts today. They operated hospitals, hospices, and other related business, and made grants in support of universities, schools, and other institutions.
Due to this complex history, German foundations still perform four distinct functions, with larger foundations quite regularly performing more than one: ownership, by which I mean not holding assets but fulfilling their purpose through the exercise of ownership rights; operational; grantmaking; and supporting individuals in need.
In recent years, major grantmaking foundations have tried — successfully, in most cases — to become more operational by managing their own programs and/or institutions. Most of our nongovernmental universities, a new phenomenon, are owned and operated by foundations.
Another important aspect of the German philanthropic sector is the fact that philanthropic institutions come in a variety of legal forms. Besides a special form of legal entity described in the Civil Code that is remarkable for not having outside owners or being subject to a specific form of government regulation, foundations may exist as trusts without legal personality, limited companies (gemeinnuetzige GmbH), or foundations under public law, which are arms-length components of government. The latter includes philanthropic foundations as well as private benefit or family foundations.
Public benefit foundations in many cases are not created and endowed by private citizens but by corporations, membership organizations, government bodies, and, more recently, even other foundations. The common denominator among them is their adherence to the founder's intent in perpetuity.
Unlike many other countries, German philanthropic institutions are not restricted in their choice of assets, with the exception of particularly risky ones. Some of Germany's major foundations are sole or majority shareholders of major corporations. Others may own and manage agricultural and forestry businesses, vineyards, publishing enterprises, or other non-related businesses.
About half of all the foundations in Germany today were created in the past fifteen years, with a significant number also having been created in the 1990s. That first wave followed the extinction of a large number of foundations which faced the loss of their assets in the hyperinflation after World War I, having been required by law to invest in government bonds.