Los Angeles, Ca.- By Vasilis Papoutsis
If there was a silver lining that came out of the 2008 disastrous financial crisis in Greece that pushed the country to the brink of exiting the European Union, it was a renewed sense of urgency that also served as a call to duty for many Greeks of the Diaspora. And in 2012 prominent members of the Greek American community founded The Hellenic Initiative (THI). Its mission was to mobilize the Greek diaspora and the Philhellenes to come up with ideas and solutions that will help the Greek people recover from the crisis.
As a new organization the Hellenic Institute needed an experienced director and a passionate advocate for Greek issues, and they found one in Peter Poulos who had a wealth of experience in fundraising, political campaigns and an exceptional ability to translate vision into action. Most notably he had been the fundraising consultant in San Francisco of the groundbreaking foundation AMFAR – from 1997 to 2006 – that has powerful following among Hollywood dignitaries and philanthropists.
Peter Poulos’ first endeavor with THI was in 2013 when he was recruited to help with THI’s first Gala. At that time THI had no track record and the goal of raising $350,000 seemed quite ambitious. When the Gala raised 1.8 million dollars that signaled a switch in attitudes and the willingness of the Omogenia to invest monetarily in greater numbers than previously seen in order to find solutions that would assist Greece to overcome the monumental financial crisis.
The two annual galas, in New York and in London are the biggest fundraisers for the organization. Executive Director Peter Poulos said that “due to the pandemic we had to cancel the London Gala and do the NY Gala entirely online and although we missed seen everyone this year, we did amazingly well.”
Last year alone THI offered $800,000 in grants, Athens Food Bank got $50,000 and Mazi me to Paidi got $25,000 among others. “We have established a strict system of checks and balances with the organizations we assist financially. We look at their financial reports and receipts to make sure the money is allocated properly. One of the nonprofits we support, Metadrasi, won the Hilton Humanitarian Award worth 2 million dollars, the largest prize in the world’’ Poulos said. THI also funded renovations of a classical home in Mytilini that was initially used for housing and now as a school for unaccompanied refugee minors. Most importantly THI recognizes the importance of Greek entrepreneurs as a fundamental component to financial recovery. The Venture Impact Award is a new program that awards cash prizes of $25,000 to innovative Greek startups. Dimitris Georgakopoulos a phenomenally successful software entrepreneur, after the sale of Buildium, the software company he had co-founded, was looking for a vehicle that would help him give back to the community.
“I never expected to have made so much money at my age and I felt the responsibility to invest some of my money to help develop the future of young entrepreneurs. I approached Peter Poulos with an idea and after brainstorming for a while we came up with The Venture Impact Awards.” The award winners must prove not only their ability to generate financial returns but also that their products or services will help solve social and environmental problems. Georgakopoulos believes that there a lot of incredibly talented Greek software professionals and Greece with the right investments has the potential to become a significant force in the industry.
“The first year of the Awards felt like an experimental period and now we can grow more substantially” Georgakopoulos said confidently. Mrs. Harriette Condes Zervakis who invested $500,000 to The Venture Impact Awards considers the approach innovative. “My uncle Charles Condes was an extraordinarily successful businessman and philanthropist. He had donated millions of dollars to the Greek Orthodox Church and various other charities, but he wanted to help directly Greek organizations in Greece. The Hellenic Initiative is the only organization that I know which helps Greeks directly in our homeland. That was a major part of my decision to donate to THI”.
As a participant of the evaluation panel along with her son, Mrs. Zervakis was impressed of the pool of applicants that had applied for the awards. “We examined the top 25 applicants to select the 10 best among them. Part of the application process was a video presentation about the company’s activities. We were confident that the winners would be greatly successful in their endeavors. I was very pleased with the outcome” Zervakis said.
One of those startups is Enaleia that THI supported with a grant of $20,000. Executive Director Poulos commenting on Enaleia said that ‘’This is a company that symbolizes the spirit and purpose of our organization. Although fishing is a centuries old occupation in Greece, we never had a professional fishing school before! Enaleia has trained over 130 professional fishermen and to make the marine ecosystem sustainable they have acquired 10 fishing boats that collect 2,500 kilos of plastic with their nets from the bottom of the ocean. Both of those provide long term solutions both professionally and ecologically.’’ Enaleia was recognized as one of the 5 best initiatives in Europe at the Young Champions of the Earth competition for their work in protecting and restoring the environment. The success of the THI’s programs is obviously extremely rewarding, but also serves as a motivational tool to continue to push forward. “Success gives you a solid framework, but you have to be honest and extremely well organized in order to be able to reach out to donors. I also believe it is especially important to thank donors no matter how small or large the donation is, I write a personal thank you note to each contributor” Poulos said. The next step is to establish an endowment, essential for the organization to progress. “With an annual budget of around 3 million the time has come to work towards this new goal. I believe the Greeks in diaspora are ready to contribute to the effort as attitudes and wealth have reached new levels” Poulos said. We have no doubt that he will be successful in that endeavor as well.