Heiress Seeks 50 Austrians to Give Away $27 Million

In the coming days, about 10,000 Austrians will find an invitation in their mailboxes from an heiress asking for their help spending 25 million euros, or about $27.4 million, of her inheritance.

It is not a scam or a clever marketing gambit. Rather, the heiress, Marlene Engelhorn, said it was an attempt to challenge a system that has allowed her to accumulate millions of euros in the first place.

Ms. Engelhorn, 31, grew up in Vienna and for years has been campaigning for tax policies that would redistribute inherited wealth and address structural economic inequality.

Without those tax laws in place, she is turning to the public to decide how her money should be spent.

The 10,000 Austrians who receive invitations will be whittled down to 50, with a goal of reflecting the country’s population based on demographics such as gender, age and income. The group, called the Guter Rat, or good council, will meet in Salzburg over six weekends this year to discuss the best way to spend the money.

“A good plan needs many perspectives,” Ms. Engelhorn said in a statement on the project’s website. “Not just from one individual who happens to have inherited. Simply because I wish to improve the state of our society does not mean that I have a good plan.”

Ms. Engelhorn’s inheritance originated with Friedrich Engelhorn, who founded BASF, one of the world’s largest chemical companies, in 1865. Her family also owned Boehringer Mannheim, a pharmaceutical and medical diagnostic equipment company, until it was sold for $11 billion in 1997.

Before the Guter Rat project was announced on Tuesday, Ms. Engelhorn had publicly committed to giving away at least 90 percent of her multimillion-euro inheritance. She is part of a small movement of the superrich who want not only to redistribute their money, but also to challenge the structures that allowed them to inherit their riches in the first place. Austria abolished its inheritance tax in 2008.

It is not clear what percentage of her inheritance Ms. Engelhorn has pledged to the project, whose full name is Guter Rat für Rückverteilung, or the good council for redistribution. Bernhard Madlener, a spokesman for the project, said in an email that it was a “vast majority.”

On Tuesday, the project mailed invitations to 10,000 people in Austria who were chosen at random from a national database.

Participants must be at least 16 years old, but they do not have to be an Austrian citizen or speak German.

The group will meet from March to June for professionally moderated discussions and will hear from experts on issues such as wealth distribution and the way nongovernmental organizations are funded. There will be 15 replacement members selected in case someone can’t attend.

The Guter Rat members will be paid 1,200 euros, or about $1,314, for each weekend. The cost of hotels, meals and travel will be covered, as will costs to address things that might prevent people from attending, such as child care and interpreting. The members will be anonymous unless they choose to speak publicly.

There are limits on how the funds can be spent, according to the project website. The money can’t go to groups or people who are “unconstitutional, hostile or inhumane,” and it can’t be invested in for-profit institutions. The money also can’t be redistributed to group members or “related parties.”

If the group is unable to find a widely supported way to distribute the money, it will be returned to Ms. Engelhorn.

The unusual project is a departure from the methods that some superrich people have used to unload their money, such as by creating foundations for causes they support or donating it to existing groups. Ms. Engelhorn said that those routes still gave the wealthy power that they had not earned.

In Ms. Engelhorn’s statement about the project, she said that donating money didn’t “solve the problem of political failure,” and that it “grants me power that I shouldn’t have.”

“Redistribution must be a process that extends beyond me,” she said.

After the Guter Rat is established, Ms. Engelhorn will withdraw from the project and relinquish all decision-making authority, according to the project’s website.

“Of course, she reserves the right to continue commenting on the topics of wealth distribution and redistribution, but she has no veto or similar rights regarding the results of the discussion in the Council and the 25 million euros,” the website says. “The Council decides.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *