The Polish model of “impulsive” philanthropy

Each year, on the second Sunday of January, Poles prove that they are a generous and empathic people. On this day, virtually every Pole donates something for the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity (Wielka Orkiestra Świątecznej Pomocy WOŚP). The streets are full of volunteers with donation cans and people bedecked with characteristic heart stickers, which they receive in exchange for a donation. However, most Poles remember about those in need only once a year.

Foto: CreativeCommons/ PolandMFA

WOŚP became a new Polish tradition after it was started in 1993 by Jerzy Owsiak, now a 60-year old artist and social activist. A series of popular music concerts were held throughout the country to raise money for medical care for children. The concept caught on. Televised events, featuring stars of the Polish pop music scene, combined with the efforts of tens of thousands of mostly young volunteers asking people on the street for donations, produce enormous revenue for the group. More than $16 million are collected each year for a different casuse each time. This year it was saving the lives of children and providing adequate healthcare for the elderly.  Since 1993, some $170 million of charitable donations have been collected by the WOŚP. While it sounds impressive, the truth is that the second Sunday of January is most often the only day of the year when Poles donate to a charity of any kind.

Once a year or less

Why are Poles not more generous? Sociologists explain that most middle-aged and older Polish citizens, i.e., those who remember the times when they used to make $20 a month on a state-regulated salary, still have the mentality of a poor cousin of Western Europeans, and are more likely to ask for money than to donate it. This also explains why most Polish foundations compete with each other to present a picture of “Polish misery,” in order to attract funds from the EU and other Western donors. There are, however, exceptions, which hopefully, will become more common in the future. The good example is the EFC Czernecki Educational Foundation, founded in 2012 by a Polish businessman Andrzej Czernecki, who just before his death donated his entire estate (worth of about 160 mln USD) to support indigent countryside youth with fellowship programs.

Regardless of how many and what kind of foundations exist inPoland, the main fact is that Polish donations to the needy are sparse.

Historical distrust

Poles react eagerly to calls for help in individual, specific cases when they can more or less “see” the recipient, according to Kuba Wygnański, director of the Klon/Jawor Association, a group that studies Polish NGOs. This explains why spontaneous campaigns – such as appealing for money via social media for someone who needs expensive cancer surgery abroad – are successful.  The WOŚP galas, during which pictures of premature babies waiting for sophisticated medical help are shown on TV, are likewise successful. But it is definitely more difficult to get Poles involved in helping out the thousands of completely “anonymous” people in need.

Led by instinct, Poles decide whether to donate money in a matter of seconds, which explains why the most popular method of donating money inPolandis to send it via SMS, regardless of the fact that a part of such donations can be eaten up by mobile telephone operators. Fundraisers are well aware of the emotional aspect of Polish philanthropy and exploit it in appeals for donations, like hospices which show pictures of children with cancer saying “Donate now, because tomorrow I will be here no more.”  “We help others instinctively, incidentally and impulsively, ideally when we see the face of the person we are helping,” Wygnański said. “We are, however, less capable of systematic, long-term involvement in helping others, volunteerism and philanthropy.”

History is partly to blame, he said. In the 19th Century, when modern philanthropy was born, Polanddid not exist, its territory being divided by three neighbors. Any activities then publicly welcome among the “oppressed nation” were those of resistance to the orders of the authorities and not those aimed at building something on the basis of cultural trends imported from the invading countries. This also explains why today Poles are most successful in spontaneous campaigns aimed at resisting something (a government decree, for example) rather than creating something new, a phenomenon described by Wygnański as vetocracy.

“We have 200 years of training in performing informal or even illegal activities and only 20-something years in appreciating the official ones,” Wygnański said.

Far from Solidarity

Poles are even less eager to help those in other countries. On average, each Pole donates $11 a year to citizens of other countries, mostly their ex-Soviet neighbors inUkraineandBelarus. Compare this with the average Swiss citizen: each donates yearly more than $2,000 to foreigners. Some of the money Poles donate to foreigners are unwitting donations. For example, whenever a Pole buys a bottle of mineral water, a portion is donated to the Polish Humanitarian Action, an organization involved in building water systems inSudan. But such initiatives are rare.

“We have a problem with understanding that after 25 years of political and economic changes we finally became a member of the group of the 40 most-developed countries in the world and as such, as well as being the traditional icon of freedom from the Solidarity era, we can really afford to help others more,” Wygnański said.

About a dozen years agoPoland, following the successful example ofHungary, introduced a way for each citizen to donate one percent of their income to one of 8,000 groups that serve the public benefit. More and more citizens are using this option and lawmakers are expected to approve a similar law for corporations.

Delayed transformation

Will these legal changes translate, in time, into a more mature, long-lasting and responsible model of Polish philanthropy? Ralph Dahrendorf, a German-British sociologist, philosopher and political scientist, said that it takes six months to replace a political system, six years to establish a market economy and about sixty years to change a society.

Blaming years of communism for the lack of solidarity in the Polish society may sound a bit of cliché, but it is a fact that it destroyed capitalism together with civil society and appearance of the middle class.Polandbefore the war was a poor capitalist state but all capitalism-based legal, economic and social mechanisms were present here – including philanthropy, with the significant role of the foundations. This died in 1945. Now, after the Polish economic successes, there would be time for a wave of more social sensitivity in everyday life.


Stanisław Tekieli

Stanisław Tekieli

is a journalist, translator and researcher, specializing in ethnic issues in Central and Eastern Europe. He is a former head of the Central European department of the Center for Eastern Studies in Warsaw, Poland.