1. Why is charitable work important to you?
As a former child refugee I know what it means to be disposessed and penniless. That’s why I’m so concerned with the people who live on the fringes of society.
2. You work on the the issues of eating disorders and the living conditions of asylum seekers. What goals do you hope to achieve with these two projects?
I’d like to dispel the myths around these issues and generate more awareness of them. Very few people care that asylum seekers of many different nationalities and religions have to live for months in horribly overcrowded conditions. My support is strongly directed towards recreational activities, but also towards education. It’s important to open up new avenues for the refugees: learning a trade, for example, could be one way to bring them a step further.
With anorexia I’d like to teach people that this is a disease – not just the fad of a young person who wants to be super-thin. The parents have to be brought on board, but doing that is especially hard, as they quickly start to feel guilty or under attack.
3. What do you think are the biggest challenges in your work?
Learning to confine myself - not to support too many things, but to establish a focus. I concentrate on two projects, get personally involved and supply the funds necessary for these projects to achieve a lasting impact.
4. How do you choose your projects?
Again, it’s a question of focus. I choose projects which don’t already have a strong lobby, such as anorexia or improving the living conditions of asylum seekers. I became aware of the issue of asylum seekers when we went to a refuge to donate some of my daughter’s toys, and I was able to see the conditions there first hand. I can’t decide who’s allowed to stay, but I do want to help make the waiting period respectful of human dignity.
5. Is there a reason why you’re currently selling a part of your collection in order to better support your projects?
Today a picture can sell for several million Euros – the prices are hugely inflated.
In our wealthy society many are no longer aware that even here there are people suffering – people who don’t know how they’re going to survive the next day. From that perspective the art boom seems even more alien. It’s absolutely shocking how the gulf between rich and poor is widening. That’s why I decided to sell part of my collection to better pursue my charitable goals.
6. What are the most important factors for you in your work with anorexia?
Anorexia is a sensitive subject, and neither those affected nor their parents like to talk about it. But it’s an illness which involves serious physical and psychological risks. The long-term damage it causes is immense, and unfortunately the mortality rate is correspondingly high. I’d like to reach a point where this issue is discussed openly, so that those affected can seek out therapy by themselves. My other goal is in the future to have sufficient capacity to help these patients quickly in an emergency, and to provide specially-trained psychologists.
My plan is to partner with pre-existing organizations that can help me establish support centers in rural areas, since those are the areas where it is especially difficult for patients and their families to find help and opportunities for therapy.
7. How do you help those seeking asylum?
The organizations we support have far too few therapists who can listen to people’s stories and let them open up. I’d like to do more in this area in the future. At present, for example, I support a program for children, to give their mothers some breathing space once in a while. We’ve also set up a screening room for videos and films so people seeking asylum can distract themselves from time to time. For a long time the only alternative was to go to bed at 8 o’clock in the evening.
In the case of asylum seekers I think it’s very regrettable how little the authorities do, even though there are several services they could provide which would incur very little costs.
8. How do you ensure that your work has the greatest possible impact?
Focus. Then you can bring the project into the public eye, anchor it in the public conscience and win more supporters for the issue. I thought it was fantastic that the auction house Christie’s made an unsolicited donation to the anorexia project because it’s an issue that affects us all. Things like that are brilliant, and I hope that others might have a similar impulse or have ideas they’d like to bring to the table.
9. What has been your greatest success so far? Your greatest mistake?
My most visible success has been in the refuge for asylum seekers. We were able, often with relatively few resources, to reach a lot of people and make their lives better. When it comes to individuals a small thing can often make a big difference.
One mistake was a school project which I supported in Ghana. The idea was to set up a boarding school to educate disadvantaged Ghanaians, with the aim that the project would eventually be taken over by the government. I financed the school together with others, but it subsequently became clear that the government of Ghana had no interest in taking over. The school then became an institution for young people who could afford an education. I regret that a lot.
10. How involved are you with the day-to-day operations of your projects?
Project managers handle the day-to-day business, but I’m involved in every decision, I have a full overview and am kept fully up-to-date on what’s going on. I also spend a lot of time on-site.
11. What do you get out of your projects?
It makes me happy to see a project succeed. I get fantastic responses – from the drum group at the refuge, for example. They wrote to me to say how moving it was to see how people who are hardly friendly neighbors could play the drum side-by-side. That was only one of many responses, and they’re a joy to receive.
12. If other people hope to do what you’ve done, what would be your three most important pieces of advice to them?
The first is passion. You should do good with conviction and then choose a project that is close to your heart.
The second is money – it doesn’t work without it.
The third: you have to get involved yourself. I spend a lot of time at my projects and I know them inside-out. I talk to politicians, approach them myself, write letters and am constantly trying to bring different key players in our society on board. That’s crucial – and that’s how things get done.
[Julia Wachs (Active Philanthropy) conducted the interview in February 2013.]