Zdeněk Mihalco: Europe is beginning to find us inspiring

Zdeněk Mihalco, executive director of Via Foundation, explains why a wave of emotions is important in giving, three steps that can lead the way out of a crisis and why stable donors are important for non-profit organizations.

By Nina Kolářová for The Art of Giving journal, Summer 2022 issue / photo by David Bruner

During the last two years, the Czech Republic has witnessed three major disasters. Covid-19, the tornado in Moravia and the ongoing war in Ukraine. “Crisis as an opportunity” was repeated so often by the media that people became fed up with these words of wisdom. But in the end these crises really were an opportunity. Czechs have shown that in tense moments they show an unexpected depth of empathy, generosity and willingness to help. They had the chance to feel what it is like to be hospitable, to offer your home, your time and your resources to someone who really needs help. “The situation will continue to evolve and it won’t be easy. But it’s safe to say that we have managed the first phase,” points out Zdeněk Mihalco, executive director of Via Foundation, an organization that has been promoting philanthropy in the Czech Republic for a quarter of a century and is the developer, among other things, of the most successful Czech online giving platform, Darujme.cz.

The last two years and three crises have been an extraordinary challenge for philanthropy in the Czech Republic. How did this affect giving?

These three crises were similar in that at the beginning of each of them a huge wave of emotion arose among donors from all corners of the country. The crises varied in length and intensity. The covid-19 pandemic was a complete shock for many, a strange state of being that people did not understand very well at first, and the wave of donations rose more slowly and lasted about two weeks. With the tornado in Moravia in June 2021 the reaction was immediate and intense. One day a tornado swept through a number of villages and the next day everyone was in shock and sent in donations. The giving wave lasted about 4 days. With the war in Ukraine, at first everyone was in shock, and then the biggest wave of giving in modern Czech history erupted and lasted for a week. Emotion is essential in this type of giving.

How do you track these emotional waves?

These aren’t our impressions or intuitioin – we monitor data on Darujme.cz. We see the intensity of each giving wave and how long it lasts. It appears on the first day, shoots up by 100% or more in the following days, and after a few days begins to decline very quickly. Then the flow of donations remains at a more constant level.

What is unique about how people give in the Czech Republic?

In our country, humanitarian donations started in the 1990s – one of the first large public fundraising drives was SOS Sarajevo, for example. The fundraising drives after the tornado or now to help Ukraine are some of the largest in Europe and perhaps in the world. This type of society-wide groundswell is not at all common in other countries. One month after the tornado, the proceeds from fundraising drives here were roughly comparable to the proceeds from drives in Germany, but Germany is eight times larger. It also turns out that even after the emotional wave subsides, giving remains at a higher level than before the wave. Especially online. On the other hand, regular support (monthly for example) is not that developed and that is truly responsible philanthropy. We do see a gradual increase in the number of regular donors, but at a dramatically slower rate than humanitarian emotional giving. There are also more and more major philanthropists and companies that want to change things systemically, but their number is also growing slowly.

I assume that the ease of giving online increases donations. The fewer obstacles a person has, the more likely he or she is to donate, right?

The advantage of online giving is that it captures a person’s initial emotions and can offer them a way to help right away. The world has sped up because of our online environment and even in giving every hour counts. Being fast is essential for a non-profit organization. The volume of donations by bank transfer is gradually decreasing and payments by credit card or via mobile phone that take only a few seconds are increasing. With online giving, the donor also gets more information about who the recipient is and where their money goes, because organizations can inform them about the use of donations directly.

What do a non-profit organization’s first steps look like when a natural or humanitarian disaster occurs?

We’re currently creating a brief manual on how to proceed that is based on our experience. A foundation is an institution that should last for a hundred years and ideally it should be stable enough so that when a crisis hits, it doesn’t have to worry about surviving, but instead can spring into action and start helping others. The period we’re living in is so uncertain that the only thing we know is that more crises are likely to come, we just don’t know where they will come from or what kind they will be. Will it be a blackout or another war? We want be prepared for unexpected events by having a simple process in place. When something happens, we have to be able to decide within an hour if we can and should help and then to prepare a general plan. That’s how it was with the tornado. We prepared three steps that we followed then and that we follow to this day.

What are the three steps?

First, set up the fundraising drive and start communicating it. Darujme.cz enables organizations to contact donors. So, on the second or third day, we can inform them and say that although we do not yet know the full extent of the disaster, we know roughly how we want to distribute the donations so that they reach the bank accounts of affected people as soon as possible. Thanks to digitization, the ability to sign contracts online, as well as the incredible energy and work of Via staff, the communities affected by the tornado and shortly thereafter the people affected received money from us within just a few days. We then coordinated with the other non-profits to divide up the work so that everything was fair and transparent and as unchaotic as possible. We started distributing money systematically to people. And the third step is crucial: after most other non-profits leave the scene of a disaster, we continue to support community activities to bring life back to the affected communities. In the case of the war in Ukraine, it is similar: apart from supporting the fundraising drives of organizations on Darujme.cz, our role is at the end of the chain of events. It is estimated that roughly half of the people who arrived here from Ukraine will stay here. Thanks to the generosity of our donors, we have begun giving smaller grants to help these newcomers make connections in Czech communities, and so that Czech residents who help newcomers have the support they need.

How do you and the state divide up the roles in these types of crises?

I think both sides are still in a learning process. We are learning to work together cross-sectorally – meaning non-governmental organizations, the state and municipalities and businesses working together, which I see as the next step in the development of democracy. Twenty years ago, there were only a few non-governmental organizations operating here. There are a lot of NGOs today, and they are becoming more and more professional in their work. And now we’re trying to organize, to work together, which is the next level. In the Czech Republic, there is a general problem that the public has a high level of mistrust in non-profit organizations and institutions. Sometimes I still encounter the cliché that non-governmental organizations, business and the government cannot work together. However, with complex problems and crises such as the Ukrainian war, cooperation is beginning to work, at least in some areas, and non-governmental organizations are good at complementing the state in areas that are out of its reach.

Let’s go back to our small Czech donors, who are giving so generously. Who are they?

I think that social cohesion is quite strong here. We are a compact society, we all, figuratively speaking, ate in the same school cafeteria. We are also relatively homogeneous; there are no regions that are significantly different from others. Which leads to the fact that when something happens in the Czech Republic, society tends to close ranks, and the size of the country and geography also help. And we’ve been through a number of crises now, so we’ve learned a few things. Once people start giving, they usually continue to donate. Once I send in my first $50, I will do it again. Our position in Europe has also changed. We kept comparing Czech giving to giving in Western Europe, with Germany and Austria on an A level, followed by Spain and Italy, and somewhere behind them was the Czech Republic, like a C. Today that is no longer the case. As far as donations are concerned, we have not yet reached the level of, for example, England, where the state has a smaller role than here, but we are beginning to be inspiring for Europe.

How would you describe the Czechs’ response to the latest crisis, i.e. the war in Ukraine? I would say that Czechs have surpassed themselves and there are clear signs of hospitality and quick and practical efforts to help.

The very fact that 300,000 people came here within a two-week period and no one was left out on the street is admirable in my view. I would say we managed the first phase. But as can be seen from recent events, a very difficult period is coming. The first wave of emotion has passed, and the next phase will be long and tiring. There are too many possible future risks. We will see to what extent the economic crisis will affect us. There is a risk that at election time people’s emotions may change dramatically, and in some places crime rates will increase with refugee inflows, and in those situations how the media reports and how society perceives it is critical. It would be ideal to have refugees distributed as broadly as possible across the entire Czech Republic. It is important to involve them in everyday life. Right now most of them think that they will return home soon, but experience tells us something different – that many will not. Another wave of refugees may come, too, no one knows how things will evolve. As I mentioned before, we support little activities focused on everyday inclusion in communities that make both Czechs and newcomers feel good. Seemingly ordinary things help, like gatherings in municipal libraries, events for children, or cooking together. These things seem simple, but they are very important.

Even people who haven’t given in the past are sending money to help Ukraine.

That’s an interesting phenomenon. A lot of people who had never donated before empathized with the situation of the Ukrainians, because they know many Ukrainians from daily life even before the war, they worked side by side on construction sites or in stores. Then suddenly they were having a beer together and the Ukrainians said that tomorrow they were going to the front to defend their homeland. When the Czechs asked their Ukrainian friends how they could help them, they said, ‘Take care of our women and children and send us money for weapons’. I think that’s why we have such a successful crowdfunding drive for weapons. The question does arise of whether this is actually philanthropy. I never thought I’d be addressing gun crowdfunding. But it is some kind of phenomenon. The Czech collection for weapons is one of the largest in the world, over a 100,000 people have donated. That is a not negligible percentage of the population, it’s not just a tiny bubble. The weapons fundraising drive is unique in that people who would otherwise never donate anything to a non-profit have given to that. But perhaps they feel that it is necessary to defend their own land in this way as well.

What should donors do now?

Above all, I would recommend not to look only at Ukraine. A lot of donors may exhaust their resources by donating to Ukraine, but life goes on and there are a lot of NGOs which also need support, and their income is now decreasing. Other important social issues are still relevant. I would recommend that donors choose perhaps two organizations, civic associations, maybe local sports clubs, they don’t have to be big famous NGOs, just something that suits the donor personally, and to give them a standing order for a monthly donation. That enables the organization to plan ahead and to develop a relationship with the donor. Donors can also take an active interest in what is happening in their own community. Places where people work together during times of peace are able to manage crises much better. People know each other because they go to the library to watch movies together, they know the mayor, the local priest, so for example during covid-19 they were able to immediately deliver lunches to the elderly or this spring it was natural for them to start helping refugees together without external intervention. People have learned a lot from this crisis. It is said that crises bring out the best in people, not only the worst. We may discover that we have much more philanthropic potential than we realize. There is plenty of room for improvement, but our society has come a long way in terms of democracy. But giving is not very related to the political system. It is universal. Most of the world’s philosophies and religions say that giving is a good thing, that it is the opposite of selfishness. By selflessly helping others we show that we believe in humanity.