Güler Sabanci is the most successful businesswoman in Turkey, and The Financial Times has listed her as the third most powerful businesswoman in the world. Particularly close to her heart in recent years has been her company’s innovative program of philanthropy, an effort that is increasingly winning international recognition.
Corporate philanthropy is relatively new to Turkey, having been pioneered largely by the Sabanci Foundation, which has given some $1.5 billion to charitable causes. Founded almost 40 years ago, the foun-dation focused initially on education and culture. But Sabanci has steered it firmly toward women, in a country where child brides and “honor” killings of allegedly unfaithful wives are still commonplace. In an innovative program designed with the support of the United Nations, she has helped and encouraged women across the country to set up local organizations to defend their rights.
Sabanci’s work is receiving growing international recognition. In 2009, she was awarded the Raymond Georis Prize for Innovative Philanthropy. The European prize’s jury said, “Sabanci’s unique ability to convert dreams and idealistic hopes into concrete results that have a positive impact on the lives of so many epitomized the very spirit of the prize.” Then, last September in New York, she received a Clinton Global Citizen Award, which recognizes individuals who have “demonstrated visionary leadership in solving pressing global challenges.” She shared a platform with Trudie Styler, wife of the musician Sting, recognized for her work in preserving rain forests around the world.
Born into a remarkable family, Sabanci has become one of its most remarkable members. Chairwoman and managing director of Sabanci Holding, the business founded by her grandfather, Haci Omer Sabanci, and built up by her uncles into the largest industrial group in the country, she oversees a sprawling multibillion-dollar conglomerate whose profits have doubled since 2004, when she took the helm.
The company’s original business was textiles; it has since added interests in financial services (Akbank), automotive components (Brisa) and supermarkets (in partnership with Carrefour and Dia). Under Sabanci’s guidance, the group has embarked on a program of massive investment in energy infrastructure. “Creating sustainable, competitive and environmentally sound energy policies will be the major challenge in this century,” she said in the company’s latest annual report.
After gaining an M.B.A. from Bogazici University in Istanbul, Sabanci joined the family business in 1978. She earned her stripes working in unglamorous businesses — first for Lassa, a tire manufacturer, and then running Kordsa, a leading producer of nylon and polyester yarn. Her ability caught the eye of her uncle Sakip, the principal leader of the business from his generation, and when he died in 2004, the mantle was handed to her. She was 49 years of age. In recent years, Sabanci’s heart has grown closer and closer to the group’s philanthropic work. She is now chairwoman of the trustees of the Sabanci Foundation, the vehicle for the philanthropy of both the corporation and the family. Its most notable achievement has been the founding of Sabanci University, already one of Turkey’s top engineering institutions. Nowadays, the foundation finances some 1,300 scholarships every year, focusing its efforts on education but looking particularly to help women, the young and the disabled.
Philanthropy has been part of the family business from its very beginning. When his father died in the Balkan Wars (1912-13), Haci Omer Sabanci, then aged 12, walked the 200 miles from his home village near Kayseri in central Anatolia to the coastal region of Adana, Turkey’s version of Texas — a stretch of flat, hot, well-watered countryside close to the Mediterranean Sea. There, he gained a respect for the land, which was so much more generous than the rocky plains of Anatolia that he had left behind.
He became a successful cotton farmer, and as his business grew, he would return every year to his village and give to those who had stayed behind. Sabanci still remembers the annual visits her grandmother would make to the village near Kayseri and the gifts she would take with her. In the same spirit, her grandmother set up the foundation after her husband’s death.
Sabanci and I meet in the Sakip Sabanci Museum, a wooden mansion on the western slopes of the Bosporus, surrounded by tall dark pines and fast-running water, a very Ottoman landscape. The house was the summer home of Haci Omer Sabanci in his later years, and then the home of his son Sakip. It is a very special place for Sabanci. She was brought up there for a while by her grandparents and, as a child, she spent her summers in the house, which is set among steeply sloping gardens.
Now it is the centerpiece of a museum complex set up by the foundation. It includes conference rooms and a wonderfully original restaurant called Changa, which has just opened an offshoot in the West End of London. The museum is now at the center of the vibrant cultural life that has in recent years made Istanbul a highly sought-after recreational destination.
This autumn, it is the site of an exhibit by the avant-garde French artist Sophie Calle. One part consists of a series of disturbing images and stories representing the last things that several blinded Turks remember having seen. It all comes together: an exhibition of a woman’s images of disability in a museum supported by a foundation whose central aims are promoting culture, women and the disabled.
Tell me about the Sabanci Foundation — the vehicle, I believe, for all your family’s charitable giving.
It is something very dear to my heart. It was set up by a donation from my grandmother. My grandfather had died in 1966, and my grandmother decided to give away all her wealth to set up the foundation. She was a simple Anatolian woman who was confident that her six sons would take care of her once she had given everything away. The foundation was established in 1974 in such a way that its governance came within the Sabanci group. The board of the Sabanci holding company now elects the board of trustees, and while a majority of the trustees are members of the family, they don’t have to be directly in the business.
Are the strategies of the foundation and your businesses developed together?
No. The foundation has its own strategy and its own long-term plans quite separate from the business. Over the years, Turkey’s needs have changed — after all, it is an emerging economy — and the foundation’s aims have changed too. Its aims today are “to promote social development and social awareness among current and future generations by supporting initiatives that create impact and lasting change in people’s lives.” From the beginning, there was one basic difference between the Sabanci Foundation and other similar foundations that were being set up at the same time. Whereas the others were mostly involved in Istanbul, Ankara and the main cities, our foundation spread its efforts all around the country.
Where did the foundation’s approach come from?
My uncle Sakip was the chair, and in the early days about 75 percent of the foundation’s giving went to education. It built schools, dormitories, cultural centers, etc., and donated them all to the relevant local authorities. From the beginning, the trustees were focused especially on girls’ education. For example, we built a dormitory in Ankara so that girls from the Anatolian countryside could benefit from a higher education in the capital. Also, we set up a technical college for textile workers, exclusively for girls, in Adana. This degree of focus is unusual. A recent study by the European Foundation Center found that, right across Europe, foundations give less than 5 percent of all their donations to projects supporting women and girls. The second thing that the foundation focused on in its early years was cultural activities. It built cultural centers in Adana, Izmir and other cities, and these were also donated to the relevant local authority. This first stage in the foundation’s history I think of as being mostly to do with hardware.
What came after the “hardware” stage?
Following it, there was a second stage — a stage which involved doing joint hardware and software things together. We had a theater in Adana, for example, so we set up a theater festival there — which, by the way, became the first example in Turkey of a joint public-private cultural venture. Now it has become an annual event. One of the turning points for the foundation came in 1994 when the trustees decided to set up a private university. I was given the responsibility of leading the project, and that was quite a task. It involved not only building the university but also building up the programs and taking responsibility for managing the project — another example of mixing hardware and software. Although the government gave us the land for the project, it was not really a joint public-private venture, for that was all they gave us. Half of the foundation’s annual budget now goes to the university.
What are you doing to plan for the future of your philanthropic efforts?
Since I became chairman of the trustees in 2004, we have held a number of conferences here in Turkey on the subject of philanthropy. “Let’s invite people who are involved in this world,” we said, “so we can learn about the future of philanthropy, where it is going, and what we should be doing in Turkey.”
What was the outcome?
These discussions helped us to define a “new era.” Since 2006, the foundation has decided to focus on fewer things. We want to look more at social change, and that means more software. For instance, we have started to produce a program called “Turkey’s Changemakers.” People from all over Turkey nominate individuals who they think have made a change to their communities, and we make a video of ones that we select and tell their stories. They are then shown via the Internet and have so far attracted an audience of more than a million. The second thing we agreed when we defined the new era is that we cannot do everything on our own. We have to do more through partnerships. All my career I have been working through partnerships. In the 1980s, I was one of the first in the group to be involved in foreign commercial partnerships, and I was very much supported by my late uncle Sakip. In the end, globalization meant that it was the right thing to do.
Will public-private partnerships remain your focus?
I believe we have to go beyond public-private partnerships. In one instance, we have developed a project together with U.N. agencies in Turkey and the Ministry of the Interior. Its aim is to improve girls’ and women’s human rights in Turkey. We chose six cities at first, and with a methodology that the U.N. helped us with, we brought together local groups — the mayor, other NGOs, schools and people involved in education — in order to define the priorities among women’s issues in that city. Obviously, they vary. In a city like, say, Izmir in the west of the country, the issue may well be jobs for women; in a city like Urfa in the east, it might be the issue of child brides. It is important to create an awareness among the leaders of each community that they have these issues. We ran a one-week program at Sabanci University where we “taught the teachers” from the six cities. Teachers came to Istanbul for one week to increase their knowledge of women’s rights. They then went back and taught other teachers, all of them from state schools. The ministry of education is very happy about it. In the end, the NGOs prepare a project and submit it to the Sabanci Foundation, where a committee decides which ones we are going to support.
How do you decide which group or project gets your support?
We have a team of experts inside the foundation and an independent panel of university professors, journalists and sociologists. We also have U.N. people to help us. They assess the projects and select the ones to be given grants. Projects last 12 to 18 months, and we follow their progress and their outcomes. We ask the people behind each of the submissions to explain how much of a change their project is going to make, what are the criteria for it to be successful. By merely asking the right questions, we make them think also. When we started, there were some of the cities where there was not even one women’s NGO. But, after four to five years’ work, there are now at least three or four in each place. These are small efforts, but they can make a big difference. In one case, an NGO pushed the government to provide easier access to services for the seasonal migrant farmers who are still a big feature of the largely agricultural Turkish economy. Another project is aimed at raising the awareness of child brides, with the hope of increasing the official age of marriage to 18. At the moment, almost 40 percent of marriages in Turkey involve women under the age of 18. As part of the project, more than 11,000 people in 51 cities took part in seminars to discuss the issues raised by such early marriages.
What you described sounds very ambitious. Do you think results will come quickly?
Creating social change takes time. You need patience. We are now going into a second phase of the U.N. project, extending it to another 10 cities over the next three years, building on the successful examples we have in the original six. It’s not easy. Not everything about social change and philanthropy is about giving money. I have been to every partners’ meeting in places such as Kars and Urfa for five years. Wherever I go, I sit together with all the local officials and listen to the grant projects. The women stand up and talk about what they have achieved, the change that has been brought about.
Do you think the changes you are describing are the job of government?
My grandfather and my uncle always said that because we come from an emerging country, we cannot expect everything to come from the government. They felt that we have to be involved together. A joint effort is required. And more and more the whole world is realizing this. Even in Davos, corporate social responsibility is a major topic now and has been for a decade. In my uncle’s time, no one called it social responsibility; it was called charity. Now it is more and more obvious that the sustainability of the world, in every sense, requires that we work together. Social responsibility is about everything — climate, people, everything. You need to have balance in the world. There are so many imbalances.
In philanthropy the metrics are very different from what they are in business, are they not?
Completely different. For one, the time element is different. You need to be patient. I learned that from being a member of the European Foundation Center, where I met incredible people who have been involved all their lives in philanthropic work. I learned from them that whatever you achieve in business in three to five years, in philanthropy you need to double that. The second thing is that effectiveness in philanthropy is not measured only by the numbers. It is important how many students you educate, how many women you reach, but it’s really about the change that you are able to bring to that person and to their society so that they can really change others.
And do you get a feeling when that is happening?
Yes, you can feel that. I always use the metaphor that philanthropy is like farming, whereas business is like hunting. You have a target, you go out, plan, wait, study and shoot. And you achieve a goal. But in philanthropy, as with farming, you need seeds, you have to work on the soil, you depend on the climate, there are things you cannot change. But you adapt to the climate. You have to have the right seeds for that soil. And you have to be patient. And even then not all of them will come up perfect. But next year you will do better. It is a continuous improvement, a continuous effort.
Is there a Turkish tradition of philanthropy?
I grew up with my grandfather and my grandmother. My grandfather was a hard-working man, very appreciative of the land, and when he became successful, he said to my grandmother, who was also originally from Kayseri: “We may not be rich by Adana standards, but we are rich now compared with our small village in Kayseri. So it is time for us to go back to our village and to give back.” The first thing he did was to build a road to connect the village to the city, to open it up. The second thing he did was to bring water into the village. And the third thing was to build a primary school.
Was he unusual in doing these sorts of things?
He always believed that those who are more fortunate than others should give back. He said, “We should give what this land has given to us back to its people.” This is not very different from his contemporaries. The Ottomans created tens of thousands of foundations (“vakifs” they were called), and they had all sorts of charitable purposes. There was even one for saving the nightingale. The Muslim religion too, of course, is very strong on giving back, and my grandfather was a man of faith.
These very prestigious awards that you have been getting lately — do they make a difference?
It’s interesting for me to meet people with such a serious feeling for giving and for making a difference to people’s lives. At the Clinton Awards this year, Bill Clinton was there himself from 9 in the morning to midnight every day during the ceremonies. He believes in it and puts all his resources into it — all his accumulated network — and he brings them all there together, to meet and to spark ideas. They are very generous, very generous. They inspire you more, encourage you more. They also provide feedback, confirmation that we are on the right track and taking the right approach.
Does it put greater pressure on you to meet higher expectations?
It does, yes it does. It increases the responsibility. But life is like that. I have climbed those stairs before. The higher you get, the more challenging are the responsibilities.
Tim Hindle is founder of the London-based business language consultancy Working Words. He was a contributor to The Economist for 25 years and was editor of EuroBusiness in the 1990s