Foun­da­ti­ons and politics

Unknown foundation law

Chari­ta­ble foun­da­ti­ons and non-profit orga­ni­sa­ti­ons are active in many soci­ally rele­vant areas, performing support­ing or opera­tio­nally important tasks for the common good. But should they also contri­bute their specia­list know­ledge and expe­ri­ence to the poli­ti­cal discourse? And how should they do this?

Demo­cra­tic discourse should reflect society as a whole: it is criti­cally important that ever­yone is able to parti­ci­pate in this. Active demo­cracy calls for deba­tes and a struggle to seek the best possi­ble solu­ti­ons to social problems. It needs criti­cal thin­king, and compe­tent and commit­ted parti­ci­pants. This is the contri­bu­tion made by chari­ta­ble foun-dati­ons and non-profit orga­ni­sa­ti­ons (NPOs); they enrich the demo­cra­tic discourse with their exper­tise and expe­ri­ence in a wide range of fields. Switz­er­land is home to more than 13,500 foun­da­ti­ons and innu­me­ra­ble NPOs in fields such as health­care, culture, educa­tion, scien­ces, cultu­ral heri­tage, conser­va­tion, envi­ron­men­tal protec­tion, social affairs and the promo­tion of demo­cracy. Foun­da­ti­ons and NPOs also have an important comple­men­tary func­tion to the state. Against this back­drop, they make an important contri­bu­tion to shaping society.

Resis­tance in the Coun­cil of States

Many members of the fede­ral parlia­ment sit on foun­da­ti­ons’ boards of trus­tees or boards of direc­tors of NPOs, and the situa­tion is simi­lar in the canto­nal parlia­ments. It can be assu­med that foun­da­ti­ons and NPOs are able to make members of their boards of trus­tees and direc­tors aware of the specia­list topics rela­ted to their chari­ta­ble objec-tives. The situa­tion is more diffi­cult when it comes to the gene­ral frame­work for the foun-dation and non-profit sector; i.e. the law rela­ting to foun­da­ti­ons and asso­cia­ti­ons, norms rela­ting to tax exemp­tion and deduc­tion of dona­ti­ons, other fiscal stan­dards (parti­cu­larly rela­ting to VAT), etc. Years of expe­ri­ence show that a considera­ble number of members of parlia­ment active on boards of trus­tees and boards of direc­tors barely get to grips with these topics. It is then up to indi­vi­dual members of parlia­ment and asso­cia­ti­ons, such as proFonds, to ensure that the gene­ral condi­ti­ons deve­lop posi­tively and that adverse deve­lo­p­ments are avoided. This was the case with the most important revi­sion of foun­da­tion law to date, which goes back to the parlia­men­tary initia­tive propo­sed by Coun­cil of States member Fritz Schiesser.

Recently, the poli­ti­cal climate has become less friendly towards the deve­lo­p­ment of posi­tive condi­ti­ons. A further revi­sion of foun­da­tion law, based on the parlia­men­tary ini-tiative put forward by Coun­cil of States member Werner Lugin­bühl, has made little head­way. Lugin­bühl star­ted by drawing up eight targe­ted measu­res to resolve real prob-lems faced by foun­da­ti­ons and NPOs. After the consul­ta­tion process, he redu­ced these to two, even remo­ving regu­la­ti­ons that had met with appr­oval from poli­ti­cal parties during the consul­ta­tion, inclu­ding that foun­da­ti­ons and NPOs should be able to remu­ne­rate their manage­ment appro­pria­tely (for the sake of good gover­nance), without losing their tax exemp­tion. It beco­mes diffi­cult when the Natio­nal Coun­cil takes up two key measu­res, inclu­ding the fee rule, and the Coun­cil of States over­turns them just a week later without discussion.

Design func­tion called into question

The func­tion of foun­da­ti­ons and NPOs in shaping demo­cracy is curr­ently being called into ques­tion. The motion put forward in Septem­ber 2020 by Coun­cil of States member Ruedi Noser requi­res that tax exemp­tion is with­drawn from poli­ti­cally active foun­da­ti­ons and NPOs on the grounds of non-profit status. Howe­ver, consis­tent tax prac­tice holds that orga­ni­sa­ti­ons with poli­ti­cal acti­vity as their orga­ni­sa­tio­nal purpose are not non-profit and thus cannot be tax-exempt. It is a diffe­rent situa­tion for orga­ni­sa­ti­ons that partici-pate in poli­ti­cal discourse and raise public aware­ness for their non-profit purpose. Their poli­ti­cal acti­vi­ties have a subor­di­nate func­tion that serves their chari­ta­ble objec­ti­ves. It is hard to imagine how a chari­ta­ble foun­da­tion with the aim of promo­ting demo­cracy can fulfil its purpose if it is not permit­ted to parti­ci­pate in the demo­cra­tic discourse. The same applies to the other fields of acti­vity of foun­da­ti­ons and NPOs mentio­ned in the intro­duc­tion. Nume­rous chari­ta­ble foun­da­ti­ons and NPOs, and society as a whole, could be nega­tively affec­ted by the motion.

These deve­lo­p­ments are thought-provo­king. Switz­er­land needs more parlia­men­ta­ri­ans who can give prio­rity to Switz­er­land as an important foun­da­tion loca­tion and the gene­ral conditions.

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