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Charities pick up where German state left off

'Tis the season for giving, but in Germany, high taxes and a habit of

Amid the rush of the Christmas shopping season, a sound that has increasingly supplemented the cha-ching of cash registers has been the clang of spare change hitting the bottoms of Salvation Army collection pots. Americans are one of the world's most generous people, donating millions of dollars each year to philanthropic causes at home and abroad.

In Germany, however, while charities are consistently praised, they find it hard to tap into such a public spirit. With taxes claiming nearly half their paychecks, many Germans feel justified in expecting their government to be the sole caretaker of the needy. Gunther Haase, an auto mechanic in his early 50s, is typical. "Foundations can help," he says. "But the state has a job, and it has to fulfill that job."

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The sentiment reflects a nation that has over the decades become accustomed to a social safety net that often precluded private philanthropy. But with that net unraveling under the pressures of a runaway budget deficit - parliament last month approved slashing $16 billion in pension and jobless benefits from next year's budget - there is growing demand for private initiative, whether it be donating to a university or homeless shelter, or volunteering at a library or soup kitchen.

German philanthropy boasts a tradition going back to the 10th century and flourished in the wealthy Hanseatic states during their commercial heyday. But economic crisis in the 1920's, followed by 12 years of Nazi rule, sapped people's inclination to give.

The postwar welfare state further atrophied the charitable spirit. In the former West Germany, citizens were coddled by generous welfare benefits while enjoying one of the world's highest standards of living. In East Germany, the Communist regime took care of everything, if not very well. In both cases, the welfare state dulled people's sense of a civil society.

'Dependence mentality'

"People ... expected the state to do everything. There is a strong dependence mentality here," says Barbara Ammlung, a Dresden lawyer who doubles as a volunteer fund-raiser with the city's community foundation, one of only three in the country.

Although nearly a third of Germany's 10,000 foundations were established this decade, they still play a marginal role in society compared with other developed European countries and the United States.

According to the German Donating Institute in Krefeld, for example, Americans made more than $80 billion in donations in 1997, compared with $5.7 billion given by Germans. Per capita, Americans give about $685 dollars per year compared with $97 in Germany. And while the US population is about three times that of Germany's, about 109 million Americans volunteered their time to philanthropic causes last year compared with 5.5 million in Germany.

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"People first ask what the state can do, and only secondly do they ask what they can do themselves," observes Winfried Ripp, who heads Dresden's Community Foundation.

Ms. Ammlung notes that while she and other volunteers raised enough donations to establish an after-school youth club and a theater project for handicapped people, fund-raising efforts are frequently met with skepticism. "Some people say 'Don't you have anything better to do?' or 'Why are you collecting money for work that the state is already doing?' "

New momentum

But the state's inability to keep up the social safety net is giving foundations and charities new momentum. "Now that a lot of public coffers are empty, more citizens are considering what they can do to keep certain services going. But it is a very slow process that will take many years," says Ammlung.

Unprecedented wealth could also prove a boon. "It's no secret that today in Germany there is a lot of private wealth," says Klaus Wehmeier, a project director at the Korber Foundation, which funds youth, environment, and art projects. There is an estimated $3 trillion in assets held by private individuals, many of whom built their fortunes following Germany's postwar economic boom.

Now this generation is graying, and philanthropists hope the wealthy will follow the leads of German personalities like tennis star Steffi Graf and Nobel Prize-winning scientist Gunther Blobel. A few months before retiring from professional tennis, Ms. Graf started "Children for Tomorrow," a multimillion-dollar foundation that funds programs for orphaned children in developing countries. In October, Dr. Blogel donated almost all of his $980,000 in prize money to the reconstruction of a church and a synagogue in Dresden, destroyed in 1945 and 1938 respectively.

To improve the appeal of donating, foundations are also lobbying the government to reform tax laws. Compared with the taxes on US foundation assets, those on German foundations are staggering. Individuals also don't get the tax breaks that Americans do for donations.

"When people are ready to give their wealth to society, they shouldn't be roped around the legs [with taxes]," says Ulrich Broemmling, a spokesman for the German Association of Federations.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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