New York-based Robert and Nellie Gipson on education, museums and the rewards of donating in Bulgaria
When Robert Gipson, an owner of an investment company in New York, first visited Bulgaria in August 2001, he came to meet his future in-laws. Or so he thought. Little did he know that quite soon he would be making a portion of his personal wealth available to charities in Bulgaria. His wife Nellie Gencheva-Gipson had a lot – but not all – to do with it.
The couple – Robert went to Princeton and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Nellie graduated from the Sofia University before she went to the United States on a Fulbright scholarship – never forgot that "someone else paid for our education," and are endeavouring to support young Bulgarians in their studies. Through their foundation they are currently donating 1,000 leva annual merit awards to 100 university students in Bulgaria, are providing a scholarship to a Bulgarian student at Princeton and are granting 50 annual 600 leva grants to students from orphanages in Bulgaria who want to continue their higher education. As if that was not enough, the Gipsons, who share a passion for history and donate to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among others, have helped preserve Bulgaria's historical heritage as well. They assisted Bulgaria's National History Museum with 22,500 leva for multimedia equipment and provided the means for the purchase of the three display cases showing the "world treasures" in Sofia's Archaeological Museum. Nellie and Robert were in Sofia in May to witness the graduation ceremony at the American College where Nellie is on the board of trustees and "to see what our work has done and how to improve it".
Robert: There are two sides of the story – one is philanthropy and the other one is Bulgaria. Before I met Nelly I set up a private foundation, the Tianaderrah or meeting point in Native American, Foundation, as a means of allocating a certain amount of money to various charities. The foundation has grown over the years and now a third of what we do in terms of grants every year is done internationally, mostly in Bulgaria. The reasons for it? Nellie is from Bulgaria and she loves her country but also, your dollar goes a long way here, you can give away grants to 20 students in Bulgaria for the cost of one in the United States, and the students are worth it. I'm a business man and I like to measure the benefits of what we do.
It seems you're focused on supporting students? Why?
Nellie: Both Bob and myself firmly believe in education.
Robert: The blessings that we have are largely attributable to free education. I would say that most of what we do both here and in the United States relates to education. Maybe we're just paying back society for the gifts that we received. The American College in Sofia is a beautiful example – if you look at how far it has come in the quality of the education and the quality of the students, it's exciting.
You are interested in museums, too.
Robert: You can't do everything in life, you have to pick up things that are consistent with what you value and cherish. Nellie has always been involved with museums and arts and I've always had an interest in historic preservation. We became aware through the Bulgarian American Society administered by Ambassador Sol Polanski of the needs of the Archaeological Museum in Sofia. These magnificent Thracian treasures, some of them newly discovered, others part of previous collections were not in proper display cases. We provided a grant to the Archaeological Museum to acquire and install the German display cases which had been recommended by a curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art who came over to advise. After all, the Museum's collection is world class.
Nellie: Museums are very close to my heart; this is where I developed myself professionally. I was involved with museums and initiated a pilot project for education in museums here in Bulgaria so when the opportunity was there, we took it.
Robert: The museums are a huge asset for a country. Bulgaria has a very rich history and this museum protects it, but it also does much more than that. Tourism is a natural industry for Bulgaria and museums provide part of the framework that makes this industry working and interesting. Take for example New York – many people go there for the Met, it is part of the experience. And in Bulgaria archaeology is a huge asset.
How does your foundation work in Bulgaria?
Robert: We're only donating through another charity. In Bulgaria, we work mainly through three organisations – the American Foundation for Bulgaria, the Bulgarian American Society and the American College in Sofia. The only social action we do is the Detstvo, or Childhood, Foundation where we provide scholarships to students from orphanages to go to a college or trade school.
Name three things that make the Bulgaria of 2008 different from the Bulgaria of 2001?
Robert: The boom in construction is the most obvious difference. Prices have gone up so we need to reconsider the amounts of money we allocate. The heavy traffic in Sofia is the biggest negative. It definitely affects the visiting experience.
Your advice to anyone interested in donating their money to education or culture in Bulgaria?
Robert: There are opportunities here to do things that have a very meaningful impact. It takes a little bit of time and a little bit of care but you accomplish a great deal with a modest amount of money.