Niarchos Foundation’s pioneering work in the fields of welfare, culture, education and health

The Stavros S. Niarchos Foundation, despite being one of the biggest welfare organizations active in Greece, is probably more widely recognized for its founders’ spectacular achievements in the business world than for its own activities, even though it has generously funded more than a thousand organizations and projects in Greece and abroad since its establishment in 1996. This is partly because the foundation has always preferred to keep a relatively low profile but also because of the less prominent nature of the public welfare sector in Greece, according to Andreas Dracopoulos, great-nephew of the late shipping tycoon Stavros Niarchos and co-director of the foundation, who spoke to Kathimerini English Edition during a trip to Athens from his New York base last week. «We don’t want, or need, to promote the Niarchos Foundation, but what we do want is the appropriate recognition for what we have been doing for the past nine years,» the 41-year-old Dracopoulos said during a rare interview, in a subdued corner of the Grande Bretagne’s atrium. The foundation funds charitable activities in four primary areas: social welfare, arts and culture, education, and health and medicine. Roughly half the funds are allocated to Greek projects, coordinated from the foundation’s Athens office, and the other half to projects abroad – some of which are aimed at promoting and preserving Greek heritage and culture while the others cover a range of different charitable projects; these projects are coordinated by the foundation’s offices in London, Monte Carlo and New York. Of the $225 million or so which has been donated to various projects around the world, about $120 million has gone toward Greek institutions – particularly in the social welfare sector, Dracopoulos said. Social focus Asked to name some examples of projects that the foundation has supported, Dracopoulos hesitates and understandably so, as even the organization’s 100-page volume containing the list of its beneficiaries is not exhaustive testimony to its activities. Nevertheless, he names a few exemplary projects, such as the funding of a shelter for disabled children near the Peloponnesian town of Sparta, the establishment of a day-care center for infants, children and single mothers to be run by the Metropolitan Church of Alexandroupolis – the first such project in the whole of northern Greece – and the construction of a hostel annexed to Ioannina University’s hospital to accommodate the relatives of poor patients. (A similar project has been funded at the University of Crete.) Another Ioannina-based initiative is the International Center of Hellenic Culture and Vocational Training, whose principal aim is to teach foreigners the Greek language and culture and to provide facilities for teaching Greeks foreign languages such as English and Russian. The center, which is to comprise a guest house for 130 people, also aims to train young people in professions «that will address the needs of the Balkan peninsula and countries of the Black Sea region.» Dracopoulos’s examples focused on the social welfare and health sectors, as the largest proportion of the foundation’s funding goes into these areas. But there are dozens of examples of its work in other sectors as well: countless grants to Greek museums and art galleries for renovations, annexes and restoration work; the provision of funds for the construction of specialist units and the provision of specialist equipment to state hospitals across the country; and the renovation of churches and buildings deemed important to Greek heritage. In 2001, the foundation funded the creation of the first training center for the fire department’s Special Disaster Response Unit (EMAK) in Elefsina, a state-of-the-art complex equipped with the latest technology. The center received a Super Puma rescue helicopter last year from the foundation, which has also paid for the training of EMAK pilots and engineers in France. The foundation’s contributions to foreign projects are equally impressive but too numerous to list. A notable beneficiary is the John Hopkins Hospital and School of Medicine in Baltimore, which has benefited from several grants. The foundation’s record in aid to the arts sector is equally impressive. It was a sponsor of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s landmark «Byzantium» exhibition in the summer of 2004, which brought together more than 350 masterpieces of Byzantine art from some 30 nations, including Greece. The foundation also funded the New York Library’s Hellenic Festival, a series of exhibitions, dance and theatrical performances, concerts, film screenings and workshops presented in different locations across the city between last October and April. The events were all aimed at «exploring the impact of ancient and classical Greek culture on contemporary thought and art.» Partnerships The Niarchos Foundation has also embarked on various partnerships with charitable institutions, many of which are ongoing. Examples include a venture with the Hellenic Society for Disabled Children (ELEPAP) to create «welfare shelters» and operate drugs awareness projects for orphaned children in several major cities, including Athens, Thessaloniki and Ioannina. The Niarchos Foundation also creates partnerships with foreign organizations, such as the US Institute for International Education. «In such cases what we are really doing is sub-contracting to experts in their field so we can be sure that the funding is being handled properly,» Dracopoulos said. «We embarked upon similar partnerships with the Red Cross and with Doctors Without Borders in various cases, including our donation to the victims of last year’s fatal tsunami [in Southeast Asia] which we allocated to specific areas, such as the rebuilding of schools in the worst affected areas.» The foundation also has a partnership with Yale University, with which it is promoting a six-year Hellenic Studies program available to any Yale undergraduate regardless of their major. The course, taught by visiting scholars, offers students the opportunity «to study post-classical Greece in its broader geographical and historical contexts» and includes language instruction in modern Greek. «It is a venture that combines two of our chief focuses: the education sector and the preservation of Hellenism abroad,» Dracopoulos said. Dracopoulos did not reveal the size of specific donations and stressed that the institute is more interested in «providing help wherever possible» than in making fewer, larger donations to make an impression. Asked whether he feels that by spreading the net too wide the foundation might be making less of an impact than it could, he was adamant that there are too many worthy causes to support and that it is too soon to specialize. «If we are to specialize in any particular area in the future, it is something that will develop naturally and will not be an imposed decision,» he said. «Of course, our foundation is still young,» he notes. «In a way it resembles a nine-year-old child. We are still developing and we can still learn a lot.» Dracopoulos stresses that the foundation is careful not to make any organization entirely dependent upon it. «We do not want any organization to rely on us 100 percent,» he said, noting that molly-coddling does not help in the long term. So, the foundation is a parent as well as a child? Dracopoulos smiles. «It’s tough love, but it helps ensure they will be independent in the future,» he says. «In some cases, we offer a ‘challenge grant’ where we give a prospective beneficiary half of what they ask for to encourage them to seek the other half themselves.» By supporting a broad range of organizations across its target sectors, the foundation also aims to foster exchange and collaboration among recipient institutions, he explained. Careful process Although the foundation helps many organizations, it has many appeals to sort through and assess before it decides on the final beneficiaries. This process is undertaken by the local advisory committee in Athens, which comprises individuals from all the fields the foundation specializes in and holds an active interest in the public welfare sector. «The board will assess the various applications we have received, or even suggest institutions for us to approach, and will submit their proposals to the board of directors which will make the final decision,» Dracopoulos said. «Generally, we choose projects which feature strong leadership and sound management and which we believe will benefit from our support in the long term,» he said. «In the USA we have a council which advises us on which projects to choose after assessing the appropriate due diligence concerns,» he added.