"We are political"

One of Germany’s largest foundations is fundamentally altering its agenda. Why? Sandra Breka, Member of the  Robert Bosch Stiftung's Board of Management, spoke to us about the reasons behind the pivot.

Ms. Breka, last year your foundation spent a total of 153 million euros in project funding. Now you’re doing something radical: phasing out all of your international projects and revising the foundation’s approach. Why?

Sandra Breka: Our founder Robert Bosch tasked us with continuously challenging the purpose and effectiveness of our activities on behalf of the foundation. So we asked ourselves whether we’re still addressing the right social and political issues. We reviewed our programmes in-depth over the course of two years and, in doing so, found that we were working on a total of 34 topics. This blurred our image. It no longer reflects the major challenges facing an increasingly uncertain and complex world. Simply pressing on in the same vein would be like continuing to build the automobiles of today for tomorrow’s mobility needs.

So, what now?

Breka: Moving forward we’ll focus on up to ten topics. Firstly, we are reorganizing our large support area of international understanding. Decisions regarding the fields of health, science, education, and society are still pending. Spending money effectively is no easy matter. We need to ask ourselves: Are we doing the right thing? Could we actually be having a negative impact because we don’t know enough about the social correlations between the fields?

But your international understanding programs have been bringing people together for decades. Germans have met their neighbors in Poland and France, they've met Americans and Chinese people. Encounters like these are more important than ever in times where new forms of nationalism are emerging.

Breka: Our founder’s legacy is contributing to peace and stability. In other words, dialogue alone is not enough. We need to ask how we can manage, both within and between societies, to find joint solutions for the problems that affect all of us. That’s why, going forward, we will focus on climate change, conflict, migration, and inequality.

Even the millions the foundation has at its disposal won’t stretch very far with such major issues. How will you make a difference?

Breka: Above all, our focus will be on understanding and influencing the interdependencies between these issues. For example, the way in which climate change causes conflict and migration. I was recently in Ethiopia where a huge dam is being built for a power plant on the upper reaches of the Nile. In Egypt, a lot of people are afraid that this will deprive farmers of water for their grain fields – and they’re afraid of conflict ensuing.

How can a German foundation help?

Breka: By enabling cooperation. In the Middle East, for example, we support cooperation between Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian communities. They share water sources and help one another with waste disposal. The mayors work together so closely that the situation remains calm when elsewhere violence is escalating. It’s not projects that change the world, but people and institutions. Therefore, we want be less operational in our work, and instead support organizations that tackle issues with a forward-looking, long-term approach.

Until now, the way many foundations have operated is to set up a project, finance it for a few years, and get it in the newspaper, then devise the next grandly worded project.

Breka: All around the world, philanthropy is changing significantly. Nowadays, people are looking much more closely at whether, and how, individual actions have an impact on society. Foundations are increasingly reflective, self-critical, and cooperative. Even those with massive financial resources are open to partnerships.

Aren’t they in fact in competition?

Breka: No, we try to complement one another.

You have written a dense, 154-page strategy paper in which you also take a critical look at foundations in general, stating that they have been reluctant to stir things up.

Breka: If foundations don’t do this, then who should support those who think critically, offer fresh perspectives, and are brave? We don’t take partisan positions. But our focus on conflict and inequality nevertheless demonstrates that we are political.

Does being political also mean promoting democracy globally?

Breka: Promoting Western democracy globally has, unfortunately, lost some of its cogency. Other types of social order are proving economically competitive.

Are you talking about "development dictatorships" such as those in China or Rwanda?

Breka: Yes, for instance. Our model has lost some of its appeal. We need to strengthen democracy within our societies and create alliances with people and institutions across national borders to remain credible. 

So how political can a foundation’s agenda be? The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has, for example, been criticized for spending four to five billion dollars a year worldwide to promote a technology-driven, primarily market-orientated economic model.

Breka: Mega-foundations are changing how philanthropy is perceived. The US has always had its Rockefellers and Carnegies. Here in Germany, we don’t have philanthropists such as MacKenzie Bezos who simply donates 18 of her 36 billion dollars. Our society is less accepting of individuals influencing matters such as global health policy. We must remember, however, that philanthropy’s share of global giving is still very small compared to government funding or the remittances that migrants send back home. Nevertheless, I would like to see even more high net-worth individuals becoming philanthropists in Europe. 

The interview was first published in German in DIE ZEIT.

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