Interview – Juraj Mesik

As the director of the Ekopolis Foundation and the person largely responsible for introducing community foundations to Slovakia, Juraj Mesik has undoubtedly been a highly influential leader of the Slovak non-profit sector. Now he has resigned from his post at Ekopolis in order to stand for Parliament in September. Caroline Hartnell talked to him about developing community philanthropy in Slovakia and about why he is now leaving the sector to which he has contributed so much to try for a job which he admits is ‘not my dream type of work’.

Community foundations – the very beginning

The inspiration for the idea of community foundations (CFs) came from a study visit to the States, to Flint, Michigan, organized by the Mott Foundation. At this point the Banska Bystrica Foundation, of which Mesik was (and still is) a board member, was in a serious crisis. It had failed to implement an ambitious project and was confronted with failure and debt. ‘So the crisis and the new impulse, the new idea, met at the right time in the right place.’

In fact, the study visit was mainly focused on environmental NGOs as Mesik was about to take up the position of director at the Ekopolis Foundation, but ‘Mott got the idea that it might be useful to show me a CF, and they were right’.

After his return, he presented the CF concept to the board of  the Banska Bystrica Foundation (now the Healthy City Foundation). This was an operating not a grantmaking foundation, created by a local lottery club. The board was interested if sceptical. ‘There was a good deal of scepticism about whether we had a real chance to build something like that, but the idea was challenging and intriguing and captured the attention of board members, so we started to move towards transformation into a community-based grantmaking foundation.’

Starting to raise funds

Of course, if you want to make grants you have to have some funds to give away, so the question was where these would come from. Approaching business clearly wasn’t going to work. This was in 1993, just three years after the political change, when free enterprise was first made legally possible after 40 years of communism, ‘so it just wasn’t going to work to go to newly established businesses and ask them for contributions’.

The board then turned to the public sector, and the local government. It took nine months to persuade the majority of the city council and the mayor, but in the end the local government contributed about 1 million crowns (then around US$30,000). At the end of 1994, the foundation started making grants.

The local council contribution gave the foundation a chance to start to build a track record as a grantmaker. As they did so, they became attractive as an intermediary for other foundations. ‘Shortly after we started grantmaking we started to look for grants. It was clear that even with $30,000 dollars from the local council, we would not be able to survive without continual fundraising.’ The Mott Foundation was the first external donor.

Only after two or three years did they start to focus on more domestic fundraising. This was largely because of the serious crisis of trust which is a heritage of communism. ‘Communism meant that people lived in a totally distrustful environment. You couldn’t trust your neighbours, you couldn’t trust your colleagues at the workplace, because you didn’t know who was a secret police agent. Lack of trust was and still is a seriously undermining thing in our societies.’ So it was easier, and certainly from this perspective more pragmatic, to try to fundraise externally, and only to seek contributions among local people after they’d established a track record and reputation locally.

Raising funds from individuals

Even with a track record, ‘you have to be creative. I think it’s important for board members to contribute themselves, because that demonstrates their own commitment to the organization. And even very small contributions can do a big job in terms of making people on the street aware of the foundation.’ One very successful technique both for getting publicity and for raising money is holding annual auctions of paintings and other artistic works donated by local artists. ‘This is unrestricted money, which is the most precious kind.’ A campaign to get people to contribute and become friends of the community foundation also started very early on.

Was the friends money specifically for an endowment? Mesik’s answer is frank. ‘One advantage of operating in an environment where people really don’t speculate too much about exactly what you spend their particular dollar or crown on – because the main thing is to give or not to give, and it’s understood that if you give, it’s to support the work of the foundation – is that it gives you some flexibility. As long as you make grants, your supporters are happy.’ As a result the foundation was able to use externally fundraised money for re-granting while the locally raised money accumulated year by year to the reserve fund and later the endowment.

It has also helped that some of the large external donors (Mott Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund) have been very flexible in their approach. They gave money for management and re-granting, but if the CF was able to cut its management costs – like moving to a cheaper place and so saving on rent – they were willing to have unspent funds transferred to the reserve. ‘Which encourages you to be efficient. Not all donors are like that.’

Spreading the idea

After a year’s operation, explains Mesik, ‘we had some quite persuasive evidence that this might work in Slovakia, so we started to present the concept of CFs and the initial experience of our foundation to other donors here.’ Around 1996, the local board of the Open Society Foundation started a programme to encourage development of CFs in Slovakia. The programme was based on challenge grants, and ‘from the beginning there was a condition that the matching funds must include a local contribution’. There are now about ten CFs or CF-like organizations in Slovakia. This means that they aim to be CFs but do not have endowments at this point, ‘so they do not 100 per cent fit the definition of a CF’.

So Mesik accepts the US definition? ‘We try to accept it,’ he says. ‘Endowments give you flexibility, and the perception of being there for the long term.’ However, their aim is to cover operating costs rather than to use the income for grantmaking. What you save for an endowment will be only ‘a fraction of the amount you are able to generate. You don’t need to get to the point where you can run the foundation without seeking contributions because the CF should forever seek local contributions. Part of its role is to give people who have good intentions the opportunity to contribute.’ Donors may choose what field they want to support, or even choose a particular project, but naturally the CF prefers them to support the foundation in an unrestricted way. ‘Especially when your foundation is young, it gives you a big advantage if the limited resources you do have are flexible.’

An agent of social change

The boards of Slovak CFs are very different from those of traditional CFs in the US. ‘CF boards in America consist mostly of people of wealth who themselves donate, because they want to do some good in their community. They are filled with retired businessmen, but I don’t know a single person of that age and social group on the board of a CF here – though there are some young businessmen who are starting to be involved in philanthropic activities and starting to contribute. In our region you will have a more activist type of board, and younger.’

The differences in board composition clearly reflect the different role of the CF in the two countries. ‘In the US there is discussion about to what degree a CF is there to provide services for donors and to what degree it is an agent of social change. For us this dilemma does not exist. For us it is clearly an agent of social change – though there is a small and steadily growing complement of donors services.

So how is the CF an agent of social change? Mesik refers to the mission of the Healthy City Foundation, which is to improve the quality of life and strengthen social capital in the community. This, he says, means ‘encouraging people to take an active role in their life, not to wait for a powerful centralized government to make all the decisions and take care of them. We’re also helping to build trust within the community – something that’s very necessary given the heritage of communism – through making grants and bringing people together.’

Making a grant, he explains, is itself an act of trust. You demonstrate that you trust those people, that you believe they have good, honourable intentions. Giving a donation is also an act of trust: ‘The people who contribute to the foundation have had their hesitations and they’ve got through them and decided to act and to support you.’ The CF also has a key role in bringing people together. If there are two or three families in one street who would like to build a playground, and you bring them together with another three families, ‘six families can do more than three’. So grantmaking is contributing to strengthening citizens’ action. ‘Only people who have experiences of small victories can really become a strong voice of the community when it comes to solving more serious issues.’

So is the NGO sector succeeding in influencing public policy at the national level? ‘Yes,’ says Mesik, ‘NGOs have demonstrated repeatedly that they have a capacity to influence public debate and legislation.’ He gives as an example a big, multi-media awareness-raising campaign called the ‘sixth woman’. According to some West European statistics, every sixth woman is the subject of domestic violence, so the name of the campaign was the ‘sixth woman’. It was on billboards, radios, televisions: ‘When you had a beer you had a feeling that when you opened your refrigerator the sixth woman would jump out.’ Parallel with that, new legislation was adopted that will help women who are the subject of domestic violence. The campaign, he says, influenced the legislators, the MPs, to pay attention to the legislation. ‘It’s a big change, domestic violence is a big taboo.’

Moving on

But Juraj Mesik is now hoping to move out of the NGO sector and into parliament. Why is he doing this? To answer, he goes back a bit. ‘We’ve been fortunate in the last four years and progress has been made in many areas. This was possible because there were good guys in the parliament – deputies who were not corrupt, who were there because they wanted to see positive social change. Unfortunately in the next election we are going to have many fewer good guys.’

Why is this? He sees two key reasons. One is what he calls ‘partocracy’, which means the growing separation of even the better political parties from the voters. ‘They’ve discovered that actually the voters have very limited possibilities of controlling politicians’ behaviour once they are elected.’ So the political parties are becoming less accountable and even less interested in communicating with the people. This has led to a serious crisis of trust.[1] ‘The common view of politicians is that they are in it for their personal advantage.’

The second threat to democracy everywhere he calls ‘mediacracy’, the excessive influence of the media. There is even a political party, which will be in the next parliament, and very probably in the next government, which is created by the director and owner of the most popular Slovak television station – ‘kind of our own Berlusconi’. ‘This spring I came to the conclusion that there is not a single political party which has substantial support[2] that I can vote for. On the other hand, as a director of a national foundation, we were making grants to NGOs to encourage voters to come out and vote. Personally, I was in a corner.’ He solved his personal dilemma by deciding to run as an independent candidate for a small political party with a reasonably good track record of supporting the most important reforms and working with NGOs when they want to get legislation through. ‘It seems to me more honest than inviting people to go out and vote when you do not see a good choice to vote for.’

Not that Mesik relishes the idea of being in parliament. He was a member of the 1989 transition parliament, ‘and I know I didn’t like the job. In the non-profit sector you have the privilege of working with people who are in general intelligent and committed to their work, people you choose to work with. In parliament you are often confronted with – I will put it openly – stupid, corrupt people whom you do not normally choose to meet. So it was not an easy decision, I know it’s not my dream of type of work. But I think that in this phase of our political development, the best thing I can do for the future of Slovakia is to try to help this little political party to get into power.’

He admits, however, that it might be very difficult for NGOs and NGO leaders to influence politics directly through standing for parliament because they do not control the media and cannot compete with established political parties in terms of the resources needed to run a campaign.

But even if he fails, he feels it’s important to give a signal to these ‘partocratic’, corrupt politicians that NGOs will not necessarily go on voting for them, that they might come up with an alternative that threatens them. ‘NGOs are a growing sector, and the political sector is so little trusted. They could take people with them.’

1 Recent figures indicate that only 25 per cent of people in Slovakia have trust in the government.
2 In the Slovak electoral system a party has to have 5 per cent to get into parliament.

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