In today’s world, where there is shrinking space for civil society, young people can transform their concern into opportunities to enable change, according to Franz-Karl Prueller, senior advisor to the board at ERSTE Foundation, a longtime partner of CEU. Prueller addressed the CEU community Nov. 29 in a talk entitled “Advancing Civil Society and Social Innovation in Central Europe: Lessons in Social Investing from the ERSTE Foundation,” as part of CEU’s Philanthropy Week 2017.
“We all share the concern for the development of our societies, our democracies and the way our human relationships develop in this digital age,” he said. Speaking to CEU students and other young people, he said “You are living in very interesting, decisive times – you are the first generation that is so globally connected… with reach and potential that even the most privileged people could only dream of. You cross international borders with an ease impossible 40 years ago… You are connected to information richer than anyone could have wished for. You study at a university and in a city that puts you smack in the middle of the issues that will determine the course of the next decades. Here is the laboratory where the issues will be worked out. Be aware of this opportunity. You have the chance and the responsibility to shed the ignorant arrogance of old and lead Europe to the fulfilment of its potential rather than its destruction. Use your access to each other to the world to information in such a way that we gather together and bridge the gaps.”
Prueller outlined the history of the ERSTE Foundation, whose roots lie in the first Austrian savings bank, established in the 19th century as businesspeople realized there was a growing generation with no social security, health insurance, or pensions who needed a way to build up savings to secure their future. Today, it is one of the most successful retail banks in Central and Eastern Europe, with more than 17 million customers, 47,000 employees, and 2,800 branches in about 10 countries. ERSTE Foundation was established in 2005.
“Empowering people to take their fate into their own hands… this is our history - we live our roots,” Prueller said.
The two focus areas for ERSTE Foundation are social development and culture. For example, ERSTE supports Incorpora Hungary, which counsels disadvantaged people in order to help them access the labor market. Secondly, the foundation supports Romani Design, a social entrepreneurial fashion design business using traditional Roma motifs and styles to produce modern clothing. The company employs Roma women to produce the clothing. Thirdly, ERSTE supports the Social Impact Award to help young students with an interest in social enterprise make their ideas a reality and a success. The program, now in 18 countries including Hungary and now in Tunisia, the first in Africa to take on the franchise, guides students through idea development, business case writing, meeting and challenging the jury, and eventually receiving an award that helps launch the best projects and a career in entrepreneurship.
Philanthropy is measured in terms of successful relationships, not short-term results, Prueller said.
“We’d rather be judged by the satisfaction of the organizations we work with, the relationships, the people we work with, and we see that this brings results,” he said. “Relationships need to be based on clear understanding, targets, accounting, transparency, all projected toward the future regarding targets we set. Are we reaching these, do we have the right means available?”
In addition to calling on students to take advantage of their opportunities to change the world, Prueller reminded students to listen to all viewpoints, and seek even small changes.
“Those of us who believe in open and just and democratic societies - if we do not address them then we are sleepwalking into the suicide of 1914,” he said. “Ask yourself, what can I do for our community, our country, our Europe, our world? Philanthropy means a love of people. For all people. Go out and find allies. Reach out to the other side. Talk to everyone you meet. Build confidence and trust that will enable you to reach out to those you may not agree with. Think deeply about those with whom we have lost contact. Don’t be discouraged by the magnitude of the issues. Every gesture has an effect on others. Build a world for yourself and for others. A world for all of us as we go into the future.”