Germany still waiting for its Bill Gates | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 06.08.2010
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Germany still waiting for its Bill Gates

Microsoft founder Bill Gates convinced dozens of American billionaires to give away at least half of their fortune to charity in June. German politicians say their nation's wealthy should follow suit. But will they?

a hand putting money in a box

Only about one in five Germans gave to charity in 2009

In June, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and legendary investor Warren Buffet launched a campaign to encourage wealthy Americans to donate at least 50 percent of their wealth to charitable causes.

Since then, 40 billionaires, including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Hollywood director George Lucas, have pledged to donate at least half of their fortunes to charity.

Now German politicians say they'd like to see the nation's billionaires follow suit.

Claudia Roth, chairperson of the Green party, told Deutsche Welle she think it's a great example of social responsibility.

"I think what these 40 billionaires are doing, donating half of their incomes - this can be an example to wealthy Germans," said Roth.

Different system, different rules

Theo Albrecht

Typical German billionaire? Aldi founder Theo Albrecht was notoriously secretive about his finances

However, Roth was quick to point out that while Gate's imitative is a great gesture, the government can't just wait on billionaires to donate their fortunes to a good cause.

"The state is duty-bound to ensure, via tax regulations, that those who have more, who can pay more, do pay more, so that we have a state that is able to fulfill its obligations to society," Roth said in a phone interview.

Germany's social welfare system means the country needs to have a tax policy that requires more from those who have more, and an increased tax for top earners, Roth added.

Charity vs. tax

A high-level of income tax is part of what making soliciting donations in Germany difficult.

"The landscape is different, the tax system is different. We have a totally different welfare state," said Andreas Rickert, the chairman of Phineo, a German non-profit organization that helps connect philanthropists to charities that reflect their values.

Most Germans pay a much larger portion of their income to taxes than their American counterparts.

"A lot of people don’t feel the need to donate on top of the tax they already pay towards society," Rickert told Deutsche Welle.

A study by the Deutsche Spendenrat, an organization that tracks charitable spending, reported that in 2009 less than 20 percent of Germans gave to charity, a total of about 2.1 billion euros ($2.8 billion).

In the US, where giving is tracked by household, about 70 percent of households gave to charity in 2009, and giving was estimated to be about 226 billion euros ($300 billion) by the Giving Institute and the Giving USA foundation.

Bill Gates

Gates is worth an estimated 43.7 billion euros ($53.5 billion)

Great expectations

In the US, where charity galas and fundraising events often form the basis of the high-society social season, donation culture is markedly different than in Germany.

"To me, it's always seemed like charitable giving and donating in America almost goes without saying - it's expected," said Hermann Falk, the president of the Association of German Foundations.

A person who has earned a lot of money is proud of it, and the society allows him to flaunt his wealth, Falk said. But it's understood that the same person will be active with charitable giving and foundations - often even before he retires.

"The implication is that charitable giving is just a matter of course - and we don't really have that in Germany," Falk said in a phone interview.

Wanted: charisma

Phineo's Rickert says Germany has its own tradition of charitable giving. "The average amount of donations is smaller, and donors don’t like to expose themselves to the public. Even if there are individuals out there who want to donate the amount they did in US, they wouldn’t expose themselves to the wider public."

Still, Falk is optimistic that an initiative similar to the one started by Gates could catch on in Germany.

"It just needs a charismatic personality, like Bill Gates or Warren Buffet did in the US, to spearhead it," he said.

Author: Sarah Harman

Editor: Martin Kuebler

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