Learning from the Best

By Dr. Brigitte Mohn, Executive Board Member, Bertelsmann Stiftung

In the for-profit world, companies obtaining information about their competitors‘ plans and copying their products is usually illegal. In the non-profit world, every organisation that does this should be rewarded. Faced with limited resources and a long list of worthy causes to tackle, we can no longer afford to reinvent the wheel. Social-purpose organisations must learn from others and cooperate to increase their impact and efficiency.

Learning from the best has been the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s guiding principle from the very beginning.  In the 1990s, the societal potential of foundations was largely unknown in Germany. To better understand it, we sought to exchange ideas with foundations worldwide. Very soon it became clear that not only the Bertelsmann Stiftung, but the German foundation sector as a whole, could learn and benefit from their knowledge and experience.

After studying community foundations in the US and the UK, Bertelsmann Stiftung’s founder Reinhard Mohn helped to establish the first German community foundation in his home town, Gütersloh. He also set up a specialised consultancy, the Community Foundation Initiative (Initiative Bürgerstiftungen) as a joint project to share information on creating and managing community foundations between the Klaus Tschira Stiftung, the Körber Stiftung, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and the Association of German Foundations (Bundesverband Deutscher Stiftungen). At the same time, the Transatlantic Community Foundation Network was creating and sharing knowledge with its members from Europe, the US, Canada and Mexico with support and advice from the Mott Foundation. And the International Network on Strategic Philanthropy was also started in cooperation with Atlantic Philanthropies, the German Marshall Fund of the United States, the Ford Foundation, King Baudouin Foundation and the Mott Foundation. All of these activities were based on a belief in the value of shared learning and in the aim of developing international working alliances.

Since the 1990s the foundation sector in Germany has experienced a veritable boom. In 1996, there was only one German community foundation. A dozen years later there are more than 300. The number of private foundations set up each year is constantly increasing. In 1996, 411 new foundations were founded; the corresponding figure for 2011 was 817. And there are signs that this trend will continue. Despite the worldwide financial turbulence, private wealth inGermanyis at an all-time high and is increasingly dynamic: every year approximately €200 billion passes from one generation to the next. Looking at the rate of asset formation, it is reasonable to predict that we will have plenty of potential social investors and committed citizens who will be willing and able to support civil society work in the future.

Having benefited so much from others’ experience and insights, Bertelsmann Stiftung made a decision to concentrate on enabling cooperation across the entire German non-profit sector, by publishing research reports for social investors in Germany to demonstrate where and how giving produces maximum impact and by analysing charities to highlight best of class examples. Here again, we have benefited greatly from the knowledge of other organisations, especially from the experience of Britain’s New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) with its long tradition in analysing societal needs, fields of social action and charities. The result of our cooperation is the establishment of Phineo, a Berlin-based consultancy, whose 25-strong team analyses the organisational structures and potential for social impact of German non-profits.

The Bertelsmann Stiftung co-founded SIAA to connect those working at NPC, Phineo and the many other organisations in this field in other countries, particularly in regions where civil society and philanthropy are still emerging. Knowledge on analysing social impact is being developed, tested and broadened in many places. Organisations like the SROI Network and others add new concepts and tools to the profession. All of them might find SIAA’s broad approach stimulating and useful.  Facing overwhelming financial challenges to the non-profit sector and the public purse alike, it is high time to scan the field anew for powerful and lasting collaborations.

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