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Building a tradition for charitable giving

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Agnieszka Brzóska, vice-president of the Sue Ryder Foundation talks to the BPCC’s Michael Dembinski about the challenges of running a charity in Poland at a time of crisis.

Sue Ryder is a legend in the UK and in Poland because of her wartime and post-war connections to Poland. On the one hand, you are a charitable organisation that provides assistance to the needy, on the other, you also keep alive the memory of Lady Ryder and her lifetime of good works. How important to your fund-raising is the Sue Ryder story?

Sue Ryder was undoubtedly a very interesting personality, for we need to remember the times in which she lived. As a woman it was much more difficult for her to develop such a large organisation as the Sue Ryder Foundation than it would be today. I wish everybody knew her story - unfortunately that is not the case, especially among younger people. In fact, we share this very problem with the foundation in the UK. We try to address that by trying to get her story out there – most of the time her legacy makes a big impression on people because what she did in her lifetime is simply amazing.
On the other hand, I wouldn't say it translates directly into the possibility of us raising funds. It's more the fact that we've been in Poland for a very long time, 30 years, and unofficially 60 years because of the closed nature of communism.

At the moment the foundation is returning to its roots, as Sue helped the victims of war – and now the foundation is helping the victims of the war in Ukraine.

You work with corporate donors as well as with a great many individuals. What's the balance between the two groups in terms of revenue raised by the foundation?

I’d love to say that the largest portion of our financing comes from corporate donors, however the opposite is true! We are able to continue our work mainly through the patronage of our charity shops as well as from the monetary donations we receive from individuals.

From my point of view and experience, acquiring corporate donors is extremely difficult: perhaps this is due to the fact that a large number of companies in Poland are subsidiaries – and certain decisions are made in headquarters which are usually located outside Poland.

Besides, the largest corporations have their own foundations and implement their own projects. Polish companies do not yet have a culture of allocating resources to charitable causes. We hope that this trend will change and we will have the opportunity to cooperate with these companies on a wider scale.

Corporate reputation is a fragile asset that tarnishes easily, but one that takes much effort to build. How do companies supporting the Sue Ryder Foundation leverage their charitable actions in terms of profile and visibility? Do you see also those who genuinely wish to give, without counting on good PR?

Certainly, there are companies that want to do charity work and are not only focused on getting good PR. Westfield Arkadia is one such example. They offered us a partnership and cooperation thanks to which we could open our shop in the Arkadia Centre (one of the biggest and most important shopping centres in Poland), which we normally would not be able to afford. I think the response from the market was very positive. In the beginning, people expressed shock and surprise when hearing that Westfield Arkadia invited us to partner with them, because the majority of market players perceived Westfield as a company focused only on profit. This way, their perception in the public and private eye has changed.

With those companies that want to do good through us, there are those that count only on the good PR, which leads to projects not being realized to the full extent they could be, or simply not being realised once the company announces they have or plan to support a charity.

In this way, we see how the legitimate want to in some way support charitable causes has an impact on PR – in this instance, such an impact is very much deserved.

What tips would you offer to managers tasked with cooperating with a charitable organisation? What's the secret of a good long-term relationship that benefits both charity and corporate donor?

Above all, the secret of success is working from both sides: the dedication of time from the corporate side, genuine willingness to work on the project, and to work together with the organisation, this is the key to success.

The nature of NGOs is that our capabilities and possibilities are exponentially smaller-scale than those of a corporation.

Charitable giving in Poland is rising - as one would expect from a nation that's rapidly getting wealthier - but it still has a long way to catch up with the UK. Other than the high-profile WOŚP (the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity), there are few other such initiatives in Poland - do you expect the charitable sector to grow faster than the economy in future years?

There’s no doubt that the desire for charitable activity is growing in Poland – especially over the past month and half! The problem is that the people who are helping are not necessarily the wealthiest, and not necessarily corporations. The big difference between our country and the United Kingdom is that in the UK there is a tradition of supporting charities by very wealthy people, and in fact every charity has an individual donor who is able to allocate large funds for charitable work. In our country, unfortunately, it is not quite like that. I have the impression that there is not as much of a culture of charitable giving. Of course, I hope this situation will change. Because of our experience in helping war refugees for the past month and a half, we can finally say that people see the immense work that NGOs such as ours undertake.

Another big difference between Britain and Poland is in charity shops - the typical British high street has at least one; in Poland they're rare - it is a model that the Sue Ryder Foundation uses; I'm a great fan of charity shops in the UK, most of my clothing I buy second-hand from them. It pumps money straight into charities, it's an element of the circular economy, and it helps people to declutter their wardrobes, donating to charities with goods rather than money. How do you see charity shops developing in Poland, what are the barriers to their growth here?

I am very optimistic about the future development of charity shops in Poland. I think we are at a point in history where a closed economy is becoming more important, especially to younger people.

Unfortunately, there’s the issue of barriers of entry, and unfortunately, these are enormous. The first is, as always, money. It costs a lot to open a new charity shop. It's almost the same cost as opening any other kind of shop. This brings us back to the issue of institutional donors not wanting to put money into the development of such shops.

The second barrier to entry that differentiates our shops from those in the UK is the matter of availability of premises.  In Poland we can only acquire premises from the city. Companies, or institutional owners, are not in a position to rent us premises on preferential terms in places like the high street, and we, as a non-profit foundation, cannot afford commercial prices – Westfield Arkadia being the only exception.

There is an opening for the development of charity shops: we see this from the popularity of thrift stores and vintage fairs. We also see this in the popularity of Instagram blogs and Facebook groups dedicated to circular economy, thrifting, and frugality.

Do you think the 1% tax allowance helps or hinders charitable activity in Poland? How could the government, the Ministry of Finance, fine-tune the tax regime to be more beneficial to charities?

I think that the very idea of the 1% is a good one, and certainly many organisations (especially smaller ones) benefit from it. At the same time, the problem is that this one per cent does not significantly change the reality of, for example, our foundation. Even if we receive some money, there are so many organisations that benefit from it that the effect of this percentage is very scattered. I would not particularly change anything with the one per cent; what should be changed, in my opinion, is first of all the incentive to donate to charity and to deduct it from your taxes. Additionally, there is the American model, which obliges corporations above a certain turnover to donate an appropriate amount of money to charity, so that they can reduce their taxes.
Solutions that encourage corporations to donate to charities such as Sue Ryder, and allow them to receive more favourable tax treatment, are the most likely to change the reality of charitable organisations in Poland.

How is the Sue Ryder Foundation responding the Ukrainian refugee crisis? How is it affecting the foundation's day-to-day work?

Our reaction to the war in Ukrainian was practically instantaneous. We financed the transport of several individuals from Ukraine to Poland, including one of our own shop managers, found them suitable accommodation, and equipped them for their stay in Poland with things we had on hand from our shops in Warsaw and Szczecin. Within the first week of the invasion, we decided to focus on helping those who are already in Poland. That is, other than a continued effort to find them accommodation and settle them here, we began a request-based system of creating packages with specific articles of clothing, footwear, and home goods for those that reached out to us for help. The vast majority of those we help are women and children, and we have helped more than 300 people, with dozens more reaching us every week.

Our partnership with the Jakub and Gosia Golata in Bydgoszcz, where they rented an entire hotel as a refugee hub is also an important part of our day-to-day activities in the Sue Ryder Foundation. The hub is a place in which Ukrainians have a few days to breathe and come down from the stress of travelling, receive food and shelter as well as privacy to be able to calmly decide what they want to do next. Between 150 and 200 people have already gone through the Park Hotel.

We have also organised language courses for Ukrainian refugees after being made aware of the long wait times at public and private institutions. Our Polish teacher also happens to be a refugee, and so it’s worth it to mention that we are providing a job to someone in need, and a free language course for refugees who seek to find work in Poland.

Our most recent initiative is in supporting several local ‘Free Shops’ with specific food and sanitary products that refugees are in need of.

All of these initiatives are something we are incredibly proud to do. However, it does have a significant impact on our day-to-day work in the foundation. Our time in the office is split between administrative tasks and creating packages for families in need. In this, as our workforce number has not increased, and our previous responsibilities have not decreased, we have had to put twice or thrice as much of our energy into making sure the people that need help receive it, and our day-to-day activities from before this crisis are not neglected.

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