20 years ago…
The Pontis Foundation celebrates its 20th anniversary. Where are its roots? Let’s go back to the very beginnings for a while.
The official beginnings of the Pontis Foundation, or the Foundation for a Civil Society as it was called at that time, date back to 1997. However, its seeds were planted even earlier. “The Foundation was then a part of an American organization which provided important know-how to our young, formerly socialist, country. It supplied foreign experts to the national bank, to ministries, to the presidential office,” explained Lenka Surotchak, Executive Director at the Pontis Foundation. It brought English teachers to schools and offered scholarships to study abroad for students. “Later on, however, the government took a negative stance to the third sector. It was one of the reasons why the Foundation for a Civil Society was registered as an official Slovak entity. If a foundation is to build a long-term presence, it has to become independent and simply Slovak,” adds Lenka.
Empowerment of the non-governmental sector
In the 1990s the non-profit sector faced a threat. The government at that time considered it an enemy of the state as it was many times funded from abroad. It was necessary to empower non-governmental organizations, and the Foundation for a Civil Society took on this challenge. “To support this sector, we joined the campaign Third Sector SOS. It was aimed at protesting against the amendment of Act on Foundations. It is true that the campaign was not successful – the act was adopted, but it mobilized the third sector at national level,” says Lenka.
What the Foundation brought to Slovakia
There were seeds of different movements – environmental or dissident – in Slovakia at that time, yet none of them were official. The Foundation for a Civil Society was the first to introduce public policy in Slovakia and launch a transparent process of selection of grant applications and winners. In this way it contributed to building a civil society in Slovakia. Moreover, in 1998 it organized a big campaign Election Rock ‘98 to mobilize first time voters. Thanks to this campaign, the election turnout of first time voters rose by 60 per cent compared to the previous election.
“Besides this, the Foundation helped many people in the first years of its existence. They were concerned about different issues, but they couldn’t deal with them at full steam. However, they were now given an opportunity to build their profession, for example, the profession of an activist or a person in the non-profit sector. To improve their efficiency and help them understand how different aspects of governance work, we organized various trainings. We encouraged them to get involved in decision-making processes,” said Lenka.
In 2001 the Foundation got a more poetic and maybe more fitting name – Pontis, or “a bridge” in Latin. “We became an organization which linked different worlds. The haves with the needy. We facilitate the import of experience from abroad to Slovakia and vice versa. In addition, we are trying to function as a bridge between sectors,” adds Lenka.