'Extreme wealth as power must be regulated': 31-year-old heiress is letting 50 strangers give her $27 million fortune away



Marlene Engelhorn hadn’t given much thought to the wealth that surrounded her as she grew up. She always considered the fortune, inherited from Friedrich Engelhorn, the 19th-century founder of German chemical giant BASF SE, to be her family’s money rather than hers.

Then she came into more than €25 million ($27 million) from her late billionaire grandmother in 2022. She had already co-founded the group TaxMeNow and discovered a community in various progressive groups for guilt-ridden rich people like wealth-redistribution advocates Resource Justice and Patriotic Millionaires. But now the 31-year-old had to grapple with the fact that she was a millionaire in her own right.

So Engelhorn settled on an idea: Let 50 strangers decide how to give it away.

Those strangers, all of whom live in Engelhorn’s native Austria, will meet for the first time this weekend at a hotel in Salzburg. Dubbed the Guter Rat, or Good Council, they were chosen through a statistical process run by research group Foresight and range in location, age, race, socioeconomic background and other demographic factors chosen in an effort to be representative of the overall Austrian population. 

Engelhorn’s goal is not only to give away €25 million, but also to spark conversations on wealth inequality. She’s frustrated that her windfall wasn’t taxed — Austria eliminated its inheritance tax in 2008 — and doesn’t see traditional philanthropy as a good solution because it still gives her too much power.

“I’m just one brain, I’m just one person and so to me, this is a huge relief knowing that the process of redistribution is much more legitimate and thorough and democratic than I could ever do it,” she said in an interview. “Nobody needs another foundation.” 

Engelhorn’s approach is a dramatic example of the ways in which heirs of dynastic wealth are choosing a different path than previous generations. Her ancestor Friedrich Engelhorn left BASF in the late 19th century and invested his fortune in the predecessor to Boehringer Mannheim, which was bought by Swiss pharma giant Roche Holdings AG for $11 billion in 1998. Part of her desire to give her fortune away came from the tax loopholes her family used during that sale, she said.

“The knowledge of the way wealth was accumulated in these companies, and through them in my family, has reinforced my conviction that extreme wealth as power must be regulated,” she said.

Citizens’ Assembly

Engelhorn grew up going to private schools and then the University of Vienna, where she studied German literature and language. She came up with the idea for the Guter Rat after reading about citizens’ assemblies, a democratic tool that’s gaining popularity in Europe. In the absence of taxation, it seemed like the most egalitarian way to share her wealth. 

“Philanthropy is only to be taken seriously when it considers its own abolition,” she said. “I can’t wait for my government to tax me. They’re not going to do this anytime soon. But we do need this wealth to be redistributed into society.”

The project was announced in January, when the Guter Rat team, with the help of Foresight, sent invitations to 10,000 randomly selected people all over Austria above the age of 16. Engelhorn held a press conference announcing the undertaking so people didn’t think it was a scam. 

The response was immediate: Within the first two days they received 700 emails from people who’d heard about the plan, with many sharing their own ideas on how to spend the money, said Alexandra Wang, who is leading the project. (Wang and Engelhorn met when the former was a fundraiser for a progressive Austrian think tank to which the latter was a donor.) 

Of the 10,000 people the invitation was sent to, 1,424 registered to participate, which is an unusually high response rate, said Martin Haselmayer, a researcher at Foresight. A rate of 5% to 7% is normal for citizens’ assemblies, he said. 

The 50 people who were ultimately selected will meet a total of six times between now and June. The first two gatherings will be primarily educational: This weekend, after collecting Guter Rat merch and settling into the Salzburg hotel, participants will hear from two economists about wealth distribution. The second weekend will involve a broader philosophical conversation about what a just society looks like, said Wang, who hopes the project will create a road map for others. 

“This is a lighthouse project that I hope will inspire a few people out there to rethink their values,” she said. 

Starting on the third weekend, the participants will really dig into the fate of Engelhorn’s money and aim to decide what to do with her €25 million by the summer. If all 50 members can’t agree on where the money should go, it will be returned to her, but Engelhorn and Wang don’t expect that to happen. 

Aside from being the face of the project, Engelhorn is no longer involved in the process, but she will give a brief speech to thank the participants this first weekend. 

“I’m not so fixated on the result,” she said. “The most important thing to me is the public discussion of wealth and equality.”

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