Andrea Frank, Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft
Dr. Wilhelm Krull, Volkswagen Foundation
Dr. Wolfgang Rohe, Stiftung Mercator
Simon Sommer, Jacobs Foundation
Prof. Dr. Joachim Küpper, Freie Universität Berlin (Facilitator)
The workshop focused on the role of foundations in funding research. Foundations aim to influence societal development and to strengthen scientific research. A central question in this context is to which extent the funding policy is determined by the foundation’s mission and/or external agendas. Additional relevant dimensions in this context are: the freedom of purpose in science and its quest for meaning and influence as well as the sustainability of funded projects and newly established structures.
In his introduction the facilitator, Professor Küpper, stressed that although foundations operate with and spend private money, tax reliefs mean that it is, in fact, also partly public money.
“Foundations are a variety of quite different animals.” With this opening statement Wilhelm Krull, representative of the Volkswagen Foundation stressed the diversity of foundations. They do not only vary in size and budget, but also in their scope and their funding principles – some are operational while others fund external projects. Thus their financial investments into the research system can take many different paths.
The Volkswagen Foundation is a supporting foundation that divides its up to €100 million p.a. across three main areas: fostering young talent, research into key challenges in science and society, especially in the humanities, and promoting international activities.
For his opening, Simon Sommer from the Jacobs Foundation chose a quote by Michael E. Porter on the “obligation to create value”, stating that foundations have to spend their money more effectively and efficiently than public institutions. Sommer also pointed out that among the variety of animals there are a lot of smaller foundations which usually have a lower degree of organization and professionalism.
Research organizations and universities have to bear in mind that private funding often comes with a price tag. Therefore any organization that is interested in receiving funding from private donors has to be willing to act in line with the principles of the respective foundation or donor; a university has to decide for which price it is willing to put its symbolic capital on the market.
In the case of the Jacobs Foundation, the Jacobs University is its major investment, but it is by no means the foundation’s only activity: it spends about CFH 10 million p.a. on projects supporting child and youth development. After ten years of highly successful operation in teaching and research, the Jacobs University should not be seen only as an “agent of change”, but rather as a successful international campus university.
In response to Sommer’s statement, Wilhelm Krull stressed that the Jacobs University , different from many other universities of this type, was not, in fact, established by the Jacobs Foundation but was an already existing institution into which the Jacobs Foundation decided to invest. While many universities that were set up by foundations or other private organizations have not been successful, it seems the Jacobs University is.
Ideally such universities trigger the transformation process of public universities. This ability to impact on public universities is one of the objectives of the Volkswagen Foundation as well as many other actors in the field.
The Stifterverband für die deutsche Wissenschaft, represented in the workshop by Andrea Frank, differs from other foundations as it is a membership organization which generates its funds mainly out of the donations and membership fees of more than 3,000 companies.
The funding lines, ideas and projects conducted by the Stifterverband are developed in collaboration with universities in a process that can not be influenced by the donating companies.
The Stifterverband focuses on three main areas: Governance in the form of structural innovation on the institutional level, policy advice, and the discourse on relevant and upcoming issues in the field of higher education for which the Stifterverband provides a platform.
For Frank it seems legitimate that a donor is interested in influencing what their money is spent on. As there are a variety of donors with a variety of interests, an organization that is looking for funding should carefully examine if its institutional strategy matches the funding priorities. An institutional strategy is thus not only crucial for acquiring funding but it is also a major element for securing the sustainability of (short-term) projects.
Wolfgang Rohe from the Stiftung Mercator provided three theses in his opening statement: Firstly, foundations should not act like benefactors, secondly, public research has become more program-oriented and thirdly, foundations are not free actors in this system. Derived from this he recommended that foundations should have a strategic agenda and should not hide it. Further they should define their goals within a certain scale and make their investments in a certain field. Additionally, Rohe stressed the importance of mutual respect between foundations and universities.
A recurring issue concerning the role of foundations in science funding is transparency and how it can be secured.
On behalf of the Stifterverband, Andrea Frank emphasized the role of the committee selecting the projects that are to be funded. The Stifterverband carefully chooses persons with a heterogenic institutional background. The second step in the selection process is a project presentation. This is usually done in a public setting in order to initiate a learning process and exchange of experience at an early stage.
As many foundations have implemented complex governance and selection systems, Joachim Küpper asked whether the foundations are ever evaluated.
In response, Wilhelm Krull underlined that one- or two-day evaluation events as conducted by many organizations are not really worth the effort. In contrast the Volkswagen Foundation has set up an evaluation pyramid including project and program evaluation by external experts and the review of internal activities by auditors. The results of the first evaluation phases feed into the following setting of priorities. Overall the Volkswagen Foundation has started a broad transformation process and considers transparency as an obligation towards the public.
For Simon Sommer the transparency is very closely linked to the reputation of a foundation’s trustees. If they have a good reputation and are trustworthy then the foundation will be perceived in the same way.
The Mercator Foundation began its strategic process in 2008. For internal and external transparency an evaluation by experts will be carried out in 2013. Part of this evaluation will be a survey among the foundation’s clients conducted by the Centre for Social Investment at the University of Heidelberg.
In response to Wilhelm Krull’s earlier comment on his hope that public universities have the ability to change, Carsten Dreher from Freie Universität asked whether this hope has been encouraged or diminished over the past years? For Krull this hope seems reasonable because many of the universities that have been awarded funding in the Excellence Initiative already started their transformation process in the mid-1990s. A good example is the transition towards a structured doctoral education in most German universities. Another interesting development is that the German Excellence Initiative is frequently being copied across Europe.
Unfortunately, most universities are increasingly unable to fulfill their key tasks. One of the main reasons for this is the shortage of public funding, which is why many universities are also spending third-party funding to finance their core business.
Carsten Dreher brought up the issue of strategic planning and wanted to know what the new agendas of the foundations consist of and what the envisaged goals are?
For Andrea Frank a university’s goals should be long-term goals. As universities in many cases only receive small-scale funding they should plan their spending strategically and with a long-term vision. Some universities have already implemented an identification system for funding opportunities that are in line with their long-term strategic goals. For the Stifterverband these universities are good practice. The Volkswagen Foundation is not imposing agendas but strongly prefers to work with agents of change. It usually sets up a long-term strategy as well as an exit strategy, in case the project is not taking the course initially envisaged.
According to Wolfgang Rohe, the universities in the Ruhr area are situated in a system of cooperation and competition. The strategic cooperation is coordinated by a joint center that takes decisions and operates without the involvement of the Mercator Foundation.
summarized by CCD