Meeting at a children's museum is hardly the right place for a serious conversation about charity, development aid and politics. However, Muzeiko, this country's newest museum, which is also one of the very few purpose-built, is extraordinary museum. Inaugurated in 2015 and paid for in full by the Sofia-based America for Bulgaria Foundation, it is both an academy and a playground for kids who come here to look at spacecraft and weather stations, to explore wildlife and to take in and try to understand bits of the technology that makes our lives what they are today.
And then my interviewee is no ordinary woman. In a "previous life," meaning before she joined the Bulgarian-American Enterprise Fund, or BAEF, which happened 25 years ago, Nancy Schiller travelled around the world with her husband for about a year, visiting more than 25 countries in Europe, Asia and Africa. She was the Director of the National Special Events for the Alzheimer’s Association and prior to that the Director of Special Events for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago.
Since the 1990s she has been involved with Bulgaria, first as managing director of the BAEF and then, since 2008, with the America for Bulgaria Foundation. She is now its president, and we are sitting amid the kids' din at Muzeiko trying to discuss what are the positive and what are the negative changes in Bulgaria during the past quarter century.
Just the other day, my husband and I were at Paradise Mall for an event. As we walked around, I stopped in my tracks and said, "I could never have imagined this possible in 1992 when I first came to Bulgaria." I realize a shopping mall is not an economist’s indicator of a country’s progress, but it is amazing to think about how far Bulgaria has come in a very short time.
As I walk around Sofia, I observe the little things that make a day-to-day difference in one’s quality of life. Twenty-five years ago, crossing the street was a challenge. Now, cars stop and allow pedestrians to cross, which is a significant change in mindset and behaviour.
The most radical change is the availability of high-speed Internet throughout Bulgaria which puts some areas of the United States to shame. The adoption of technology, particularly with the younger generations, expands opportunities for quality jobs which I hope will result in motivating more young people to stay in Bulgaria.
On the negative side, the near abandonment of many of the villages due to lack of opportunity is very unfortunate as is the continued emigration of their residents. These issues must be addressed for Bulgaria’s long-term viability.
Pleasantly, what hasn’t changed is the basic goodness of the Bulgarian people.
Can you describe how the America for Bulgaria Foundation started? Where does the cash come from, what are its main areas of interest and operation? Can you name three major successes of the foundation? Can you name a failure?
The genesis of the America for Bulgaria Foundation is in the unusual but successful relationship between government and the private sector.
In 1991, the Bulgarian American Enterprise Fund was created and endowed with a grant of $55 million by the United States Congress through the Support for East European Democracy Act. This provided funding to enterprise funds in Poland, Hungary, then-Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria, to help support private sector development in these newly-democratic countries. One of the unique features of an enterprise fund was its structure – the money was granted to a private, not-for-profit organization with an unpaid, volunteer board of directors comprised of American business people. Working with an amazingly talented staff of Bulgarians, the BAEF provided loans to small- and medium-sized businesses to assist in their growth. Along the way, we helped small hotel owners, restaurants such as Happy, and product manufacturers such as Ficosota and Devin Water gain access to capital to improve and expand their businesses. In 1996, we founded the Bulgarian American Credit Bank and began providing mortgage-backed loans to an even greater number of businesses and individuals. The bank quickly became one of the most successful banks in Bulgaria, and in 2008, we sold it to Allied Irish Bank.
BAEF repaid half – $27.5 million – of its original grant to the US Government which is an anomaly in the history of US foreign assistance. We then took the balance of the funds to create the America for Bulgaria Foundation. The proceeds, totalling more than $400 million, formed the America for Bulgaria Foundation's corpus which we now use to provide grants to NGOs and charities. Allow me to emphasize that if it were not for our dedicated Bulgarian business partners and intelligent and hardworking Bulgarian staff, this success would not have happened. This is why we continue our work in Bulgaria: the money was made in Bulgaria and should continue to benefit Bulgaria.
The America for Bulgaria Foundation’s mission is similar to that of BAEF, private sector development. However, it is approached in a different manner. We focus on six areas of interest which we hope will contribute to a climate where not only businesses can thrive, but will also support an independent, economically successful Bulgaria. These areas include Education, Arts & Culture, Agriculture, Civil Society, Cultural Heritage, and the Economically Disadvantaged.
As for successes, there are many to choose from as the America for Bulgaria Foundation has made nearly 700 grants, but the three I’m personally proudest of include Muzeiko in Sofia, the restoration of the two basilicas in Plovdiv, and the Access to Information Program. Muzeiko is the children’s science and technology museum we opened a year ago which introduces unique and interesting hands-on learning techniques to children, families and educators. Muzeiko is already winning national awards and international recognition for its educational content and green design. The basilicas in Plovdiv, both the Small Basilica which we opened three years ago and the Bishop’s Basilica which is now under reconstruction, will showcase two distinct levels of mosaic tiles from the 4th and 5th centuries. The Bishop's Basilica is scheduled to open in late 2018 in time for Plovdiv’s 2019 celebration as the European Capital of Culture. Our collaboration with the Plovdiv City Council is a great example of a public-private partnership that can serve as a model for future relationships. Finally, the Access to Information Program has been a great success. Through the intensive and dedicated work of this grantee, any Bulgarian – an individual, NGO, civic group or member of the media – can request information from government records. Their work has far-reaching implications throughout Bulgaria and serves to deter institutional malfeasance and corruption.
As a risk-taking, forward-thinking foundation, it is our mission to try things that may not have been attempted before. While we hope all America for Bulgaria Foundation endeavours are successful, occasionally it is not the case, but we can learn as much from a failure as we do from a success. The America for Bulgaria Foundation failures (yes, plural) are often a result of our attempts to solve problems perhaps more quickly than reasonably possible. It is not enough to partner with and provide funding to intelligent and dedicated people. We need to have patience, as change is often a slow, agonizing process for all involved. The America for Bulgaria Foundation needs to measure its grantees’ success in the small steps achieved, as every step forward is a step in the right direction. We need to remind ourselves and others that the America for Bulgaria Foundation is in Bulgaria for the long term and we believe, in time, the impact of our efforts will be significant.
Name the three main challenges, or threats, facing Bulgaria at the moment. Is the America for Bulgaria Foundation concerned with any of them?
Of all the challenges Bulgaria faces, the greatest is the demographic shift and the emigration issue. The resulting loss of talent is a major issue and one the America for Bulgaria Foundation is addressing through a variety of efforts, including supporting scholarships for American University in Bulgaria students. The America for Bulgaria Foundation provides approximately $2 million per year in academic scholarships to Bulgaria’s best and brightest students. By doing so, we hope upon graduation these students will remain in Bulgaria to benefit from the opportunities in the country and to create new opportunities for others.
In addition, the America for Bulgaria Foundation is working to improve the climate for businesses in Bulgaria and engaging with the entrepreneurial sector. We need to come up with financing alternatives for small businesses and farmers to get loans as banks are unwilling to take the risk without collateral and a track record. There is great talent and potential in Bulgaria, but there needs to be a means for these would-be entrepreneurs and business people to gain access to capital so they can build and grow their businesses in Bulgaria.
The second significant challenge is the impending retirement of school teachers and the resulting impact on education for Bulgaria’s children. To date, the America for Bulgaria Foundation has invested more than $100 million in several areas: Teach for Bulgaria, Schools of the Future, the Teacher and Principal Training Programs, providing Technology at Schools, Fulbright English Language Teachers, the many different high school Olympic teams in natural sciences, along with the American College of Sofia.
To highlight one of these initiatives, the America for Bulgaria Foundation's Schools of the Future has funded 68 schools with approximately $5 million to upgrade science labs, language labs, and performance spaces. What’s most amazing about this program is each school community must support this initiative by raising 20 percent of the funding required, which has proved to be a wonderfully successful way to get parents and local businesses engaged in education. Each of the 68 schools has raised these funds, which serves as a testament to the value placed on education by the principals, teachers, students, families, and communities.
The America for Bulgaria Foundation recognizes the great need for Bulgaria to attract more quality teachers and to keep quality teachers in the system. Through the abovementioned programs, we hope to build the capacity of the teachers and principals and to once again establish teaching as a profession worthy of respect in each community.
The third challenge is civil society. Without significant improvement in the rule of law, it will be extremely difficult for Bulgaria to attract foreign investment and to develop a robust business sector. The America for Bulgaria Foundation has many grantees who focus on strengthening the judiciary, promoting good governance, supporting independent journalism, and encouraging civic engagement.
Let's look to the future. What are the main priorities of the foundation? What are your own priorities as its new head?
I summarized earlier the America for Bulgaria Foundation's six areas of interest and as we go forward, these will remain much the same. However, we may place greater emphasis in one area over another depending on the situation. For example, Bulgaria continues to lose ground in the World Press Freedom Index as the media environment deteriorates and ownership is not yet fully transparent. For foreign investors and Bulgarian citizens, the level of corruption is still a matter of concern. While advances are being made in the area of judicial reform, this needs to be sustained and the autonomy of the judiciary has to be strengthened.
These issues tie in to our Civil Society sector. The support we provide enables our grantees to shed light on the tough issues Bulgaria is facing and to develop and publicly discuss proposals in line with international standards. Several of our programs build individual capacity, such as the study trips of young Bulgarian legal professionals to the United States and the visits to Bulgaria of American judges and attorneys who mutually benefit by sharing experiences with their Bulgarian peers.
As I mentioned earlier regarding the Schools for the Future program, we emphasize fundraising as part of our grant making. I’ve been privileged to visit the many community houses, or Chitalishte, and schools all over the country which were built by volunteers and funded through the contributions of the Bulgarian people. We hope to revive Bulgaria’s philanthropy and volunteerism which have a long and inspiring tradition.
I’m extremely fortunate to work with an incredibly intelligent and hardworking America for Bulgaria Foundation team of professionals, and because of their experience and connections, we’ve reached a point where we know the NGO and business community quite well. I hope ABF can focus some of its resources to serve as a catalyst to bring publicly-spirited, like-minded people together to work on issues which will benefit Bulgaria. The more people we can bring together, the greater the impact we can have.
In January, the America for Bulgaria Foundation will sponsor its first grantee forum, inviting all of our grantees and interested parties together for a content-filled day. Our goal is to build the capabilities of the participants and, at the same time, build our community. It is the first time we’ve attempted this on such a large scale, and I’m excited about meeting and learning from the many people who are committed to making a positive change in their community and country.
Let's turn to lifestyle. You know Sofia and have travelled through the country. What are your three favourite hangout places in Sofia? What are your three favourite spots in Bulgaria?
Strolling down the renovated Vitosha Boulevard in the early evening and enjoying the café culture is a pleasant way to pass the time. I well remember what it used to look like so the transformation is remarkable. Our original BAEF office was on Shipka and San Stefano with the Doctors' Garden right across the street. In 1990s, I avoided the park as the broken glass and overgrown shrubbery made it an unappealing place to take a break and enjoy the weather. Now it is a showcase for Sofia. It is lovely to see parents socializing in the park while their children entertain themselves on the beautiful playgrounds. Finally, I know this may sound odd, but I really enjoy riding the Metro in Sofia. The designers have done a beautiful job on the newer stations, particularly the Vitosha stop and the metro has become one of my favourite ways to get around the city. In our free time, my husband and I hop on the metro, pick a stop, and discover new parts of the city. We do our own walking tours of Sofia and have fun making new discoveries. There’s always a surprise waiting around the corner.
Outside of Sofia, I must admit to having a soft spot for Plovdiv. The ancient cobblestoned streets in the old city combined with the pedestrian plaza nearby are a delightful commingling of history, art, and commerce.
Many years ago, I travelled to Melnik and found its architecture and sandstone cliffs fascinating, but it’s been far too long since I’ve visited and hope to get back there soon. Finally, I think I would be banished from Bulgaria if I didn’t mention the beautiful Black Sea, so will choose Nesebar, but not during the main tourist season. It’s far more entrancing in September and October when the weather is still pleasant but most of the tourists have left. Absolutely magical.
Imagine you had a friend coming to visit from the United States. What would you advise them to do?
Americans have difficulty slowing down, even while on holiday. I would first advise my friend to wander around the city to see the sites in Sofia, select a shady spot at one of the outdoor cafes, enjoy a Shopska and cool drink, and let the world pass by. This would be followed by a visit to Boyana Church, a trip to Rila Monastery (sampling the fried bread outside the monastery is a must), and if time permits, a trip to Plovdiv’s old city to take in the Roman ruins, a visit to the many art galleries, and, of course, a must-see stop is the Small Basilica with its fascinating and beautiful mosaics which the America for Bulgaria Foundation helped restore. And then a visit to Veliko Tarnovo, Sozopol, Nesebar, Koprivshtitsa, the Devetaki Plateau, the Belogradchik Rocks and Magura Cave – and these are just for starters. My American friend will return home exhausted and still not have scratched the surface of what makes Bulgaria so special.
And what would you advise them to be careful about?
I would caution friends to avoid sampling Lyutenitsa due to its addictive quality. My husband and I consumed four jars in less than a month. Ketchup in America doesn't compare.
*With special thanks to Alex Taliokov (8 1/2), Sofia Munoz (6) and Boris Nedev (3 1/2) who happened to be visiting Muzeiko at the time of this interview
Sofia's newest museum is also the most modern and the funniest: Muzeiko is dedicated solely to children. Opened in 2015, with the support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, Muzeiko introduces children to science and technology, from the early life of Homo sapiens to meteorology and space exploration to the cities of the future and the great scientific and technological challenges that humanity faces. Experiments and multimedia form the backbone of the exhibition, helping children to get a grasp of what might be difficult ideas and concepts. The museum has special programmes for the holidays and the summer season, and a designated area for toddlers.
Muzeiko is at 3 Prof. Boyan Kamenarov St