The German Political Foundations: Think-and-Do Tanks in a Globalized World

Before discussing the work of German political foundations abroad, an important remark on the terminology and the concept of ‘foundation’ must be made. The German term is ‘Stiftung.’ ‘Stiftungen’ in the sense of the creator of the word – the Greek philosopher Plato – are purely non-profit organizations administrated by a board of trustees. Nowadays, they are civil law entities that, with the aid of property and assets, pursue a purpose defined by their founder.1 German political ‘Stiftungen’ differ from such organizations in the traditional understanding of the word. Rather, these are registered associations that use the term ‘Stiftung’ as a name component. Compared to more traditional ‘Stiftungen,’ they do not own large properties and are not bound by the goals of any founder. They can organize their agenda and program flexibly, while at the same time benefiting from the positive associations of the term ‘Stiftungen.’ As classical foundations, however, German political foundations are non-profit organizations whose purpose is to promote political education and strengthen democracy and civil society.

Today there are six German political foundations: the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES), the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAS), the Hanns Seidel Foundation (HSS), the Friedrich Naumann Foundation (FNS), the Heinrich Böll Foundation (HBS), and the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (RLS). They are treated legally as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), even though they are almost entirely financed by the German taxpayer. These foundations are unique institutions on an international scale. Each can be associated with one political party in the German parliament: The FES is related to the German Social Democrats (SPD); the KAS to the Christian Democratic Union (CDU); the HSS to the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU); the FNS to the liberal party of Germany (FDP); the HBS to the Green Party (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen); and the RLS to the leftwing party (DIE LINKE).

Mission of the German Political Foundations Abroad

According to their mandate, the main goal of the international work of the German political foundations is “to foster democratic political structures and to prevent conflicts.”2 Fostering democracy in this context means:

                    Promoting a democratic change in a state and in a society where the political system is not yet a representative democracy (…). This 
                    change is an inner process based on the society itself, but external actors can influence it as well, through foreign policy.3

As such, these foundations have been sending German employees to other countries since the 1970s, establishing local branches and offices abroad, running a wide range of projects together with local partners, and hosting German politicians on location. In this sense, these foundations were among the first international institutions to work in the field of political party development, but their party assistance has long been neglected in political party research.4

Due to their legal construction, they are well connected to policy decision makers – both in Germany and abroad, and share the same political values and aims. This is why they possess significant influence on and access to key political actors e.g. members of the German Bundestag or high-ranking members of German political parties. Through informing and advising, they also strengthen relationships to their local partners in other countries and gain influence in the political landscapes there. Personally, they are also strongly connected. It is not unusual for foundation employees to also hold party membership or pursue a political career within their corresponding parties.

The character of the international work of these foundations differs depending on the specific project country. Thus, the engagement of the foundations in industrialized countries should be conducive to the development of international relations and political contacts. In contrast, focus in developing countries is often on promoting and consolidating social and democratic structures.

Even though the character of their international work differs, three phases of cooperation can be identified:5

  • Building networks and engaging in dialogues: After 1945, one of the main aspects of their international work became the building of new networks and friendships with politically like-minded people outside of Germany. The aim was to rebuild trust, to open new channels for political communication, and to integrate into the Western world. This phase lasted until the 1980s.
  • Bridging and mediating conflicts: German reunification marked the beginning of a new phase in German foreign policy. The Federal Republic of Germany was able to define its own, independent foreign policy priorities untrammelled by the constraints of the Cold War. Germany was pushing toward further European integration. Therefore, the foundations were consulted as mediators to bridge internal social conflicts in the project countries focusing on Eastern Europe.
  • Providing ideas for global problems: Since 2000, their work focuses on concrete projects with local partners. Together, they organize seminars, workshops, conferences, and visiting programs for German politicians or foreign politicians in Germany. They aim to raise awareness, initiating political debates on social and cultural issues and enhancing dialogue on global topics like the welfare state or a common European foreign policy between different stakeholders on the national and international level.6

Today, one of their main tasks is to promote channels for foreign policy contacts. They often work in the background, off the public political stage. Especially in regions of conflict with high political tension, this soft-skilled work behind the scenes is a huge advantage. The second main characteristic of the foundations’ international work is providing knowledge. They offer necessary information in a complex world. But in contrast to academic-driven think tanks that develop ideas in an ivory tower, these foundations collect data together with their local partners and provide solutions on the ground. They also offer short analyses and studies serving German politicians as well as the German public. Through their project work, they are involved in the political process and, therefore, are equipped with channels and contacts that are highly interesting to German politicians.

Changing Role in Israel and the Palestinian Territory

The ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the special relationship between Germany and Israel as a consequence of the Holocaust are a combination that does not provide for an easy working environment. Today, all six foundations are active in the region, running their own offices with local and German staff conducting multiple projects on both sides. Three factors: (1) the bilateral relationship between the Federal Republic of Germany and Israel, (2) the German political approach toward the Palestinian Authority (PA), and (3) the large number of projects conducted in a geographically small area –influence the work of German political foundations in the region.7

Within the German-Jewish reconciliation process and the Israeli-Arab conflict, these foundations have taken an engaging role. Their engagement within the last century in this region can be described according to the three phases defined above:

  • Building trust and showing solidarity (1945-1987). The project work in Israel during this time was aimed at building trust and overcoming the horror of the Nazi era. The Israeli side understood the work of the German political foundations as a ‘Signal of Friendship’ and a step toward a new relationship, especially on the civic society level. The FES, for example, has been working together with the Histadrut, the Israeli trade union, since the 1980s and has established connections with German trade unions. Back then, the support was mainly financial. During the 1970s and 1980s, foundations also started to open their own offices in Israel.
  • Bridging and mediating (1990-2000). In the aftermath of the Oslo process, foundations focused on engaging bilateral dialogue between German and Israeli politicians or German and Palestinian politicians in order to support the peace process. The FES was the first foundation to open an office in East Jerusalem in 1993, followed by the KAS in 1996 with an office in Ramallah.
  • Providing ideas for global problems (from 2000 on). Nowadays, all six foundations focus on trilateral and multilateral talks on global challenges such as the welfare state and European policy toward the Middle East. They also engage in dialogue with each other and coordinate visits of German politicians together with the German Embassy in Tel Aviv and the German Representative office in Ramallah.8

But their work is also challenging: In Israel, the foundations are accused of paternalism and of interfering in Israeli internal political affairs. The Israeli public often presumes that they function as gatekeepers to German politicians and public opinion makers. Here, on the Israeli side, the question arises as to what extent the German political foundations are acting as foreign agents interfering in the sovereignty of the Israeli state. In the Palestinian Territory, the foundations are challenged by the high density of NGOs present. Financially, the foundations fund just up to 50 percent of the projects they are involved in; the other half has to be funded by the partner itself. Most of the other NGOs active in the Palestinian Territory offer full funding. This leads often to misunderstandings regarding the role of the foundations as partners.

The HBS is the third largest German political foundation. It has one office in Tel Aviv in Israel and one in Ramallah in the Palestinian Territory. The HBS describes itself as ‘part of the Green political movement.’9 In 2016, the HBS had 40 offices outside of Germany funding projects in about 60 countries. Represented by Dr. Steffen Hageman, the HBS office in Tel Aviv supports the online platform ‘+972’ financially. ‘+972’ is a subcultural left-wing digital magazine criticized in the Israeli public for being anti- IsraeliSemitic and applying an apartheid analogy to Israel. Critics of this platform do not stem only from national hard-liners, but also from some leftist Israeli intellectuals. They would claim that ‘+972’ is not conducting independent journalist work but rather relaying on doubtful sources.

The HBS regional office in Ramallah represents both the Palestinian Territory and Jordan. It was opened in 1999, working together with approximately 20 local organizations in Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Jordan. Bettina Marx, a former German journalist covering the Middle East, has run the office since 2016. Describing their core activities, the HBS cites “environmental justices, democracy, human rights and policy analysis.”10 In this framework, the HBS developed a guidebook 
for “Ethical Consumerism in Palestine.” The office is also very active in the fields of democracy and human rights. In this context, it works together with Addameer, a Palestinian NGO supporting political prisoners. The current Israeli Government criticizes this support, claiming that the HBS is interfering in internal political affairs by supporting people convicted by Israeli military law.

The FES is the oldest German political foundation. Nowadays, it maintains about 100 offices across the globe. Since 1978, the FES has maintained an office in Tel Aviv. This office provided first contacts between the Histadrut and its German counterpart. Since 1993, the FES has also maintained an office in East Jerusalem and it is the only one of these foundations to maintain a branch office in Gaza. Usama Antar has served as project manager since the opening of this branch in 2005, holding conferences and meetings on political topics throughout the Gaza Strip. One of the key projects of the foundation is to foster young people and journalists in order to debate the concept of freedom of expression. After the Hamas takeover in 2007, this work became more complex and riskier. Nevertheless, the FES decided to keep the branch open and to conduct projects in order to strengthen civil society in Gaza.


During the last decade, the international work of the German political foundations has changed. Their power in the international political arena has increased due to the shift from a bipolar, nation-state system to a multipolar, post-nation-state system. In this globalized world, the foundations—in their position as hybrids between nongovernmental think tanks and state-financed do-tanks —became purveyors of soft skills in foreign policy. They formed a bridge between governmental actors and agents who only supplied knowledge.

As illustrated by means of the foundations’ work in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, they are equipped with a huge budget that allows them to conduct projects within civil society. Therefore, in Israel and in the Palestinian Territory, they lean more toward do-tanks rather than think tanks. They present the soft side of German foreign policy. But overall, they often serve to catalyse debates, not invent them.

Especially in the case of Israel, the international networking of the foundations has led to a normalization of relations between Germany and Israel. Global networking has great potential. A huge advantage of the German political foundations is their long-term planning and sustainability due to (a) financial security and (b) shelter from the impact of daily politics. They are a good example of the reality that foreign policy is not just carried out by governments but is also highly influenced by NGOs. Regarding the question “Are the foundations just a payer or a real player?” one must answer: It depends where they are active. In Israel, they act more as payers, financing well-established local think tanks and fostering debates. In the Palestinian Territory, they are more an operating player due to the instable political situation. In both cases, however, they help to legitimize political decisions through the knowledge they provide. They are powerful analytical think tanks, agents, and providers of knowledge for actors shaping German foreign policy, not just in the Middle East but throughout the world.


Asseburg, M. and Busse, J. (2011): Deutschlands Politik gegenüber Israel. In: T. Jäger, A. Höse, K. Oppermann (ed.): Deutsche Aussenpolitik, Wiesebaden: VS Verlag, 
pp. 693-776. 

BMZ (1973): Grundsätze für die entwicklungspolitische Zusammenarbeit zwischen der Bundesregierung und den politischen Stiftungen, Ausschussdrucksache Nr. 22, Bonn. 

Heinrich Böll Stiftung (2014): A Glimpse of Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, Information leaflet. 

Klaeden, E. von (2009): German foreign policy. Parameters and current challenges. In: W. Hofmeister (ed.), 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Singapore: Konard- Adenauer-Stiftung, pp 39-46. 

Mühlen, P. von zu (2007): Die Internationale Arbeit der Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. Von den Anfängen bsi zum Ende des Ost-West-Konflikts, Bonn: Dietz Verlag. 

Strachwitz (1996): Stiftungen in Deutschland. Gesichte und Gegenwart, p 90 ff. 

Weissenbach, K. (2010): Political Party Assistance in transition. The German 'Stiftungen' in Sub-Saharan Afrika, Democratization, 17 (6), 1225-1249.


1 Strachwitz (1996): Stiftungen in Deutschland. Gesichte und Gegenwart, p 90 ff.

2 BMZ (1973): Grundsätze für die entwicklungspolitische Zusammenarbeit zwischen der Bundesregierung und den politischen Stiftungen, Ausschussdrucksache Nr. 22, Bonn. 

3 BMZ (1973).

4 Weissenbach, K. (2010): Political Party Assistance in transition. The German ‚Stiftungen’ in Sub-Saharan Afrika, Democratization, 17 (6), 1225-1249.

5 Von Klaeden, E. (2009): German foreign policy. Parameters and current challenges. In: W. Hofmeister (ed.), 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Singapore: Konard-Adenauer-Stiftung, pp 39-46.

6 Von Klaeden (2009).

7 Asseburg, M./ Busse, J. (2011): Deutschlands Politik gegenüber Israel. In: T. Jäger, A. Höse, K. Oppermann (ed.): Deutsche Aussenpolitik, Wiesebaden: VS Verlag, pp. 693-776.

8 Mühlen, P. von zu (2007): Die Internationale Arbeit der Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. Von den Anfängen bsi zum Ende des Ost-West-Konflikts, Bonn: Dietz Verlag. 

9 Heinrich Böll Stiftung (2014): A Glimpse of Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, Information leaflet.