The Future of Foundations in an Open Society by Bertelsmannn Foundation

This publication collects five papers from an international symposium organized by the Bertelsmann Foundation in May 1998 along with the proceedings of four ‘workshops’ comprising the symposium. European in its centre of gravity and heavily annotated by the looming US foundation experience, this discussion of the role of private foundations in an open society makes compelling reading for students of organized philanthropy.

The papers explore some seminal questions: Why have private foundations at all? What roles and purposes should private foundations pursue beyond their national borders? How do they establish and renew their social legitimacy? What should be sought from legal and regulatory frameworks?

The workshops display an intriguing degree of divergence in the responses to these questions. Perhaps the common political systems of the symposium participants (who were drawn mainly from larger foundations in Western Europe, America and Japan), created a safe space for differences to emerge. Perhaps the differences were bound to come out given the relatively early (and vibrant) stage of development of foundations in Europe. Whatever the reason, the result is a more robust and interesting exchange of views than one might have expected.

The basis for the legitimacy of foundations, the value of collaboration among foundations, the macro division of labour between foundations, government and business, the preferred regulatory framework, the need for self-regulation – these  were just some of the areas in which highly divergent views emerged. Interestingly, the fairly substantial consensus on the need for foundation accountability to the public through reporting was at dramatic odds with the prevailing practice of Germany’s 7,780 registered stiftungs. Empirical research presented by the Maecenata Institute for Third Sector Studies found that only 10 percent published regular reports and volunteered information readily.

This valuable volume captures well the tensions that yet lie relatively quietly below the surface of the set of organizations established for the ostensible purpose of spending private wealth for public benefit. Like the forces along the borders of tectonic plates, these tensions are structural and do produce earthquakes – such as the US Tax Reform Act of 1969. But, unlike our fundamental societal vulnerability to geological forces, foundations are in a position to proactively address the causes of tensions. They can describe them clearly through worthy initiatives such as the symposium underlying this book. Even more important, they can proactively renew their basic social legitimacy through transparent reporting and effective and visible performance in the public interest.

David Bonbright is Director, NGO Enhancement Programmes, at the Aga Khan Foundation. He can be reached via email at

The Future of Foundations in an Open Society
Bertelsmannn Foundation
DM25/13 euros/$14
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