ABF President Nancy Schiller Draws Inspiration from Community Resilience

The ABF team

Excerpted from a speech by Nancy Schiller, CEO and President of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, delivered at the fourth annual meeting of the ABF community, Together We Shine Brighter, June 14, 2022.

Dobre doshli!

It is my pleasure to welcome you to the fourth gathering of the ABF Community. Thank you for being here.

For those who attended past grantee forums, welcome back. It’s wonderful to see you.

Ambassador Mustafa, thank you for being here this morning and for your steadfast support of Bulgaria’s civil society.

For those who are new to ABF, please accept my warm welcome. We’re delighted to have you in this community of active citizens working to make Bulgaria a better place to live, work, and raise a family.

Since nearly 60 percent of you are new partners with the America for Bulgaria Foundation, I gave a lot of thought to what you might want to know about ABF. We’ve been operating for nearly 14 years, and there is a lot of history. Since 2009, we’ve provided more than 1,000 grants reaching every corner of Bulgaria. These grants support local organizations in the areas of education, entrepreneurship and business, cultural heritage and tourism and serve to create an environment that encourages ideas and initiative through a well-functioning private sector and democratic institutions.

I will talk about what we’ve been doing together since January 2019 when we last gathered as a community of modern optimists. I’ll also talk about what we’ve learned along the way and what continues to inspire us.

ABF President Nancy Schiller

What we’ve been doing

Back in January 2019, life seemed fairly predictable. Fourteen months later, Covid upended our lives. Like every other country in the world, Bulgaria was not spared the fear or loss.

What our community always knew but what became clear to all is that NGOs matter. Civil society matters. During this most difficult time, this communityؙ — the NGOs, businesses, educators, concerned citizens, and medical professionals — responded to the Covid crisis. Together, we launched United Against Covid, reaching more than 700,000 citizens in some of the most underserved areas of Bulgaria. Whether providing masks, sanitizers, food, trips to medical clinics, or online learning programs, the response of this community was exceptional.

In the past several months, ABF joined with dedicated partners to support displaced Ukrainians through United With Ukraine. NGOs including Za Dobroto, Bulgaria 4 Ukraine, and the Ukraine Support and Renovation Foundation are assisting with job placement and, in Sofia and Plovdiv, emergency daycare centers for Ukrainian children.

NGOs often deal with society’s most difficult issues. They are the partners of business and government in making Bulgaria a better place to live.

Providing medical assistance was not in ABF’s mission. Neither is providing support to those displaced by a war. However, one of the truly remarkable features of this foundation is its ability to pivot and respond to matters that are important to Bulgaria through leadership, funding, knowledge, and access to resourceful and purpose-driven individuals like you.

This is possible because ABF has an engaged board of directors who recognize the power of this community to positively impact lives. ABF also has an expert, committed staff, who, while maintaining their regular workloads, added the responsibilities of helping their fellow Bulgarians during these crises.

As I said, Covid initiatives and assisting displaced Ukrainians are not part of ABF’s mission.  But we cannot be neutral to human suffering – whether related to Covid or to a war.

So, what is ABF’s mission?

To support Bulgaria’s private sector development and related democratic institutions.

What exactly does this mean and why are we doing it?

The backbone of a democracy is a stable, successful middle class — those who start and run businesses, employ people, and give back to society.

To have a successful middle class, you need educated citizens. You need quality health care. You need entrepreneurs. You need cultural institutions and tourism. And you need an engaged civil society to hold government and business to account for their actions. Most of all, you need an active, committed community. Without great people, even great ideas are useless.

Here’s how ABF approaches its mission and the people and organizations that make this possible.

Developing & Retaining Human Capital. Of the over $260 million ABF has granted, more than half — $130 million — supports educational initiatives. For an economy to thrive, education is critically important, in all regions of the country and for all members of society. That’s why we are working with partners such as these:

And to retain human capital — in other words, people — you need a healthcare system that works whether you live in a city, town, or village. After our Covid interventions, we recognized that ABF could play a role in the healthcare field, so we added this to our priorities earlier this year.

The second field of work is Business, Entrepreneurship & Technology. Bulgaria needs successful small and medium-sized businesses as well as high-growth companies. To spur business development, we work with a number of partners including:

Developing domestic and international tourism and celebrating Bulgaria’s rich cultural history is ABF’s third area. Through the Cultural Heritage and Nature Tourism field of work, ABF has significantly expanded its support for local initiatives and entrepreneurs in tourism, particularly in Bulgaria’s Northwest and along the Danube.

Just over one year ago, in partnership with Plovdiv Municipality and the Ministry of Culture, ABF opened the Bishop’s Basilica of Philippopolis. This 4th-6th-century basilica, with more than 2,000 square meters of Roman tesserae, is the most popular tourist site in Plovdiv and is already on the UNESCO tentative list of World Heritage Sites. It is a showcase of a successful public-private partnership. Nearly 50 Bulgarian companies and hundreds of volunteers provided their talent and time to beautifully present Bulgaria’s world-class heritage.

If you haven’t visited the Bishop’s Basilica, a quick, 90-minute drive from Sofia will transport you 17 centuries into Bulgaria’s past. It will move and delight you and make you proud. I guarantee it!

On a smaller scale, museum projects include the Vratsa Historical Museum and the Chiprovtsi and Oryahovo museums. We expect more tourists will visit and experience the unique culture, history, and food each region has to offer.

These types of initiatives can make local communities and economies thrive.

Here are some of ABF’s additional partners:

And now a sneak preview! Chicago’s Field Museum is assembling an extraordinary exhibition to be shown in New York, Chicago, and Gatineau, Canada, beginning in September of this year. Eleven countries are contributing artefacts for the “First Kings of Europe” exhibit, and Bulgaria is the lead country. ABF is promoting the exhibition in Bulgaria and among the diaspora in New York and Chicago. It’s wonderful that Bulgaria’s rich heritage will be admired by hundreds of thousands of people and will attract further interest and visitors to this beautiful and enchanting country!

Flyers from the Field Museum exhibit

The fourth field of work is Business Enabling Environment. What this means is ABF supports citizens and organizations working to improve Bulgaria’s legal and regulatory environment, encouraging transparency of government institutions, boosting independent media, and fostering civic engagement.

These topics are among Bulgaria’s most challenging and, at times, the most debated of ABF’s activities. But these are important.

Without equal access to equal justice, businesses will neither invest, nor stay in Bulgaria. Without independent media, there will be no one to hold politicians and decision-makers to account for their actions. Without organizations advocating for government transparency, corruption can take root. And without organizations working to encourage civic engagement, communities may lack the fortitude to build on opportunities and address issues of shared concern.

Apart from our year-round open application process, we issue requests for proposals (RFPs). These help us meet talented Bulgarians doing quality work that makes a difference in their community and country. And this is how many of you ended up in this room.

In the past three years, we launched twelve RFPs: two in Developing & Retaining Human Capital, welcoming 22 new grantees; two in Business, Entrepreneurship & Technology through Science with a Future, with 26 new partners; four in Cultural Heritage and Nature Tourism, funding 52 new projects; four in Business Enabling Environment, welcoming 49 new partners.

The quality of talent spread throughout the country is impressive, and we look forward to further developing many of these projects.

What we have learned along the way

We’ve learned a great deal over these 14 years, but nothing tops the need to work with talented, committed individuals, whether within ABF or with partners like you.

It’s my privilege to work with the exceptional professionals at ABF. Some may have greeted you at the door or helped you find your seat in the room, but they do so much more. ABF would not be the adaptable, responsive, and responsible organization that it is without them.

Another thing we’ve learned is that you need a collaborative community to achieve your objectives: NGOs, companies, individuals, the diplomatic corps, and government. We’ve partnered with the United States Embassy, the Italian Embassy, the Israeli Embassy, and other foundations and funding organizations to ensure greater reach, sustainability, and impact of grantees’ work. We are grateful for their partnership and trust.

What continues to inspire us

What inspires us about this community is its Resilience. Developing a business, improving a village or town, providing better education for children, or speaking truth to power is not easy. It can also be lonely. But look around this room… these are the people who share your vision and resilience to make Bulgaria a better place to live, work, and raise a family.

Among the thousands of people I’ve met since my first visit to Bulgaria in 1992, I’ll mention three. Each holds a special place in my memory.

Last October, during a visit to Belene, I met Tsvetana Dzhermanova. She is now 94 years old and a survivor of the Belene Labor Camp. Tsvetana is the dictionary definition of resilience. Despite spending a combined four years in labor camps without being convicted of any crime, the light in her heart continues to shine. Tsvetana’s difficult past has not dimmed her optimism or her mission to make sure the past is not repeated. Tsvetana has written a book about her experience. A six-word summary could be: Don’t take your freedom for granted.

Dunav Ultra founder Boris Begamov

Another resilient individual is Boris Begamov. I met Boris while touring sites along the Danube. Boris is a man on a mission, creating a 740-kilometer route from Bulgaria’s northwest corner to its farthest northeastern village. He’s attracting a community of archeologists, museum directors, bird watchers, hoteliers, restauranteurs, and tourism professionals, not to mention cyclists. He even has created his own brand of beer, Dunav Ultra. Boris is shining a light on the beauty of Bulgaria’s Danube region, which is reflected in a growing number of tourists. His message is simple: You don’t have to leave Bulgaria for adventure. All the adventure you could hope for is right here.

Georgi Kadrev and I just met, but it seems like I’ve known him for a long time. Georgi and Kelvin Health are often in the news for the innovative use of technology for early cancer detection. Georgi was selected in ABF’s Science with a Future RFP in 2021. His vision to improve patient outcomes through advanced technology is inspiring. Kelvin Health’s success proves that you don’t have to leave Bulgaria to develop world-class science and innovation. Everything you need is right here.

Georgi Kadrev and his Kelvin Health team

This is your community, and ABF is proud to be a part of it.

What you do, whether making sure we learn from the past, improving the present, or working toward a brighter future, matters.

Your actions matter.

Your voices matter.

This community matters.

This is a crucial time for Bulgaria. Some might say it is almost as pivotal as 1989. We are here to build this community. Only with a strong, engaged, connected, and vocal community can your dreams for a better Bulgaria become a reality.

Here’s what I ask of you. Be bold. Be daring. Talk to the ABF directors and the ABF team. Talk to at least four new people today. Ask about their dreams for Bulgaria. And share your dream with them. Who knows? Maybe someday soon, you’ll work together to turn those dreams into reality. That is community! And that is how, together, we all shine brighter.

Thank you.

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