“We want to support people who are islands of optimism and hope, who set an example for other people,” says Zdeněk Mihalco, Via Foundation’s new Executive Director. Zdeněk took over from Jiří Bárta, who had led Via for 22 years, on October 1st. Find out which key issues the foundation will be addressing and how former director Jiří will continue to serve Via in a new role.
You became Executive Director on October 1st, but you aren’t new to Via – you’ve held several different positions over the past several years. Can you tell us about your journey at Via?
I joined Via almost five years ago, after having spent ten years in the media. At that time I decided – overnight – to try something completely new. The combination of meaningful work and the great team at Via has convinced me to stay much longer in the non-profit field than I had originally expected. The issues that Via Foundation addresses resonate with me deeply. I am from the Bruntál region in northern Moravia, which desperately needs engaged citizens who take an interest in the world beyond their own front doors. Moreover I find the concept of “Via” as a journey – the word means ‘path’ in Latin – inspiring, as I feel best when I’m travelling. Whether somewhere in the world, or through the Czech landscape and villages.
Jiří Bárta’s departure after an unbelievable 22 years as Executive Director signifies a big change for the foundation. What are your plans as you take on this role?
Via will continue to pursue its fundamental mission: supporting people who are collaboratively improving their communities. They are capable of changing their neighborhoods through their energy and ideas. They demonstrate that it is possible to take the initiative and that bottom-up change is possible in the Czech Republic. They engage their fellow citizens by organizing neighborhood festivals, street concerts and community discussions about current local issues, protect public interests or restore small monuments with other residents. All of these activities build ties between people – what’s called social capital – and that means there are fewer and fewer places where, as we say in Czech, even the dog died of boredom. The people we support create communities where people truly want to live – where neighbors know one another, trust each other more, move away less, or even come back. They create islands of optimism and hope that become examples for other people.
Via’s approach is to look for opportunities in Czech towns and villages rather than problems and seek out people with the potential to make change in their communities. We support them and guide them on their journeys. These community leaders often have a tough time trying to stir life into still water. We give them small grants and connect them with other leaders so they know they aren’t alone. We support more than a hundred of these projects each year. At first glance it might seem like it’s just a few crazy enthusiasts here and there, but when you have hundreds of these crazy enthusiasts, who moreover ignite something in thousands of other people, they together form the pillars of a truly free society, protect democracy and help transform the Czech Republic into a self-confident country.
This type of change doesn’t happen overnight, or even in a single year. We recognize that we need to be patient and maintain our support.
In the 22 years since Via’s founding, Czech society has evolved. How will Via innovate its support?
We’ve been receiving an exceptionally high number of applications recently and are unable to satisfy demand. Many civic associations in small towns have developed as organizations and need more than seed grants now. In response we are helping them find ways to become sustainable. As a foundation, in addition to giving grants, we work with each organization on an individual basis and support their current needs.
We’re also adding two new themes to our work. The first is supporting people who are considering running for local office. In the last municipal elections, a number of associations and people were elected which we’d supported in the past and which are starting to change Czech politics from the grassroots. But it’s not an easy task they’ve taken on. We are supporting them through training and by connecting them to experienced local politicians, who can act as mentors. And we want to share examples to show that people who run for local office deserve respect for their courage and hard work rather than being immediately suspected of having ulterior motives. We know that responsible councillors and town halls are essential if we want vibrant neighborhoods to develop.
And what’s the second theme?
The second theme is complex and we’ve been researching it for some time so that we approach it from the best angle. We call it “our landscape”. We’d like to increase our support of engaged citizens who act as landscape stewards – who are restoring allees of trees or ponds, or creating water retention measures in the landscape, for example – by giving them grants along with help from landscape experts. When the residents of a town or village develop a project themselves, they develop a bond to the landscape. And these small projects add to the diversity of the Czech landscape, which is currently composed largely of monolithic dusty fields, and also imbue it with a distinctly Czech flavour characterized by meandering paths, springs, wayside crosses and benches with beautiful views.
We’re already seeing disputes between neighbors about issues like wells drying up. This is one of the first practical and local consequences of climatic change, which many people still find difficult to grasp on a larger scale. Unfortunately, it’s only the beginning. Climatic change will increasingly influence our daily lives.
Another important Via theme is philanthropy development. How is Via’s support evolving in this area?
If Czech society is to move forward, we need more enlightened donors giving money or energy for good causes. Thanks to our online giving service Darujme.cz, Czechs will give more than $5 million this year. We’re seeing a lot of growth every year. We also give children and young people opportunities to experience philanthropy by helping them organize fundraisers, and we want to spread the concept of philanthropy among small and mid-sized companies outside of large cities. We are also constantly looking for innovative ways to support philanthropy; for example we are going to support “gamestreaming”, which is when people donate to be able to watch video game players online.
We’re also taking a heightened interest in employee giving. We have developed an application that enables companies to offer giving as an employee benefit, where each employee gets a set amount, say $250, to donate to the cause or non-profit of their choice. Right now we have two Czech multinational companies using our app to send donations to places as diverse as southern Spain and Istanbul.
So Via is setting out beyond the Czech Republic?
This international dimension is important to us. Twenty-two years ago it was inconceivable that a foundation established in the Czech Republic could support democracy west of its borders, although we have always tried to share expertise to the east. Personally, I believe that now, 30 years after the Velvet Revolution, the time has come and we can and should support engaged citizens in e.g. Austria or Spain, at least now and then, and connect them with each other. Our location in Central Europe makes us an ideal connector and this kind of work will enrich everyone involved.
Via is also developing its own new international program. What will it aim to do?
As we know from election results and other data, society is increasingly divided. Whether by generational gaps, disputes between established residents and immigrants, or urban liberals who rush ahead and conversatives who feel unsettled by recent technological and globalization trends.
The key theme of our international program will be polarization, fragmentation in society. We want to grow the region’s expertise in this issue and support communities counter it. Not only in the Czech Republic, but in other countries – in places like Poland and Romania, for example, it’s a critical issue.
Out-migration, social media, navigating modern chaos – all of these phenomena weaken communities and lead people to stay firmly within their comfort zones. Today, it seems that we often have more in common with a cafe owner in Amsterdam, who wears the same T-shirts and whose posts we like on Facebook, than our neighbors living just a meter away on the other side of our apartment walls. One of the things we will focus on is connecting diverse people who wouldn’t otherwise meet. Basically we want to counter the effects of social networks by creating opportunities for people who are different, who have different opinions, ages or social status to meet face to face.
Via Foundation is unusual among foundations in that it relies solely on private giving, that is, gifts from companies, individuals and foundations, and avoids government funding. Will Via continue with this policy?
This is a basic principle of our work and we will definitely retain it, and strengthen it. That’s why my predecessor Jiri Bárta is going to stay on the Via team and lead our endowment campaign. Under his guidance, we’ll be asking donors for endowment gifts over the next year and a half.
Today, Via has over $2.8 million in its endowment, owns several properties and invests in securities. The revenues, which are about $130,000 a year right now, help cover our operating expenses and our direct work with grant recipients. Our goal is to raise another $1 million in two years, that we will then further invest.
What are you most excited about in your new role, and what are you concerned about?
I’m looking forward to working with a team of great people, who bring passion and professional experience to their work. On the other hand, I respect what our predecessors accomplished. We recently surveyed Czech philanthropists in a feasibility study for the endowment campaign and learned that donors’ trust in Via is exceptionally high. That’s a huge commitment as we look to the future, to maintain their trust and the high standards of our work.
That also connected to our recent analyses of Via’s impact. Although some of the changes are visible, like the top of an iceberg, many aspects take place below the surface. We’re making strides in verifying the results of our work through independent research surveys and using the findings to continually improve our work. I have to admit that monitoring impact like this is complicated, as many factors come into play. We’ve taken a few wrong turns but we are learning profoundly as we go.
You’ve met dozens of inspiring individuals since you joined Via and visited dozens of fascinating supported communities. If you had to choose two or three favorites, which would they be?
I recall the very first project I visited. It was in Velvary, north of Prague, where dozens of volunteers were restoring a devastated swimming area that had been a popular recreational destination for the community long ago. Today, five years later, it’s a beautiful place and the then community leader is now the town’s very successful mayor. My second would be our weekend excursions, when we take our donors, often leading business men and women, to visit supported projects in different parts of the Czech Republic. These trips bring together people who are successful in very different ways, and the meetings are extraordinarily enriching.
My top favorite would have to be the Jeseník mountains, where I’m from. It’s a joy to see this region awakening as if from slumber thanks to a few pioneers. Sometimes we drive for hours to see our grant recipients, to border areas, remote villages, places that feel like the end of the world. I’ve always been drawn to Via’s support of incredible people who live beyond society’s typical radar. It seems to me that often, the end of the world is actually the beginning.
Zdeněk Mihalco (36) spent 10 years in the media, as the editor of the online news server Aktuálně.cz, Hospodářských novin (Financial Daily) and Forbes magazine. He’s been part of the Via team since 2015 and has served as Program Director for the past two year. As of October 1, 2019, he is the Executive Director of Via Foundation.
Interviewed by Hana Sedláková, Communications Manager at Via.