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Reinhard Mohn – Philanthropist

'Wealth entails responsibility'

Liz and Reinhard Mohn
Liz and Reinhard Mohn
Photographer: Thomas Kunsch

Continuing his family tradition, Reinhard Mohn firmly believed that “wealth entails responsibility.” This conviction informed his years of civic engagement, leading him to found the Bertelsmann Stiftung in 1977.
 

After many years as a business leader, Mohn recognized in the 1970s that Germany’s politics were not transparent enough and its democracy not vital enough. He also saw that the type of leadership exercised back then was blocking the evolution of these systems and that regulatory structures on all levels were preventing the country’s citizens from getting involved in public life. 

As with Bertelsmann AG, whose growth and development was based on carefully considered economic and sociopolitical principles, the Bertelsmann Stiftung was created to achieve two main goals. The first was ensuring the continuity of Bertelsmann AG, since the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s founding documents foresaw that it would later acquire the Mohn family’s holdings in the company. The second goal was to foster civic engagement in German society. The Bertelsmann Stiftung was thus structured to develop and carry out its own projects, working together with academic experts and specialists from a number of fields and collaborating with public and private institutions.
 
Mohn considered early on what would be necessary to provide people with access to meaningful educational opportunities. The answers he came up with included activities to promote reading, up-to-date teaching methods and the creation of state-of-the-art libraries. At one of Gütersloh’s secondary schools, students were soon using computers and modern media in the classroom, turning the school into a role model for others. Improving educational opportunities also played a role as the city of Gütersloh built its new municipal library, which focused on patrons’ needs for the first time. Looking back today, many of the initiatives launched in the foundation’s early days remain timely. This is true not because an entrepreneur wanted to contribute to the public good in his hometown, but because the ideas that informed the projects were compelling and ahead of their time.

The projects that resulted from Mohn’s initial desire to increase understanding among cultures, strengthen ties between Europe and the United States and promote reconciliation with Israel still influence the work carried out by the foundation today. The same is true of his many ideas for making business processes and public-sector activities more efficient. Given its forward-looking foundations, the Bertelsmann Stiftung grew rapidly, adding new project areas such as culture, health and social issues.

Despite his advanced age, Mohn was in attendance at the foundation every day until mid-2009, contributing ideas and suggestions for projects and remaining a member of its Supervisory Board until his death. He had an active mind and enjoyed examining the changes taking place around him, considering them in light of his own viewpoints. He never rested on past achievements, but was always on the way toward something new.  

He watched with great pleasure as the foundation’s work became increasingly international, knowing that, in our globalized world, individual countries are no longer capable of solving their problems alone, but also require a community of peers to assist them. Demographic change, integration, international financial flows, environmental protection and energy security are only a few issues that make this clear.

Community foundations are just one example of how the ideas advanced by Mohn are viable in other contexts. In the United States, he saw that the largest and most successful foundations had been founded by citizens themselves to benefit their local communities, a phenomenon he found fascinating. In typical fashion, he established just such a foundation in his hometown of Gütersloh, providing it with an endowment and creating an advisory council to assist other cities and towns. Germany is now home to hundreds of community foundations.   

Mohn, of course, did not invent civil society. But he did recognize its significance and he supported it, in light of his conviction that the state alone cannot provide everything society needs and that, being part of the state, each citizen must do his or her own part. Making clear the degree to which he believed this, in 1996 Mohn transferred almost all of his shares in Bertelsmann AG to the Bertelsmann Stiftung, ensuring it would have a secure financial base from which it could develop further. A more generous and more convincing example of taking one’s social responsibility seriously would be hard to find.  

Over the course of three decades, the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s hundreds of projects have produced exemplary initiatives in the areas of education, culture, social affairs, healthcare and civic engagement. For years these activities have helped people get more involved in public life. Working with experts and practitioners from both Germany and abroad, the Bertelsmann Stiftung has been able to identify issues in many areas that require reform, subsequently proposing workable solutions to them.  

In his last interview in 2008, Mohn said, “For me personally, the initiatives launched by the Bertelsmann Stiftung are demonstrations of the practical, democratic forms of civic engagement that I had dreamed about since my time as a prisoner of war in Concordia. Both reflecting actual public needs and geared toward the sociopolitical developments taking place today, the foundation’s projects have been able to forge a new path, showing it’s possible to make democracy more efficient and capitalism more humane. Given the changes taking place around the world because of globalization, the ideas first launched in the 1970s are now taking us far beyond Germany’s borders, forcing us to consider ways of increasing participation in social and political systems and finding methods for integrating the globalized world’s many constituents -- in other words, to define our views and take action. Even today the foundation’s efforts are concerned with how the issues of justice and humanity are addressed by the world’s political and social systems.”


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