Dhe Hamburg-based beverage manufacturer Lemonaid is what is called a social enterprise: founded with the intention of making money and doing good with it. The business model worked so well that Lemonaid Beverages GmbH now has more than 100 employees who generated sales of 20 million euros last year and thus a surplus of 690,000 euros. But now Lemonaid founder and managing director Paul Bethke sees the existence of the company threatened – by the tax office.
It was already at the end of 2020 when, after a tax audit, a letter from the tax office fluttered into the house, a notice of an additional tax payment of 650,000 euros. The reason: From the point of view of the tax office, Lemonaid has done too much of a good thing. What Lemonaid does to the non-profit association Lemonaid & Charitea e. V. is 6 percent of the turnover. However, only 0.4 percent of sales would be permitted as donations. But Paul Bethke has a different view of things anyway.
Even in the loss-making years after the company was founded in 2009, this sales-related support was maintained, he affirmed in an interview with the FAZ. The promise to customers should be clear: No matter how well the company manages, there should be a certain amount per bottle go to a social project. "That's the promise of our brand, so it's also advertising, the social commitment creates value for us," Bethke explains the "drinking helps principle".
However, Paul Bethke and co-founder Felix Langguth were not able to convince the tax office with this argument. The objection was rejected. This is the end of the official process, the payment will soon be due. Now Lemonaid could go to court. Instead, Lemonaid is escalating the dispute, not only in its own interest, Bethke says, but also as a pioneer among social entrepreneurs, of which there are now hundreds. Bethke suspects that many could soon experience something similar to Lemonaid.
To prevent this, Lemonaid wants to start a petition to change the legal framework for social enterprises. In fact, a national strategy for social enterprises is announced in the traffic light government's coalition agreement under the heading "Start-up, start-up and innovation support" "to provide greater support for companies oriented towards the common good and social innovations". New legal framework conditions for economic activity oriented towards the common good are to be created and obstacles to financing and funding are to be dismantled. Apart from this announcement, nothing has been heard from Berlin so far.
Under the flippant title "amtlichwaskippen", which is typical for Lemonaid, the petition is now being drummed for, which was submitted to the Bundestag's Petitions Committee for examination and can be signed after approval. If you have more than 50,000 signatures, you will be heard in the Bundestag. Regardless of this hurdle, Bethke now hopes to talk to the Ministry of Finance, as he told the FAZ. He would probably still have something to discuss in terms of the tax classification of social commitment.
Lemonaid could have to pay even more
Bethke has a lot of comparisons ready when he describes his annoyance that payments to a non-profit association are not accepted as advertising expenses for lack of consideration, while sponsoring a Formula 1 racing car is possible with almost no restrictions. But what annoys him even more is the classification chosen by the tax office as a distribution of profits - as if the social act were comparable to the purchase of a yacht for private pleasure, he is annoyed: "This absurd legal situation must finally be changed."
If the Lemonaid founders are unsuccessful in their fight against the tax office's decision, the existence of the company could be threatened, Bethke fears. He expects that additional payments will not only be required for the years 2015 to 2017, but for all years since the company was founded in 2009. Lemonaid has calculated that this should be 3.2 million euros. But the money has long since been spent, Bethke emphasizes: More than 7 million euros have flowed to the Lemonaid & Charitea association for social projects in Africa, Asia and Latin America.