“Effective solutions are only possible with the overall mobilization of business, citizens, and government and the compelling narrative of the media,” says Desislava Taliokova, executive director of the America for Bulgaria Foundation.
– Giving is not a one-off act, but a long-term investment in society.
– I get my optimism from the energy of my colleagues, with whom we are actively working on new ideas of how to help our country.
– Together with the US Embassy, we set up a financial assistance program through the StandingTogether initiative
Ms. Taliokova, can we say that the crisis unleashed our willingness to help each other, or did it just make it more public?
I think both. The crisis has unquestionably catalyzed unprecedented donor energy. Donations are increasing by the hour, as are volunteer initiatives and individuals’ motivation to contribute by giving the best of themselves. For the past 10 years, in which I have worked in philanthropy, I do not remember such mobilization in all sectors of society. The publicity given to donors is also unprecedented.
Unfortunately, this was not the case before the crisis. Using the law and concerns about hidden advertising as an excuse, in the past, most media declined to publicize the names of donors. Of course, I know and respect individuals who have decided to support causes anonymously; it is their right to do so. But I strongly believe that donors should be talked about loud and proud, because how else will we revive the tradition of giving in Bulgaria, how will we inspire and motivate others to give, whether money or their labor, if we refuse to mention their names and show their faces?
I very much hope that once the crisis is over, publicity about the good deeds of companies and people will not subside, because their help is needed in both good times and bad. Philanthropy and volunteerism are necessary not only in times of crisis, although the current crisis particularly strongly highlighted their important role. This is why, since its founding, the America for Bulgaria Foundation has worked to revive the tradition of philanthropy in Bulgaria. Before the crisis, we proudly gave examples from the past, when donor contributions helped create some of the most respected Bulgarian institutions in social and health care, education, community life, and many others. Today, we are writing a new chapter in the history of philanthropy. I have had occasion to say it before: I think that philanthropy is the modern Bulgarian patriotism.
Does the government have a role to play in encouraging volunteering?
Undoubtedly. But now is hardly the right time to give guidance to the government in this area; this is an emergency and requires urgent action. We see that volunteers from all walks of life respond to calls from hospitals and municipalities. I hope that once the crisis subsides, we will take the time to analyze the lessons learned during the crisis, including in the field of volunteering. But what the crisis teaches us and what my work at the Foundation has taught me is that serious societal problems are rarely solved by just one sector. We see it very clearly today.
Effective, sustainable solutions are only possible when the energy, expertise, and power of business, the NGO sector, and donors are mobilized along with the political will of the government and the objective and compelling narrative of the media.
The America for Bulgaria Foundation and the US Embassy in Sofia launched a program to support Bulgarians helping their communities during the COVID-19 outbreak. Tell us more about it.
This project came about spontaneously in recognition of the many inspiring examples we see today—of volunteers helping their fellow citizens and their communities in the fight against the coronavirus. This is why, together with the embassy, we decided to provide financial support for such initiatives, to civic organizations and small businesses that provide services to support their communities. We announced the program last week and until yesterday (March 31), together with the embassy, we collected applications, which we are already reviewing. You will learn about the approved projects in the coming days. These will be small financial gifts to initiatives across the country. We are very grateful to Ambassador Mustafa and the embassy team for the inspiring partnership and enthusiasm with which they support the efforts of people all over the country.
What will be the amount of financial assistance issued through the program, and how will you choose which organizations to support?
We have not set specific financial limits. We are closely monitoring the needs throughout the country and will respond accordingly. The selection of projects will depend on their quality and the needs they address.
How do people help and support one another in dealing with the crisis? What kinds of projects applied for support?
One of our first donations was for the people of Vasilovtsi village. Do you remember Vasilovtsi? On March 8, from there came the alarming report of the first two people in Bulgaria infected with the coronavirus and then the sad news that the family had lost the battle against the virus. Some time ago, the mayor of the village proudly pointed out that the village had great traditions and a glorious past, which saw the establishment, in 1899, of the Awakening Community Center, which is active to this day. It pained the mayor that his village got publicity because of the sad news. We decided to give Vasilovtsi a helping hand to ensure that the village remained alive and strong through the crisis and could buy disinfectant and sanitary supplies for the physician’s office, the school, and the kindergarten. Another project we will support is the family bakery of Milen and Darina Mihov in Stara Zagora, who because of the state of emergency have redirected their activities and are delivering food to the 89 residents of the senior citizen home in Starozagorski mineralni bani. We will also support organizations providing care for vulnerable groups as well as the efforts of young IT entrepreneurs to find unconventional solutions to the crisis.
What is the role of NGOs in times of crisis like the current one? What can they do other than donate money?
NGOs, but also businesses and each of us, can donate money as well as knowledge, talent, and time, and they can do so not only in times of crisis. Today, in the battle against the coronavirus, medical workers are on the front lines and our initial support was for them. The America for Bulgaria Foundation donated 300,000 levs to Pirogov and Alexandrovska Hospitals, distributed equally.
And among the NGOs we have worked with for the last ten years, there are some impressive examples that I am really proud of. Teach for Bulgaria, Muzeiko Children’s Science Center, Khan Academy, Ucha.se, and Shkolo were among the first to make their online educational resources free. The Trust for Social Achievement, Amalipe, and Sofia Platform started collecting laptops for children whose families cannot afford them. The principals and teachers we work with through the Education Leadership Academy actively support the digital transformation of Bulgarian education.
Beyond education, the Bulgarian Donors’ Forum (BDF) helps donors join efforts and allocate their support in the most effective way, because donor resources will be needed not only now, in the midst of the raging crisis, but for a much longer period, because the whole of society is affected and many people will need support. The volunteering platform TimeHeroes is recruiting “hero neighbors” ready to offer help with shopping to their elderly and sick neighbors, or even a comforting phone call. The Bulgarian Food Bank continues to care for people in need of food. Our partners at the Institute for Market Economics (IME) are actively analyzing different economic scenarios and possible measures after the end of the crisis.
You touched on the topic of digital education. Do you think that we will now be able to make this big step? How are teachers doing?
This is not a step; it is a real leap. The result of our investments in the last ten years is literally unfolding before our eyes. Of course, there are challenges, but the active involvement and leadership of the Ministry of Education, of nongovernmental organizations in the field of education, and especially of principals and teachers are remarkable. Moreover, Bulgaria’s technological talent is making a real effort to support this process. Catalyzed by the crisis, Bulgarian education has an incredible chance to make its digital leap.
We have seen a number of companies making donations. Is business in Bulgaria sufficiently socially engaged?
There are some impressive examples of social engagement on the part of companies, and not just now. For many companies, social responsibility is corporate culture and a way of doing business. For almost ten years, we have supported the Bulgarian Donors’ Forum in its work with companies and corporate and private foundations for the development of philanthropy, the improvement of the giving environment, and the creation of a positive attitude to giving. For many years, I have been a member of the jury for the biggest corporate donor awards of the Bulgarian Donors’ Forum and for the responsible business awards of the Bulgarian Business Leaders Forum, and I am aware of the many meaningful causes supported by Bulgarian and international businesses. In many of the initiatives that ABF develops and supports, we partner with both Bulgarian and foreign companies. It is important to understand that giving is not a one-off act during a crisis, but a long-term investment in society.
How is the Foundation working at this time?
Our work continues, albeit remotely. The Foundation complied with the experts’ and the government’s call for social distancing and recommended that its partners follow suit as well. At the same time, we have assured the organizations we work with and support that the board and staff of the Foundation are aware that, in this difficult situation, the goals they have set themselves will probably not be met. We are aware of this and accept it. And now I tell them again that they can count on our understanding. They should not hesitate to contact our team at any time if they have a question related to an ongoing project or a project under consideration.
How are you personally handling the current situation? What are the important things to do in order to maintain our motivation and positive attitude?
Like everyone else, I am concerned about the situation in Bulgaria and around the world. I follow the rules. I trust and listen to the experts who are leading us through this ordeal. I am motivated by the determination of our organization and our board of directors to help in the most appropriate way during these difficult times and beyond. I get my optimism from the energy of my colleagues, with whom we are actively working on new ideas of how to help our country. I am inspired by the large doses of kindness that keep our country’s organism strong and vibrant.
For Ms. Taliokova’s original interview, in Bulgarian, visit https://www.24chasa.bg/mnenia/article/8405168