Building Trust: How a German Philanthropist Supports Social Movements

An LGBTQ demonstration in Hamburg, Germany. Photo: Gerckens-Photo-Hamburg/shutterstock

An LGBTQ demonstration in Hamburg, Germany. Photo: Gerckens-Photo-Hamburg/shutterstock

When Ise Bosch first decided to engage in social change philanthropy from her native Germany, she entered a very uncrowded space. In Transformative Philanthropy, a book released earlier this year, Bosch writes that in Germany, “wealthy people usually don’t display their wealth and few even know what ‘philanthropy’ means.” While we often point to the sparse resources American donors direct to women’s and LGBTQ causes—the focus of Bosch’s giving—that funding can be even harder to find abroad. 

Bosch’s path toward becoming a “donor activist,” as she characterizes herself, began in Stuttgart, Germany. Her grandfather founded Robert Bosch GmbH, one of Germany’s largest companies. Discontented from an early age with a life of quiet but constant privilege, Bosch made her way to Oregon for college, where she became involved in the LGBTQ community and American social justice activism. She also started giving here and there, little by little, while living the modest lifestyle of a freelance musician.

“It does change you if you enter the world with money,” Bosch told me. Especially these days, she said, “there’s more help in the U.S. [for potential young givers], including a community of people in that position. That kind of infrastructure does not exist in Germany.” 

Over the years, Bosch has forged her own path as a donor. Her giving is distinct from that of the Robert Bosch Stiftung, the largest giving vehicle associated with her family. The Robert Bosch Stiftung is somewhat unique in that it holds a majority stake in Robert Bosch GmbH itself, and its current giving, at around €100 million a year, reflects that financial bulk. Ise Bosch’s philanthropy is much more modest. But by adopting a grassroots, ground-up approach, she aims to achieve outsized impact.

Here in the United States, it’s easy to pinpoint areas where philanthropy could do a lot more. Women’s and LGBTQ causes, for instance, receive only a small fraction of American givers’ overall outlay, despite the vast populations they serve and the current magnitude of need. But for foreign philanthropists like Bosch, the strength of American philanthropy and its diversity of approaches offers inspiration. 

She writes, “In the United States, philanthropy as such has far greater resources at its disposal—for problematic reasons, I would say, because it is linked to high levels of social inequality and very low levels of social security. Still, I learned a lot from the thriving social change philanthropic community in the U.S., and became a part of it myself.”

That story really achieved momentum in the late 1990s, when Bosch first partnered with the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice to activate its international grassroots funding work, a relationship that continues to this day. Astraea is consistently one of the largest grantees of Dreilinden, Bosch’s primary giving vehicle. Bosch writes that the Astraea International Fund for Sexual Minorities “has given away almost $19 million to over 500 groups in 99 countries—my and Dreilinden’s longest-standing support to date.” 

The way Bosch supports Astraea and other Dreilinden beneficiaries mirrors some of the key strategies we often associate with contemporary American social justice philanthropy. She emphasizes personal relationships characterized by trust as a means to move beyond the “professionalization of philanthropy” and its oft-derided reliance on metrics and reams of reporting. 

“Investing in a personal relationship, even to the point of having people stay at your house, is a different way of building trust than sending over annual reports,” she said. “I need people who can give me critical feedback if something’s not working right.” 

It is, of course, difficult to cultivate personal relationships with every grantee and beneficiary, especially if they include grassroots initiatives in far-flung parts of the world. Bosch’s workaround is to build relationships with intermediary organizations, like Astraea in the U.S., that can draw upon local connections and expertise to fund the right movement leaders and nonprofits on the ground. The tactic echoes work by stateside funders like the Marguerite Casey Foundation to build up grantee networks that act as conduits to the community, without imposing a funder’s views.


One illustrative example from Dreilinden’s portfolio is the Other Foundation, a community funder based in southern Africa. On a 2012 trip to the region—which is troubled by high rates of gender-based violence, homophobia, and public health challenges like HIV/AIDS—Bosch met with LGBTQ activists and became one of the founding donors for the foundation, which has disbursed over $670,000 since its inception via a participatory grantmaking model. Dreilinden’s initial contribution was just $5,000, but Bosch says even small amounts can go a long way in countries where movement infrastructure for a particular cause is still in its infancy. 

In a quote for Transformative Philanthropy, veteran LGBTQ funder and Arcus Foundation founder Jon Stryker sounded a similar note: “In the work of building a nascent movement, small amounts can have a very large effect. You can actually get a lot done with relatively small amounts of money. You can also have a huge impact because there are so few other funders already involved.” 

As we often observe, the successes of American LGBTQ philanthropy in the new millennium reflect just how powerful concentrated philanthropy can be when it’s put to work building movements and shifting political norms. But despite a stateside sea change in the political viability of LGBTQ causes, and a steady rise in funding for those causes abroad, philanthropic support for LGBTQ activists is still very rare outside the U.S

According to Justus Eisfeld, a trans activist who worked with Bosch on Transformative Philanthropy, that remains the case in much of the Global North. LGBTQ philanthropy is seen as “new and totally unheard of” in Germany, where Bosch is one of only a tiny handful of native funders who support homegrown activists. 

But over the past several years, Eisfeld says, a shift has been underway as German funders like the Hirschfeld-Eddy Foundation cultivate discussion and organizing with support from Dreilinden. The fact that “German queer organizations have done this with virtually no money speaks to the reach that U.S.-based organizations have outside the country that they don’t realize,” he told me.

In terms of models for giving, that reach isn’t limited to seeding more democratic or bottom-up grantmaking practices. Bosch also referred to American approaches that critique capitalism, wealth, and power themselves, a brand of progressive grantmaking that’s asserting itself more forcefully under the Trump presidency. 

There is some irony there. American philanthropy, it could be argued, is only as strong as it is because of this country’s love affair with free markets and limited government, as opposed to Western Europe’s more expansive approach to social supports. But that discussion mainly concerns service provision rather than progressive movement building, itself a small corner of American philanthropy. Bosch’s contention is that in this arena, European philanthropists can really step it up.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Bosch and Drelinden’s funding isn’t restricted to movement building grants. There’s also an impact investing component, which Bosch and Eisfeld see as a key way to begin working in places where political activism may be difficult. In countries that severely restrict LGBTQ rights, for instance, “queer-owned businesses can act as meeting places, and can have a really large influence on local queer communities,” Eisfeld said. By finding and investing in queer-owned businesses, Bosch wants to extend models like micro-finance—long a centerpiece of global funding for women’s empowerment—to LGBTQ communities. 

It’s fair to say that the U.S. is a hotspot for funder-supported movement building. But as authoritarianism reasserts itself at home and abroad, it’s worth keeping an eye on how that work is shaping up outside the U.S., without limiting the discussion to what American foundations and nonprofits are doing.