Millions for a good cause | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 17.05.2012
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Millions for a good cause

Fines handed down in court significantly boost the income of charitable organizations - a system that's unique in Europe. However, competition for the funds is fierce and it doesn’t always pay off to enter the fray.

It went down as one of the biggest management scandals in German history: In 2008 Klaus Zumwinkel, the then CEO of Germany's mail services giant Deutsche Post, was detained on charges of tax evasion.

In what was dubbed a very public arrest, camera teams took up position outside his Cologne mansion and filmed him being whisked away by police offers. Zumwinkel was handed down a two-year suspended jail sentence, a 1 million-euro-fine ($1.2 million) for tax evasion and an order to repay 3.9 million euros in back taxes.

The judges decided that a part of the fine should go directly to charitable organizations like the WWF for instance, which received 25,000 euros. In Germany and other countries it's a standard practice to allocate part of such fines to projects that benefit society or the environment - the aim being to redress some of the damage done.

Supporting society

Pro Bono head Mathias Kröselberg

Kröselberg helps charitable organizations tap into the funds

Although such large proceeds as in the high profile case of Zumwinkel are a lucky boost for charitable organizations, many smaller cases can also create a tidy sum. Mathias Kröselberg is the managing director of Pro Bono which helps charitable organizations to tap into these funds and, depending on the financial setup of the organization, these fines can constitute a major source of income. Pro Bono estimates that this system injects about 120 million euros into charitable organizations every year.

However, there are severable hurdles that have to be cleared to qualify for the payments. "Any organization wanting to tap into these funds has to register with the respective regional court which in turn closely examines the organization's charitable intentions before it is included in a list of candidates," explains Margarete Nötzel, the press spokesperson of Munich's higher regional court. In Berlin, for instance, the list comprises 1,400 charitable organizations, ranging from small neighborhood associations to large and internationally operating NGOs.

Wooing the judges

Given the stiff competition, the organizations are forced to win the judges' favor because ultimately they decide who gets the cash. Moreover, in most German states the judges can also choose organizations which are not on the list. This is where Matthias Kröselberg comes in. "Wooing the judges is part of today's fundraising game and applies to almost any German organization," he says. Targeted emails, telephone calls as well as personal visits are par for the course, and Pro Bono lends a helping hand.

Margarete Nötzel

Nötzel, right, says most judges are immune to NGO lobbying

Margarete Nötzel has also received letters, emails or stickers from charitable organizations. But she underlines that in most cases the judges decide carefully which organization merits the proceeds. For instance in assault cases the judge may decide to support an organization active in the prevention of violence.

Projects worth funding

Mathias Kröselberg says the organizations' direct influence on the decision making process is very limited. "The advertizing drive is merely about raising awareness for specific social projects."

Nonetheless, the battle for the proceeds from fines has become increasingly difficult over the past 15 years, says Kröselberg. "Today, the organizations deliberate a lot more carefully about which cases to go for because the process is long and can be rather costly." However, if crowned by success, the gains are significant. Over the past few years WWF raised an additional 500,000 euros by tapping into such funds.

Author: Nicolas Martin / nk
Editor: Gabriel Borrud