Philanthropy in Greece: the challenges ahead

The need for effective philanthropy in Greece has never been greater. Thirty per cent of the population live at the poverty line; unemployment rates have reached 27 per cent among the general population – the highest in the European Union – and 59 per cent among young people aged 18–25; and a failing health system continues to plague the country.

In addition, the economic crisis has wreaked havoc on the country’s NGOs and other philanthropic organizations. Aid requests to NGOs have significantly increased at a time when available state and private resources have diminished. To make matters worse, NGOs traditionally received most of their funding from the state, so a heavy burden has now been placed on private funders.

While the need for NGOs and philanthropic organizations in Greece has never been greater, many Greeks look upon the non-profit sector with scepticism. The reputation of the sector has been tainted by a handful of corrupt organizations that received funding from the Greek state and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Resources squandered, goals unmet and promises not kept have significantly undermined the sector’s credibility.

We began elpisas a direct response to that lack of trust, aiming to promote transparency in the sector as an essential element in regaining the confidence of our people. To do this, we have to overcome certain challenges in the system.

Currently, there is no complete NGO registry in Greece. Instead, information is dispersed among registries maintained by different ministries that classify NGOs by sector. To our knowledge, more than 30,000 NGOs are registered, but only about 2,000 are actually active in the field.

We are proponents of one central registry that would promote standards for operation, transparency, control and financing for all NGOs that apply for and receive state funding. A new legislative initiative led by the Ministry of Interior is working to create such a registry, and the Greek Parliament will vote on this legislation in autumn 2014.

Also needed is a separate registry promoting the same standards for Greece’s estimated 700 charitable foundations, both operating and grantmaking. Wealthy Greek families, mostly in the shipping industry, established the country’s most prominent foundations, including the Bodossaki, Stavros Niarchos, Onassis, Latsis Public Benefit, AG Leventis and Eugenides Foundations.

Strengthening the sector and encouraging the sharing of information, research and best practice would help to make NGOs and foundations better equipped to address the myriad problems facing Greece.

The second challenge is building the capacity of the country’s philanthropic sector. While the attention of the largest Greek foundations has been absorbed by the needs of vulnerable populations particularly affected by the fiscal crisis, we need to work for the long-term future. Funders – including foundations as well as government and business – should work to educate and train NGOs in order to promote a self-sustaining Greek non-profit sector. They must also encourage collaboration among small and large NGOs to foster the exchange of ideas and best practice. Funded projects should be financially sustainable, highly transparent and conscious of a deeper mission.

Also worth noting are the contributions of the Greek diaspora, many of whom returned to their homeland after the financial crisis. With our efforts to establish operating standards for NGOs and to introduce new technologies and best practices, the contributions from the diaspora will increase.

Among the examples of best practice recently launched is Solidarity Now. An initiative of the Open Society Foundation, this growing network of people and organizations works to support those hardest hit by the crisis in Greece. Clients receive assistance with basic services such as healthcare, housing, legal aid and job-seeking. Libra Group, based in the UK, provides funding for entrepreneurship and mentoring.

Our own organization, elpis,focuses on helping foundations, corporations and individuals design and implement effective and sustainable strategic philanthropic programmes. Many are attempting to fill a void in philanthropic investing caused by mismanaged money or decisions focused on short-term gains in Greece. Our goal is to ensure wise, effective and transparent grant use that maximizes benefits for the target populations. With the right approach, we can bring our nation back to its former glory.

Epaminondas Farmakis is president and CEO of elpis and Bodossaki Foundation programme director for EEA Grants for NGO Programmes in Greece. Email

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