Via’s Jiří Bárta: Our key to engaged citizenship was rebuilding trust

Photo: Anna Šolcová / Via Foundation

Via Foundation is an independent Czech foundation committed to helping citizens engage in the development of their communities and boosting philanthropy in the Czech Republic. Established in 1997 it has supported over 4,900 projects in Czech communities. I spoke to Jiří Bárta, who led Via for 22 years, about its beginnings, its achievements and “the art of giving”.

Photo: Anna Šolcová / Via Foundation
Jiří Bárta,  photo: Archive of Via Foundation

“When we started, 23 years ago, it was just a few years after the Velvet Revolution in 1989 and we lived in a society that had pretty deep scars from the totalitarian regime and it was not easy for people to meet with their neighbours, to talk to their neighbours and engage in public affairs. Maybe I should mention that Via Foundation is a program continuation of the Czech office of the American foundation that was set up many years ago in 1990. We tried to take the best of American philanthropy and Canadian philanthropy and UK philanthropy and to bring it to the Czech Republic because we really wanted people not to care only about their private lives, but to look around in their towns and cities and begin thinking along the lines: what can I do, as an individual, to make the place where I live better and what can I do for my fellow-citizens or my neighbours? So those were the beginnings – it was not easy.”

Photo: Mikuláš Karpeta / Via Foundation

When you started in a situation where people were just used to looking after themselves, how difficult was it to engage them in community affairs? And what was the main factor in kick-starting the process –how did you get them to change?

“Well, back then, people would strongly believe –and by the way, to some extent it is true even today – they would believe that it is the state, the national government or maybe the mayor of my town who is responsible for the wellbeing of my life and the community and we tried to change that attitude. And pretty early we found a good way to start – if you look at a typical small town or village in 1998 there was a lack of public spaces where people could meet and do things together – and in many cases this was why they came together in the first place, when we as a foundation helped them to revitalize some public space that was unused or in disrepair. That was a tangible change that we tried to help them with, but at the same time we knew that something intangible was happening in that community – people were meeting with their neighbours and they were talking to each other, and by working together they were slowly regaining trust in one another. So basically we would always look for tangible opportunities to help, knowing that those intangible, invisible things, like rebuilding trust among people are equally important.”

Photo: Mikuláš Karpeta / Via Foundation

What kind of projects have taken place over the last twenty years?

“Well, each and every year, Via Foundation would support more than 200 community projects throughout the Czech Republic and a typical project would be the one I just described – that people would say - well, we have this piece of cultural heritage that used to be beautiful and served a good purpose, but during the communist years it fell into disrepair, so we’ll come together as volunteers and try to bring it back to life or there is a lack of a public space and we would like to change that. So the motivations were different, but what was important was that people were meeting as people, and realizing that they can take personal responsibility for making life better in their community and that they do not have to wait for the government to step in. So it is basically bringing the notion of a private action for public benefit – one of the lessons we learnt in the Anglo-Saxon world where people don’t tend to wait for governments to make their lives better.”

Photo: Mikuláš Karpeta / Via Foundation

Is it easier now with the young generation, people born after 1989?

“Absolutely! When you look at the young generation, say people who are in their thirties, quite often they studied abroad and when they returned they wanted to bring back a little bit of that community spirit to the Czech Republic -and they definitely succeeded. Another thing that is interesting – if we look at people in their 50s and older, they would tend to leave town for the weekend and they would create little private bubbles in their summer houses and country cottages –Monday to Friday they would live in the city and on weekends they would live this different life in the country. While the young generation has a different attitude – they say this is my town – be it Prague, Plzen or Brno – this is where I am going to live throughout the week, throughout the year and they try to make that place a good place to reside in not just on weekdays, but for their entire lives. So this is a huge change and with the young generation it is much, much easier.”

Photo: ladybug1093,  Pixabay / CC0

You also encourage charity. How generous are Czechs in giving to charity?

“Well it is getting much, much better. We have kept track of the numbers since the year 2,000 and if we compare the first years and today Czechs tripled the volume of charity donations over those twenty years –which is wonderful. If we look at the big data, the trend in charitable giving – and by that I mean by both individuals and companies and corporations –grows faster than the GDP per capita in the Czech Republic, which is very encouraging. In the course of a normal year –when there is no crisis – Czech people tend to be very generous in donating to social and health causes, and maybe surprisingly, they are also generous when it comes to helping animals. But it is sick children, health and social issues that attract the most attention, under normal circumstances. When something like the coronavirus pandemic happens, that changes the whole picture, of course.”

Photo: Markus Winkler,  Pixabay / CC0

Do they need to see the person or animal at the end of the chain that they are helping? Do they trust public collections?

“Good question. There are many types of donors, but to simplify things, I will describe two groups. One of them really wants to see the individual child or animal that will benefit. That donor needs to see that their donation –whether it is small or big – gets directly to the person or animal in need. And then there are other donors – and typically those donors give more sizeable gifts – who think about their donation as an investment – as a philanthropic investment. They tend to think in broader terms such as how can we help change the education system in the Czech Republic? They are willing to consider advocacy projects and democracy-minded projects. They donate larger amounts of money and they look for systemic change. So those are two distinct types of motivation – either I look for systemic change or I just want to help one individual, one kid or one animal.”

Photo: bohed,  Pixabay / CC0

I suppose individuals tend to help individuals and corporations donate in aid of systemic change?

“Surprisingly, this is not necessarily the case. It is big individual donors – who invest hundreds of thousands of crowns, sometimes millions of crowns, in helping systemic changes. Companies sometimes do that as well, but companies think much more about whether the systemic change matches nicely with their agenda and brand name, while individual donors –if they feel strongly about the environment, they will donate generously to, let’s say, preventing climate change, if they have small kids who go to public school and they are not really satisfied with how the school operates they may consider making a donation that will help systemic change in the education system. So surprisingly, it is individual donors who support systemic change and I think that is wonderful news for the Czech Republic.”

Illustrative photo: Billy Cedeno,  Pixabay / CC0

And do Czechs help abroad –give aid to people in poor countries or those struck by national disasters?

“Yes they are and I think those fantastic organizations like People in Need or ADRA would confirm that Czech people are pretty generous when some disaster happens abroad, that in those situations Czechs really are willing to open their wallets and donate –and that is wonderful news.”

The Via Foundation publishes a journal titled The Art of Giving. So tell us – what is the art of giving? On a personal level, how does it enrich you to give – and why would you advise people who have not yet done so to start – to try giving, sharing and helping others?

“I think it is important to realize that giving is a very personal thing and that as a donor, as a person, as a human being, I should really think about what it is that I care about in this world. What wakes me up at 5 in the morning or what makes me joyful. What I care about and how I spend my free time can provide good leads for my charitable giving. If somebody cares about the environment that will likely be the driving force behind their donations, if someone cares about animals, that’s where they will want of help. So you need to realize that it is very personal and ask yourself –what is it I care about deeply. You don’t need to try to find the best use for your charity crowns or euros, but always ask yourself –what is it that I care about. There is nothing like the best universal giving for everybody. There are many, many types of giving, as there are many, many types of donor motivations and donors in each and every country. This is what we try to tell people – that maybe it is “more art than science” –even though, as in every human activity one needs to think about –why am I giving to this charity or to this cause? But it is more personal than we typically admit.”

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