A little bit more of pathos would help – interview with Šimon Pánek in the Forbes Magazine

Published: Jan 7, 2016 Reading time: 22 minutes
A little bit more of pathos would help – interview with Šimon Pánek in the Forbes Magazine

“I am going to leave on the jacket and the tie. At least we are going to shatter that fixed idea of people from the business sphere, that we all run around in sandals and have dirt behind our fingernails.”This was said at the beginning of our interview Šimon Pánek, co-founder, as well as the heart and soul of the biggest and most successful non profit organization in Central Europe. Posing for the photographer did not make him happy. It seems as if he felt a bit ashamed when we made him pose on the staircase of the house, where this vastly successful organisation, Člověk v tísni, is located.

It is a very different office building than we usually visit with Forbes. The five-story building is located in the rather prestigious and busy Vinohrady district of Prague. The corridors are used as open spaces and community areas. Next to the spiral staircase there are randomly placed tables and chairs. Almost all places are taken by people vividly engaged in discussion. The only coffee you can get is Fair Trade and you can get it for 5 Czech crowns.

Employees have just come back from missions in Myanmar, Ukraine and other places. “What is the latest development on the project “Better school for all” in the Czech Republic? How many Czechs would buy the goats for Kongo? Would you sign the invoice for sleeping bags?” - even though we are visiting a company with annual turnover of more than one billion crowns, the main discussion topics are miles away from what we usually publish in our magazine. Even the office of their CEO looks very different. The walk through the corridors are different too, with walls purposefully and tastefully covered with newspaper clippings reminding visitors of crisis regions throughout the world. The windows of the CEO office are overlooking Bělehradská street, which is full of people and trams. There are piles of books and magazines, everywhere from the table to the chairs to the floor. The chairs and the sofa most certainly date back to the Czechoslovakian times. On top of it all, the CEO shares this space with his CFO, because he wants to make sure that his ideas are kept down to earth. This is the People in Need Foundation, this it the way Šimon Pánek is managing it. 


The interview was published in January 2016 in The Forbes Magazine.

How is the People in Need Foundation doing at the turn of the years 2015 and 2016?

I would say we are super successful. We are growing in all aspects. On the other hand this means there are more disasters. More people needing help and more regions where even charities are not willing to go to. Donors, governments and international institutions are therefore pleased that at least somebody is ready to help. This helps with the fundraising as well. I am talking primarily about Syria and Eastern Ukraine.

Does it mean that the more disasters in the world, the more turnover for you?

This would be over simplified. We are doing a lot of development cooperation, which is not bound to any urgent catastrophe or conflict. Our goal is to make the situation better, help people to stand on their feet, start their own business or improve their education. On the other hand, the crisis's are an undeniable fact and it is better to be present and help than only read about it and feel bad. In Syria we are helping 180 thousand people every month. We are helping to keep the cities and villages running. This is crucial for the locals, even though it does not solve the causes of the war.

What specifically are you doing in Syria?

We provide basic humanitarian help - supply food and sanitary equipment for the most needy ones, mostly in the area of cities Aleppo and Idlib. It is nowhere near the border of Turkey. We started three years ago and intentionally went as far to the inland as possible. These days only our Syrian colleagues are there, not our foreign employees. We also support the local authorities to help keep the basic services running. It may appear strange to you, but even during a war you need somebody to take care of the garbage, to fix the sewers or electric power distribution. There are still hundreds of thousands of people in these cities. North of Syria is a region of 5 millions inhabitants. From the South they are threatened by Asad´s aerial attacks joint with the Russians, to the East there is the Islamic state, and to the north is the sea and Turkey. For those who do not want to leave, or cannot leave, we help them survive.

In order to understand how the People in Need Foundation works - how do you decide on where to go and help?

We have three main criteria for crisis situations. First is the size. We most likely would not go to some minor crisis in Latin America. Secondly we must be sure that we will be able to raise enough money to support our mission and make it a success. You cannot depart for Darfur with only 100 thousand Euro, simply because there are millions of people who need help. In such a case we rather hand the money over to somebody, who can do it better. We are members of Alliance 2015, which includes seven european humanitarian organizations jointly capable to generate over 750 million Euro. They come from Germany, Ireland, Netherlands and France. We are the second smallest organization in the Alliance. We can learn from them and through them we can be successful. It is more effective this way. This way we use the money from Italy or Ireland in some regions and they make use of our funds elsewhere. We don't have to build our base everywhere. The third criteria is human resources - we must be able to build strong enough team. 

Why does a  Czech organization decide to go to Syria to help ?

Over the past 20 years we have been in all major conflicts in the old world and by this I mean Europe and Eurasia. Syria is the biggest war in this region for the past four years. We cannot ignore it. We have set up a humanitarian imperative and it dictates that if there is such a crisis, it is our duty to go there.  The same way we thought about Ukraine. We were not particularly keen on going there, because it was clear that it would be complicated war full of misinformation and politics. But in the summer of 2014 we saw the winter coming and it was clear that we must act. The fact is, there are still not many organizations to help.


The territory of the Ex - Soviet Union is still rather difficult to understand for many charities and foundations from the Western Europe. It is also too politicized. They simply do not know how to do it. For us, it is quite the contrary. We are familiar with the Caucasus and Chechnya; it is our natural habitat.

How do the locals perceive you on your missions? Do they at all care where the people, who are helping them, are from?

Compared to organizations from big countries we as Czechs have an advantage. Nobody thinks that we have an agenda apart from helping. In case of the USA, Germany, Russia and Britain, locals often suspect that you have some geostrategic interests in their country or that you are after their raw materials. The Czech Republic is so small, weak and insignificant country that everyone understands that we have no imperial agenda or other ambitions. It helps us, in fact. We are perceived as very conflict-free.

How does is it happen that in such a small and insignificant country, as you say, starts a project like People in Need Foundation? Which in Central Europe is the largest organization of its kind?

This is true, but it depends on your perspective. From the global way of looking at it we are an organization of medium to small size. How did this happen? History of any successful project in always based on a little piece of luck. The timing must be right and so must be the group of people. Actually, the first collection we organized was in 1988 to help Armenia recover after the earthquake. We simply did it and succeeded. Like many successful companies after the revolution, we started early, with enthusiasm and we always tried to behave ethically. From the very beginning we were aware of the responsibility towards people around us. Václav Havel and his attitude motivated us to use this approach. We always have wanted to do it well and avoid slipping into the role of a false saviour. We have professional management and financial systems, along with enthusiasm, ethos and the people who make up the People in Need. This is the cornerstone of our growth.

Let's try a comparison to a company - how many people are the key leaders in the People in Need Foundation? What were your last year's figures?

There are some 30-40 people and nearly all have been with us for more than a decade. So we have a very strong and stable senior and middle management. Revenues for the first time last year exceeded one and a half billion crowns and our spendings were only slightly lower.

How many people do you have in total?

Over 400 people have contracts directly with People in Need in the Czech Republic. We have eight offices in the whole country and are active in around 60 places with social disadvantages. The headquarters provide support for our missions around the world. The Prague headquarters also organizes the human rights film festival ‘One World’, as well as a whole range of educational and informational activities. Around 80 colleagues both male and female are posted throughout the entire world and another 600 employees are locals. Altogether it is around one thousand people. Obviously most people from outside the foundation are interested in how much money our employees are making. Here is a straight answer - the average salary is 26,000 crowns and for those in top top management it is 42,800 crowns.

If you had for twenty-five years built a commercial company this successful, you could have had an order of magnitude more money. Don't you ever regret it? You run a billion-dollar company and manage a thousand of people.

It always comes in handy to have more money (laughs), but I was never particularly regretful. There are other benefits than the financial ones. I work in a team of people who share the same values, who are smiling at each other, who are helping people around them. The money is not what drives the organization forward like it does in businesses.

Because of the lower wages, is it difficult to recruit people?

Partly - it usually is difficult to find top managers on foreign missions, whereas more than half of them are foreigners. Sometimes it can get more difficult finding professionals for our back office. Finance, accounting or IT specialists don't have any difficulties finding a better paid position in the private sector these days.

How do you fundraise? Who provides the money?

At the very beginning we only had money collected from individual Czech donors. Then the Czech government threw some money in, then the UN added some funds, later the European Commission contributed and along with it money from corporate donors started coming. Corporations do not donate regularly, only when there is a crisis, for example, during the floods. Lately we have added funding from foreign governments. Individual donations are not a large percentage anymore, although they are still growing in absolute terms. Over the past year private donors and companies entrusted us almost 150 millions Czech crowns for long-term work and ad hoc fundraising campaigns such as SOS Nepal. Our largest source of income is the European Commission. The importance of foreign government's support is growing, mainly from German, UK and the United States of America. Of course, the UN agencies and the Czech government sources are playing another important role.

Is it not too risky to rely on large donors? Are you prepared to scale back in case any of them drops out?

I believe that compared to other organizations, we are very well diversified in terms of resources. Projects, of course, rise and fall. This is a normal practice. One year you are building a team to deal with a certain crisis, then the people leave or move on. This is what we have to cope with and be as flexible as we can. We are doing great in this regard.

Are the Czech in a mood for philanthropy? Are they willing  to give a part of their money to help people who are less fortunate?

Previously, the Czechs gave only in moments of crisis, when they saw it on the front page and on TV. In the last decade, there has been constant growth in the number of people contributing small amounts of money, on a regular basis and for a longer period of time. Now we can count on 20 thousand individual donors. Plus philanthropy is developing. The people who built business for 20 years are leaving their executive positions and are now deciding how to spend their money. They have time to do other things and are interested in how they could be helpful. We try to focus them mainly on the projects in the Czech Republic, which perhaps at first glance may not appear so important, but require from the donor a considerably greater understanding of the system.

Give us an example.

For example, the issue of debt for those struggling financially or working with young people toward an active citizenship, this will be greatly needed in the future. The way the Czech Republic will be like in the future depends very much upon how the next generation is interested in life around them. Whether it be the quality of life or democracy that interests them. In advanced countries such programs are financed by the government. In our country these programs have very little support and the funds are coming very irregularly. That is why every few hundred thousand from private donors is so important. From the corporate sector we do not expect free gifts, we offer real partnership.

Do the wealthy people contact you by their own initiative and offer their support? Is there a similar movement here like the "Giving Pledge" movement in the West, where the richest give up large parts of their property in favor of something good?

They contact us themselves and we also try to address them. I hope that thanks to Forbes we move a little bit further in this regard (laughs). I cannot quantify it exactly, but the number of people who want to be involved in philanthropy is certainly growing. It also seems these people have more time for it. But there still is a long journey ahead of us. Even in Western Europe it took some time and the first generation of the rich class usually were not the one who donated generously.

Could you call directly, for example Petr Kellner or another one of the richest Czechs?

No, I do not have his phone number. Those who are interested in helping know how to reach to us. But as I say, maybe there will be more of them now.

Has the current wave of refugees somehow altered perception of NGOs? According to some voices you are either delusional truth-lovers and ingenues or agents of the US embassy.

I believe there is a rather small group of people who are ready to snap at anyone whose opinion on the current refugee situation is not a direct refusal. It surely is not an easy situation, but we shall be conducting a rational debate, not waving the gallows. We are trying to point out that the refugee wave has other aspects than just fear and safety. Aspects which are popular subjects of our politicians, extremists and media. We in the Czech Republic are in a strange situation because we have no refugees, none would even want to come here, but we still are terribly afraid.

For example this year 308 Syrian refugees applied for asylum in the Czech Republic…

I understand it's a fear of the unknown, and such is always the worst. There are hundreds of thousands refugees in the Western Europe and over million in Germany and still these countries are able to discuss it more rationally than we are .

Whose fault is that?

The political representation was supposed to say - we can handle it, we are not the target country, we can accept a few thousand people per year in order to help our  partners in the EU. We understand that there are not only benefits from being a member of the EU, but there are duties as well. But none of this happened. Instead the politicians did their best at creating the atmosphere of fear. The media have had a role in it as well. You don't have to reprint everything the president says. You could try to influence his narrative.

I am afraid that Forbes is not exactly what our current president reads ...

Well, I'm not saying it has to be you. But last spring the media followed an anti - refugee rhetoric and stirred up the notion that there are throngs of migrants just on our border eager to  convert us to Islam. This is complete nonsense. At the start the refugees even had no faces, no personalities - just a mob. People and their names first began to appear after the first tragic events. But fear was already out of control and fear is the hardest emotion. If someone is really scared, rationality goes away.

What can be done when both current and former presidents contribute to the atmosphere of fear?

What is crucial, of course, is the follow-up of immigration - the integration. This is something that has to be started. We should ask questions: Are we able to integrate refugees? What about our economy, do we need manpower? What professions? How fast can we provide

retraining? This is more important than dispatching police troops to Slovenia and purchasing barbed wire. We have managed to integrate tens of thousands refugees during the Balkan wars. More than 20,000 of them have stayed. Even now we could take in several thousands.

Politicians usually tend to say what people want to hear. This means that the atmosphere of fear must have been already present.

There surely is a certain xenophobia in us - the fear of the unknown. This is quite typical. Maybe we have less confidence than people in Western Europe. Germany for example is very illustrative with a huge opinion gap between East and West. All post-socialist countries are xenophobic towards refugees, less confident and more closed because they lack any experience with this kind of situation. Communism did not allow for a diverse society, it did not allow us to experience the fact that the neighborhoods might be change, that it could be more diverse and colorful. Perhaps for Czechs it could even have more complicated connotations - somewhere deep in the past it could be linked up with the Habsburg domination. Look into every fairy tale. Foreigner is either equal to the profiteer - ridiculous or evil nobleman - or is equal to a straight villain. If politicians behaved only according to opinion polls, then they are not doing any good to the society in a long term. There is no leadership, just personal feelings and stereotypes.

You've never had the ambition to go into politics and change the atmosphere in society?

As the head of People in Need Foundation I say what I think. It perhaps also has some significance. I have received several invitations to go into politics but so far have not accepted any. Although I don't deny I might do it one day.

The next presidential election? You are often named as a potential candidate ...

I have no plans to join the upcoming ones, I have other things to deal with. Besides, who would vote for me with my views on refugees and their integration (laughs).

The current wave brings around million of refugees per year. Is it sustainable in a long term?

I do not know where lies the limit. But the situation as it is now is not sustainable. Should it take a couple more years, there would be extensive impact on domestic political situation of all European countries. On the other hand, over the past 20 years tens of millions of people came to Europe. And it did not matter at all. However, there never came so many in such short period of time. Simultaneously, Europe came to realization that it is not the world's second most important region alongside with the US, not any more. From the economic point of view we were aware of it for some time, but now we are fully realizing it. Furthermore the Euro-Atlantic alliance is at it's weakest position since the World War II. Russia is on a geopolitical rise again and Europe feels weaker. Hence less optimistic. Less ready to cope  with a whole array of issues, not only refugees. So it's to some extent our internal pain.

Let's turn the page and stop the negative narrative. Out of all countries in the Eastern Europe are the Czechs the most willing to donate. Why is that? 

There are several factors: in the early 90's several organizations started operating here, such as Caritas and Adra. They did a great job to persuade people that it makes sense to help abroad, that the donated money will be used meaningfully and for those purposes they were donated for. It started with the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where Czechs strongly supported local aid. The Czechs also travel a lot, they are interested in getting to know the world. Although it sometimes may not seem so, their interest goes much more further beyond the their small backyard. Plus we have gotten richer, so people are more willing to share.

When was it the last time you went on a mission abroad?

In June last year I went to Afghanistan when the local armed groups shot nine of our employees. I immediately went there to support the mission and meet with locals. Earlier in the spring I went to Cambodia on a strategic and control mission. These days this is my usual reason for going. Afghanistan was an exception .

You have witnessed the worst catastrophes and humanitarian crisis in the past decades. How can you cope with it on a long term basis?

This type of job can drain all your energy and after couple of years either you are left with no other choice but to move on and start working elsewhere, or you learn to live with it and become a professional in certain way. Imagine a pediatric surgeon who gets so carried away by the children's' suffering that with shaking hands he or she is not capable of performing a surgery. Won't be of any help. The same applies to us. We must be capable and efficient. However this does not mean that we do not have emotions. I hope that over the years I did not become burnout or cynical.

Does it not get overwhelming time to time?

I do not get to see the worst things in the world. I'm not a journalist, I'm not an investigator of the International Criminal Court. Most of the time we keep a safe distance from the places of the worst suffering, because a humanitarian aid worker who gets kidnapped or shot cannot help any further. The help in such a region would inevitably have to stop or at least slow down. Safety is extremely important to us. It is also true that if you are exposed to crises only as an observer, it's worse than when you at least can help a little. This notion helps to cope with the situation in crisis areas.

What influence did this job have on you?

It is difficult to evaluate from within. This is a question you probably should be asking the people around me. Back in the days when we started, I was not pondering much. We followed the idea, which was partly a challenge, an adventure. Perhaps we were little naive and romantic. Most importantly we needed to actively do something.

What brings you joy these days?

When we manage to solve difficult situations. Such as securing funding for a project when it seemed to be hopeless. When I can contribute to some difficult negotiation about aid. When I can  support others in difficult situation. If you ask me personally, there are two things that keep me happy - taking a backpack and going hiking to the mountains, ideally where there are not many people. Or time when I can spend a few days with my children in the countryside.

Do you have a wish you want to come true?

One day in the future, when the time is right, I would like to spend at least one year in Asia, for example in India. To have enough time to read, write, think or even meditate.

From your point of view, how is the Czech Republic doing 26 years after the revolution?

At the time of the Velvet Revolution I was hoping we would be further on our journey today. But my father kept reminding me: Do not have exaggerated expectations. The process of healing the society is going to take as long as it took to deteriorate. Thus, we still have at least 15, maybe 25 years, if we start counting from the year 1938. To kickstart the economy and begin the transformation, all this can be done very quickly. But the spirit and moral of the society takes very long time to heal. Notice how very few people in Central Europe smile at each other. Rather than solving a problem they start looking for reasons why things cannot be done. We still lack the self-confidence, but also moderation and decency in public spheres. Which eventually resulted in the current situation with refugees. 

How do you personally find the life here?

Probably very well. I work within a group of several hundred people who are doing positive things, among which is a great atmosphere and corporate culture. Actually, I'm enjoying great luxury, because I receive clear and generally positive feedback on my work. I doubt that people who earn more and more money all the time manage to be happier in this direction. As the Dalai Lama says: More money, more worries. I just follow my path which is humbleness and endurance.

If you had the power to change one thing in the Czech Republic, what would it be?

I probably would like to grant us more of truly knowledgeable self-confidence. Self-confidence that allows you to do things in true honesty, does not let you be afraid of anyone nor place ourselves above others, take a good care of yourself and others as well.

A person like you finds himself too often close to death, tragedies and bad things. Do you still keep the faith in anything? In mankind, in God?

I believe in positive human qualities, the ones that so often appear to be trampled upon, but then again rise: truth, honor, courage, service.

People may probably remark on the that is sounds too pathetic…

Those are terribly pathetic words. Maybe us Czechs, who are so terribly non-pathetic, should say them out loud time to time. Maybe it would help us in how we behave at some times.

Author: Petr Šimůnek, Jaroslav Mašek / FORBES

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