Setting a New Course for Turkish Philanthropy: Q&A with Güler Sabancı

Güler Sabancı of Turkey was third among the “Top 50 Women in World Business” in 2010, according to the Financial Times. As chair of Sabancı Holding, Güler Sabancı is responsible for Turkey’s leading industrial and financial conglomerate. But as the Financial Times put it, “Sabancı is more than chairwoman of one of Turkey’s largest corporations. She is also an important force in the country’s political, social and cultural life.” Not to mention its philanthropic life. Sabancı also chairs the Sabancı Foundation ( and Sabancı University (

“Güler Sabancı is so involved in her businesses that it is hard to believe she finds time for her philanthropies as well,” says Peggy Dulany, founder and chair of Synergos. “When I met with her a year ago, she was completely current on all that the foundation and university were doing, and highly articulate about the rationale for choosing each strategy. As such, she is a model for all business leaders not only in Turkey but around the world -- and an inspiration for other women.”

Since it was founded in 1974, the Sabancı Foundation has built and restored more than 120 educational, health and cultural facilities, established Sabancı University, provided more than 35,000 scholarships, and distributed nearly 800 achievement awards in the areas of education, sports and culture.

The growth of the Sabancı Foundation could be viewed as part of a larger trend in philanthropy in Turkey, with businesses and wealthy families using a mixture of grantmaking and institution-building to focus on particular issues. For example, the Özyeğin family works through the Hüsnü M. Özyeğin Foundation, the Mother Child Education Foundation and other institutions on education, health and cultural issues. Some of these partner with Sabancı -related institutions in the fields of education and in promoting effective philanthropy in Turkey.

Turkey has a history of philanthropy tracing back to the Ottoman Empire, and is rapidly integrating into the global economy. Yet the country faces challenges in ensuring equal access to basic government services such as education and health. In 2005 the Sabancı Foundation’s new management began a planning process to identify the country’s most pressing needs and how to address them. As a result, it developed a new focus and instituted a grant-making program in the country.

In 2006, the Sabancı Foundation entered into a partnership with the United Nations agencies in Turkey and the Ministry of Interior to support the United Nations Joint Program to Promote and Protect the Human Rights of Women and Girls Children in six pilot cities. Priority issues include education, employment, reproductive health, and violence against women.

During the past several years, the foundation has evolved from a traditional family foundation that focused on building institutions to a highly strategic organization committed to promoting access and equal opportunities for women, youth and the disabled. It also has committed to making grants that foster integration of the three goals.

In summing up her company’s philosophy to a Financial Times reporter, Sabancı said, “In one hand is the business -- profitable, competitive and successful to be sustainable. In the other lies philanthropy. We cannot claim to be successful if we are only doing business to satisfy our shareholders.”

Global Giving Matters recently had an in-depth conversation with Sabancı about the foundation’s work to advance civil society in Turkey.

GGM: As one of the most powerful women in the world, how do you view your role in raising the status of women in Turkey?

Sabancı: I believe that raising the status of women in Turkey is a responsibility shared by everyone. It is not only in Turkey; we are still in need of serious support for the role of women in business and society all around the world. Women leading big corporations, assuming various important social and political roles is still considered newsworthy, which clearly shows the need to further support and enhance the role of women in society. I am pleased that my work has been recognized and I hope to be a role model.

I had my own role models. For example, my grandmother donated all of her wealth, after the death of her husband, and that is how our philanthropic foundation was established. She was a dedicated simple Anatolian woman with six sons. She said she would donate everything she had to the philanthropic organization because she was sure that her sons would look after her. She did not have any other material means after she donated her wealth to the Foundation.

GGM: How did the Sabancı Foundation decide to focus on women’s and girls’ rights?

Sabancı: The United Nations presented a proposal to the Sabanci Foundation in early 2006 that addressed a program to promote and protect the human rights of women and girls in Turkey. We immediately responded positively and started working with them because we already had a plan and strategy to work on these issues. And of course the UN has the capability, expertise and experience to bring different parties together. The UN’s credibility in small towns is helpful in bringing NGOs together. We had great support from our partners in the UN as well as the Ministry of Interior. And the Sabancı name and credibility added great value to the realization of this program. The project has been very rewarding and impactful.

Our Foundation believes in the program so much that going forward we added two modules that did not exist in the original proposal and were implemented exclusively by the Sabanci Foundation team. One is a grant program; the other is a teacher-training program on gender equality. The grant program is specifically designed for projects in cities in which the U.N. project has been a great success. It has been four years and we are seeing serious results.

GGM: I know that a few years ago the foundation put a great deal of time and effort into evaluating what activities it should focus on. What convinced you that grant making was the right way to go?

Sabancı: Five years ago we extensively analyzed ourselves by looking at the environment now versus when the foundation was founded 36 years ago. As an outcome of these soul- searching efforts, we defined a new strategy going forward for the Foundation.

We are the first foundation in Turkey to launch and run grant programs. Grants encourage, empower and enable civil society to be active in promoting social development, at the local and national level.

The experience that we accumulated from our work with the UN and grant programs we managed specifically for women led us to develop new grant programs, alliances and partnerships with other foundations. So this is a new era for us. This is only our third year on this path. We are measuring our programs and tracking their progress. As you know, social projects require time to yield meaningful results. But it seems that this is the right way to move forward.

Having said that, let us not forget that we have a university and that the world is changing rapidly. Every year, every day, a new global issue emerges; we have to catch up, invest and, if possible, be ahead. So the challenges and work we need to do within our existing commitments is growing.

GGM: How successful has the holistic approach of addressing issues facing women, youth and people with disabilities in an integrated fashion been so far?

Sabancı: It has only been three years since we’ve set out on this journey and determining the impact of social development projects can sometimes take decades. I am hoping that our programs will reveal results sooner than that. We are monitoring our work very closely and my very preliminary observations indicate that we are headed in the right direction.

The simple act of making a grant is unlikely to yield significant impact. The holistic approach places a great deal of responsibility on the funder in terms of ensuring the connections are being made and sustained -- both among grantees and program staff. It requires integrated thinking and additional program resources for convening and connecting. If funders are willing to build an organization that can translate these principles into practice, I believe they can truly maximize the return on investment of mainstreaming.

GGM: What have you learned in implementing this approach that might benefit other funders?

Sabancı: We clearly see that our holistic approach to gender, youth and disability has been very valuable in “cross fertilizing” knowledge and practice among organizations from different fields. This collaboration then creates a multiplier effect of raising awareness within organizations, among beneficiaries, and by the public at large. This provides a powerful learning experience for funders as well.

Since building schools, sports facilities, libraries, dormitories, orphanages and other necessary infrastructure is no longer a focus, are you concerned about who will fill that role?

The Sabancı Foundation has built over 120 institutions since our establishment. While our Foundation may be building fewer institutions going forward, we remain fully dedicated to supporting them.

But am I concerned? No, I am not.

Turkey today is not the Turkey of the 1970s. In the 1970s, per capita income was less than $2,000. Today, per capita income is around $12,000. So Turkey is much richer; and I am also pleased to say that in Turkey creating foundations, giving, supporting and helping those in need, doing things for the community and society, has been part of our culture since the Ottoman times. The whole culture of philanthropy is well known and well established.

Already there are other families and groups who are following the footsteps of what my family has done in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. There are other wealthy families building schools and dorms in different parts of Turkey. And there are local businesses in cities to the east that have the wealth to do things for their own cities.

GGM: What role can foundations play in ensuring equal access to basic government services such as education and health for disadvantaged groups including women, the disabled and youth?

Sabancı: The Sabancı Foundation built institutions, which were then transferred to the government. These institutions provide basic services -- education, health -- to all segments of the population. This is one way that foundations contribute.

Another way is for foundations to leverage their credibility, relationships and resources. This mobilizes the government and other actors to increase their capacity to deliver core services. For example, in our UN Joint Program, Sabancı Foundation and Sabancı University helped to build capacity of teachers in the Ministry of Education system through a training program. We leveraged our foundation’s name, credibility and capacity together with the strengths of other partners. I personally was the spokesperson for this program, and this promoted the visibility of the issue of women and their needs.

GGM: How has the Sabancı Foundation helped mobilize other foundations or NGOs to address the needs of women, the disabled and youth?

Sabancı: Our grant programs provide NGOs with financial and operational support. We also invest a great deal of effort in communications that increase the visibility of causes and inspire others to act for social change. I think it is extremely important to promote role models and good examples to mobilize more people to get involved. Last year Sabancı Foundation launched a unique TV program called Turkey’s Changemakers. For 32 weeks we shared stories of “changemakers” from all across Turkey. They were selected from a pool of 500 nominations of the Turkish public. We made extensive use of social media tools and the Internet to share the programs. This project has become an example for other foundations looking for new ways to communicate the power of social change projects and leaders. We are continuing this year with a second season.

GGM: How receptive are other global leaders, especially in the Middle East, to commit to equality and empowerment for women and girls?

Sabancı: Global leaders are increasingly committing to supporting women’s role in business and society.

As for the Middle East, I am hopeful and optimistic. In September 2010, a high-level delegation from government institutions in Afghanistan conducted a site visit to our UN Joint Program site in the southeast (the city of Sanliurfa). They were very eager to learn about practices to promote the human rights of women and girls. We were very pleased to hear that our program could be applicable to other countries in the region. I am optimistic that these examples will increase in the coming years.

GGM: What impact do you think the recent establishment of the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) will have?

The creation of UN Women sends a clear message to all stakeholders about the strategic priority of these issues. It makes sure national governments are sticking to their commitments in the area of social development. Organizations such as Synergos and the Global Philanthropists Circle, of which I am a member, also have a particularly important role to play here. We represent the private organizations that are critical partners for member governments and the UN. If UN Women is able to mobilize these partnerships I think it will have an important impact on the field. So I think the most critical success factor for UN Women will be the degree to which they can engage us, as partners, at the local and national level.

GGM: Are there other foundations globally that you emulate?

Sabancı: I am an admirer of several organizations that contribute to improving the social and economic well being of others. We have an annual seminar in which we invite these leaders to share their experiences and practices. Among them have been representatives from the Ford Foundation and the Global Fund for Women.

I am very pleased to see that involvement in philanthropy is growing among business leaders and their major foundations. Yet I should add that I admire the local practices as much as the global ones. For example, when I meet with local women’s NGOs that we have supported through our grant program, I am very impressed. Also, through our “Turkey’s Changemakers” television program, I am affected by the many stories of individuals who make a difference in their communities.

GGM: The Foundation is involved in so many worthy activities -- what specifically are you most proud of?

Sabancı: I am proud of most of things we have done and achieved. But I would say for me personally, it would be the establishment of the Sabancı University, which plays an important role in my life and in my own efforts. In 1994, my uncles asked me to lead this project. At the time I was heavily involved in realizing business projects. But it was challenging and a great honor to be able to realize my uncles’ dream to have a private university.

It’s been 12 years now since the Sabancı University entered the education field, and I am pleased to say in this short period (in the lifetime of a university 12 years is a short period) Sabancı University has made a difference in the higher education system in Turkey.

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