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»Strategies for the future«

Interview with gbs managing director Elke Held

Since its foundation in 2004, the Giordano Bruno Stiftung (gbs) has continuously grown and evolved. In the current issue of the "bruno." annual magazine, gbs managing director Elke Held shares some insights into the Foundation's history and explains its plans for the years to come. 


bruno.: Elke, you joined the management team of the Giordano Bruno Stiftung in 2008. What has changed most significantly in the gbs since then? 

Elke Held: Well, the Foundation has become much bigger and is much more stable today than it was in the early years. It is easy to forget how small the gbs started in 2004. With the income from the Foundation's fixed assets, which were "only" 100,000 euros at the beginning, it was only possible to finance two major events per year at most. In 2008, when I joined, the gbs already had an annual budget of 116,000 euros due to donations from the support members. However, all projects had to be financed from this budget, such as the Forschungsgruppe Weltanschauungen in Deutschland (Research Group Worldviews in Germany, fowid) initiated in 2005 and the Humanistischer Pressedienst (Humanistic Press Service, hpd) founded in 2006. Only 9,000 euros were available to the gbs at that time for its own staff costs. Without a high level of "self-exploitation" by everyone involved, the development of the Foundation would not have been possible.

This also applies to you personally: back then, you worked day and night for the Foundation on a "minijob” part-time basis. You had previously worked as a psychologist e.g. in child and youth welfare. Wasn't it a big risk to give up your stable job and embark on the uncertain "gbs adventure"?

Yes, it was indeed a risk. The decision caused me some sleepless nights! On the one hand, I was no longer financially independent, and on the other hand, I was unsure whether I wanted to work this closely with my husband [gbs board spokesman Michael Schmidt-Salomon], who can be a bit of a handful at times! [laughs] In the end, however, I was convinced that the Foundation had an important societal purpose and that we could succeed in leading the gbs to success as a team with Herbert [Foundation founder Herbert Steffen] and Bibi [former trustee Ingrid Steffen-Binot, who managed the Foundation's finances until 2020]. 

Elke Held with Michael Schmidt-Salomon, Bibi Steffen-Binot and Herbert Steffen at the gbs foundation headquarters 

In 2009, the gbs celebrated Darwin's 200th birthday with numerous campaigns; in 2010, it supported former children in church-run orphanages in their fight for compensation; in 2011, the Foundation made it possible to restart the Great Ape Project ("Basic legal rights for great apes!"). At what point did you get the impression that the gbs could be a successful project in the medium and long term? 

I had a really good feeling back in 2011. The 15,000 people who took part in the anti-pope demonstration "Kein Macht den Dogmen!" showed that the Foundation had struck a nerve with its topics. It was predictable that the Church would lose its interpretative authority among the population. We were also overwhelmed by the many activities and events that our regional groups organised throughout Germany. Having said that, the Foundation's financial resources were still modest: in 2011 we spent a total of 180,000 euros, but only raised 160,000 euros in donations. 

In the gbs annual report 2011 we are told that this deficit of 20,000 euros had to be compensated with the help of cost-cutting measures in the following year... 

Since we had no reserves, the quality of our work was at stake back then! The solution to the problem was to gather a group of patrons in 2012. We owe it above all to Herbert that so many people came forward who were willing to donate at least 5,000 euros per year to the Foundation. This paved the way for the successful work of the last few years. We then took the decisive step in 2015 by introducing consumable assets in addition to the fixed foundation capital as part of a comprehensive reform of our Articles of Association, which made us one of the first "hybrid foundations" in Germany. 

You will have to explain that one: What are the advantages of a hybrid foundation? 

It combines the advantages of the other two types of foundation: On the one hand, there is the "perpetuity foundation," which subsists permanently on the proceeds of its fixed endowment capital, and on the other hand, there is the "consumption foundation," which was additionally created by the legislature in 2013 and whose assets are expended within a certain period of time. The gbs is a hybrid, so to speak, between these two types of foundation. As a hybrid foundation, in addition to the proceeds from the fixed endowment capital (which are marginal in times of low interest rates) and the general donations (which we must utilize within a certain timeframe), we have a third capital stock, i. e. the consumable assets, which we are free to expend at any time, but are not obligated to do so… 

...which gives you greater flexibility? 

Exactly! Fortunately, we have been able to significantly expand the consumable assets through donations and inheritances in recent years. Since then, we as a foundation have had planning reliability for several years. Previously, we had to operate on a very conservative basis and cancel promising projects that we simply could not afford. Only the consumable assets made it possible to finance the many legal cases that the Institut für Weltanschauungsrecht (Institute for Secular Law, ifw) oversees, or to organize more elaborate campaigns at short notice, such as the two art campaigns in front of the Cologne Cathedral this year. 

Over the past five years, the gbs has withdrawn an average of around 200,000 euros per year from its consumable assets to compensate for additional expenses not covered by current donations. Is this a future-proof model? 

First, it is important to understand that consumption assets are there to be consumed. It should "come to life" and not sit in the bank as "mold money". In our case, it has helped, for example, to topple the "euthanasia prevention law" (§217 StGB), to expose the role of political Islam, and to bring evolution into the elementary schools. We have also used these funds to reignite the debate on abortion, raise public awareness of animal rights, and prevent the abuse cases in the Catholic Church from being swept under the rug again. These are, then, sensible investments for the future! Nevertheless, it is true that the Foundation's consumable assets must, of course, be replenished again and again in order to continue to make this kind of civic engagement possible. 

Recently, the Foundation published a brochure on this topic titled "Spuren hinterlassen: Dem Humanismus Zukunft schenken" ("Leaving Traces: Giving Humanism a Future") … 

With this brochure we want to emphasize that the gbs lives from the efforts of many. The Giordano Bruno Foundation was not born with a "silver spoon in its mouth", but finances its extensive activities through donations and endowments. Only with the help of our supporters can we continue our work successfully. In all of this, it is not only a matter of securing the future of the Foundation, but also of securing the projects that emerged from the gbs, including the Forschungsgruppe Weltanschauungen in Deutschland (fowid), the Humanistischer Pressedienst (hpd), the Great Ape Project (GAP), the Institut für Weltanschauungsrecht (ifw), and the Hans-Albert-Institut (HAI). 

Securing the future is not just about the financial aspect, though, is it? 

Above all, it also depends on the people behind the projects. We have to set the course now so that the next generation can continue the gbs work successfully. That's why we invest a lot in promoting young talent. In 2019, for example, there was an under-30 summer forum at the gbs foundation headquarters in Oberwesel, which was attended by several young humanists who now hold important positions in the secular community. Participants included the Islam-critical activist Amed Sherwan, who continues to cause a stir with his activism, philosopher Florian Chefai and physicist Sophie Strobl, who initiated the founding of the Hans Albert Institute a short time later, graphic designer Saskia Zillekens, who designed the HAI website, philosopher Luisa Lenneper, who is responsible for the English translation of the gbs website and more, journalist Gisa Bodenstein, who writes as an editor for the hpd, as well as statistician Tobias Wolfram and computer scientist Laura Wartschinski, who played a central role in the founding of the Bundesarbeitsgemeinschaft Humanistischer Studierender (BAG) and the Bertha von Suttner-Studienwerk (BvS). 

gbs Summer Forum at the foundation's headquarters (2019)

So there is a promising young generation of Humanists in the making? 

Absolutely! We are very happy about the fresh impulses and are working to further expand the pool of young talent. That's why, for example, we funded the essay competition for Hans Albert's 100th birthday, in which college and high school students are tackling the question "What is rational?". Furthermore, together with the Humanistischer Verband Deutschlands (HVD), the Humanistische Akademie Deutschland (HAD) and the BAG, we founded the Bertha von Suttner-Studienwerk (Bertha von Suttner Scholarship Program). Through these and other measures, we aim to find even more young people who are willing to assume an active role in the gbs and carry on the "torch of enlightenment". 

So you are optimistic about the future? 

Yes, if we can sustain the positive developments of recent years, the chances are good that the gbs will continue to operate successfully for decades to come. I'm convinced that we'll be able to tackle this vision by joining forces! 

The interview with Elke Held was published in the 2021 issue of the bruno. annual magazine. The print version of the magazine has already been sent to 7,000 subscribers. Anyone who would also like to receive the magazine in its printed form can now order it free of charge from the gbs secretariat