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?
«I would rather speak of redistribution»
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»
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!