This Will Be The Century Of Civil Society Organizations

The Chair of Sabancı Foundation Board of Trustees Güler Sabancı gave an interview to journalist Şirin Payzın on the evaluation of philanthropy and Sabancı Foundation’s 47 years of philanthropic journey.

The meaning and substance of philanthropy has changed dramatically over the years, as you and the Sabancı Foundation are all too aware. So how would you define those changes both in Turkey and abroad? How would you define the term?

People are at the heart of philanthropy. At its core and in its spirit is the desire to eradicate inequality in the world, to reach out and support those who are less fortunate and disadvantaged than yourself. Throughout history, people have gathered to reach out and help those people that governments have been unable to reach. The main philosophy behind their efforts is a love for humanity. “Sharing what we have obtained from this land with its people” is how my grandfather Hacı Ömer Sabancı put it, and understanding philanthropy as a love for humanity is the principle our foundation embraced: standing with those in need, providing for their needs…

Of course, the concept has evolved over time and although individual efforts have always been important, they turned into institutional initiatives and foundations were established that can pool many different resources and that have a greater impact. But still this love of humanity is at the heart of philanthropy. The goal of reaching out to those in need and the struggle against inequality, has never changed.

The social issues of today are complex, and we need a wholistic approach for comprehensive solutions. It really isn’t possible for one person, one institution to solve all our problems or to create an effective project. The work requires collaboration. More and more the state of the world today has shown us how important this is. We do still need individual efforts and traditional approaches. But we must also develop lasting solutions with work that is organized, strategic and long-term.

How did you form a strategy for the new phase after becoming the chair of the Sabancı Foundation? What sort of changes were put in place?

Philanthropy has always had an important place in our family culture. The foundation was established in Adana in 1974 by the Sabancı brothers with the aim of institutionalizing our charitable activities. My grandmother, Sadıka Sabancı, said, ‘Take whatever I have and give it to the foundation,’ and this provided the resource for its establishment. Since then the work of the foundation has been the conscience of our group.

With the belief that you cannot expect everything from the government, the Sabancı brothers were not only focused on the major cities in Turkey. They worked to reach every corner of the country. In this spirit, they have been to many different provinces over the past thirty years, working to meet the needs of those provinces and districts, whatever they might be. Cultural sites were built in some, dormitories in others, and schools in other. At the same time, successful students in Turkey were given scholarships. By the time I was chosen to succeed Sakıp Bey as chair and we began our new term of duty with our then new board of trustees, the Sabancı Foundation was thirty years old and had already proven itself as a powerful and reliable foundation. It was a foundation that loved this country and that strived to do the best it could as an honest, hardworking and well-respected foundation that inspired trust. At least, that was what our research showed.

So, we thought what we can add to this, how we can kick-start this new phase of the foundation. In 2005, we organized a ‘research conference’, in which we studied examples of good philanthropy around the world, this being a method I always found important and have employed as a management tool. Then we put forward a highly detailed strategy during which we studied the development phases of foundations abroad. We then reevaluated our existing philanthropic experiences in parallel with social changes and developments in Turkey and around the world and constructed our own strategic approach. Turkey was no longer the country it was when we first established our foundation, and since then we are fortunate to see many affluent families in Anatolia coming forward to build schools and dorms as we had done for the past thirty years.

And in addition to contracting new buildings in this current phase we also looked at new approaches. In the light of social needs we proceeded with the belief that a wholistic approach focused on problem solving and human contact was vital. We looked at our strengths. We were a foundation that was well-respected, that had quality human resources, and a strong financial base but that was also open to the world and was capable of following global developments. So, we considered how we could draw on this in the most intelligent way possible and how we could make a difference. And then we set out to do it.

We can see this as a transatlantic liner changing course and setting sights on the innovative approaches of the new world. From every perspective 2006 was a turning point for us. The foundation moved from Adana to Istanbul and began a new phase. The first thing we did then was establishing partnerships with United Nation institutions. We developed our international relations by entering global platforms. To grow our field of impact and closely follow the needs of society, we added a new dimension to our already active areas of ‘Education’ and ‘Art and Culture,’ which we called ‘Social Change.’

The Grant Program began at the foundation after you became the chair. It is a very important program that distinguishes you from the other foundations. I think we can say that this is this only grant program which operates in this capacity in Turkey. How did the program start? Why is it important for you? To whom to you give priority in these projects?

Following what we can call a new phase of the foundation that began in 2006, and very much one result of the search conference, was the creation of partnerships to lend greater impact to our work and make it more lasting. Creating new partnerships is very much in line with my work ethic and the work ethic of my friends at the foundation. First, we created the Program to Promote and Protect Human Rights of Women and Girls in partnership with the United Nations institutions. This was an extremely important project, targeting social change. When the project was first set up its title mentioned only women’s rights. But I specifically wanted to add “human rights of girls” to the name. My proposal was accepted and the projected was implemented that way. Over the past ten years the project took important steps forward in improving the rights of women and girls. Wherever we went in the country the trust in us made our collaborative work with the United Nations much easier and opened doors. We also learned a lot from the project. It has increased the competencies of my friends at the foundation. In line with this project, we started the Grant Program and targeted women, youth and persons with disabilities who are disadvantaged in society.

The role of civil society organizations in democratically developed countries is invaluable. Philanthropists coming together to be a part of the solution, the strengthening of NGOs who have the power to drive social change, the creation of effective programs and success in participative management is all invaluable for us to grow. NGOs know the most pressing needs in the region and in the fields in which they work and can develop the most effective ideas for solutions. We believe that the most effective method is to provide support to them so that they can implement their expertise.

We also provide additional support which is even more important than the financial support we provide the NGOs in the Grant Program; we mentor them, give direction to their strategies, support them in drawing on different sources and areas of expertise. With the prestige it has garnered in the eyes of society and institutions, the Sabancı Foundation facilitates the work of the NGOs, paving a way for them. In other words, within this program we use our esteem, our human resources and financial strength for the social development of Turkey. So naturally we proceed with great care when it comes to the issue of grants, viewing the success of others as our success.

In this scope, we are the only foundation in Turkey that provides an uninterrupted grant flow to non-government organizations. For over 14 years we have supported 173 projects with a sum of 28.5 million TL. I believe continuity is vital. Over the years we have seen the increase of capacity in NGOs. Many of them that received their first grant from us have gone on to receive other national and international funding, increasing their capacity.

We have also seen the establishment of new local NGOs and their sustained success. For example, at the end of the Grant Program of 2006 to 2010, a total of 15 new women’s organizations were established: 7 in Trabzon, 3 in Van and Şanlıurfa, 2 in Nevşehir. This has been the cause of great change in those provinces. We are very happy to see the results of the hard work and the difference made to the lives of those people impacted, and that we have contributed to these successful results. And this encourages new projects.

Every year we share the success stories of our project at our Sowing Season event, which you are also a part of. This year the Sowing Season meeting took place online with NGOs coming together to share their experiences of the project. We were happy to have reached a million viewers.

I know that you attach a great deal of importance to education. Which contributions made to the sector in Turkey do you think are important? How do you see your role as a foundation here?

The backbone of our foundation since its establishment has been work on education. This is our greatest mission and the most important legacy we inherited. In this field I should point out that our most significant contribution is our scholarship program. As the Sabancı Foundation we have been supporting successful university students for 46 years, and now the number of non-refundable scholarships to students from entrance to graduation has reached 50,000.

A great majority of more than 120 investments we have made all around Turkey has been assigned to schools, dormitories, and teachers’ residences. But no doubt our greatest project and our greatest source of pride is Sabancı University. Not long after being set up with an innovative education model, the university was listed among the top three in Turkey. Now we have set our sights on making our mark on the international scene. Due to the pandemic this year and the cessation of educational activities, that is to say since March of 2020, we became the first university to offer online classes to students in roughly a week’s time. It was possible thanks to our strong technical infrastructure.

Meanwhile we continue to support state schools that carry the Sabancı name. And our work is not limited to ground maintenance. We are also striving to increase the quality of education in these schools, working to put in place new models. According to changing needs we provide schools with additional mathematics and English teaching, and, most importantly, we go to the schools with invaluable professors such as Yankı Yazgan and programs that aim to the improve the climate of the schools. Because we know from the business world that efficiency rises by 30% if the work environment is good. That is why we lead programs in cooperation with school principals, PTA groups, parents, students, and teachers, in short, all the stakeholders that make up a school environment. In this sense we are a first in Turkey. I firmly believe that the state high schools will come forward with progressive new models with this kind of supports.

For us, teachers are invaluable, and we will always regard them with great respect. We know they are in a position to be the champions of change. That is why we mobilize all our resources with various partnerships for them.

Here I would like to mention in particular the Professional Development Project for Teachers Working in Rural Schools that was implemented in collaboration with the Ministry of National Education, the Rural Schools Transformation Network Association (KODA in Turkish) and Sabancı Foundation. KODA, which has worked towards a quality education in village schools, received a grant from us four years ago; in other words, we contributed to KODA becoming a successful NGO. With them we built a successful model. With the support of the Ministry of National Education we have succeeded in reaching 9,000 village teachers.

Recently we also aim to increase the effectiveness of language teaching in Turkey by supporting the personal and professional development of English teachers with the project “English Together” implemented by the Sabancı Foundation, the British Council and the Ministry of National Education. The project received an outstanding reception. The teachers’ love and passion for innovation, learning and teaching encourages us to work even harder for them. Our respected Minister, who always places teaches at the center, is leading this project which aims to reach 37,000 teachers in three years. It gives us confidence to set out on this journey with a powerful partner like the British Council which is accepted as an authority in English teaching and that knows other examples in the world, implementing similar projects in different countries and different cultures with the feasibility to compare these different projects.

When the subject comes to education, I always believe that we need to stick together and combine our forces. On this point I would like to bring up a project that has made me very happy. In 2003, the Education Reform Initiative (ERG in Turkish) was set up as a part of Sabancı University under the leadership of Üstün Ergüder, who was also a professor of mine, and Tosun Terzioğlu, the Founding Rector of Sabancı University. ERG aims to develop policies in the field of education and support these policies through research and has developed into a partnership supported by private foundations and several institutions today. In this sense, it is a first for Turkey. Our Teacher Network project established under ERG continues today with the support of six big foundations. Here I would like to extend my thanks and gratitude to Semahat Arsel, the chair of Vehbi Koç Foundation. We are executing this project with the cooperation of the Mother Child Education Foundation, the Aydın Doğan Foundation, the ENKA Foundation, the Mehmet Zorlu Foundation, and the Vehbi Koç Foundation. It is very exciting to see the Teachers Network snowballing, and we think that what matters here is the project and what matters are the teachers. In the examples I am giving you there are always partnerships and cooperation at play.

I would like to talk about your Turkey’s Changemakers project. As a society we are deeply moved by success stories. From this project we heard some very interested and inspiring stories. Sadly in Turkey successful people are unwilling to share their success stories, but the project you created is doing just the opposite, it is bringing the success of others front and center. How was this project born and why do you feel the need for something like this?

For social change to occur we need to encourage personal acts of philanthropy. People do make a difference, but we need to promote these changemakers, make them visible, and encourage them. The Turkey’s Changemakers Program was the idea of our beloved Cüneyt Özdemir, a project that, together, we brought to life twelve years ago. At that time there was not much interest in positive news stores, but we had already begun to meet some wonderful people. And Cüneyt saw it, too.

The people we call Changemakers see a problem or a shortcoming in their environment and, putting their hands to the fire, they say, I can change this. They don’t mind the difficulties, they keep working, fixing the problems they see in society almost as if they are tailors sewing a patch, and they do this voluntarily.

For me, this is invaluable.

The Turkey’s Changemakers project has continued to snowball and till now we have received over 8,000 applications from 81 provinces across the country and we have shared 195 inspiring Changemaker stories. Videos of these stories have been watched in Turkey and abroad over 37 million times.

When I listen to the stories of these Changemakers I am reminded that every individual in this country has tremendous potential and this gives me hope for the future. With this program the individuals chosen to be Changemakers become known not only by their immediate surroundings but by a much larger audience. We also bring them together to be in solidarity with other individuals and NGOs that work in the same field.

Applications for the 12th season of the program ended with a record participation of nearly 4,000 applications. Currently our colleagues are excited to be working on selecting the upcoming Changemakers.

You have organized a Philanthropy Seminar this year. It is an international seminar held annually and this year and in past years important global figures have participated. Why are these seminars significant in your opinion?

While we were determining the strategy of foundation for this new phase, we placed particular importance on following the work of leading foundations in world and current topics in philanthropy, raising awareness in these areas. We have always seen our role as a bridge between civil society in Turkey and the rest of the world as we define a strategic roadmap for making social change as a foundation. Therefore, for the past 13 years our annual Philanthropy Seminars have provided the opportunity for civil society, the private sector and representatives of public institutions to come together with experts from abroad and share information on new approaches in the field of philanthropy. Over the last three years in particular our seminars have focused on the role of technology in the lives of people with disabilities.

This year we brought our seminar to a digital platform due to the pandemic. Although we weren’t physically together, we were excited to be able to reach an even larger audience now thanks to technology. More clearly seeing the role technology can play in social change and transformation, we decided that the theme of our Philanthropy Seminar this year would be ‘Technology for Social Change’. We had a thorough discussion on the impact technology on the social participation of women, young people and people with disabilities, which have always been a focus of the foundation. We listened to important speakers from many different cultures and regions all around the world. The stories, goals and achievements of each individual were extraordinary examples, and I was very pleased with the interest we generated.

During the pandemic we have all suffered in some way but as you have already mentioned some groups have felt the weight of this difficult period even more. What are your impressions on this issue?

Sadly, with the entire world affected by COVID-19 we are seeing the deepening of social problems and a rise in inequality of opportunities. We know that disadvantaged groups are feeling the effects of the pandemic more intensely. At the top of the list are women and girls, groups our foundation have always focused on.

From an economic perspective, sectors where mostly women work were the most effected. And during a period when we are restricted to our homes sadly a 20-percent rise was predicted in the incidents of violence against women, although the figure can’t be measured exactly. During this time of distance learning, we also predict a fall in the rate of girls’ education and a rise in marriage at an early age. We have organized a meeting which I was pleased to take part to discuss all these problems with the aim of developing solutions with civil society groups that deal with women’s rights. But we went beyond discussion and announced important initiatives geared towards the urgent needs of women. Now we are realizing these initiatives and we will organize the follow-up. But these problems are so vast that no single institution can solve them on its own.

More than ever before, we need to make partnerships and work together. Our priority should be to hold onto the gains our hard work has already produced. Even more work will fall to philanthropic organizations after the pandemic.

From theater to music to cinema the Sabancı Foundation has supported many projects in arts and culture. What can you tell us about the role art plays in social change?

Art plays an invaluable role in the development of a society. As the Sabancı Foundation, we have always believed in this. Indeed, this belief was the legacy first left to us from all the Sabancı brothers, beginning with my uncle Sakıp Sabancı. Since the day we were established, we have always given great importance to arts and culture, building cultural centers in various places across Turkey and offering services to society. From theater to music, archeology to cinema we have supported many branches of the arts and we will continue to do so.

One of the projects we are most proud of began under the leadership of the late Sakıp Sabancı and which we have had the good chance to continue: the Sabancı International Adana Theater Festival. In cooperation with the Directorate General of State Theaters we have been organizing the festival for the past 22 years. In the early years of the festival, Sakıp Bey would buy and give tickets to his colleagues in Adana to fill up the halls. So, the festival in Adana started out with packed houses and it has continued that way ever since. Now we are so very pleased to see that tickets of this one-month-long international festival sell out within three hours. The people of Adana have welcomed our festival, which has helped boost our motivation even more. We took the festival to the streets and we staged theater plays on the Stone Bridge and the Seyhan River, the symbols of Adana, where tens of thousands residents of Adana watched performances. Later we broadened the scope of the festival to become international, and since then we have hosted thousands of artists and hundreds of theater groups from Turkey and abroad.

As a foundation we contribute to classical music as well as theater. For the past eleven years, we are the main supporter of Turkish National Youth Philharmonic Orchestra that brings hundreds of young musicians to listeners in Turkey and around the world. Under the leadership of conductor Cem Mansur the orchestra of young talents from all over the country is our source of pride. It makes us proud to see them perform on some of the most prestigious stages in Europe. With his devotion Cem Mansur creates incredible programs and we are overjoyed to support this successful project and these young musicians.

Art is the most effective tool to put forward messages that we want to give regarding social change. As you know, we have always worked on some critical issues such as getting girls to continue their education and preventing early and forced marriages. In 2014, our beloved singer Sezen Aksu wrote a song and lyrics on the topic, and Sertab Erener sang on the music video ‘Girl Leyla,’ which was shot by Çağan Irmak, another effort to raise awareness. And in bringing such an important social issue to the public through art we were again inspired to see how effective it was in reaching a broad audience.

Springing from this idea we decided to take on a long-termed arts and culture project. With the slogan ‘Short Film Long Effect’, we set the groundwork for a Short Film Festival which just completed its fifth year. In the competition we are calling for ‘young film makers,’ and encouraging them to think about certain social issues that we all know and face. Every year we also try to draw attention to the social problems we think are important on a global scale. Here I would like to once again congratulate Nevgül Bilsel Safkan, General Manager of our foundation, and her entire team who were responsible for choosing the themes. Last year’s theme for the Short Film Festival was Digital Loneliness. Just a few months later our lives were deeply unsettled by the pandemic and we all personally came to experience what it meant to be digitally alone. To give you an example, a friend of mine lost a relative during the pandemic and only two people were able to attend the funeral. Unfortunately, my friend was only able to watch the funeral on a video taken by her sibling. This was the very same subject of a film which was one of the finalists in our competition, something that went on to happen in real life. So, these kinds of social predictions and analysis can be made artistically beforehand and we later see the reflections in our actual lives.

The theme of our Short Film Competition this year was climate change, an important issue on the global agenda. We named it ‘Changing Climates, Changing Lives.’ The award ceremony took place online in January and we had the chance to see those films that made the final cut.

And finally, we recently brought to life another project based on our belief that art has the power to change. Inspired by a fairy tale our board member Serra Sabancı once heard from her grandmother, we have prepared a book series for children (aged 7 – 9) called Papuduk, which encourages children to love animals and nature. As pedagogues have always claimed if we can get children to love animals at this early age its effect will last a lifetime. So, we give a great deal of importance to this project and I applaud everyone who has worked on it.

You are the only woman from Turkey on the prestigious Forbes Magazine list of ‘The World’s Most 100 Powerful Women.’ Do you think your work in the Sabancı Foundation had some effect on your being listed? Your success has encouraged and motivated many other women. Role models are necessary and important. What do you think?

During global crises, I see the efforts of women in particular playing a serious part in building a better future and I am encouraged and inspired by all the women who are in this struggle. Women leaders on this list are chosen from among those playing a critical role in shaping our post-pandemic world. Beyond economic and political strength, they place a particular emphasis on those people who are effective in creating solutions to the most urgent problems in society. So it is a source of pride to be on this list and reinforces my belief in the important impact all the work we do under the umbrella of the Sabancı Foundation is having.

In Turkish there is the expression “Actions speak louder than voice”. I really do believe in this. I want to be remembered by the work I do and the work that we do.

You need to focus and work hard to accomplish good things, and I have always tried to do the very best I can. I have had the opportunity to work with some very good teams. With friends I have had the chance to collaborate we were able to improve each other, working together in a way that was project-oriented we were able to achieve success. I suppose this is true power. It does make me happy if I can achieve something with this approach and to make a difference and become a model for others as a result.

How much time do you set aside for Foundation activities? How much of this work contributes to your overall happiness?

I have no concept of time when I work for the foundation. I don’t see this as working. I see work at the foundation as work that is truly good for my heart and my soul. Foundation work keeps my love for others alive and vibrant, and it reminds me of the value of life. I work with people who see work like this as something more than an obligation. They too love people. They do all that they do with the desire to answer to the needs of others, to reach out and touch other people’s lives. I would say that work at the foundation is not only a duty. It is more like a devotion that requires dedication. My team and I work with this in mind. I have cousins on the board of trustees, and we manage our projects with the same approach and understanding. For us, the work of the foundation is not about market share, but a share of the heart.

We share something in common. You are also interested in wine making. How did that start?

This is a project I began with my late uncle Orhan Türker in 1994: Gülor Wines. My late uncle is a chemical engineer who knows region of Thrace very well. He had overseen many projects there. So, he had always enjoyed drinking rakı but one time chatting around a rakı table wondering why Turkey did not have more quality wines, he became convinced of this new project. We took great care to select the right location. We met with experts from universities in Bordeaux and Bologne. We selected cuttings that were suitable for this geography and its climate. My uncle worked a lot to be a model of excellence in winemaking. Winemakers like to say that land has memory. So when you plant vines again on lands that were bountiful hundreds of years ago you will reap the same bounty. And that is what happened. This region is extremely precious in regards to viticulture. We have very fruitful vineyards between Mürefte and Şarköy. And the expression we have, ‘tend your garden or have a savage vine’, is very true. You must always have a busy hand in your vines. They require constant care. Vine cultivation is an endeavor that requires patience and love. It is like establishing a university or showing the same constant care to effect social change. It requires patience and love. I am very lucky. Just before I turned 40 I took the initiative to start this project with my uncle Orhan in 1994. At the same time the Sabancı brothers gave me the responsibility of establishing the university, both projects taught me the importance of patience and perseverance.

The Holding, the foundation, the university… You have many different hats. What can you tell us about your work ethic?

First there is my favorite expression: “No wind is the right wind for a sailboat that does not know the harbor it is seeking.” It’s a Chinese proverb about establishing a strategy, a goal, making a plan and patiently moving towards it. The first thing I do when I start a new project is describe the harbor I want to reach with the people I will set out with, and we come to an agreement.

Then I consider how we can develop, how we can do better next time around, reviewing the work we have done, always looking for the better option in every action along the journey, these are the most important aspects of our work ethic at Sabancı. It is what we do in every endeavor. After the implementation of a project, the late Sakıp Bey would gather us all together, after a concert, a conference, an opening, saying, “Let’s meet and evaluate what we did yesterday and see how we can do it better today”. This is the result of such an approach. And so we develop every project we undertake and we never give up on what we do. For example, we have seen incredible participation in the Turkey’s Changemakers program we have been running for years. As with all of our projects, we give great importance to those people we can reach out to. I always question whom the project touch and what kind of impact the project makes on these people. And I always ask my friends and colleagues to give importance to this.

Finally, what would you like to say to those people who are working on non-profit projects? Young people in particular...

First of all, I believe people active in civil society who lend their support and take charge are the change ambassadors of a movement necessary for the development of society. These people put their hearts on the line when it comes to what they do. Wanting or desiring change is precious but taking action for it; developing partnerships and setting sustainable targets is more important.

I am pleased to see that today’s youth is extremely sensitive when it comes to social issues. There are not a few young people now doing volunteer work in school and when they graduate go on to make careers working in civil society. Each and every one of my young friends who work for the foundation are excellent examples. Born and raised in the digital age, they are already well-versed in the spirit of the new age, and the rules and instruments. Equipped with these tools, they bring comprehensive and innovative solutions to challenging social issues.

I remember a remark from a talk given by my dear friend Yankı Yazgan that a person’s need to create never ends. Neither a pandemic nor a war can stop this need. So, with this inexhaustible need inside us and in a century of rising inequality, let us never give up on working creatively. This will be the century of civil society organizations. Much work will fall to individuals and institutions active in this field. Our road is long and the challenges are great but we must never give up.

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