Every foun­da­tion should be poli­ti­cally active

The role of philanthropy

Romy Krämer is the ‘ship captain’ of the Guer­rilla Foun­da­tion. The foun­da­tion in Berlin provi­des support to acti­vists, citi­zens’ initia­ti­ves and social move­ments. It aims to bring about syste­mic change in Europe. Marlene Engel­horn is the foundation’s Radi­cal Phil­an­thropy Advi­sor. One day she will inhe­rit a fortune and has alre­ady announ­ced her inten­tion to give most of it away.

You want to change phil­an­thropy radi­cally. What’s the problem with phil­an­thropy today?

Marlene Engel­horn: I cannot change phil­an­thropy. It would be crazy to claim that I could. But I would just like to ques­tion all those assump­ti­ons about how dona­ti­ons are made and who makes them. As I see it, tradi­tio­nal phil­an­thropy cements inequality.

What’s going wrong?

ME: There is a huge problem with power. It’s abso­lut­ely clear that whoe­ver has the money makes the rules. But dona­ti­ons are not a substi­tute for social justice, or any kind of justice in fact. Phil­an­thropy has a proble­ma­tic self-image, partly because it was born from a struc­ture that makes it funda­men­tally diffi­cult to deal with issues of distri­bu­tion and inequality.

Romy Krämer: There are two main problems. The first is the origin of the money – from extra­c­tive capi­ta­lism, colo­nia­lism and ever­y­thing that goes with it. So we have to ask oursel­ves how we can change that. It should no longer be possi­ble for people in the future to become so incre­di­bly rich that they have to set them­sel­ves up as phil­an­thro­pists. The second concerns the prac­ti­ces: how phil­an­thropy takes place and its goal.

Which goals should it pursue?

RK: Phil­an­thropy should try to address causes; to look syste­mi­cally at the roots of problems. These ques­ti­ons quickly become poli­ti­cal – and phil­an­thropy shies away from that. Instead, it focu­ses on deal­ing with the symptoms. That’s still its main field of acti­vity. But that is actually the job of governments.

But is not tack­ling the symptoms philanthropy’s strength? Being active in areas where busi­ness and state cannot reach?

RK: That state­ment builds on the myth that the state is disor­ga­nised – a myth that is repea­tedly spread by private enter­prise in order to trans­fer state respon­si­bi­li­ties into the hands of the private sector. For exam­ple, look at the way symptoms are dealt with in educa­tion. Nume­rous foun­da­ti­ons are invol­ved with the problems people have in the tran­si­tion from school to working life. But that’s some­thing the govern­ment should do. 

ME: This approach of tack­ling the symptoms, this misma­nage­ment, is really a scan­dal. It’s like food banks. They do a very important job. But the fact that we need food banks because people do not have the money to buy food – that is unac­cep­ta­ble in a wealthy society like ours. Why do they not have the money?

Why not?

«I would rather speak of redistribution»

Marlene Engel­horn

ME: Because we have taken it away from them – or because nobody’s ever shared it out with them. And that happens because we have this idea that some tasks are more or less wort­hl­ess. This is about the primary distri­bu­tion of resour­ces, which has gone awry. We have locked the stable door after the horse has bolted. I take myself as an exam­ple. I will inhe­rit a lot of money. I have not earned it. Where does it come from? Who didn’t get it in order that I would get it? Those who have money can either feel guilty and not do anything, or buy them­sel­ves a clean consci­ence. This often takes place through foun­da­ti­ons. To me, it would be logi­cal to give it back to the struc­ture to which I owe it – that is, society. Taxes would be helpful.

What is the advan­tage of taxes?

ME: If we cannot manage the initial distri­bu­tion stage, then we should at least correct what comes out at the other end. But this task ought to be demo­cra­ti­cally regu­la­ted. It’s not the job of philanthropy. 

What is its job?

ME: To become invol­ved in poli­tics. To mobi­lise people. That’s demo­cracy. I’m permit­ted to parti­ci­pate. I’m even encou­ra­ged to do so. Phil­an­thropy should support this. The little regio­nal projects. We need grass­roots move­ments. What we do not need is to declare from the top down, from Berlin, what will happen in the further­most corner. We should not just throw money at the symptoms popping up ever­y­where until we cannot see them any more. We should not perpe­tuate a struc­ture that concen­tra­tes so much power, as is unfort­u­na­tely the case with philanthropy.

RK: Phil­an­thro­pic orga­ni­sa­ti­ons should address the rights of mino­ri­ties more. They could make groups visi­ble that have been negle­c­ted by the demo­cra­tic struc­tures because they are so small. This is where phil­an­thropy is important – as a regu­la­tion mecha­nism for society. We help people to stand up for their rights. Support­ing this self-regu­la­tion, which is neces­sary in every demo­cracy – that would be a task for philanthropy.

So foun­da­ti­ons should play a part in politics?

RK: It’s not worth being a foun­da­tion if it does not. By that I do not mean party poli­ti­cal, ever­y­day poli­tics. But a foun­da­tion ought to be able to achieve its aims partly by poli­ti­cal means. That is of the essence. Any foun­da­tion that fails to see itself as a poli­ti­cal stake­hol­der is decei­ving itself. It is promo­ting a parti­cu­lar cause. It is doing it for a parti­cu­lar reason. That is political.

ME: As soon as an orga­ni­sa­tion gets to a parti­cu­lar size, its actions are always connec­ted to poli­tics in one way or another. Many do this by the back door. Phil­an­thropy has the oppor­tu­nity to orga­nise this to bene­fit public welfare and to lobby in the most trans­pa­rent manner. I would add that the work is done by the grass­roots move­ments. They have the ideas, the projects and the people. It’s the money that’s miss­ing. Foun­da­ti­ons are cash machi­nes, but not only that. They offer support services that can go beyond the finan­cial. They help with networking.

«Perhaps a commu­nity phil­an­thropy might be one approach»

Romy Krämer

So foun­da­ti­ons have a distri­bu­tion function?

ME: Only the distri­bu­tion system is ailing. My favou­rite exam­ple is the Bezos Earth Fund set up by Jeff Bezos set up to coun­ter climate change. It’s wonderfully eye-catching. The foun­da­tion has more than USD 10 billion in start­ing capi­tal at its dispo­sal. The money is inves­ted. On the finan­cial market. The money is ‘parked’. It’s away from taxes. It sits there and gene­ra­tes returns. But where is it sitting? Is it inves­ted in Amazon shares? In a corpo­ra­tion that as part of its struc­ture, exploits and destroys people and the envi­ron­ment world­wide? Those returns are used to solve the problem crea­ted by the invest­ment. This vicious circle is almost so absurd that I find it funny. Money should be unders­tood as a lubri­cant that must be conti­nu­ally rene­wed and kept flowing. It should not be diver­ted and parked in sumps.

His ex-wife, MacKen­zie Scott, has adopted a new approach to dona­ting, hasn’t she?

RK: She does a lot of things right – things that I would criti­cise tradi­tio­nal phil­an­thropy for not doing – such as long-term spon­sor­ship and not atta­ching condi­ti­ons to her dona­ti­ons. She could be seen as a great exam­ple of a new kind of phil­an­thropy. Howe­ver, if you go some­what deeper and look at the comple­tely opaque decis­ion-making process, then you reveal a concen­tra­tion of power that should be forbidden. Phil­an­thropy should have a self-regu­la­tory process. Because she gives away so much money, and does it pretty well, she is hyped up in the media. The huge sums dazzle people. The money comes from the explo­ita­tion caused by Amazon and then flows into causes deci­ded by her and her advi­sers. It is ironic that the child­ren of a ‘working poor’ Amazon distri­bu­tion centre worker, who is banned from forming a union, could poten­ti­ally need phil­an­thro­pic educa­tio­nal or health services finan­ced by MacKen­zie Scott.

With sums like these, is it reali­stic that phil­an­thropy will renew itself of its own volition?

ME: We have a system based on money. But how we handle it is not as clear-cut as we think it is. It’s obvious that money is distri­bu­ted in a way that causes signi­fi­cant damage to society. Other­wise, we would not have a working poor. It’s a disas­ter. There will proba­bly always be some form of unequal distri­bu­tion, but it doesn’t have to be much and it can be correc­ted via taxes. We have to ask oursel­ves whether distri­bu­tion has to be opaque and whether the assets have to be in private hands, so that we are depen­dent on private good­will. Phil­an­thropy has to under­stand what its role is in the issue of distribution.

And what role would that be?

ME: Its goal must be to work towards its own elimi­na­tion, towards active citi­zen­ship that works on a broad scale, where public money is hand­led transparently. 

Then, in an ideal society, phil­an­thropy would not be needed?

ME: Then, in an ideal society, phil­an­thropy would not be needed?

A society in which the inequa­li­ties have been at least minimised.

ME: Is that really ideal? The ques­tion is complex. What is our utopia of social co-exis­tence, at a regio­nal or global level? What’s it all about? Why do people group them­sel­ves into these big socie­ties in which they no longer know each other and have to orga­nise them­sel­ves? That requi­res poli­tics and public money manage­ment. These are the ques­ti­ons we have to ask oursel­ves, and then connect them with more ques­ti­ons: where the money comes from, where it ought to go and who should make the decis­i­ons. That’s how we can move coll­ec­tively towards a utopia and the things we need to create it.

RK: A good life for all. What does that look like? Who can contri­bute towards that and in what way? Commu­nity phil­an­thropy could perhaps be one approach.

How does that work?

RK: A commu­nity comes toge­ther. They have more than they need. They throw it all into one pot and decide what they want to support. It might be a young person in the commu­nity who wants to begin an artis­tic career, and they all want to support him or her with a basic stipend. It works via rela­ti­onships. It’s trans­pa­rent. This would be closer to the notion of philanthropy.

ME: A good friend has descri­bed the concept of ideal phil­an­thro­pic giving as being simi­lar to a camp­fire. People come toge­ther, talk things over, build rela­ti­onships, sleep on their ideas and the next morning, figu­ra­tively spea­king, their coll­ec­tive work begins. This is how the imba­lance can be redres­sed toge­ther. We also have to offer people who only reluc­tantly give up power a face-saving way of giving up power without losing importance. Loss of importance makes people cling to power. It’s to do with status. Who I am in society. A person who has no need to define them­sel­ves by power will not find it diffi­cult to give it up.

RK: Various initia­ti­ves in phil­an­thropy are conside­ring whether a new name will be needed for phil­an­thropy, if we want to go about it differ­ently. Young people might want to donate differ­ently from their parents. They may not want to set up a foun­da­tion. Perhaps a new word is needed to denote what happens in the way of redis­tri­bu­tion, but which does not have so many poli­ti­cal conno­ta­ti­ons – or perhaps it should have those connotations.

ME: I would tend to say ‘return distri­bu­tion’ rather than ‘redis­tri­bu­tion’.

RK: It’s not just youn­ger people though. More and more momen­tum is coming from people who work within phil­an­thropy. They see that there’s a lot going wrong. They are looking for a commu­nity. There is a lot going on in Europe with parti­ci­pa­tory grant-making, the invol­vement of the affec­ted commu­nity in the distri­bu­tory decis­ion, and power sharing. There’s a lot going on here.

In your expe­ri­ence, how open is phil­an­thropy to these new approa­ches? Even the name, ‘Guer­rilla Foun­da­tion’, could be seen as provocative.

RK: That’s only our brand name. We were not allo­wed to regis­ter the foun­da­tion under that name in Germany. The judge who was suppo­sed to enter it at the commer­cial court rejec­ted it. He asso­cia­ted it with violence. Howe­ver, other compa­nies are regis­tered with this name; for exam­ple, in marketing. 

And how open is the sector?

RK: We’re expe­ri­en­cing more demand than we can meet. There is a lot of interest.

ME: When I tell people what I do, they are extre­mely inte­res­ted. People see that here is some­thing that works. Some­ti­mes there is a menta­lity behind it that I find diffi­cult: Give me the answer. Then I think: Just look into it yourself.

RK: But there is a criti­cal mass of people that can ensure reform in phil­an­thropy. So I hope we will see some change within the sector. But the problem is that the decis­ion-making powers are often in the wrong place.

ME: That’s an important point. There are an awful lot of people that work for these foun­da­ti­ons. Most of them are regu­lar employees. And then there are the people who give the money to the foun­da­tion, who hold seats on the super­vi­sory board and thus have the autho­rity to make decis­i­ons. But these people are far off. This is about money and property. If I give up my owner­ship, then in fact I should also give up any decis­ion-making powers. That’s why we have ritua­li­sed it with contrac­tual cere­mo­nies. It’s no diffe­rent with money. But it’s often bound up with a demand: I’m giving you this money, but do as I want with it. It’s a simi­lar thing with foun­da­ti­ons. They give endow­ment money to a group and then the group is told what they should do with it. That’s why we ought to have a public debate to discuss exactly what owner­ship of property means. In Germany, it’s perfectly clear: property entails obli­ga­ti­ons. In Germany’s Basic Law comes the clause that I find so wonderful and which is seldom quoted: its use should also serve the public good. That means that money should be in flux, it should be active. 

RK: The idea of impact measu­re­ment has a simi­lar thought behind it. Foun­da­ti­ons, in a sense, trans­fer the work of docu­men­ting and measu­ring to the reci­pi­ent along with the money. The basic idea that one wants to know how much good one has done is under­stan­da­ble. But this approach, which comes from the deve­lo­p­ment sector, works only where phil­an­thropy should not be active at all. For instance, if I want to enable people to demand their rights, it is not measura­ble. I have 5,000 people at a demons­tra­tion. Has it done more good than if 300 people went on a three-week hunger strike? I can never measure that.

ME: It shows a rigid need for control – the powerful need to control what has happened in retrospect.

What would be a better approach?

RK: It would be inte­res­t­ing to think about giving money to groups because you are convin­ced by what they have achie­ved so far and by the values and aims under­ly­ing their work. If the funding stra­tegy concen­tra­tes on those who are directly affec­ted by problems, then we have alre­ady redis­tri­bu­ted money with the allo­ca­tion of funds. If the group is then also able to be poli­ti­cally effec­tive with the money, then super, I’m happy. That’s a bonus for me! 

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