Strategy of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation

  • for the period 2019–2023

Preliminary remarks: The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s strategy is closely related to the strategy process pursued by the Cultural Section of the Federal Foreign Office (AA) for the 2020 AKBP Strategy on foreign cultural and educational policy: the Humboldt Foundation is represented in several of its working groups and has integrated insights gained from that process into deriving its own strategy. When the AA’s AKBP Strategy has been passed, the Humboldt Foundation will examine whether it has generated insights that suggest its own strategy should be updated.

Our mission

To use individual sponsorship to promote outstandingly qualified researchers and future leaders from science-related fields with the aim of creating a world-spanning collaborative network of excellence – this is the mission of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. The resulting Humboldt Network connects performance elites worldwide both with one another and with Germany. It thus reinforces the internationalisation of the German academic and research landscape as well German foreign cultural and educational policy beyond the scope of scientific cooperation. Fostering the Humboldt Network – initiating, strengthening and extending academic contacts between sponsorship recipients and German colleagues as well as amongst Humboldtians across the globe – pursues the following strategic goals:


Sponsorship recipients take the experiences they gain during their stay in Germany home with them, which has an impact that radiates well beyond academia: from academic collaborations to dialogue on the rule of law. In Germany, too, permanently based Humboldtians contribute their experience and international connections to collaborations.


The Foundation’s work is never just about research. The learning communities of German and international knowledge elites continue to make an impact, not least because Humboldtians often hold key positions in areas of society other than academia.


Humboldtians from developing countries and emerging economies transfer their development-related research experience and new ideas to their own countries. In their role as teachers they pass on these ideas to many others who can then help to develop a competitive economy, resource-friendly policies and a peaceful society built on scientific foundations.


Thanks to its reputation and its funding tools that are tailored to a narrow band of excellence, the Foundation makes Germany an attractive destination for the best researchers from abroad – whether for a fixed-term stay or permanent relocation. The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s network connects German research institutes to academic centres of excellence abroad, enhancing the competitiveness of German research as well as its international visibility.


Our vision

Exzellenz verbindet: We consider the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s network to be Germany’s most important international network, connecting the world’s leading personalities in research and research-related, socially relevant fields. By creating space for creativity, promoting cooperation based on trust as well as a spirit of free thinking, it motivates its members to work for the benefit of Germany and the global world community – even beyond the scope of academic topics.

Our actions are dedicated to developing and fostering this network of excellence and to efficiently exploiting the expertise inherent in it.

Our opportunities and challenges

The internationalisation of the German science system is seen by the Humboldt Foundation as a cross-border extension of academic activities and responsibilities. Apart from academic goals, internationalisation inevitably involves social, economic and political goals, as well. It makes indispensable contributions to collaboration between experts, recruiting foreign researchers and experts for the domestic science and employment market, accessing research infrastructures, effectively utilising expertise and resources, developing scientific approaches and perspectives as well as mastering scientific and social challenges.

In the context of internationalising the German science system, over the decades, the Humboldt Foundation’s activities and core programmes as well as its role in alliance with its partner organisations have developed and proven their worth. The general conditions within the science system and associated systems have, however, changed both in the national and the international context. Moreover, the conditions for producing excellence vary around the world – in the face of the innovation gap, the appropriate standards for the 21st century and its discourses need to be developed further. This gives rise to opportunities and challenges to which the Humboldt Foundation is responding structurally, culturally and strategically by systematically developing its funding portfolio. Furthermore, the Humboldt Foundation considers it its duty to communicate the topics and insights generated by its work with the Humboldt Network to society at large. The main focus is on the following challenges:

In the international contest for the best researchers Germany has to compete with other science nations. Success in this competition depends on attractive offers that not only take account of general conditions but also of the specific concerns of particularly coveted researchers. General conditions include a culture of welcome and the locational infrastructure; specific parameters embrace transparent and efficient procedures, expert advice and mentoring, flexible and sustainable sponsorship, career prospects and support. The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation is called upon to help create attractive general conditions in Germany and to implement appropriate specific parameters in its procedures and sponsorship (Field of Action 1).


At the end of a historical phase in which the equation of excellence and usefulness of research was a given, currently, growing scepticism towards science and critical questioning of the social relevance of its approaches can be observed. The consequences are an increasing emphasis on research that is exclusively problem-related and geared to immediate usefulness, a proposal system that favours short projects and close progress monitoring, and a focus on funding collaborative research as well as superficial “visibility”. Nevertheless, individual creativity is an indispensable prerequisite for gaining scientific knowledge. In this situation, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation is called upon to create space for individual researchers using a high trust model based on a quality-assured selection process that will drive creativity and excellence as well as blue sky research (Field of Action 2).


Apart from exchange and dialogue with a partner for the purpose of gaining knowledge, one of the leitmotifs of engaging in academic cooperation is the individual’s or a nation’s pursuit of advantage. Against the backdrop of increasing pressure within science to compete and justify oneself, unilateral interests and differing notions of what constitutes intellectual property as well as access to and use of jointly collected data can often be observed. In this context, the Humboldt Foundation is called upon to demonstrate the opportunities and limits of cooperation and to use the success and efficiency of collaborative networks within the scientific community to communicate the benefits of placing trust in open collaboration (Field of Action 2).


Academic institutions in Germany are facing a changed domestic and international political landscape: whilst at home, in particular, the basis of trust in the value of scientific insights constantly has to be bolstered, around the world trends can be observed that restrict the freedom of science, and hinder cross-border exchange and international cooperation. In the field of tension between disseminating the principle of freedom and setting limits, binding principles have to be elaborated. In this field of tension, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation sets itself the task of mapping out for policy-makers and society the importance of academic freedom and the benefits of sponsoring international visiting researchers as well as engendering trust (Field of Action 3).


Our goals up to 2023

In order to achieve the strategic goals outlined in Chapter 1, the Humboldt Foundation sees its key mission in reinforcing the Humboldt Network. The members of the Humboldt Network are individuals who share these goals and who through their engagement or their actions help to meet the challenges described. We consequently want to ascribe an even more central role to the extension, fostering and utilisation of the Humboldt Network as a principle guiding our actions. This strategic focus will be supported by a structure and a culture that will guarantee that all processes within the Humboldt Foundation are efficiently focussed on the network. In order to achieve these goals, we are seeking to develop measures in the following fields of action:


Perspective: The Foundation’s view of its network
We want to continue developing our network so that the “best” in the world are part of it. This relates to the following topics:

  • Quality: The network’s quality and sustainability function are decisively shaped by its members. When selecting these members, we want to continue maintaining the highest quality standards whilst communicating our selection criteria transparently. In this way, we want to recruit the very best individuals for the network and sustainably reinforce the productive diversity of their academic creativity – the very best refers to academic excellence, always taking account of the research conditions under which candidates are able to conduct their research; but also the very best in ways that go beyond science: people who shape society in many different respects.
  • Appeal: Exceptional researchers can often pick and choose from a raft of attractive funding opportunities. In the future, too, we want to offer appealing sponsorship opportunities, transparent and efficient selection procedures, expert advice and mentoring, flexible and sustainable sponsorship as well as professional support in opening up career prospects – and are therefore resolutely continuing to develop our skills.
  • Competitiveness: We want to be in the vanguard of world locations competing for “the very best”. We prepare for general conditions, such as German as the ordinary, everyday language, for xenophobia – to some extent real, to some extent perceived – and for our recent tradition as a country of immigration. We help to continue developing a culture of welcome – for the benefit of science, but also radiating beyond.

Perspective: The members’ view of their network
We want to continue building our network in such a way that it remains appealing for the “very best” in the future, too. This relates to the following topics:

  • Requirements: We want to ascertain the specific (funding) requirements of our target group and conduct relevant surveys. If they reveal new requirements, we want to respond by developing our portfolio accordingly in order to maintain our appeal for the target group.
  • Membership: We want to make membership of the Humboldt Network as rewarding as possible for everyone involved. The benefits for the individuals in the network should be even more clearly recognisable, at an earlier stage and with longer lasting effects – with the focus firmly on trust-based research cooperation.
  • Diversity: The conditions for excellence vary; “excellence” can take different forms. We therefore want to take even more account of the particular features of individual subjects and regions, generational and gender differences as well as other aspects of diversity, and systematically extend our portfolio of offers.

Perspective: The Foundation’s external view
We want to position our network in such a way that its value for science policy and society becomes obvious. This relates to the following topics:

  • Knowledge: We want to fundamentally improve knowledge about our network in order to promote collaboration within the network, make knowledge and contacts more accessible to third parties, and recognise and exploit developments.
  • Communication: We want to be more effective in communicating the ways in which Humboldtians make important contributions to society. In this context, we particularly want to focus on current, socially-relevant topics in order to establish points of reference to many people’s everyday reality.
  • Sparking ideas: Not least against the backdrop of the changes in social and political general conditions, we want to hone the scientific, social and political value of the Humboldt Network and spark focussed ideas in current debates with actors in Germany and abroad. We want to demonstrate the positive impact of mobility and international collaborations on our society.

Perspective: The Foundation’s internal view
Looking ahead, as well, we want to be an organisation that is fit for the challenges of the future and that aligns its activities in terms of structure, culture and processes accordingly. This relates to three major topics:

  • Digitisation: We want to utilise the opportunities offered by digitisation to manage and strategically extend the Humboldt Network. In the interests of our clientele, our communication tools should exploit the potential of personal, analogue and digital encounters to the full. At the same time, we want to use other related opportunities to make our internal working structures and communication paths more efficient and better connected.
  • Processes: Given that general conditions are changing constantly, in the future, too, we need to modernise the Foundation’s processes in order to guarantee our high quality standards, structurally embed continuous innovation cycles Foundation-wide and continue to fulfil the expectations of our target groups as well as possible. At the heart of these new developments is rigorous process orientation geared to a consistent core process and certification according to DIN ISO 9001:2015.
  • Culture: We need an organisational culture that sustainably supports and promotes motivated staff to do their work with an eye to their clientele, to see themselves as service providers in the core process, to maintain a high degree of transparency, to offer service from a single source, to work cross-sectorally and independently, practising clear processes that respond to changes quickly and effectively.

Our network

The Humboldt Network has various dimensions:

  • 30,000 Humboldtians: people from different countries and disciplines who have been sponsored at some stage in their careers. Membership of the Humboldt Network begins at the point of selection and continues throughout the individual’s entire active life, in accordance with the motto “Once a Humboldtian, always a Humboldtian”.
  • The Humboldtians’ academic hosts, who contribute crucially to gaining their loyalty to the German science system, as well as subject specialists who sit on the Humboldt Foundation’s selection committees, the reviewers, the participants in Frontiers symposia.

A common feature of the various dimensions within the Humboldt Network is the high level of interdisciplinary exchange between the members of the network that continues beyond the research stay in Germany, characterised by mutual trust and respect. It rests on a selection process based on excellence. It is striking how diverse and dynamic the networking is between different generations who live, shape and use the network. Through its mentoring the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation drives activities within the worldwide Humboldt Network as well as actions initiated by the members themselves who create their own independent “partial networks”. Examples include:

  • Regional: One hundred and eleven Humboldt alumni associations in 75 countries (incl. Germany) and 49 Ambassador Scientists in 32 countries promote regional and international scientific and cultural exchange.
  • Disciplinary: Intensive specialist networks connect Humboldtians and their German collaborative partners who may include researchers at all career stages in addition to their academic hosts in Germany. Moreover, in the context of regional activities in various places individual specialist networks also form within the worldwide Humboldt Network.
  • Interdisciplinary: The Humboldt Network provides a platform for ideas-sharing on socially relevant topics deriving from science, education, research and scientific policy that goes beyond the limits of specialist disciplines.
  • Social: The Humboldt Network supports its members’ international mobility by sharing experience and solving practical issues.