As it completes its twentieth year of philanthropy, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation finds itself engaged on a wide front of vital activities worldwide. Given the unprecedented nature of some of the several issues they are meant to help address, these activities are of critical importance to the many men, women, and, especially children and young people they are meant to support. It often seems that daily events overtake, or at least exert tremendous pressure on, the ability of philanthropic organizations to plan their activities in a deliberate and measured manner. But the world is what it is, and philanthropy needs to respond to reality in as timely and effective a way as possible.
The continuing, and undiminished, economic and social crisis in Greece is a case in point. In 2012, the Foundation launched its first Initiative Against the Greek Crisis, contributing €100 million for that purpose. In 2015, after only two years and with the country still requiring massive support, we launched our second Initiative Against the Greek Crisis, which, again, will total €100 million through 2016. And we are also continuing with our Recharging the Youth Initiative against youth unemployment that we began in 2013. The various grant commitments in this unified program add up to a total of €100 million, as well. All in all, the Foundation’s overall commitment to help address the crisis, as it is manifested through these three initiatives, totals €300 million.
The ability of the world’s actuality to suddenly overturn the best-laid plans of individuals, organizations, and entire nations was demonstrated most conspicuously, and cruelly, in 2015 by the rapidity with which the refugee crisis stemming from the war in Syria overwhelmed Europe, and Greece in particular. As it monopolized international headlines, it also confronted our Foundation with an immediate challenge: to respond as quickly as we could to this humanitarian tragedy.
To that end, in September 2015, our Board made a grant totaling €750,000 to Doctors Without Borders Hellas and the International Rescue Committee in support of the two organizations’ response to this emergency in Greece; in addition, we also assisted other, smaller-scale initiatives in order to alleviate the suffering of refugees arriving in Greece. With the refugee crisis continuing unabated and reaching overwhelming levels, we responded by announcing, in December 2015, our second grant totaling €1,000,000 to a number of organizations (Doctors Without Borders Hellas, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Lifeguards Hellas, Starfish, EPIM) providing critical humanitarian services in the island of Lesvos. What has, of course, made the refugee crisis in Greece much more difficult than in the rest of Europe is that it is occurring at a time when Greece continues to suffer from its worst socioeconomic crisis since the Great Depression.
Our response to the Syrian refugee crisis illustrates the balance our Foundation continually exercises in order to do its work meaningfully and consistently, and in a coherent and structured manner. We are a global organization, but we are also attached, as most philanthropic organizations are, to specific communities: above all, in our case, to our homeland Greece. Our relationship to Greece is indeed not just one of attachment but of deep rootedness. In the case of the refugee crisis, we contributed to the alleviation of a global issue by addressing it at the local level with which we are most familiar—and in which we can therefore function with the greatest competence and effectiveness.
As our grant-making activities of the last 20 years have proven, a fundamental part of our mission is to balance our commitment to our particular communities with an ecumenical, and comprehensive, vision of global philanthropy. It is obviously a difficult equilibrium to maintain. The truth is, however, that only a global understanding of, and response to, the major issues of our time can be genuinely effective. When it comes to climate change or infectious disease, that fact is self-evident. But it is also the case in such seemingly intractable socioeconomic issues as, for example, the growing inequality (and economic disenfranchisement of the middle classes) in both the advanced and developing economies. A globally engaged philanthropy can help discrete societies confront specific issues (and design specific remedies) simply by dint of the experience of what works (and what doesn’t) in the multiplicity of situations and conditions in which the organization has functioned. Thus, we continue to remain engaged in the global arena.
But the notion of vision is not just perceptual. It is also conceptual. Especially for a philanthropic organization, the point is not only to see clearly and as far as possible; it is to be able to imagine what is still very far from the horizon. That is why the continual demands of current crises can sap a philanthropic institution’s ability to recast the terms of the possible. We believe, however, that the fact that we can proudly announce the inauguration of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center in the summer of 2016 reflects a different reality. Namely, that, during the last few years, which were especially painful for Greece, we never lost sight of our larger responsibility to an extraordinary project that we hope will make life more gratifying for the many people who will flock to it.
The SNFCC proves one last point: that “metrics” are often only a calculation of intellectual poverty. This is obviously not to say that we must not be rigorous, and transparent, in our grant-making. As we wrote last year, “We identify the problem, develop a strategy, establish measurable outcomes and impact, set certain targets….” But, as we also wrote last year, “complex issues…emerge and develop within complex environments…in constant flux [and]….resistant to traditional and conventional solutions…fit[ing] neatly in predetermined strategic frameworks.”
There is a reason, in fact, that the legend of the Gordian Knot is so resonant and instructive down to this day, and remains so graphic a metaphor for decisive and visionary leadership. Oftentimes the solution to a problem lays not in arcane analysis, but in common sense—and a bold stroke. Metrics are critical to organizational coherence, but imagination is fundamental to intellectual and social evolution. The completion of the SNFCC bears witness to the Foundation’s ability not only to imagine a different vision of Greece’s future, but also to help make it real.
Over the last twenty years, our annual report, News & Grants, together with our website, www.SNF.org, have been the main heralds of our philanthropic activities to the public. However, as we begin to mature and expand our scope and reach, we have come to realize, that it is our website that can truly communicate and capture the breadth and magnitude of the work of a global foundation like ours. This year’s printed version of News & Grants will be the last one. To celebrate our 20 years of philanthropic work, this last issue will be an expanded one that reflects total grant commitments of $1.8 billion for 3,300 grants in 111 countries. After that, our website will become the foundation’s face to the world.