Long before we became a foundation – in 2003 – and a strong partner of non-governmental organisations in Europe – from 2006 on – we were a social business ourselves. In 1819, a group of Viennese citizens founded a private association to give common people opportunities for making provision for the future and establishing a secure and independent livelihood for themselves and their families. The association was run by dedicated volunteers in a poor neighbourhood, was innovative and obviously sustainable. It was called Erste oesterreichische Spar-Casse and was the “first Austrian savings bank”.
This is our story:
Johann Baptist Weber, born in Vienna in 1786, was a Catholic priest in the parish of St. Leopold in one of the suburbs of Vienna during the Biedermeier period. Before that, he had been a chaplain in Vienna-Lichtental, at the time when Franz Schubert performed his ecclesiastical works there, and in the parish of St. Peter in the city centre, next to which the office of the Erste österreichische Spar-Casse was to be located from 1823. A social entrepreneur before the term was even coined, Johann Baptist Weber founded several social institutions, including a kindergarten, a poorhouse and two schools, one of them for girls. He was 33 years old when he came up with the idea of founding a bank for the destitute with the help of affluent citizens.
Weber witnessed the social changes caused by industrialisation at first hand in his parishes. After the Napoleonic Wars, Austria was bankrupt, and poverty ran rampant across the country. Weber wondered how he could help the people flocking from the country to the city, who now earned their living as servants, day labourers, factory workers or simple craftsmen, to live a dignified life in this world. He was convinced that just being charitable was not enough. Therefore, he asked affluent citizens in his parish in St. Leopold to pledge 100 to 1000 guilders for the creation of a savings fund. In 1819, the savings bank association already had 55 members, whose deposits laid the foundation for the Erste oesterreichische-Spar-Casse, which opened on 4 October 1819.
Weber did not stay in Vienna’s Leopoldstadt district for much longer after the founding of the Erste oesterreichische Spar-Casse: following another stint as a priest in Mannswörth, he became chaplain at Schönbrunn Palace. Weber died in 1848 at the age of 64 in his hometown and was buried at the cemetery of Altmannsdorf.
Bernhard Baron von Eskeles was also a founding member of the Erste oesterreichische Spar-Casse. He was born in Vienna on 12 January 1753, the son of a rabbi. Bernhard Eskeles the Elder died in the same year. The son moved to Amsterdam with his mother Hanna Wertheimer at the age of 17, where he got a job and commercial training in a trading business. He was already running his own business by 1770 but returned to Vienna in 1773. He became a partner in the trading house of Nathan Adam Arnsteiner and his brother-in-law Salomon Hertz, the wholesale and banking house which soon operated solely under the name Arnsteiner & Eskeles. Its business encompassed the insurance of state bonds, the financing of infrastructure such as the rail connection between Milan and Venice, financial transactions, moneylending, and military contracting. Through these activities, the bank came to occupy a central position within the state apparatus of that period. Eskeles made a name for himself as a consultant to the Emperors Joseph II and Francis II. In April 1815, he signed a petition to Emperor Francis I to grant Jews in Austria legal equality: the petition was denied. In the following year, 1816, Eskeles co-founded the Austrian National Bank and became its first director and vice governor. Three years later, he and Johann Baptist Weber were among the founders of the Erste österreichische Spar-Casse.
Bernhard Eskeles’ private wealth was significantly increased through his marriage to Cäcilie Itzig from Berlin, a sister-in-law of his partner Arnsteiner. He used it to grant large loans to the Austrian state during the Napoleonic Wars. For this reason, Eskeles, who had already been granted nobility in 1797, was made a knight in 1811 and a baron in 1822. Eskeles contributed significantly to the organisation of the European money market, as well as launching several charitable foundations. In 1820 he acquired the Palais at Dorotheergasse 11, had it thoroughly renovated and, with his wife Cäcilie, made the salon a meeting point for representatives from art and science. During the Congress of Vienna in 1814/15, Talleyrand, Hardenberg and Wellington were among the guests who also were frequent visitors at the city’s most famous salon, hosted by Cäcilie’s sister Fanny von Arnstein. Today, Vienna’s Jewish Museum is housed in the Palais Eskeles.
Baron von Eskeles died in Hietzing, then a suburb of Vienna, on 7 August 1839. He is buried in the Währing Jewish Cemetery. To quote an obituary for the 87-year-old: “Bernhard Baron von Eskeles, the leader of one of the first and most honoured trading houses in Europe, the main founder of the Austrian National Bank, of which he was the director, the man whose integrity has become almost proverbial, whose house was the gathering place for all that was outstanding in Vienna, strangers and locals, nobles and lower orders, from princes to poor artists: he started life as a poor Jewish orphan.”
Savings Book No. 1
Erste Österreichische Spar-Casse, 1819
The very first savings book of the Erste Österreichische Spar-Casse, issued 1819, belonged to a woman: Marie Schwarz.
Adopting virtually the same statutes as the original institute, a number of savings banks were founded in many parts of Austria, Central and Eastern Europe, among others in: Laibach (today: Ljubljana), Innsbruck, Bregenz and Spalato (Split) in 1822, Graz and Prague in 1825, Görz (Gorizia) in 1831, Klagenfurt in 1835, Ragusa (Dubrovnik) and Kronstadt (Brasov) in 1835, Pest (Budapest) in 1839, Hermannstadt (Sibiu) and Zara (Zadar) in 1841, Pressburg (Bratislava) and Trieste in 1842, and Lemberg (Lviv), Kaschau (Košice) and Tyrnau (Trnava) in 1844. Today, one would call these banks “social businesses”: sustainable – i.e. self-supporting – enterprises that aim to fight poverty.
The 1844 “Regulations for the Formation, Establishment and Supervision of the Savings Banks” were a reaction to the resounding success of the savings bank idea. It stipulated the maximum amount of deposits and reaffirmed the objectives of providing basic financial services and preventing poverty. In addition, it formally allowed contributions to the public good, i.e. on top of the social business purpose (Volkssparkasse), donations from the profits were also permitted. Regular donations to hospitals, foundations and social institutions can be found in the accounts of the Erste from 1850 onwards.
The ”golden age“ of donation activity by the savings banks began in the 1870s, when growing profits led to a sharp increase in the amounts of reserve funds available. An average of 62,000 guilders per year was given to charitable organisations during this period. This corresponds to about 930,000 euros in today’s money. In the period up until 1914, funding equivalent to 15 million euros was made available to various Vienna hospitals.
From 1899, large sums flowed into the poor-law infirmaries and convalescent homes and into two Emperor Franz Joseph Jubilee Foundations for social housing and homes. The savings bank was also involved in cultural projects, including construction of the Viennese Music Association Building.
Following the record result in the 50th anniversary year, 117,000 guilders were accordingly allocated to charity. The Erste contributed 70,000 guilders for the construction of a children’s hospital in Leopoldstadt and a further 30,000 guilders to the St. Josef Children’s Hospital in the Wieden district. It also marked the anniversary by paying all staff a one-off bonus of six months’ salary.
For the 50th anniversary of the Erste oesterreichische Spar-Casse, a polka was commissioned from Eduard Strauss, the youngest son of Johann Strauss the Elder and brother of famous Johann Strauss the Younger. The title of his composition is “The Bee”
After the outbreak of the First World War, the savings banks were allowed to keep and manage war bonds, like other banks. The Erste and other savings banks thus became a systemic factor in war financing.
The Erste survived the waves of speculation in the wake of hyperinflation and currency changeover to the schilling unscathed.
World Savings Day was introduced in Austria.
In the period of Austro-fascism and under National Socialism, the Erste – like all savings banks – became an economic instrument of the authoritarian regime.
Once again, the population’s savings helped finance the war.
The savings banks became henchmen in the task of blocking the assets of Jewish customers and helping to “aryanise” real estate and property. Between 1999 and 2007, Erste Bank commissioned historians to review the role played by its predecessor institutions during the National Socialist era. The most important results: around 320 accounts held by Jewish owners were plundered. Thirty mortgage loans were granted to pay the “Reich Flight Tax” and other levies. On five occasions, there was participation in “aryanisations” of houses owned by Jews. There were seven instances of a takeover of business premises.
All real estate was returned after 1945, or else settlements were reached. Nevertheless, the original owners suffered severe losses in value. Two-thirds of the descendants of persons affected were traced thanks to cooperation with the Jewish Community. Compensation payments totalling around 700,000 euros were made. A sum of 44,000 euros, which could not be disbursed because of a lack of information regarding persons to inherit, was donated to the Maimonides Sanatorium, a care home which looks after Holocaust survivors.
Erste Bank contributed around 6.07 million euros to the Republic of Austria’s General Compensation Fund.
The “Sparefroh” advertising figure addressed Austrian children for the first time, conveying the idea of saving in the early days of the Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle).
In 1969, Woodstock made music history. Queen Elisabeth II visited Austria and humankind landed on the moon for the first time. The Concorde pioneered supersonic flight for commercial aircraft. The first internet connection was established in October. And the Erste österreichische Sparkasse turned 150.
The anniversary poster is a fine example of pop art.
The Erste transferred its business operations to a public limited company. A new subsidiary, Die Erste österreichische Spar-Casse AG, was founded for this purpose. The savings bank itself was given the name DIE ERSTE österreichische Spar-Casse Anteilsverwaltungssparkasse. This kind of holding company is referred to in German by the initials AVS. It is the legal predecessor of ERSTE Foundation.
In March, Erste acquired the GiroCredit Bank AG and changed its name to Erste Bank der Österreichischen Sparkassen AG. In November, Erste Bank made Austrian financial history by floating on the stock exchange. Shares to the value of more than seven billion schillings (508 million euros) were issued. In December, the shares were included in the ATX, Austria’s main index. Erste Bank remains a heavyweight in the ATX to present day.
And here the story continues for the next millennium
The history of ERSTE Foundation begins a few years after the beginning of the third millennium. Even before the foundation will be actually established in December 2003, big changes happen in the region in which the foundation will later be active. On 9 October 2002, the European Commission recommends the admission of the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, as well as Cyprus and Malta to the EU. The signing of the Accession Treaty takes place on 16 April 2003 in Athens.
And it won’t stop there.
tranzit was founded as a network of civic associations working independently in the field of contemporary art, first in Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia; Romania joined the group later. Erste Bank started the project by supporting young initiatives. When ERSTE Foundation started operating in 2007, it became tranzit’s main partner.
The holding company (AVS) was converted into a foundation: DIE ERSTE Österreichische Spar-Casse Privatstiftung, in short and in English: ERSTE Foundation! This foundation is the main shareholder of Erste Bank AG and later Erste Group and draws its operating budget from the dividend payments from its share package.
The Kontakt Collection was founded by Erste Group as an independent association. It is dedicated to artistic developments in Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe. It soon became one of the most important collections of conceptual art from this region. ERSTE Foundation later became a member of the association and its most important donor.
In 2006, ERSTE Foundation started its philanthropic operations. It views itself as a creative workshop for ideas and innovation, a lab for topics of the future which increases its effectiveness through strategic cooperation via networks.
The Zweite Sparkasse (Second Savings Bank), the “bank for the unbanked”, was founded in October. The initial capital was donated by ERSTE Foundation. ERSTE Foundation’s first project was based on the founding principle from 1819, offering financial inclusion for all.
For 10 years, aces – Academy of Central European Schools – connected young students via international school partnerships in Europe. Through active participation in dialogue and exchange with peers from abroad, young people established personal contacts, developed friendships across borders and become acquainted with varying views and different ways of thinking. In 10 years, 30,000 students and 4,000 teachers from almost 500 schools in 15 countries implemented 300 school projects.
The European Fund for the Balkans was founded as a joint initiative of European foundations to strengthen democracy in the Balkans, promote European integration and reinforce the role of South-Eastern Europe in tackling the emerging challenges in Europe.
The Igor Zabel Award for Culture and Theory was presented for the first time. It commemorates the curator, critic and author from Ljubljana, who died in 2004, and is awarded to cultural protagonists whose work helps deepen and broaden the international exposure of visual arts and culture in Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe.
Gender Check. Femininity and Masculinity in the Art of Eastern Europe (13 November 2009 – 14 February 2010, mumok, Vienna) was the first comprehensive exhibition featuring art from Eastern Europe since the 1960s. It was based on the theme of gender roles. Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the curator Bojana Pejić, along with a team of experts from 24 different countries, put together a selection of over 400 works including paintings, sculpture, installations, photography, posters, films and videos. With over 200 artists, the exhibition painted an exceptionally diverse picture of a chapter in art history that had been largely unknown until recently and that could also act as an important addition to contemporary gender discourse. Gender Check followed the changes in the representation of male and female role models in art – especially as they developed under different socio-political conditions. The exhibition, initiated and supported by ERSTE Foundation, showed the interrelationship between art and history following both a chronological and thematic approach. The exhibition was shown in Warsaw in 2010.
The Social Business Tour 2010 travelled through six capital cities in Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe, offering lectures and workshops for entrepreneurs, bankers, students, NGOs, and government representatives in Vienna, Bratislava, Prague, Belgrade, Budapest, and Bucharest. The tour was under the patronage of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, which grants small loans to the poor and is considered a role model for the social business concept.
Since 2007, a democracy workshop for children and young people between the ages of 8 and 14 has been held in the Austrian parliament. The young people learn democratic processes in a playful way: how does a parliament, the legislative process or an election work? On the initiative of ERSTE Foundation and after an almost two-year preparation phase, this successful concept was also implemented in the Parliament of Montenegro in Podgorica in 2012.
In 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2013 the ERSTE Foundation Award for Social Integration was given to organisations that make exceptional efforts to promote the integration of marginalised people. In 2013, at a glamorous award ceremony, all winners (30 prize winners, four winners of the Special Prizes of the Jury and one winner of the Practitioners’ Award) received prizes totalling 616,000 euros, as well as expert PR counselling over a two-year period. The winning projects from 13 Central and Eastern European countries were selected by an international jury out of 136 finalists ranked by local experts in social integration from almost 2,000 submitted applications.
The NGO Academy was founded with the aim of empowering the civil society sector in Central and South-Eastern Europe by providing educational services. It offers executive managers and members of NGOs a range of especially designed, high-quality programmes to strengthen organisational structures and enhance management skills. They are organised in cooperation with the Competence Center for Nonprofit Organizations and Social Entrepreneurship at Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU Wien).
Solidarity, civil society and responsible political action were part of the title of the 25th Annual General Assembly and Conference of the European Foundation Centre (efc) in Sarajevo, standing as the motto for the whole year. For the first time, this philanthropy meeting took place in an Eastern European country and ERSTE Foundation was on the programme committee. It started to rain during the conference – and never stopped. The biggest flood disaster in recent history in the Balkans triggered a solidarity package from efc members.
ERSTE Foundation took advantage of the minibus trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina to build a house in Srebrenica in advance of the conference. For decades, the Farmers Helping Farmers NGO has been working there, enabling victims of war to return and start again with simple housing. There are only a few places where solidarity, civil society and responsible political action are so closely related and so often in conflict.
The Austrian government organised the Western Balkans Summit Vienna 2015. It was the second conference in the context of the Berlin Process initiated by German Chancellor Angela Merkel the previous year, which is intended to offer the Western Balkans a forum for exchange with EU member states. In 2015, for the first time, part of the programme was devoted exclusively to civil society: the Civil Society Forum offered its representatives the opportunity to introduce critical voices, articulate recommendations and make suggestions to participants at government level. The Civil Society Forum, organised by ERSTE Foundation and partners, was a strong signal that the EU integration process cannot take place without the involvement of the civil society sector.
The day after the Civil Society Forum, the discovery of a truck with 71 suffocated refugees on the motorway near Vienna shocked the world. In autumn 2015, hundreds of thousands of people were fleeing to Central Europe via Hungary and Italy, hoping to escape the war in Syria or the violence in Iraq and Afghanistan. For many of them, the arduous journey led through Vienna. Erste Group’s new headquarters is right next to Vienna’s new main train station. The bank planned to move into the offices from 2016; the future ERSTE Foundation offices were still under construction. They were spontaneously furnished with bunk beds and converted into an emergency shelter for refugees for many weeks. From 12 September to 30 November 2015, 341 employees of ERSTE Foundation and Erste Group, including relatives and friends, looked after a total of 14,827 exhausted people in transit on 81 nights. On average, 183 guests stayed there every night. Around 160 shifts were covered by 70 volunteer doctors and nurses. Another shelter was operated in a former Erste Bank branch near Westbahnhof, which offered basic care for 239 residents from 13 October 2015 to 4 March 2016, also on a purely voluntary basis.
ERSTE Foundation also provided a refugee fund of 500,000 euros for integration initiatives in Austria and produced and distributed a set of cards with facts and information on refugees and asylum with a total circulation of 47,000 in three updated editions.
The Erste Financial Life Park, or FLiP for short, opened with a bang on the newly inaugurated Erste Campus. FLiP is Austria’s most prominent project in the field of financial education. An interactive tour teaches young people the skills and competencies they need to make financial decisions for their lives. FLiP promotes know-how in money matters and helps to acquire the skills it takes to manage one’s personal financial affairs responsibly and independently.
ERSTE Foundation moved into its new premises on the Erste Campus!
ERSTE Foundation moved into its new premises on the Erste Campus! What we call the co-working space has developed into a place of intensive discussion with our partners and reflection of our programmes.
ERSTE Foundation Library also opened at the new location on the Erste Campus. Its modern, bright design, open structure and easy access have attracted increasing numbers of users: in the year after the move, the number of registered library users almost doubled, from 270 (as of 2016) to 512 people. On average, at least one new library user was registered per day during opening times. The number of loans also increased considerably by some 50 per cent in 2017. A total of 1,667 media items on ERSTE Foundation topics were borrowed. 11,000 media items are available for loan to the growing circle of ERSTE Foundation Library users.
Europe’s Futures – Ideas for Action kicked off. Committed, respected Europeans work both individually and jointly to contribute to a strong and democratic Europe. The initiative focuses on the regression of democracy caused by a growing right and left-wing nationalist, populist, xenophobic political dynamic which challenges the basis of the rule of law. It also examines the nexus of migration, asylum and borders, as a key driving force of the fear in societies that arrivals from abroad will “dilute” their nations’ identity, that nations will “lose their soul”. The enlargement of the European Union to the Western Balkans is seen as a test of the European project’s credibility.
After 12 highly successful years, the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, launched in 2007, changed to become a journalistic platform for South-Eastern Europe and the Visegrád countries: Reporting Democracy. Investigative journalists research the background of illiberal tendencies in Europe. Reporting Democracy enables cross-border journalism, scholarships and publication opportunities for journalists from 15 countries.
Erste Group and ERSTE Foundation reached their 200th anniversary! The bank and the owner celebrated a success story after the difficult years that followed the 2008/09 economic crisis and its effects. Erste Bank has been growing towards Central and Eastern Europe since 1997 and has made several successful capital increases. Today, Erste Group is present in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania and Austria. Subsidiaries have an indirect presence in Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Moldova. With over 16 million customers and more than 47,000 employees, Erste Group is one of the largest financial service providers in Eastern Europe.
ERSTE Foundation has established itself as a reliable partner for civil society in Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe. Since it started activities for the common good, over 110 million euros have been invested in over 1,600 projects. To celebrate the anniversary of the savings bank idea in Austria, ERSTE Foundation organised a top-class debate on these questions of the future that spanned the whole year: Who are we in the Central, Eastern and South-Eastern European region, thirty years into an era of profound transformation that has shaped the lives of every single family? What do we strive for as societies? How do we deal with the challenges along the way? In March, economist Francis Fukuyama accepted the invitation to take stock – at The Tipping Point Talks 2019. He was followed by historian Timothy Snyder on Europe Day in May, former politician and advocate of digital fundamental rights Marietje Schaake in September and, finally, author, economist and social scientist Felwine Sarr in November. Their lectures were complemented by discussions and intensive workshops (“Think Camps”) with ERSTE Foundation stakeholders as well as experts and networkers working in the same field.
We look forward to the next 200 years!
ERSTE Foundation is a creative workshop for ideas and innovation, a lab for topics of the future which increases its effectiveness through the strategic cooperation with networks.
As main shareholder of Erste Group ERSTE Foundation secures the independent future of one of the largest financial services providers in Central, Eastern and South Eastern Europe. As a private Austrian savings banks foundation, the foundation is committed to serve the common good.
Our activities are based on four principles:
We believe that financial literacy is life literacy.
We believe that most people want others to do well.
We believe that the European idea is worth fighting for.
We believe that culture is a central part of our identity and that every society needs Culture.
We invest parts of our dividends into the region in which Erste Group operates. Our goals are to strengthen civil society, foster the inclusion of socially disadvantaged groups and promote contemporary culture in Europe.
In May 2020, ERSTE Foundation was to host the largest gathering of European foundations for the first time. For the 31st European Foundation Centre Annual General Assembly and Conference, over 800 guests from the philanthropy sector were expected in Vienna to discuss “Foundations and the New Normal”. Due to the corona pandemic, the conference had to be postponed to 2021. To date, part of ERSTE Foundation’s workforce is still working from home. The foundation has set up special emergency funds for NGOs affected by SARS-CoV-2. The New Normal happened faster and differently than expected. There are new challenges to be mastered!
Download the fact sheet of ERSTE Foundation
In 1997, Erste Group went public with a strategy to expand its retail business into Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). Since then, Erste Group’s customer base has grown through numerous acquisitions and organic growth from 600,000 to 16.1 million. 47.300 employees provide banking services through 2.604 branches in 7 countries. Today, Erste Group is one of the largest financial services providers in Central and Eastern Europe in terms of clients and total assets. It has always focused on retail and SME banking.
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.We view European integration as more than a project. It is the reality we live in. We come from five different countries and speak twelve languages fluently.