The billionaire founder of SAP, Hasso Plattner, is a rare species in Germany. Taking a cue from his software buddies in Palo Alto, California, where he lives part time, he's put his money where his mouth is--€230 million, in fact. That's what he ponied up in 1999 to create an elite engineering institute for the University of Potsdam, complete with a nearby business incubator. Today the Hasso Plattner Institute is renowned for its first-rate IT designers and has already spun off some promising start-ups. "I didn't want to have to ask myself one day, 'Why didn't you do anything?' " he says.
By doing his bit, Plattner has become the poster boy for one of Germany's most heartening trends. More and more Germans have pondered their country's future beyond the nanny state--and decided to get involved. From Bavaria to Berlin, volunteerism is surging. Citizens' groups have taken over public services such as libraries and swimming pools from bankrupt local governments. After years of watching public education decline, Germans are turning to new private schools, more than 2,000 of which have been founded in the past 10 years.
This may all seem unspectacular compared with the United States and other countries. But that's the point: in Germany, it's traditionally been up to the state to care for society's needs. Government bureaucracy thus permeates public life. German foundations have been marginalized over the years. Organizations such as churches or charities, which elsewhere would be independent, have become virtual extensions of the government, almost completely financed by taxes. Only 3 percent of the income for German NGOs comes from private or corporate donations, a recent study by Johns Hopkins University found. The result: a civic society that in many ways reflects, not counteracts, Germany's larger malaise.
Enter Plattner and a few others like him. Not only did he donate the money for his new Potsdam institute, he broke with traditional rules in setting it up. Arguing that students need one-on-one exposure to both professors and corporate leaders--simply not done in Germany--he personally advises students on their projects and start-ups and makes sure that other profs do the same. Flexibility, creativity and entrepreneurship are not exclusively American talents, he preaches. They can be German, too.
Sadly, not everyone gets it. Bureaucrats who mistrust the idea of an "elite" institute forced Plattner to choose a quarter of his students by lottery. Elsewhere, labor unions have condemned the new volunteerism as a "threat" to jobs, especially in the realm of social work. In Hamburg not long ago, university students pelted real-estate magnate Helmut Greve with eggs. His offense? Giving €35 million for two new academic buildings. No wonder Germany's budding philanthropists are wary. Their time will no doubt come--but probably not at a pace that will please Hasso Plattner.