Written as part of Bodler Giving's Global Givers initiative by a regional partner.
For me, civil society means producing sustainable and collective work for a common goal with a belief that you can actually make a difference. I got acquainted with foundations and shifted my attention to civil society when I was working at Bayer in 1960s. It was among my responsibilities as the publications manager within the agricultural pesticides department to host international guests and give them a tour of Istanbul. But I didn’t know Istanbul well enough either. Knowing this, I attended the tourism guide courses organized by the Ministry of Tourism. I was deeply moved by the information I learned about the Ottoman and Seljuk era foundations. This encouraged me to research other publications on the subject, observe foundations’ work, and then play an active role within the organization.
Later on, I actually learned that the seeds of civil society and philanthropy leadership were planted in me at an earlier age. My mom taught us the importance of having positive personal approach and defending the rights of others. The time I spent in Germany for my higher education made me realize that it was necessary for individuals to contribute to societal development, and value and disseminate the knowledge they acquire. This was the only way for societies to develop. When I returned to my hometown Bolu in the 1970s, the question of, how I can contribute to Bolu and be beneficial for its people, encouraged me to lead several economic and social initiatives. From then on, I could not think doing anything otherwise.
My first experience with civil society took place when I joined the Bolu Tourism Association. But the real turning point was when I joined the Izzet Baysal Foundation as a trustee in 1986, by the personal invitation from Izzet Baysal. This seemed like a point of maturity and made me realize my mission better. Being appreciated by someone who had done a great work in Bolu has encouraged me to do more for the society. We are continuing on our road with Izzet Baysal’s philosophy: “money won’t matter after you pass, what you do in this world matters.” The Izzet Baysal Foundation has solved infrastructure problems in Bolu in the areas of health and education by investing 350 million Turkish Liras in social programs by which also, 131 monuments were created. We are trying to successfully continue with his legacy and be inspired by what he has done.
Research, innovation, and following the opportunities have been my guidance throughout my professional career. I always tried to learn about the topics that I didn’t know well enough and tried to share this acquired knowledge with others. I got involved in areas that people didn’t support and deemed as risky. I applied my knowledge and investigative nature in social areas as well as in my professional life. This way, I was able to implement projects that aimed moving Bolu one step forward.
Rotary Club and Bolu Development Foundation, which I’m a board member of, also carry out projects concerning the city’s development. But for now, I would like to talk about Bolu Community Foundation which I carry the leadership of with great passion.
In 2006, I attended the Social Investment Conference that was organized by TUSEV along with Mr. Ahmet Baysal. We were thinking about leaving after lunch. But we were so interested in this new understanding of foundations that we stayed for a whole day and got to know the “community foundation” model in more detail. The idea of financing local projects with a collection of small donations excited us. The Izzet Baysal Foundation has its own assets; it does not collect donations from others and its activities don’t go beyond education and health matters. The community foundation model seemed like a complementary model to the Izzet Baysal Foundation. So we right away took an action to bring the model to Bolu. We created a core group of 5 people. We identified people who would be in the founders’ group, and the ones we convinced decided to get involved. We sent an invitation letter to everyone so whoever wanted to get involved could do it; we left the door open for everyone.
The impetuous nature of the Anatolian people prevent taking common action, words don’t translate into actions. Haldun Tasman, a friend of ours from Bolu who has been active in these kinds of foundation work in the US, wanted to give a gift to his hometown and so he supported this process. His promise to quadruple our funding motivated us to accelerate the process. The 32 founding members, including me, donated 5,000 USD and created the foundation’s endowment. The establishment of the Foundation received criticisms. Locals commented that having another foundation beside Izzet Baysal Foundation was unnecessary. We didn’t let these criticisms kill our motivation; we kept calm and proceeded with our work. These reactions continued until we chose education as our main work area. The media’s, other organizations’ and locals approach to us changed and they started to accept us when we entered into a common project with the University and the Bolu Directorate of Education and created the Early Education Center. This way the foundation proved its presence.
Because of the importance I give to knowledge, we never adopted a “we know the best” approach; we established working groups and organized our programs based on these consultations. In a way, we went through TUSEV’s trainings. We created our theory of change and we checked our steps all along the way. We thought it was necessary to increase the level of education if we wanted to make Bolu a better place to live. We looked at the reasons that prevented young people from accessing higher education and tried to solve these problems. The low university entrance rates had created strong criticisms towards the Bolu Directorate of Education and the educational institutions. The Izzet Baysal University conducted a research and stated in their findings that the early education rate was only around %5 and that children who did not have an early education were not likely to be successful in the future. In partnership with the Directorate of Education, support from donors, and technical assistance from the University, we created an education center which could be replicated in other parts of the country. We received comments that a three party partnership would be highly complicated and that handing over a private initiative to public institutions would be ineffective. But we went on with our work. And we got some wonderful feedback. With its proven success, we now have a model in our hands that could be replicated.
There are a few points that I wanted to highlight here: bringing together donors for a common purpose and showing them what they can do; not only providing funding for the construction of a new building but also funding what is inside that building, developing the capacity of teachers, increasing communication between parents and children and proving that public institutions, the university and the donors could actually work together. Now, we lobby political representatives to invest more in early childhood education from the public budget and try to affect policies in this area. We are trying to direct other donors to these kinds of work in other cities. With a holistic approach, we can reach the target that was set up in the beginning. In 10 years we are hoping that there will be no children left without early education that they will become successful in all aspects of life with a strong social consciousness.
I can show another example of how we applied the theory of change in the agricultural sector. To reach our foundation’s vision to “make Bolu a better place to live,” we are also aiming at making development processes more sustainable. Making food healthier is another topic related to our mission and one way to do this is increasing agricultural productivity. How can you increase agricultural productivity? You cannot increase soil fertility without knowing its elements. First you have to map out soil productivity. Based on the results, you should change your fertilizing practices, then increase plant diversity, and finally step into organic farming. So we are trying to follow this logic map and reach our project targets. One of our projects, which aim changing irrigation techniques and establishing adaptation gardens with donor support in the municipality of Seben, can be shown as an example to this approach.
Izzet Baysal had a remarkable quote: “There are at least 1 million people in Turkey who have similar financial conditions as I do. If half of those people do half of the charity work that I do, then this country would become the most powerful country on Earth.” On a related note, this is what I’m saying: “I am a technical person who has an expertise in agriculture; if every technical man did a project to develop three towns in Bolu and donated his expertise for agricultural development, and then we would create a new era in sustainable agriculture.”
At the beginning of my social initiatives, pessimistic people have tried to dissuade me from doing what I wanted to do. Against all the criticisms and warnings, I didn’t step back and this made me the leader of many initiatives. As donors and civil society leaders, we are bound to enter areas that nobody else is willing to enter, take risks, share our knowledge and expertise for the benefit of society, and think about our next step beforehand. A positive approach and an understanding sustainable development will bring us forward. As donors, it is also our responsibility to contribute to the development of the place where we live. This is not only a matter of giving back to the society in which we grew up, but it is also about making the biggest difference as people who best know the local practices, needs, and dynamics.