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Address by Federal President Horst Köhler on the 10th anniversary of the Bürgerstiftung Wismar

Bundespräsident Horst Köhler am Rednerpult Wismar, 14 October 2008 Photo: Guido Bergmann, Presse- und Informationsamt der Bundesregierung (BPA) © Photo: Guido Bergmann, Presse- und Informationsamt der Bundesregierung (BPA)

"Engagement as quality of life"

It is my great pleasure to be here with you in Wismar, for various reasons. For one, this is my very first visit to your beautiful city. And the occasion that brings me here is another bonus, for we are today celebrating the tenth birthday of the Bürgerstiftung Wismar - and all other community foundations in Germany. The Bürgerstiftung Wismar is the oldest community foundation in eastern Germany, and was indeed one of the earliest of these hubs of active civic engagement to be established anywhere in the country. I was therefore more than happy to accept the invitation to today's event.

"If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea." - These are the words of the French author Antoine de Saint Exupéry, whom most people know from his book "The Little Prince". This sentence is very revealing of the motives people have for playing an active role in their community. People who are engaged in their communities are seeking new horizons. They draw motivation from common goals. And they infect others with their enthusiasm.

The Saint Exupéry quote is particularly fitting for Wismar, since one of the many projects supported by the community foundation was the construction of a replica "Poel Cog", a medieval merchant ship, which is now sailing the seas as a floating representative of the town.

The 100 and more people who joined forces ten years ago to establish the Bürgerstiftung Wismar and provided the original endowment - many of whom are here today - were brought together by a shared aim: to do something for their city and their fellow-citizens. This idea proved contagious. More than 600 people have to date donated money to the foundation, with the result that its assets have more than tripled.

The venue for today's event is living proof of what citizens can achieve if they band together. Saint George's, this magnificent example of the North German red-brick Gothic style, was rebuilt thanks to the large number of donations made by private individuals, organizations and companies. And, as I have heard, the Bürgerstiftung also plans to support the renovation work in the church. And all those who have helped make the reconstruction of this church a reality will no doubt be glad when services are held here once again.

Giving something back to one's home town is an old tradition in Germany. The idea of community foundations has an equally long history. Even in the Middle Ages it was not just rich individuals who wanted to set up foundations for the public good. In Lübeck, for example, Wismar's partner city, a group of merchants joined forces in the late 13th century in order to build the Holy Ghost Hospital. The money did not come from a single individual, but from a number of citizens who pooled their resources to found one of the first social institutions in Europe - one that is still going strong today.

The first modern community foundation, in the form we know today, was also the fruit of a social endeavour: the initiators of the Cleveland Foundation, established in the US state of Ohio in 1914, wanted to strengthen the sense of community between the various population groups in their city. The goal was to promote integration - a goal that is highly topical here in Germany and which is pursued by many of our community foundations.

Today the network of community foundations - as they are called in America - spans the entire world. They pursue a shared idea that transcends national and continental boundaries and together they form what could be called a learning community. The Wismar foundation and the various others in Germany belong to a generation that includes foundations in Poland, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Russia and South Africa.

But I have been pleased to see that the number of community foundations is growing faster in Germany than anywhere else. There are now roughly 200 such foundations here, and their combined capital has just passed the 100 million euro mark.

The worldwide success of this idea can also be explained by the fact that, in the face of globalization, ever more people feel the need to exert some influence on their immediate environment. "Think global, act local" is a slogan that can be applied to many community foundations - especially those that address important transboundary concerns such as protecting the environment.

The multiplicity of community foundations in Germany reflects our country's diversity. In Münster tree sponsors plant "Bürgerbäume" - "citizens' trees", in Freiburg photographers are prized for their "fremde Blicke" - "alien perspectives", in Munich "bridges are built by drumming" -"mit Trommeln Brücken gebaut", in Barnim voluntary readers help books work their magic on children as part of the "Lesezauber" project. And in Hamburg lawyers provide "good advice on the ground" - "guten Rat vor Ort" - to name just a few projects.

The foundations are committed to helping young people, promoting educational opportunities and a good upbringing and often they are active in the social and cultural fields. They thereby make a tremendous contribution to our democratic culture, a contribution that goes far beyond the achievements of the many individual projects for greater tolerance, civic courage and inter-generational support. The foundations give people the opportunity to participate in civil society, and thus serve as a "school of democracy" as defined by Tocqueville. Citizens are given the power to shape their communities.

Community foundations bring together people who want to make a difference, who willingly assume responsibility and work to improve local conditions. Active participation fosters quality of life and is in itself quality of life. It is an investment in the kind of society that most of us desire and to which everyone can contribute. This investment can take many different forms. It may be made in monetary form, but it can equally well consist of giving your time and ideas.

Socially active citizens provide a cogent answer to the question of how to keep our societies fit for the future. Many of the challenges that we face today can only be mastered if we do more to involve volunteers and draw on their commitment. The local municipalities, the true arena of civic engagement, are well advised to do all they can to attract even more volunteers - and to keep those they already have on board. Investment in social infrastructure is indispensable to this end, for in many areas volunteers can only be of assistance where the relevant structures and paid employees provide the necessary framework.

The Chairperson of a Community Foundation once told me that the town council had welcomed the foundation's activities and had been scaling back its own initiatives on the principle that "that's what we have the foundation for now". That is not the idea. Civic engagement must not be used to replace public social services in financially straitened times. On the contrary. It is cooperation between local authorities and locally active citizens in a spirit of partnership, the dovetailing of public services and private engagement, with which we can tap our community's full potential.

I am thinking for example of social services, such as the care of the elderly or the integration of immigrants. One prerequisite for integration is identification: a strong personal identity, but also identification with the community, its history and the tasks to be tackled. Anyone who actively participates in the community puts down roots. Successful integration therefore requires not only engagement that benefits the immigrants, but also engagement on the part of the immigrants themselves.

Two years ago I gave my "Berlin Address" on the topic of education in a secondary school in the ethnically mixed district of Neukölln, Berlin. We all know that, especially under difficult social conditions, a good education can only be obtained if everybody works together. The Neukölln Community Foundation - whose 165 founding donors include people from around 20 countries - set up a mentoring project with the school. The mentors help pupils find an apprenticeship upon successfully completing their schooling - with great success. Such projects exist in many places, and their stories are worth telling. "Do good, and talk about it" - that's how to encourage others to do the same.

A major advantage of foundations is their durability, for their capital is invested in the long term with a view to growth. And with their transparent structures and finances, and their openness to all comers, community foundations inspire trust. That is an important prerequisite to attracting new members. In addition, donors want to know that their gift will do as much good as possible - or to put it in economic terms, that the transaction costs will be as low as possible. Community foundations meet these criteria. They are probably the most effective way of encouraging people to endow foundations, because even people without huge savings can become benefactors - more than 13,000 people in Germany already have done so!

In works of classical literature, such as Gottfried Keller's "Green Henry" and Theodor Storm's novellas, benefactors are often rich, respectable and childless patrons. Of course, such patrons still exist today. They do a lot of good, and I would like to thank them for their work. But they have been joined by a new type of benefactor. More and more ordinary mothers and fathers without any great accumulated wealth support foundations - above all community foundations. Whoever gives money to a charitable foundation is thinking ahead. He or she is investing long-term in a charity of his/her own choosing. This perpetuation of one's own will also works with small sums in community foundations. And since the founding capital of most community foundations constantly grows as new donations and legacies come in, the sums available for funding projects also increase.

Benefactors are becoming ever younger. While community foundations, too, rely in large part on legacies for substantial increases to their capital, there are many examples of young people who donate in big style - such as the pop group "Tokio Hotel", who gave a significant sum to "their" community foundation in Leipzig.

But money is by no means all. While it is true that, in eastern Germany in particular, there is often a lack of "old money", but here as elsewhere, community foundations - even those without great material wealth - have their stores of immaterial capital in the form of committed volunteers, time and ideas.

I hope that our country will produce many more community benefactors, donors, people who give their time and ideas, who know how to build ships, who want to seek new horizons and who can inspire others to similarly yearn for the sea. And above all I hope that we have lots of citizens who are ready time and again to work for a functioning society with a bright future.

I would like to congratulate the benefactors of the Wismar foundation, and indeed all benefactors of community foundations in Germany, on ten successful years. I would like to thank everyone who has contributed to this communal effort, and welcome all those who decide to become part of the community foundation family. I wish you all continued success in your activities. Thank you very much!