ABF started working in 2009 in a very different economic and political environment than today’s Bulgaria. We set about our work charged with confidence and hope for the country’s future. It was our partners that fueled our optimism—the many individuals and organizations that have, since 2009, helped make public institutions in the country more transparent, farms more productive, students more prepared to enter the 21st-century job market, and local businesses more engaged in their communities.
We were fortunate: we planted the seeds of optimism in a soil rich with potential. Everywhere we went, in every field, we found capable individuals and organizations, a source of continuing inspiration in our work. Ten years on, we are double the optimists, despite continuing challenges, precisely because of our partners. We are humbled by their insatiable thirst for knowledge, persistence, capacity for work, sacrifices, and creativity.
It is no coincidence that the individuals and groups we work with found their way into our tagline—“American optimism meets Bulgarian potential.” Without them, our efforts would have been slow going. The following is an attempt to recognize some of our earliest partnerships and the fruits of our collaboration ten years on.
We speak of seed planting and fruits for a reason. One of the earliest programs ABF supported in Bulgaria was in agriculture. More than 190 agriculture professionals and researchers have been through our agriculture trainings to date and are now helping Bulgarian farms increase their productivity. Among them are Tsvetoslav Koynarski, who works in livestock infectious disease prevention, and Zvezdomir Zhelev, whose Center for Integrated Plant Protection helps hundreds of farmers in Bulgaria improve their yields and bottom lines through the application of climate data.
Teachers and principals have been at the forefront of educational reform in the country. It is through the vision of several such educators in 2009 that ABF began supporting the first renovations of school facilities—an effort that eventually grew into the largest program to help transform the educational environment in the country, the Schools of the Future program. As Dora Rusinova from Topolitsa’s Svetlina School and Diana Parvanova from Razgrad’s Vasil Levski School and many principals like them will tell you, students are happier coming to school and more eager to learn as a result.
In higher education, the American University in Bulgaria has had an outsized impact on the country and the region: its graduates both create employment and become valued employees in various fields. AUBG alumni have gone on to establish innovative companies (the founders of the company with the largest exit in the region, Telerik, are AUBG grads), pursue public service careers, run civic organizations, and write for influential media. Recognizing AUBG graduates’ impact, the Foundation has provided scholarship and other support since 2009.
When you apply the methods of entrepreneurship to art, you get surprising results: not only people benefit but economies as well. This is what we were shown by our many partners in the art world who helped bring about events such as the Night of Museums and Galleries in Plovdiv, the largest jazz festival in Bulgaria A to JazZ, and the Fortissimo Family classical music program. Successful cultural offerings can be consumer driven and should cater to the tastes and interests of those they are trying to engage. A record 35,000 people attended the ninth edition of A to JazZ in July 2019, with lifetime festival attendance reaching up to 180,000 people. A 2019 study on the effects of the festival suggests that it has a threefold return on investment for the local economy.
Despite their rich collections, ten years ago, Bulgaria’s museums and galleries relied on outdated exhibition concepts, which held little appeal beyond niche audiences. By supporting the first children’s corners and educational programs for families at museums in 2009, ABF set about changing that. Today, there is hardly a cultural institution or event that does not feature programs or activities developed specifically for children and their families. Not only are museums and galleries full of visitors again, but they also generate revenue by offering popular educational programs and activities.
ABF’s media partnerships have also resulted in higher visitor numbers for the country overall. An article series in Vagabond magazine has promoted Bulgaria’s cultural heritage to English-speaking audiences since 2009.
For over a quarter century, Capital weekly has offered objective reporting and news from the business world to readers in Bulgaria and abroad. ABF has supported Capital’s award-winning journalism since 2009.
The achievements of our partners in the NGO world with whom we have worked since 2009 are too many to list. Here’s a far-from-exhaustive sample:
Through the efforts of organizations like Amalipe and later through the Trust for Social Achievement, the school dropout rate among Roma children has decreased, and there are municipalities where kindergarten enrollment is at almost 100 percent today.
Monitoring by organizations such as Transparency International has helped make public procurement more transparent and shine a light on troublesome practices in public spending.
Economics and finance researchers no longer have to travel to where physical archives are located to determine what is available: nearly 3.6 bibliographic records from 40 libraries are just a click away thanks to NALIS, another project launched in 2009 with ABF support.
Finally, ten years ago, ABF started partnering with the Institute for Market Economics, whose analyses help to make government spending more effective and improve the environment for both employers and employed.
The list can go on. And 2009 was just the first of ten years of successful partnerships for ABF. The relationships forged in subsequent years give us no less hope: Teach for Bulgaria, Bulgarian Young Leaders Program, TimeHeroes, Za istinata regional journalism platform, the Bulgarian Institute for Legal Initiatives, the Access to Information Programme, and the Bulgarian Donors Forum are some of the many initiatives whose impact can still be felt today.
Going forward, we will build on the successes achieved thus far and address the challenges that lie ahead. Our hope is that, in the next ten years, the seedlings will grow into a local brand of optimism—the kind that will help transform Bulgarian potential into further action and sustain that action into the future.
For a listing of all ABF grants, go to https://us4bg.org/our-projects/