“Giving never made me any poorer.”


It’s been over a year since Doraja Eberle became the chairwoman of ERSTE Foundation. In an interview with Alexandra Rosetti-Dobslaw and Maribel Königer she not only looks back at the past 12 months in her new position but also looks ahead to the future.

Let’s start our conversation off a little differently: What was chairwoman Doraja Eberle’s most dreadful moment of the past year?

I’d say poignant rather than dreadful. It was just a few weeks ago when I visited Elijah – a project organised by Ruth Zenkert and Father Georg Sporschill in Romania. I’ve seen a lot of poverty, isolation, discrimination and racism in my life, but the conditions these Romani families live in – or rather survive in – is beyond imagination. And that’s at the heart of Europe. This makes our mission even more pressing: Tackling poverty, facilitating inclusion and enhancing opportunities.

Can helping sometimes be complicated?

To be able to help is great. Giving never makes you any poorer. But it’s true that a foundation like ours, unlike an NGO, doesn’t work directly with the affected people, but with the organisations that support these people. So we need to choose our partners very carefully to make sure we can help as much as possible.

To what extent did your career so far – as a social worker, founder of an NGO, politician – prepare you for your current work at the foundation?

As a social worker I learnt to be down-to-earth and an advocate for people who can’t make their voice heard, or who have lost their voice due to their living situation.
Being an executive is a balancing act: on the one hand you have to lead the way and on the other you’ve got to be a team player and always be there for your team. So my experiences as a social worker, NGO activist and politician come in handy.

What surprised you most in your first year?

Two things mainly. Firstly: the vast number of projects that we supervise directly or support and the wide range of issues we deal with. I’m afraid this is becoming a dull interview because I keep on praising our work. But seriously, in the beginning I only knew about a few of the foundation’s projects and thought they were great. Like the Award for Social Integration, Die Zweite Sparkasse, ((superar)) and aces – Academy of Central European Schools. In other words: the major projects. But I knew very little about our large number of other projects.

So what was the aha-moment?

In the field of culture for example. I must admit that this is not really my field of expertise – at least not our focal point, which is contemporary visual art. So it’s all new and exciting for me. For example, there’s this project we’ve been doing for some years now and which at first sight seems rather unspectacular: PATTERNS Lectures. In this project we facilitate first-rate courses on arts and cultural studies at Eastern European universities, specific topics, that aren’t normally part of the curriculum.

This sounds great but very much like a good, solid educational project. Where’s the aha-moment in all of this?

You’re right. But if we take a closer look, this project is actually the answer to a major problem all foundations face when they try to support creative people, academics and bright minds: the notorious brain drain problem. Foundations organise projects that support good people who would otherwise ‘starve’ – not only intellectually – in their own countries – and thanks to the new possibilities they emigrate to London, New York, Berlin, Vienna… And the local problems persist.

So how are the PATTERNS Lectures different?

We finance and support research and teaching within the region of Central and Eastern Europe. Freelance curators, scientists, art historians etc. can propose a course at a public art university in their respective countries. They can also travel, buy literature and invite guest lecturers from abroad. This makes the national arts universities more international, thus improving the opportunities for the students, who now don’t have to leave their countries. And the lecturers can gain international experience and enlarge their network by staying in their home country. In 90 % of the cases, the universities keep the courses within their curricula even when the funding and the scholarship for the lecturer are over. Everybody wins and the expertise remains in the region. This concept can be adapted to other fields as well.

Is that already happening?

Yes, the transfer of knowledge within this region is a big issue. Our NGO Academy allows us to offer our partners and other civil society organisations access to key knowledge for their work in increasingly difficult times.

Vienna University of Economics and Business is our partner and we have joined forces to develop international and regional modules that we will be offering in 13 countries and in six different languages. This is a huge and very exciting new project for the foundation.

Does this mean that you adopt similar strategies in the three programmes with their very different focuses, such as social development, culture, European integration and democracy promotion?

In terms of strategy, yes. And, in my opinion, this is one of the extraordinary and very interesting features of ERSTE Foundation: with our programmes we can prove that cultural and social issues are more closely related than generally assumed. Social policy and culture are very often even played off against each other. But in reality there are more parallels than many would believe. This fact becomes particularly clear in integrative educational projects like the ((superar)) project, which perfectly interlocks first-rate musical education and social integration.

And what was the second surprise?

Secondly, I was surprised that so many people actually know about our work. In Austria we are still a bit below the radar, so to speak, and are often overshadowed by the bank. It’s not easy to develop a distinct image here. And to be honest, I underestimated this at the beginning. It’s probably also because there are hardly any non-profit foundations in Austria and we also have to tackle an image that has nothing to do with what we are. But in Eastern European countries many people are quite familiar with ERSTE Foundation and its programmes. And I am really proud because this visibility is thanks to the groundwork of my team. When I travel around, I see how much we’ve achieved over the course of the last few years and that the foundation’s work is greatly appreciated.

How do you view the region where the foundation carries out its activities? After all, Central and Eastern Europe don’t form a homogeneous region.

That’s true. On the one hand, there are EU member countries and non-EU member countries with higher growth rates than many countries in Western Europe. On the other hand, there are countries facing serious problems. But there are also problems which affect more or less all of the countries: e.g. deficits in the field of education – a topic which is very important to me. It’s a fact that a sound education is the basis for an autonomous life.
Personally, I like to be connected to the projects. People in these countries are very open-minded and hospitable – the warmth they show is really heartfelt.
But I also see some contradictions. Although they are open-minded, many people have lost hope that their situations will improve or that they will be able to lead a dignified life.

Together with your colleague from the board, Franz Karl Prüller, you have initiated a strategic process in the foundation. Why did you do this and what changes did this process bring with it?

Due to the economic crises of the past five years, the funding budget of ERSTE Foundation didn’t grow as much as was initially planned. In the period since we launched our activities up until the end of last year, we spent nearly 60 million Euros on almost 900 projects, but our budget hasn’t grown since 2011. So we can only do what is feasible at the moment and unfortunately not what has to be done. Nevertheless, we want to, and have to, initiate new projects and to this end we had to do some redeployment and restructuring. We have reduced our level of micro-funding and intend to focus on fewer but more visible projects. The aforementioned convergence of our programmes is also very important to us. As a result, our director of the Programme Europe, Knut Neumayer, will take on the additional role of director of the Programme Social Development, replacing Franz Karl Prüller who has joined the ERSTE Foundation Management Board. Knut Neumayer’s double role as director will definitely lead to more synergies between these two programmes.

What do you wish for in the New Year and in the future?

Individualism, disorientation and the loss of standards and values are becoming rampant in our society. Dealing with this topic as intensively as we do at the foundation creates visible and tangible consequences, which demonstrate that we can only address and solve the social problems of those relying on us as a collective. What I wish for is to tackle this task as a collective.
And for the foundation I wish that more people in Austria would take notice of what we do and why we do it. And I hope that our work will inspire a lot of people to follow suit and set up non-profit foundations acting for the common good. It is a challenge and, at the same time, an enriching experience to work at a unique institution like ERSTE Foundation. It would be great if this idea caught on in Austria and philanthropic foundations became commonplace.

And last but not least: What were the greatest moments of the past year?

There were quite a few. The happy ((superar))-children from Bosnia, Austria, Romania, Slovakia and Switzerland who performed in public together with the El Sistema kids from Venezuela at the Salzburg Festival. Many of them had never been abroad before or, for that matter, even been on a coach. This experience gave these kids an overwhelming sense of pride, belonging and self-confidence which probably changed them forever. To witness all that was like a gift for me and reminded me of how grateful we must be that we’re on the givers’ and not the takers’ side.

Photo © Dejan Petrovic/ERSTE Foundation