Beat Walti, president of the board of trustees at the Ernst Göhner Stiftung.

‘Chari­ties can set important impulses’

Valuable diversity

The presi­dent of the board of trus­tees at the Ernst Göhner Stif­tung, Beat Walti, sees the libe­ral order as a guaran­tee of a diverse charity sector. A lawyer and Natio­nal Coun­cil­lor for the FDP, he views chari­ties’ freely dispo­sable funds as a valu­able addi­tion to state funding.

You’re invol­ved in all kinds of chari­ties. What do you find fasci­na­ting about this sector?

Nowa­days, we’d call it ‘diver­sity’. This sector is so diverse and marked by all kinds of diffe­rent objec­ti­ves, which foun­ders have laid down in their chari­ties’ objects with both convic­tion and a good deal of dedi­ca­tion. I’m parti­cu­larly fasci­na­ted by their strong perso­nal commit­ment – you can feel it behind every charity.

You’re presi­dent of the board of trus­tees of the Ernst Göhner Stif­tung, which is a very profes­sio­nal orga­ni­sa­tion. Do you still have a sense of who your foun­der was?

Yes, abso­lutely: our foun­der is omni­pre­sent. The Ernst Göhner Stif­tung covers a broad spec­trum, being a company foun­da­tion, a phil­an­thro­pic foun­da­tion and a family foun­da­tion. These purpo­ses also serve as the guiding princi­ples for the board of trustees.

How do these guiding princi­ples come to bear?

We carry out a stra­tegy discus­sion at regu­lar inter­vals just like a corpo­ra­tion would do, making it crys­tal clear that we’re focu­sing on what our foun­der wanted. Our task lies in making his idea a reality. Ernst Göhner hims­elf achie­ved impres­sive things during his life, and we are indeb­ted to his entre­pre­neu­rial legacy. Ernst Göhner was a very inno­va­tive man: he broke through struc­tures while also acting as an advo­cate for Switz­er­land as a place to live and work. We want to uphold these ideas, and the same dedi­ca­tion applies to the phil­an­thro­pic sector.

How did you end up working with foundations?

My first contact with the world of foun­da­ti­ons took a rather ‘tradi­tio­nal’ form, via the chari­ta­ble sector.

What does that mean?

When I was a canto­nal coun­cil­lor in Zurich around 20 years ago, Züri­werk asked if I would like to be on their board of trus­tees. The charity’s work focu­ses on helping people with mental disa­bi­li­ties. In gene­ral, chari­ta­ble orga­ni­sa­ti­ons in the social sphere are depen­dent on public funding, so inclu­ding a poli­ti­cian on their commit­tee made it easier to get their concerns heard. That was my first encoun­ter, and there were points of contact in my job, too: as a lawyer, I have estab­lished foun­da­ti­ons and advi­sed them.

Estab­li­shing a foun­da­tion isn’t the only hefty admi­ni­stra­tive task invol­ved. Are incre­a­sing requi­re­ments putting the diver­sity of the sector at risk?

Yes, that’s a trend that we need to watch care­fully. In gene­ral, the expec­ta­ti­ons in terms of docu­men­ta­tion and regu­la­tory requi­re­ments are getting ever higher. Little distinc­tion is made between tiny chari­ties and huge ones, and these regu­la­ti­ons tend to be focu­sed on more complex foundations.

Does it make sense to regu­late chari­ties like this?

Switz­er­land has been so success­ful as a home for foun­da­ti­ons over the past few deca­des because it was so freely regu­la­ted. Moti­va­tion alone is a good reason to keep this libe­ral basic order: it enab­les an incredi­ble range of ideas to be made a reality. If people want to put some of their private assets into a foun­da­tion, it is fair that they might not want to take a moun­tain of requi­re­ments into account. From a legal perspec­tive, this is always a defi­ni­tively auto­no­mous special asset, with its own purpose. Foun­ders leave the foundation’s capi­tal alone.

And what role does the Super­vi­sory Autho­rity play?

We need a purpo­se­ful, target-focu­sed, effec­tive Super­vi­sory Autho­rity in the charity sector because there aren’t any owners to moni­tor what chari­ties are doing. Corpo­ra­ti­ons have owners who protect their holdings and review the deals done. Foun­da­ti­ons don’t have this level of moni­to­ring, so the Super­vi­sory Autho­rity fills this gap. It can, and should, ensure that chari­ties’ funds are not being used for inap­pro­priate purposes.

What does this mean for small charities?

There are small chari­ties that do their work with a modest amount of capi­tal. They often have a very speci­fic purpose, plus strai­ght­for­ward manage­ment struc­tures and proces­ses for awar­ding funds. As a result, you’d be justi­fied in asking how compre­hen­sive their accoun­ting docu­men­ta­tion needs to be. Of course, at the end of the day, we need to guaran­tee that the funds are used for their inten­ded purpose. It’s right that the Super­vi­sory Autho­rity wants to see annual accounts. But as far as these chari­ties go, we need to question anything else, and in parti­cu­lar those things that have recently been pushing super­vi­sory fees skyward. In an ideal world, we would reduce the admi­ni­stra­tive burden on chari­ties below a certain size.

Do we even need small charities?

Defi­ni­tely. You can’t just shrug your shoul­ders and say, well, the small chari­ties should just simply merge with each other. In prac­tice, a small struc­ture with a good idea can achieve very worthwhile things. It shouldn’t fail because of regu­la­tory condi­ti­ons. Of course, there is a sensi­ble mini­mum size, and small chari­ties can limit their outlay by focu­sing their projects on one area that the board of trus­tees is fami­liar with, the area in which the charity itself has (or is deve­lo­ping) its expertise.

Doesn’t this put the smal­lest projects at risk?

At the Ernst Göhner Stif­tung, we adhere to the philo­so­phy of expli­ci­tly supporting small projects, too. By small projects, we’re talking about sums of less than 5,000 Swiss francs. We do this because in the cultu­ral sphere, in parti­cu­lar, there are lots of small projects that give rise to an extre­mely dyna­mic effect – that’s valu­able, and we want to encou­rage it.

We need to show
what’s being achie­ved
in this sector,
what’s behind it.

Do you work with other charities?

Yes. On the one hand, the Ernst Göhner Stif­tung acts as a pioneer: we’re a profes­sio­nal orga­ni­sa­tion, with highly expe­ri­en­ced employees who review appli­ca­ti­ons and skil­fully assess the projects. This assess­ment can also be helpful for other foun­da­ti­ons. On the other hand, we syste­ma­ti­cally work with the Gebert Rüf Stif­tung in the field of start-up and inno­va­tion funding. Our ‘Venture Kick’ project has seen us offer funding to univer­sity-based start-ups across multi­ple stages for more than ten years. These start-ups have crea­ted thousands of jobs already, genera­ting some­thing valu­able for the economy. This was only possi­ble because our two foun­da­ti­ons used the necessary funds to make substan­tial long-term invest­ments. In the cultu­ral sphere, we colla­bo­rate with orga­ni­sa­ti­ons inclu­ding the Kiefer Hablit­zel Foun­da­tion, and we also work with the Swiss Study Foun­da­tion to support talen­ted indi­vi­du­als via the scho­l­ar­ship programme.

What are the bene­fits of a collaboration?

Lots of foun­da­ti­ons have a narrow focus, as desi­red by their foun­der, which gives them very speci­fic exper­tise. When this know­ledge is combi­ned, and the finan­cial foun­da­ti­ons are expan­ded, this crea­tes very useful collaborations.

Wouldn’t it be easier if the state took over the job done by charities?

We’re stron­gest when we work toge­ther. It would be going too far if ever­ything in the cultu­ral sphere (and in the social sphere, too) that couldn’t be reali­sed commer­cially was depen­dent on private initia­ti­ves and perso­nal convic­tions. Thank­fully, those days are behind us. Conver­sely, there are areas where the chal­len­ges are much too diverse for a law or an admi­ni­stra­tion to be able to get a grasp of them and take them into account. It’s incredi­bly valu­able to have freely avail­able funds for these ideas. Chari­ties can set important impul­ses that then can grow into struc­tures, into which the public hand can get invol­ved in. This align­ment needs to be an ongo­ing process. If we only had a state-suppor­ted cultu­ral sphere, the philo­so­phy of a single univer­sity of the arts could shape the direc­tion things went in. Howe­ver, if there is anot­her area with freely avail­able funds, this can give rise to other things that chal­lenge the status quo. In turn, this boosts deve­lo­p­ment and crea­tes a more dyna­mic effect. In addi­tion, the public purse and chari­ties work toge­ther on lots of projects. It’s less a conflict of inte­rest, and more a logi­cal pairing.

Some people are calling for more trans­pa­rency because this money is tax-exempt. Do chari­ties need to explain them­sel­ves better?

The tax autho­ri­ties lay down clear regu­la­ti­ons that need to be met before an orga­ni­sa­tion – not just chari­ties – can be tax-exempt. The list of tax-exempt orga­ni­sa­ti­ons is publicly acces­si­ble. The trans­pa­rency is there already, but if trans­pa­rency means that the public need to see how every last franc is used, that’s going too far. Often, this is not in the inte­rest of the reci­pi­ent at all: foun­da­ti­ons also work in areas where discre­tion is called for. Conver­sely, chari­ties also know that it is often useful, or even necessary, for attai­ning their objec­ti­ves if they can provide rele­vant infor­ma­tion about their impact.

Could chari­ties coun­ter­act this demand?

In the future, commu­ni­ca­tion is going to be more important. The chari­ta­ble sector needs to explain itself and show that it’s not a black box. Often, the chari­ta­ble sector only comes to the public’s atten­tion if a contro­ver­sial dona­tion is made. When that happens, the discus­sion falls on fallow ground. We need to show what’s being achie­ved in this sector, what’s behind it. Commu­ni­ca­tion will be important to ensure the charity sector remains in a healthy place going forward.

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