The answer to this restless and fragile time may be an ordinary love of humanity, says Zdeněk Mihalco, Director of Via Foundation

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Zdenek took over the leadership of the foundation in autumn 2019. Six months later the covid-19 pandemic broke out, affecting the lives of people around the world. How did Via, an organization whose mission is to develop community life, respond to the situation and how did the crisis impact giving in the Czech Republic? Read this interview with Zdenek Mihalco about how the past year influenced Via Foundation and Czech society as a whole.

Except for a brief summer easing, we have been dealing with the pandemic and related restrictions for a whole year. How has the past year impacted community life and philanthropy in the Czech Republic?

Based on staff visits to Czech villages, we know that despite the severity of the situation, in many places life has gone on at its regular pace during the past few months. From our foundation view, it is clear how crucial cooperation in a given community is to addressing the crisis. In places where people already know one another from past shared activities and they are used to working together, they are addressing the crisis faster and better. It’s also interesting to see that since this January, despite everything that is going on, we’ve had the most requests for proposal consultations and applications to support neighborhood improvement ideas that we’ve ever had. People are just excited for when it will all be over and they’ll be able to meet and create something together.

In terms of philanthropy, it’s gone in waves just like the pandemic. The first big increase happened a year ago. Then, when the autumn wave started, things slowed down, as if society was in a coma. At Christmas people were extremely generous, even compared to 2019, but now we can see exhaustion from all angles. And there are more and more companies, which are giving less due to the pandemic, and that will have a huge impact on NGOs, especially this year.

How did Via Foundation adapt its support?

We have two strands of support. First, we continue to develop our long-term vision of an engaged, free, responsible and self-confident society. We support ideas conceived by people and associations from across the whole country, we connect them, which helps create networks of engaged citizens, of people who are changing society from the bottom up. Neighbors who are working together to improve their immediate surroundings, creating networks of relationships and mutual trust, which are particularly important during times of crisis, and also for a more joyful and fulfilling life.

What’s new is that we are also supporting engaged citizens in preparing to run for local politics. We’re seeing quite clearly that the public administration needs new, competent people. We also have a new thematic area called “Our Landscape”, through which we support associations and citizens acting as environmental stewards, because this is such an important issue and will be for decades to come. And as soon as the pandemic allows, we will resume support of school children and young people. We want to use a new micro-grant scheme to motivate them to go out, after months of being stuck indoors, and do something with their friends to help other people.

And what is the other strand?

The other one is support during the current crisis. Here we have partnerships with donors, companies and institutions, which enables us to provide help quickly at a given moment. For example, we helped the Czech Philharmonic organize a breathtaking concert where the proceeds went to support health care workers. I’m not going to mention any specific donors or firms, because I don’t want to forget anyone, but we have worked with various companies to support people who are isolated due to the pandemic, social enterprises which are struggling to survive and dozens of project ideas from people in Czech villages who are addressing local impacts of the pandemic.

We also try to ensure that this type of support doesn’t have just a one-off effect but that it also helps develop sustainability, into the future. For example, we are now offering hospitals and NGOs consultations on building donor trust and donor stewardship. They can develop relationships with donors based on mutual trust and learn how to provide donor care during this time with an eye to the future, which won’t be easy, in part because the state is going to have to make cutbacks.

I want to mention one more new direction, that we are developing more and more, and that is corporate employee collections. In the past few months, we’ve helped organize collections to benefit regional theatres and health care workers in the hardest-hit regions of the country. We also helped organize one global employee collection online, where the proceeds went to health care workers and NGOs in the UK, the USA, the Czech Republic and Serbia. These collections help develop giving and charitable projects, as well as corporate culture, and have global potential.

Can you think of a project that addressed the Covid-19 crisis in a particularly effective, original or humourous way?

I’d highlight cases of children and young people helping others. One of them, Jakub Kabelka from Moravske Budějovice, began printing visors at home on a 3D printer and he gradually got people across the entire region to help. We gave him a symbolic Via Bona Award.

The pandemic evoked a huge wave of generosity, which we can see from statistics from, Via’s online giving platform. Can you share some examples of successful fundraising drives?

People gave an unbelievable CZK 232 million over last year, mostly through gifts of one hundred crowns. It was a huge increase year-on-year. And I’m positive that it’s not just a one-off gesture. does more than facilitate one-off giving – it is a tool that enables people to give regularly and which helps NGOs learn to work with their donors and thus build their own independence and stability. And when there are hundreds of NGOs like that, then they create a strong pillar of democracy. For many of them the past year was a chance to learn this, and donors also became more used to giving online.

The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted and reinforced new philanthropy issues, such as single mothers’ lives, but people have also given much more during the past year to issues unrelated to the pandemic. One new trend is philanthropy supporting independent media. We’ve seen that independent media can raise money for their work through generous regular gifts from readers.

How and where should a donor give during this complicated time?

In general, you could say that there are two ways of helping during a crisis. Major donors in particular focus on the causes of the crisis, meaning that they want their giving to have the greatest impact possible – for example by supporting testing. Another way is to look at it from the bottom up: helping a sick neighbor by bringing him groceries or giving a gift to a small, local theatre so that it can survive. These two ways of giving are not mutually exclusive – they complement each other. Starting by giving in your own community, which you know well, is a good first rule of philanthropy, if someone decides to give their time, expertise or money for the first time.

If you were to name one issue that has been overlooked that donors should pay more attention to now, what would it be?

In my opinion it’s culture, which unfortunately has fallen off the public’s radar, even though their support during this difficult time is critical.

Via Foundation only raises money from private donors, not from state governments. How has the current situation, with so many firms in financial distress due to the pandemic, affected Via’s financial position?

With fatigue and financial problems increasing, companies and individuals are cutting back. Moreover we weren’t able to hold our traditional charitable auction. It wasn’t easy but thanks to the enormous trust our donors place in us, and their generosity, and the huge efforts Via staff made, we were actually able to increase the support we provide last year. We awarded CZK 45 million in grants in 2020, almost three times as much as 2019, to some 442 projects.

What did you learn about Czech society over the past year? Has the crisis had any positive consequences?

For a number of years now, our data has shown that civil society in villages and towns is growing. There are more and more engaged citizens, associations and NGOs, which held true during the pandemic last year. Many mayors and town councillors are also doing great work. I was also impressed by how various sectors are becoming interconnected. We see this as a hopeful point as we look to the future. During this era of social networks, which tend to close us off in separate worlds and reinforce our own opinions, connecting different people is particularly important. In general, we don’t focus on problems and their resolution – we support the potential in people and their collaborations, which help them resolve problems.

On the other hand, we’ve seen that we haven’t fared well in an international comparison. I’m afraid that the failure of our mishandling of the pandemic will leave scars on Czech society. We see tragedies in the lives of thousands of families, where loved ones have died. Many health care workers are psychologically at their wits’ end. Many people have become poorer and are in danger of falling into default. Society is unglued, divisions are widening and extremist parties may win elections. I think that we are living through tragic days right now, days that will be in textbooks one day.

In comparison with other European countries, the Czech Republic shows a high level of distrust between people and in regard to politics, and that distrust is intensifying. Personally, I think that Czech society has been extraordinarily successful in some areas in recent years, but I’m afraid that our mishandling of the pandemic will impact Czech self-confidence, which was already low to start with.

In you view, what is Via’s role in times of crisis like this one, and how can Via help society cope with similar situations in the future?

The world is rushing along at a fast pace, even without the pandemic. Covid-19 may be just a stress test. Western society hasn’t done well in the pandemic, in contrast to East Asia, whose influence is growing. A big issue will be the impact of new technologies, which are already starting to dominate our attention and influence our thinking. And soon we’ll face questions about where the boundary between technology and humanity lies. There are many things that are not widely discussed yet, that still seem difficult to imagine. For example: at the end of the century there will be 60, maybe 90 million people living in some African cities. When you add climate change to that…

Many changes will arrive unexpectedly, from one day to the next, just like the pandemic. These changes won’t take place somewhere far beyond our own borders, in my opinion – they will impact our day to day lives. And anchoring an ordinary, joyful life in a community of people in your own neighborhood or town and giving, which means a love of humanity in the broadest sense, may be the answer to this restless, fragile time.

Via is here to be a piece of bedrock – a firm, stable point which helps as it can, where it’s needed, during a crisis. Thanks to our donors, we are able to patiently build this bedrock so that it can weather storms in the decades to come.