May 31, 2016 Guest Blog

Shall We Dance: Government and Philanthropy

ballroom-dancing

By Michael Alberg-Seberich

Germany is experiencing a surge in government initiatives geared towards philanthropy. The annual conference of the German Federation of Foundations is the largest philanthropy event in Europe. At this year’s conference in Leipzig, Dr. Bernhard Felmberg, representative of the Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development, gave a speech that suggests the development of a new kind of relationship between the state and philanthropy in Germany. Felmberg asked for the support of the philanthropy community in fulfilling the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals because “foundations stand for an impressive number of innovations and new ways of doing things” and philanthropy “can often be more flexible and faster than we can”  (12.05.2016).

This is part of a set of initiatives undertaken by the German government towards philanthropy. The Ministry has set up a Service Center for Foundations and Philanthropy, is developing impact investing opportunities for foundations and even offers “foundation-matching” opportunities to support NGOs that receive money from the Ministry. It has even dedicated a foundation and philanthropy relation officer to the task of enhancing its relationship with the philanthropy community.

Is this an exceptional invitation to dance with the state in Germany? It is not. Germany has always experienced some kind of collaboration between the state and its philanthropic players. What is new is the planned approach to developing (long-term) relationships with foundations. It is not only the Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development that has initiated partnerships and services for the philanthropic community. The 21,000+ foundations in Germany were asked by the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs last November “to dance” when it initiated a dialogue with the philanthropic community. Other federal ministries, like Education and Research, have participated in “collective impact” initiatives with foundations in a variety of fields. It should be noted that these collaboration are often focused around the large foundations or foundations with a certain expertise.

On the local level, for example, the Carina Stiftung, a family foundation in the East Westphalian town of Herford is working with the local municipality to raise the quality of early childhood education. The local government and the foundation have set up a joint office to manage the transition of kindergarden children into primary school through joint trainings for kindergarden and primary school teachers or special events for the children in STEM, music and language education. The foundation is in this joint venture for the long term, something that is still rare in German philanthropy even among the growing number of community foundations.

On the Länder level – comparable to Canada’s provinces – such collaborations already have a history. One reason for this is that Germany’s large foundations, like the Bertelsmann Stiftung, the Körber Stiftung or the Mercator Stiftung, have a history of running their own projects instead of grantmaking. This operational character puts them in a position to develop joint initiatives with the government. In North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populated state, the state government has initiated together with Bertelsmann Foundation an initiative to implement child-centered programs in 18 municipalities. In this project, the staff of the foundation works closely with staff of the partnering state ministry and the municipalities.

This April, the Hertie School of Governance and the University of Heidelberg presented a study of the German foundation sector landscape. The authors, headed by sociologist Prof. Helmut K. Anheier, encourage government, especially on the municipal level, to approach foundations with needs-based collaborations. These recommendations describe a “waltz” that started a while ago.

There are some criticisms of this relationship. Journalists, academics, NGOs and intellectuals frequently raise questions about these partnerships between the state and philanthropy. They point towards the fine line between joint projects and determining public policies. They question the democratic legitimacy of the involvement of foundations in such projects. They are worried that the dance turns into a long-term embrace. One reaction towards this has been an increased transparency in regards to the set-up and goals of these collaborations by government and foundations. Another answer has been the setting up of steering committees with external experts for such projects. Still, there is quite a bit to communicate and do by all sides involved so that this does not turn into a Salsa instead of a Square Dance!

How do you dance with the state in Canada? Many steps and rhythms may be similar. From an outsider’s perspective it seems that your new federal government wants to dance. Could Canadians learn some steps from the German experience?

Michael Alberg-Seberich is executive partner at Active Philanthropy, a nonprofit organization in Berlin that brings together individuals and families from all over Europe who want to make the world a better place. He also is managing director of Beyond Philanthropy, a social business owned by Active Philanthropy that provides philanthropy advice for families, foundations, and businesses. 

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