Germany has more than 19,000 foundations that dedicate some 17 billion euros annually to a wide range of causes. They are now facing a challenge: become more professional without losing their ideals.
Hans Fleisch is the director general of the Association of German Foundations.
DW: The motto of this year's annual meeting of German foundations was "Foundations in a changing world." Foundations are usually launched because people want to change and improve society in some way. To what extent would you say that foundations are innovative?
Hans Fleisch: That depends. The old foundations were often very innovative because they cared for a problem for the first time. For example, the first hospitals in Germany were started by foundations in the Middle Ages. And then the government, the state took over this good solution. The same is true for other problems. Foundations that take care of a problem that has been neglected are innovative, because they have to find a new solution. But there are also a range of foundations that do not want to be innovative. They care for sustainability, for preservation, etc.
I would say that 10-20 percent of foundations are really innovative, and others in part copy from them. And I must say that I also very much like those foundations that are not innovative, because these days everything is changing so fast and we need a power of slowness in a way , we need sustainability. And the newest trick is not always the best.
You were the founding director of the German Foundation for World Population(DSW). Set up in 1991, DSW's cause is population growth and reproductive health education in Africa, a very innovative topic back then.
The German Foundation for World Population was innovative because it listened. The ideas came from young people in Ethiopia. We were looking for a new project, sitting in my room in Germany, in Hannover, we thought: which country should we look at? And then we had several indicators and said, let's maybe have a look at Ethiopia. But we had no contacts. So we had to listen.
DSW used peer education in the battle against HIV/AIDS in Africa
And a medical doctor there said there is a group of young boys...with a good new solution to fight HIV/AIDS. And these four young boys - meanwhile they are men, of course - they told us their ideas, and we helped them test their ideas. And I found this very helpful, that we could achieve quite a lot even though we were not a big foundation. And we became more relevant.
I hope that more foundations and their founders take this chance. The possibility to really become important, to have a bigger impact, is very good in Africa and there is a generation of qualified young people there, and the NGO situation is not bad, so I hope that more will do it.
However, if a founder loves music from the Middle Ages, and he creates a foundation for that type of music in Berlin, it's his money and he can do with it what he likes. But I would tell him it's even nicer to support culture in other countries.
Foundations function in a changing world - that also means the foundations themselves may have to change. One of the keywords for NGOs at the moment is efficiency and evaluation. To what extent have foundations have become more self-critical in this respect?
It's true, the more foundations we have, the more they are visible, also by people who ask what they're doing? There is also a new generation of foundations leaders who have another style, less feudalistic and more pragmatic. And these different factors play together. Foundations, and not only in Germany, are more prepared to talk with others about room for improvement, about mistakes, and they are more prepared to evaluate, to invest in measuring [their impact]. To use instruments which we usually know from the corporate world. That is a general trend among foundations worldwide.
And this changes the foundations in a good sense, but it's also a problem. Because they are increasingly so well-organized, so well-controlled, and they have a wonderful strategy. And if I come with a great idea that does not ideally fit into this plan, then it's more difficult to find a flexible founder or foundation to get support for it. And that was easier 20 years ago.
I remember [a man] in Düsseldorf, Udo van Meeteren, one of the old-style founders. I told him our plan, he trusted me, and then he gave us money to test this project. It wasn't bureaucratic, there was no control and he sent someone from his trust to see whether we did work and whether the finances are OK. And that was it. Not bureaucracy. Today, usually, you have to fill out long application forms and you have more work with all these controls. But of course it's helpful to find out what really works.
But if foundations become more professional, as you say, does that mean that they are also becoming colder, more like corporations, like a business enterprise, when it's for instance a foundation that tries to help people?
Well, I wouldn't say they become colder, but they become more similar to the corporate world. And I think they have to pay attention. Foundations should not forget that the core of their business is love. Love for other people. And this should not just be a hidden idea in the background. You should feel it.
But love does not mean not being professional. So a good combination of both is ideal. And I think the mixture in most foundations is a good balance. We had a lot of love, we also had quite a sum of money, we needed a bit more professional instruments, so I think the overall trend is OK.
Hans Fleisch is the director general of the Association of German Foundations in Berlin. He was the director of the German Foundation for World Population in Hannover until 2002.