What does someone who speaks almost zero German do at the annual conference of the Bundersverband Deutscher Stiftung, the Association of German Foundations? More to the point, what is someone like that doing there in the first place?
In my case, I was there to learn more about philanthropy across Europe and to test my hypothesis that Germany, rather than, say, the UK or Italy, is the un-heralded epicentre and powerhouse of European philanthropy.
It turns out, I was right. This year’s Deutscher Stiftungs Tag, in the northern city of Osnabruck, brought together well over 1,000 participants over three days – the largest foundation gathering in Europe.
By way of comparison, the UK Association of Charitable Foundations conference is attended by around 500 participants over one day.
Remarkably, the gathering takes place in a different part of Germany each year reflecting the regional depth and diversity of the German foundation sector. Last year in Leipzig, next year in Nuremberg.
It’s hard to imagine the annual conference of British foundations taking place outside London. If it did, it would probably be a one off.
There are now almost 23,000 foundations in Germany (up from 5,000 in 1990). The Bundersverband helps co-ordinate over thirty different thematic groups raging from sports to education and, most recently, the integration of refugees – a national as well as foundation priority.
Moreover, the association boasts an in-house academy to train and accredit foundation staff, a regular journal and an apparent commitment to evidence-based approaches judging by the number of foundation staff I met with PhD’s.
But before going overboard with awed praise, it is worth noting that size isn’t everything. It’s what you do with it that matters. Here German philanthropy may be punching below its weight. Despite the Bundersverband’s country-wide reach, German philanthropy seems in other ways quite parochial.
Not only were all sessions in German and no translation facility offered (unlike at last year’s Spanish associations gathering), but there was limited systematic effort to engage with international participants. I enjoyed being amongst German only participants, but it would have been nice to bump into one or two international visitors too.
Judging by the attendees (and I’m happy to be corrected), German philanthropy also seemed overwhelmingly white and wealthy – a particular omission given the laudable effort of many German foundations to assist with the integration of refugees. I wondered to myself whether some of the refugees supported by German foundations will take leadership roles on the boards and staff of these foundations in the next 10-20 years?
The parochialism of German philanthropy is also reflected in its limited international scope. According to Felix Oldenburg, the Bundersverband’s secretary general, only 3 per cent of funding is directed overseas. This seems like a particular weakness sharply contrasting with the international visibility, for good and bad, of German politicians and companies.
Yet, the rise of German philanthropy is likely to continue. Many of its defects are not unique and those that are should be relatively easy to address. Look out for German philanthropy playing a more visible and dominant role beyond its borders in the coming years.
For more, see this interview with Thomas Paulsen of the Korber Foundation.
Charles Keidan is editor of Alliance.