Ethics, Religion, Church

Interview with Ulrich Knoepfel, Member of the Council of the Swiss Protestant Reformed Church

The churches and church relief organizations play an important role in Swiss social policy. They undertake many activities to improve the economic and social situation of disadvantaged social groups. Ulrich Knoepfel talks about working with nonprofit organizations and how philanthropy works in a church setting:

How important is philanthropy for organizations and project owners with a focus on church or ethical issues in Switzerland?

In the Swiss system with the national churches, which live mainly from church taxes, philanthropy is not very relevant today. The national churches are actually quite generously supplied with funds, despite a decline in membership. Of course, one could always use more financial resources. Until today, churches are not used to looking for sponsors and supporters for their activities. For special projects, such as for a youth ministry or a youth meeting place with a support association, there is sometimes a collection of donations, but this is not the rule. However, it can be observed that project-based fundraising is being used more and more often. In my opinion, this is very important, because the Reformed Church in particular is not unfamiliar with fundraising. The situation is different on the Catholic side. There are many foundations that support, for example, a monastery, a chapel or a church. I would imagine that this tradition comes as a remnant from the benefice system. I clearly believe that churches should consider how they can tap into alternative sources of funding in the future as their membership base declines.

There are the church aid organizations, HEKS, Caritas, etc. What role do they play? What role do they play?

The works collect for the purposes to which they have committed themselves. Most of them, like HEKS, Brot für Alle (BFA), Mission21 and Caritas, are mainly active in development aid but also in the fight against poverty. Some aid agencies, such as BFA, are also politically engaged. Brot für Alle originally started with collection campaigns for other works. Over time, BFA has developed more and more of its own activities, including politically, ethically motivated actions. These actions do not benefit the national churches, but specific projects, at most churches in other countries.

Who are the key players in philanthropy and the church?

These are the national and free churches as well as the well-known relief organizations. It should not be forgotten that a large part of the work is done on a voluntary basis, especially in the communities. For example, at events such as bazaars or «soup mornings», which are sponsored by local church congregations.

How well does philanthropy work in religious settings and church projects?

It is not very common. In my opinion, in the future, more donations should be collected and for very specific projects, not simply «for the church». That’s too general. People don’t like to support institutions, they much prefer to give their money for a specific purpose, for example for a youth ministry or for something diaconal for the elderly. Once such a project is in place, foundations can be approached for support. I don’t like the fact that very few foundations invest only in projects and not in operations. Because the churches also have a cultural value, which is the cultivation of community. And the church community must be able to live. It can’t do that with just outstanding projects.

And what are the biggest challenges in philanthropy and the church?

Nowadays, the national churches have the character of administered institutions that simply exist because of cantonal church laws. I believe that in the current time of upheaval, these should become movements again. This requires people who want to advance the cause out of an inner commitment, who stand up and expose themselves. Unfortunately, religion is taboo in our society. No one talks about their faith at the regulars’ table. If someone does, it seems almost embarrassing. We should overcome this taboo. Talking about faith should become normal and acceptable again and not only be left to the particularly «pious».

Doesn’t this rigidity also have something to do with the image of society as a whole, the issue of gender equality, the issue of LQBDQ, etc.?

Yes, perhaps it is the last taboo that still needs to be broken. Debates about what is on society’s mind are important. All members of a church community should feel comfortable. It should be possible for them to talk without inhibitions about everything that concerns them. For example, for transgender people today, a church milieu may not always be easy. Because the topic of marriage for all is also being discussed very controversially in the church. The church itself is partly trapped in outdated ideas.

What do you personally donate to and what is your motivation?

Annually, I sit down twice and make donations. Most of them are church or church-related aid organizations. Further, I support, among others, a project close to my heart that works for the survival of the orangutan and foundations for the visually impaired.


Ulrich Knoepfel

Ulrich Knoepfel studied law at the University of Zurich and later theology at the Universities of Basel and Zurich. For about 23 years he was parish priest in Obstalden Canton Glarus. Since 2010 Ulrich Knoepfel has held the office of President of the National Church of Glarus and since January 2017 he has been a member of the Council (Executive) of the Evangelical Reformed Church of Switzerland EKS in Bern.