In a wide-ranging address at the Hellenism Forum, Thursday, February 13, 2014, at the 23rd Annual Leadership 100 Conference, Vasili Tsamis, Chief Operating Officer and Co-Chief Investment Officer of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, reminded his audience of the Greek roots of the concept of philanthropy. He described how the Foundation, in carrying out the legacy of Stavros Niarchos, strove to create a new model true to that concept in its philanthropic activities in Greece and around the world. The Niarchos Foundation was presented with the Archbishop Iakovos Leadership 100 Award for Excellence for its contributions.
After an introduction by Argyris Vassiliou, newly installed Vice Chairman of Leadership 100, who referred to the Foundation as one of the world’s most successful and innovative non-profit organizations, Tsamis began his talk by stating that “philanthropia” meant far more than love of humanity for the ancient Greeks. Rather it referred to a life of perfect harmony on earth, a way of mindfulness together with good works that was the very essence of civilization and informed citizenship. Distinguishing philanthropy from charity, he said the latter “relieves pain deriving from social problems”, whereas the former attempts to address problems at their root causes. He said the Niarchos Foundation was true to the legacy of its founder, Stavros Niarchos, who built one of the world’s most successful “shipping empires” and “financial kingdoms” while giving back to the world at large what the world had given to him as opportunity, following his wishes to devote funding to Greece and Hellenism, education, social welfare, health and medicine, and arts and culture all over the world, with the only limitation that 50 % of grants go to Greece. Since the year of the inception of the Foundation’s activities that has translated into the distribution of 2,500 grants of $1.5 billion in 100 countries.
With 55 partners in three offices around the world, the Niarchos Foundation follows a rigorous selection process in choosing grantees insisting on a clearly expressed purpose, an identifiable cause, a master navigational plan, a stated timeline, and trustworthy management teams in place, all for the overriding goal of creating “a brighter and better tomorrow that can be shared with a healthy, prospering and proud state of affairs. He focused on the largest grant to date in 2011 in Greece, $800 million to build the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center that will include a 42-acre park and a home for both the National Library of Greece and the Greek National Opera, and that will be completed in 2016. He said the Foundation believed in the national importance of the project to Greece’s future even more so under the current economic conditions, providing “a testament and commitment to the country’s future and to its youth at a critical historical juncture.” He said the project is also an engine of economic stimulus with an estimated short and long-term economic impact of $1.3 billion. It would also provide a major cultural attraction and offer a broad range of programs in education, arts and culture, scholarship and entertainment. Furthermore, he predicted that it would become a case study and world class example of a new way of doing philanthropy through a privately sourced and full-funded civic minded cultural development with future government support in delivering private and public benefits and interests
Alluding directly to the economic crisis with a debt of $325 bullion, 30% unemployment and 60% youth unemployment, he said no philanthropic project, no matter how large and significant, could fully address such social and economic problems, but, citing a Chinese proverb, he said “ a journey of a thousand miles starts with a small step.” Even in the United States he said, where philanthropy and non-profit institutions represent 5 ½ % of GDP with 85% of taxpayers donating and 30% volunteering, this compares to a national debt of $16.5 trillion and GDP of $12.5 trillion. Private philanthropy, he said, can never replace the state.
However, he emphasized that the Niarchos Foundation and all philanthropies must continue to strive to address these social and economic problems if they are true to their purpose. In this regard, the Foundation dedicated an additional $135 million in relief efforts to ease the effects of the economic crisis in Greece, supporting organizations that the state could no longer support and which had had been diminished in size and significance in their outreach efforts, focusing on the most vulnerable, especially unemployed youth who were in danger of becoming a lost generation, becoming frightened and desperate and radicalized.
Tsamis noted that these problems of social and economic disarray were truly global and innovative ways must be found to address them. He appealed to his audience to continue God’s work with deep compassion singly or jointly but preferably all together, congratulating Leadership 100 in carrying out the vision of its founder, Archbishop Iakovos for over 30 years of service, quoting John Lennon that “a dream you dream alone is only a dream but a dream you dream together is reality”. Ending his talk he asked his listeners to be inspired by Abraham Lincoln’s stirring words, “with malice toward none, with charity toward all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we’re in.”