Since her arrival four years ago Nancy Schiller has become a well-known personality through Bulgaria. Seen in tiny villages in northern Bulgaria and at major archaeological sites like the Bishop's Basilica of Philippopolis, from her offices in central Sofia to locations with difficult-to-pronounce names that aspire to have US-style marching bands Nancy Schiller has skilfully managed one of the largest and most important non-governmental organisations in this country. Faced with the realities of the current pandemic, the America for Bulgaria Foundation team was quick to respond: United Against Covid-19.
What is United Against COVID-19?
The United Against COVID-19 Fund represents the values that America, the America for Bulgaria Foundation, and our Bulgarian and international partners and donors stand for – a shared commitment to bettering the lives of others.
United is providing financial support to healthcare facilities and communities across the country to assist the most vulnerable groups affected by the crisis.
In early March, as it became clear that the coronavirus was a growing threat, we thought about how the America for Bulgaria Foundation could quickly and effectively assist this country. Our team is made up of Bulgarians who could not and would not remain bystanders in these difficult times for their country. As we adjusted the focus of our daily work, the ABF Board was fully supportive, quickly approving ABF's donations to hospitals, #StandingTogether, and United Against COVID-19.
The Bulgarian Donors' Forum, a long-time grantee with a leading fundraising role with companies throughout Bulgaria, was a natural partner. Its reputation is stellar and its executive director, Krasi Velichkova, is well regarded for her innovative leadership and advocacy for transparency in funding. We talked about what we might be able to do together and quickly realized that the situation called for greater collaboration. The U.S. Embassy and the American Chamber of Commerce joined with us, and United Against COVID-19 was launched.
We have a lofty goal – to raise 1 million leva – and 100 percent of every lev or dollar or euro contributed supports those overlooked or underfunded during this crisis. As we speak, United has raised more than 900,000 leva and is still growing.
I am overwhelmed by the generosity of corporations, foundations, and individuals. The first fundraising letters were emailed on a Saturday evening in late March, and within minutes, I had a response from Dimitar Tsotsorkov of the Lachezar Tsotsorkov Foundation committing significant support. Companies such as Coca-Cola, ContourGlobal, ING Bank, Citibank, and UniCredit Bulbank, among many others – 25 so far – quickly followed. This outpouring of support is a reminder that we are all in this together as the coronavirus does not care about international boundaries, race, sex, or religious affiliation.
What short- and long-term aims do you expect to achieve?
In the short term, we are funding NGOs, chitalishta, municipalities, and hospitals so they can help those in need – food purchases, sanitary equipment, medical supplies, and even petrol for volunteers driving their vehicles to deliver medicine to senior citizens living in remote locations.
We made the application simple and each request is carefully evaluated by representatives of the four founding organizations. In the first week of the launch, more than 400 applications were received. We are quickly verifying the requests and swiftly providing financial support. United will have at least two rounds of applications and funding because as the virus continues to spread, the needs will keep growing.
Re:Turn event in New York City, November 2019 © Ivan Nikolov
While it is hard to think about the long term in the midst of a crisis, once this passes, my expectation is that Bulgarians will recognize and appreciate what they have accomplished together. That the spirit of community and looking out for one another is alive and well.
In what specific ways do you intend to reach the most vulnerable in Bulgaria?
I can give you several examples that I find particularly compelling. A family-run bakery in Stara Zagora in danger of closing due to the virus continued to operate, supplying a local senior housing center with freshly baked goods. Funds were donated to buy more ingredients allowing the bakery to continue feeding those in need.
At many hospitals in small towns across Bulgaria, there is a dire need for personal protection equipment, or PPE. United is providing the funds to buy the equipment so the medical teams are better protected in combatting the virus.
The school in the village of Bohot was no longer able to provide meals to its economically disadvantaged students because of the state-mandated closing of all schools. To meet the needs of its young students, the principal requested funds to deliver boxes of food to students' homes.
The village of Vasilovtsi was where the first two cases of coronavirus were identified, but after the initial frenzy of media attention, the village was left adrift. We wanted to let the community know that it was not forgotten, and funds were donated so the municipality could purchase sanitization supplies and personal protection equipment for essential workers.
An organization that builds bridges between generations by placing young city people with older individuals in villages started a fundraising campaign to buy sanitizers, masks, and food supplements for the residents of more than 20 villages across Bulgaria. A small financial gift will allow them to reach further than they had originally hoped.
In all cases, we consider how we can best deploy the funds entrusted to us to improve the lives of those suffering the health and economic consequences of the coronavirus. United is reaching all corners of Bulgaria and all segments of the population.
How does the new project fit in the larger framework of the philanthropy work the America for Bulgaria Foundation has been doing over the years?
Since ABF's founding in 2009, we have prioritized the important role of philanthropy in a democratic society. In this time of both health and economic challenges, we are gratified and humbled to see the NGO and corporate communities and individuals stepping up to meet the challenge. Whether donating directly to hospitals, converting business processes to make sanitary devices, or arranging online hack-a-thons against COVID-19, Bulgarians from all walks of life are meeting the moment with selflessness and generosity.
One emotional aspect of this crisis has been witnessing the power and relevance of many NGOs that ABF has supported throughout the years bringing meaningful help to local communities in Bulgaria. During this challenge, the importance of these organizations has come to the fore. There have been times when the role of civil society, NGOs, and philanthropy has been questioned and even undermined in the public sphere. We now see that there is nothing more efficient and effective – no greater synergy than the one resulting from the partnership among state, business, and civil society in providing for the needs of citizens. We have seen that good is more contagious than the virus, which, I think, reminds us of the most important values of our common humanity.
At the opening of ABLE Activator, February 2020 © Ivo Anev
I would like to share a story that perfectly captures the spirit of philanthropy in action. Ivan Dimov, founder of the NGO Single Step, proposed putting together a Live Aid–type of concert to raise funds for COVID-19 relief, but done remotely from the artists' homes. The Bulgarian Food Bank was selected as the beneficiary as it is responding to the growing needs of those suffering the economic consequences of the coronavirus. ABF helped with a small donation to cover immediate expenses.
In the span of less than three weeks, not only did Ivan line up a dozen or so of Bulgaria's most popular musical artists pro bono, but bTV, Bulgaria's most watched national television station, agreed to broadcast the two-hour concert in prime time, free of charge. The concert, "Help from Home," aired on April 8 and was an overwhelming success.
More than 250,000 leva was raised through the DMS system and with ABF's matching contribution of 100,000 leva, the Food Bank now has an additional 350,000 leva to address Bulgaria's needs.
So, you have one NGO (Single Step) creating the opportunity for another NGO (Bulgarian Food Bank) to raise much-needed funds through another NGO (Donor Messaging System). The media, talent, online forums, behind-the-scenes camera crews – all participated pro bono. Further, nearly a quarter of a million Bulgarians contributed money to the cause.
Not only is this a virtuous circle, but this is grace. This is kindness. This is Bulgaria at its best. I am privileged to represent the America for Bulgaria Foundation and am humbled to play a small part in Bulgaria's long history of generosity.
To learn more about United Against COVID-19, go to www.United4BG.org
To donate to United Against COVID-19 outside Bulgaria, go to www.globalgiving.org/projects/united-against-covid-19-bulgaria/
To learn more about the America for Bulgaria Foundation, go to www.US4BG.org