Foundations in Germany The responsibility of property

Zollverein coal mine in Essen
Zollverein coal mine in Essen | Photo (detail): © Matthias Duschner/Stiftung Zollverein

Germany is a country of foundations; in recent decades their number has multiplied. Some examples, their goals, projects – and problems.

Foundations make a country and its people richer – that is the ideal. In Germany there are nearly 20,000 foundations; every year adds between 600 and 1,000 new ones. Together, they possess assets of around 100 billion euros. With annual distributions of about 30 billion euros, they make possible many projects that could not be financed by public budgets alone. For example, the Bertelsmann Foundation, which indirectly controls more than three-quarters of the shares of the eponymous international media corporation and supports projects with the proceeds. In 2012 the foundation based in Gütersloh, which primarily pursues educational and cultural projects, was able to put over 60 million euros into its plans. The foundation also funds university rankings and school comparisons and provides information on the educational divide in Germany. It brings together politicians, scholars, scientists and economists.

Established in 1977, the Bertelsmann Foundation is based “on the belief that property is bound up with social responsibility”. This very political understanding has earned the foundation criticism: after all, it creates space for political policy advice and could in this way at least indirectly exercise political influence. That Bertelsmann is above all a media concern and, with interests in publishing houses and television channels, reaches deep into public life, makes the work of the foundation not unproblematic.

Making contacts at the Berlin Foundations Week

Exercising influence and promoting developments is also the mission of the Mercator Foundation based in the Ruhr area. Here too a large endowment is in the background; the Mercator Foundation is also one of the top ten foundations in Germany. Primarily engaged in the areas of energy transition, integration and cultural education, its credo is that the Ruhr area, with its high proportion of immigrants and its aging population, is a kind of laboratory for the future of Germany’s development.

The Mercator Foundation emphasizes its relation to the Ruhr area and its regional ties. On the other hand, its directors know that without Berlin it won’t work. Since 2011 now therefore the foundation has maintained a centre in the capital city – a house where partners of associations and scientific and scholarly institutions can find space and time for their own projects while carrying on exchanges and generating new ideas for the work of the foundation. The Mercator Foundation thus attends the Berlin Foundations Week: unlike, say, the Bertelsmann Foundation, part of its policy is to work with project partners.

Dependence on public sponsors

While the Mercator and Bertelsmann Foundations are among the best endowed in Germany and were established by wealthy corporations or families, Germany is also seeing the founding of more and more so-called “poor foundations”. These include initiatives and associations that want in this way to ensure their continued existence and work in the long term, but also state institutions: for example, the Bauhaus Foundation in Dessau and the Zollverein Foundation in Essen. The capital of the foundations is in each case primarily a property. In the case of the Zollverein Foundation it is an extensive, difficult-to-maintain area of land with coking plants and collieries that has been declared a World Heritage Site. The foundation wants to revive it and make it attractive to investors through the mounting of cultural events. The sponsors of the Zollverein Foundation are the Federal State of North Rhine-Westphalia, the Rhineland Regional Association and the City of Essen. Nevertheless, the foundation needs additional institutional support at the state level. It cannot survive on its endowment alone: the 15 million euros yield just 600,000 euros annually. This would be not enough to cover even only staff costs, much less the maintenance of the vast industrial area under the foundation’s care.