Boomtown Berlin: What makes international foundations flock to the German capital | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 02.09.2018
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Boomtown Berlin: What makes international foundations flock to the German capital

Poor but sexy? Not anymore. NGOs follow the money — and many are headed to Berlin. But that's not the only reason why many international foundations like George Soros' OSF are setting up shop in the German capital.

The list of foundations based in the German capital is a long one. The Berlin Senate has a register of 939 foundations. Still, in comparison with other cities in Germany, this number is relatively low.

Briefly defined, foundations serve the purpose of making private assets available for charitable purposes such as social work, culture or education. According to the Association of German Foundations, the amount of foundations in Berlin has it ranked 51st among German cities. Most of the foundations are located in western Germany, for example in the cities of Hamburg, Munich, and Frankfurt. These cities have strong economies and host industry headquarters, since without funds there are no foundations.

But Berlin is catching up on its own terms.

People sit at a street cafe in Berlin (picture-alliance/S. Reents)

Berlin is catching up with the rest of Germany in terms of foundations, thanks in part to ints international appeal


Berlin has earned the reputation of being Germany's most international city. Downtown in the German capital, sometimes more English than German can be heard on the streets because people from different countries use the common language to communicate.

The English-speaking population in Berlin is comprised not just of tourists but also of many new residents of the city. More foreigners are moving to Berlin than to other regions of the country. The international hype and popular reputation of Berlin abroad continue to draw people to Germany's largest city.

The boom began after the fall of the wall. The immediate post-reunification period in the 1990s was a rather wild period for the newly reunited city; an era that for many now invokes nostalgia, there's even a museum devoted to the iconic decade. "Poor but sexy" was the slogan of the city that became a party metropolis.

While Berlin is still known for its revelry, for several years now it has been the new digital economy and start-ups which have shaped it. Additionally, the German federal parliament and government sits there, as well as lobby organizations and associations. Above-average growth rates and tax surpluses now contradict the "poor image" of the city-state compared to other federal states.

Read more: A look behind, and beyond, Berlin's startup scene

A coworking space in Berlin (picture-alliance/R. Schlesinger)

If Berlin was once synonymous with nightlife that never ended, today it's known for its tech scene

OSF moves from Budapest to Berlin

Berlin's global significance is evidenced by the fact that important international foundations have found their way there. The largest branch will be the Open Society Foundation (OSF), founded by George Soros. Soon, 150 people will work in its "Global Hub."

Many employees at the Berlin location will have move there from Budapest. That office was slated to be closed at the end of August after a law passed by the Hungarian government made further work there impossible.

Read more: Viktor Orban's campaign against George Soros 'mercenaries'

The first employees are already working in Berlin — directly at the famous Potsdamer Platz. "We want to network with the local scene, with other foundations, NGOs, activists, and think tanks," OSF Regional Director Jordi Vaquer said in a newspaper interview.

This is not the first step to Berlin for the famous American-Hungarian billionaire Soros. Since last year, he has been involved in establishing a globally unique European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture in the German capital.

A poster shows Soros' face with words in Hungarian (Reuters/B. Szabo)

The Hungarian government under Viktor Orban has criticized Soros and his OSF

Long-term consequences of the policy

Berlin can look forward to more international luminaries. In autumn, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the world's largest private foundation will open a second European branch in Berlin. The other is in London. The organization was established to help fight diseases such as malaria and global poverty. Berlin is not an unusual choice; after all, the foundation of Microsoft's founder has been working for years with the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). The location is "ideal," said the European director, Anja Langenbucher, in an interview. Germany is "the second largest donor of development aid and a champion of global health."

Bill Gates and Merkel stroll together in 2014 (Reuters/F. Bensch)

Bill Gates may have more opportunities to chat with Merkel once his foundation opens its Berlin branch

The world's second wealthiest foundation, the Wellcome Trust, with assets totaling £13.4 billion (€14.9 billion; $17.3 billion), also plans to open a branch in Berlin in 2018. The foundation primarily promotes medical research. A initial handful of employees are to "further develop strategic partnerships in Germany," according to press reports. On the foundation's website, the opening of the office is justified, among other things, by the fact that during its G7 and G20 presidencies the German government has initiated "significant progress" in the fight against global epidemics.

Will far-right populism stop the trend?

Experts expect other foundations to follow suit. Berlin also benefits from Germany's overall positive image abroad. The political upheavals elsewhere — and not only in Hungary — make Germany look attractive.

"Mistrust of philanthropic work is increasing internationally," Felix Oldenburg, the general secretary of the Association of German Foundations in Berlin, said in the capital's daily Der Tagesspiegel. In general, confidence in institutions, including foundations, is waning, Oldenburg warned, pointing to the Soros Foundation as an example.

Whether Germany and Berlin remain so attractive for international foundations also depends on political developments in the country. It faces its own growing trend of right-wing populism.

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