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Saturday July 20, 2024

Group of Austrians picks 77 charities for fortune of heiress

After six weekends of deliberating, a group of Austrian citizens decided how to divvy up the riches of the heiress Marlene Engelhorn

By Our Correspondent
June 21, 2024
Austrian-German activist and philanthropist heiress Marlene Engelhorn. — AFP File
Austrian-German activist and philanthropist heiress Marlene Engelhorn. — AFP File

After six weekends of deliberating, a group of Austrian citizens decided how to divvy up the riches of the heiress Marlene Engelhorn, who is donating the bulk of her inheritance to charity in an attempt to challenge a system that allowed her to accumulate millions of euros.

A report by Claire Moses for the New York Times, says that The Guter Rat fur Ruckverteilung (‘good council for redistribution’ in German), a group of 50 residents in Austria advised by experts, chose 77 organizations that would receive money from Ms Engelhorn’s fortune over the coming years.

Ms Engelhorn, 32, made headlines this year when she turned to the public to help redistribute her wealth, challenging the lack of inheritance tax in her native Austria. In January, she sent invitations to 10,000 Austrian residents, asking them for help spending 25 million euros (about $26.8 million) of her fortune, which she inherited when her grandmother died. The research group Foresight selected 50 of those residents, from various backgrounds, to form the council.

Each organization will receive an amount ranging from €40,000 (roughly $43,000) to €1.6 million ($1.7 million). The groups receiving money include the left-wing think tank Momentum; Attac Austria, an organization that opposes neoliberal economic policy; the social organization World Inequity Lab; climate organizations; human rights groups; and dozens of others.

There were some rules in place, according to the council’s website. The money could not be given to groups or people who are “unconstitutional, hostile or inhumane,” and it could not be invested with for-profit institutions. The money also couldn’t be redistributed to group members or “related parties.”

Now that her fortune will be mostly given away, Ms Engelhorn said in a phone interview Wednesday, she would no longer be able to live off her tax-free wealth. She was planning to enter the work force and pay taxes.

But, she said, she is still mindful that she is coming from a privileged position, even if the contents of her bank account have gotten smaller.

“I’ll always be a privileged person from a wealthy background,” she said. “This is not changeable or deniable.”

Prof Michaela Moser, a lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences in St Polten, Austria, who served as an expert adviser to the council of 50, said she was impressed by the level of engagement, discussion and — ultimately — consensus.

The council saw its mission as two-pronged: develop ideas on how Austrian society can deal with the distribution of wealth, and decide how to redistribute Ms Engelhorn’s 25 million euros.

“Twenty-five million — on the one hand it’s a lot,” Ms Moser said. But, she added, “there are many more organizations in Austria and beyond that could be supported.”

The Engelhorn family’s multibillion-dollar fortune started with Friedrich Engelhorn, who in the 19th century founded BASF, one of the world’s largest chemical companies. Another family company, Boehringer Mannheim, which produced pharmaceuticals and medical diagnostic equipment, was sold to Roche for $11 billion in 1997.

Ms Engelhorn grew up in a mansion in a chic part of Vienna and has long campaigned for tax policies that would redistribute inherited wealth and address structural economic inequality. Austria abolished its inheritance tax in 2008.

Without any laws in place that would tax Ms Engelhorn’s inherited fortune, she decided to redistribute it herself, and she turned to the public to decide how her money should be spent. She is part of the group Millionaires for Humanity, which advocates wealth taxes, and she co-founded a group called Tax Me Now.

Before the project was announced in January, Ms Engelhorn had publicly committed to giving away at least 90 percent of her inheritance. She is part of a small movement of superrich individuals who want to not only redistribute their money, but also to challenge the structures that allowed them to inherit their riches.

Besides giving away most of her wealth and “becoming one of many,” Ms Engelhorn said she would continue to fight for a more equal and fair distribution of wealth in her country. She said she hoped that she would make other people talk about the issue, too.

“Please talk about money, everyone,” she said. “The more people are active in it, the better the results will be.”