Waiting for Gates. Domestic billionaires learn philanthropy

The wealthiest Czechs and Slovaks are forming their own foundations. Education and culture are the leading themes in their newly found philanthropy leanings. There is not much to differentiate Babice from other Central Bohemian rural communities. Yet there is something. Setting aside the somewhat nondescript association known as SK Babice, which includes a surprising number of leading Czech long-distance runners, there is a large campus on the outskirts of the village that is not much different from the typical elite boarding schools of England. In Babice, though, the children of the wealthiest Czechs share Open Gate desks with “normal” or downright poor kids. Renáta and Petr Kellners offer them a chance to live the sort of life they might live if they were born into billionaire families.

The wealthiest Czech channels his philanthropic efforts into education, as many of other well-heeled Czechs do. Mrs Renáta Kellnerová brought the idea of moving the starting line for the less lucky children to life. This is a common trait – it is often the billionaires’ wives who steer their philanthropy pursuits. This is the case with the Tykač, the Baudyš, the Kučera, the Babiš and the Bakala families. Some of the wives have managed to turn money into good things just as ingeniously as their husbands made money in the business world. You know, running a charity efficiently is just about as difficult as managing a business.
Many have found out, others are just finding out. The recent trend among the wealthiest people is to set up their own foundations into which they channel at least a small amount of the funds they have gathered. Four out of the top five Czech and Slovak billionaires based on the Euro Top chart have their own foundations.

Philanthropist incubator
If the alumni of Open Gate become Czech billionaires in the future, there is a fair chance of the number of Czech philanthropists growing as well. This is because the school places the same emphasis on academic results and developing one’s personal talent as it does on social responsibility, leading students to be willing and able to help. “We must be doing it right. The number of hours that students work voluntarily as part of helping the community is close to 280 per year,” says Kateřina Kožnarová, Director of Open Gate, and she goes on to mention the social responsibility theme at least five more times in a one-hour interview. Students teach languages and sciences to kindergarten and primary school children, help out at the Mukařov home for the elderly, and go to work in Indian villages and in Romania’s Banat region. They learn to navigate the world of charity with their own ideas; for instance, the Run and Help project where funds for the needy are raised through running hails from Open Gate.

If today’s billionaires and millionaires don’t want their children to study at elite schools for fear of them being closed in an ivory tower – a J&T Banka survey indicates that up to one half of them choose publicly run schools for their kids for this reason – they need not worry when it comes to Babice. While children do live in luxury there, they share it with their peers who previously occupied the opposite social strata. “How does the coexistence of socially advantaged and disadvantaged children work? With no problems at all. When I try to guess which student has received a social grant, I usually fail,” Kožnarová says.

Tuition fees at the Open Gate eight-year grammar school, which the Kellners opened in 2005, cost CZK 236,000 a year. The opportunities that the school offers the children in return are obviously adequate to the amount at a glance. A swimming pool, a first-rate playground with an athletic track and an indoor gym, a library like in an American movie and a horse farm with pastures do not come standard with even the best of the domestic schools. Also, it is not common for seventh and eighth grade students to study under the International Baccalaureate (IB) programme, or for the success rate in terms of students admitted to prestigious international schools to approach one hundred percent.

The Kellner Family Foundation donates about 90 million crowns primarily for education every year, with the majority of the amount being used to enable children from children’s shelters, foster care, broken homes and low-income families to study at Open Gate. (Other funds are channelled into grants for students of international universities and into the Helping Schools Succeed project that targets public primary schools.) Social grants are provided on the condition that the child will live in the dormitory on the premises of the campus. The dorms are currently used by 60% of the students. As of this writing, The Kellner Family Foundation provides social grants to 94 students, with a total of 237 students studying at the grammar school. Money is not a problem. More disadvantaged children could be admitted – this is why the Foundation plans on being more active in addressing organisations that work in environments involving such potential students.

It is quite logical that disadvantaged children find it a challenge to succeed in high school admission tests, competing with those who were afforded the best primary education by their motivated parents. By the way, the Kellners added a primary school five years ago. For the time being, it is only accessible to children whose parents can pay CZK 150,000 per year in tuition fees. There are more than a few of them, actually. The school stopped accepting applications when two hundred of them had arrived; it can only admit twenty children.

Kellner and the others...
If we add up the costs of building the school (CZK 350 million), the grants and the Foundation’s donations, the Kellners have donated more than a billion crowns for educational projects in the Czech Republic since 2005. The claim that they are the greatest domestic donors cannot be made easily, but it is probably true. According to the Donors Forum, about seven billion crowns is donated for good cause projects in our country every year, and the amount has been growing slowly and steadily. Individual donors collectively contribute CZK 1.4 billion to 1.6 billion a year, companies contribute 3.6 billion, about 600 million is collected in public fundraising initiatives, and foundations and endowment funds raise about CZK 1.1 billion. Precise data on what the wealthiest Czechs finance and how is not available; in addition, donation channels are often combined with such major donors. They give funds through their companies, through the foundations they set up, as their own donations and through other entities. Euro tried to map how much, in what ways, and for what billionaires contribute. Not all of them were willing to share this information. Still, a few conclusions can be drawn from their answers and from our investigation. Among these is that billionaires are local patriots and African malaria leaves them indifferent, and that domestic education is the most popular area in addition to culture and helping disadvantaged and disabled groups.

Ivan Chrenko, the founder of HB Reavis, a development group that has been quite active in the Czech Republic in recent years, is likely trying to achieve a feat similar to that of the Kellners’ in Slovakia. Much like Petr Kellner, Chrenko, who is number eight on the Top Billionaires 2016 chart, has been shunning the media for a long time and talking about charity is no exception, although he definitely does not shun charity per se.

He has been supporting talented students through the Leaf organisation and he opened the Leaf Academy boarding school in leased premises for the first 44 students last year. His long-term plan is to build a campus for hundreds of students over 60 hectares. Other Czechs and Slovaks from among the Top 15 on the chart focus on the education sector too. For example, Marek Dospiva supports the Learning Makes Sense project aimed at reversing the trend of the gradual decay of the Slovak education sector through Penta’s foundation. In our country, Penta has been sponsoring reSite, an architectural conference, and the Night of Architecture student project, among others. Zdeněk Bakala (No. 10 on the chart) has been supporting education long term. The well-known donor for the Václav Havel Library founded the Bakala Foundation in 2007 with the motto of “Education is the Best Investment” and the goal of supporting talented students at prestigious international universities. The Foundation has distributed more than a hundred million crowns among Czech students and contributed an additional 75 million to other organisations’ projects.

Music heals
PPF Group, which is in Petr Kellner’s portfolio, provided master-grade instruments to six virtuosi of the Czech Philharmonic. PPF Art manages an extensive collection of Czech and Slovak photography and a set of approximately 300 works of art, mostly paintings, by famous Czech authors. Companies in PPF Groups support, among others, Jára Cimrman’s Žižkov Theatre, the Summer Shakespeare Festival, and the Prague Spring. Other billionaires love culture too. Evžen Balko, a co-owner of Třinec Iron and Steel Works, believes that art is just as important for the proper mental and physical development of young people as a sport. This is why he has been organising Ars Poetica, an international poetry festival, for a number of years. Zdeněk Bakala is involved not only with the Václav Havel Library but also with DOX, a popular modern art hub. Oil tycoon Karel Komárek founded Akademie vážné hudby (Academy of Classical Music), which has been co-financing the Dvořák Prague festival for ten years, the Strings of Autumn festival and, as a new addition this year, JazzFestBrno. Komárek has contributed more than one hundred million crowns for music projects to date.

Autor | Hana Boříková


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