August 27, 2019

CEO of Özyegin Social Investments, Ayla Goksel, sheds light on challenges and opportunities in driving philanthropic operations in Turkey, and dynamics between international and local organisations

CEO of Özyegin Social Investments, Ayla Goksel, sheds light on challenges and opportunities in driving philanthropic operations in Turkey, and dynamics between international and local organisations.


Özyegin Social Investments is a group of different organisations started or supported by the Özyegin family. These include: ACEV (the Mother Child Education Foundation); the Özyegin Foundation; Özyegin University; and then various other smaller initiatives.


Their investments are 90% in education. And, approximately 70% to 80% of Özyegin Social Investments’ funding comes from the Özyegin family.


The organisation was founded by Hüsnü Özyegin, who’s a highly philanthropic, self-made billionaire in Turkey. They have deployed $525m in philanthropic funds in Turkey and directly impacted 1.5m lives.


Ayla explains how she’s very fortunate to manage both an international foundation and local charitable activities on the ground as well.  She sheds light on the contrast and peculiar dynamics between international organisations and local NGOs; and also highlights the implications of being a family foundation – especially one where the Founder is still alive and active.


She notes that, indeed, there are differences between working ‘on the ground’ locally vs working ‘in the Boardroom’ internationally.  On the international level, it is very easy to get removed from reality – especially in over-professionalised organisations where, perhaps, there’s too much mimicking of a private sector approach. Nevertheless, a global outlook is important and there is much value to be derived from the global insights, trends and experience that global foundations and international organisations can bring to the local market.


Ayla mentions that dialogue between these various types of organisations is key and, importantly, it needs to be on equal footing. There is often a power imbalance due to financing and political clout – and it is up to the leaders in philanthropy to foster a collegial environment of information-sharing and appreciation for what other parties bring to the table.


Ayla specifically references the high number of Syrian refugees who have arrived in Turkey and how that has impacted philanthropic and NGO operations on the ground; and the relationships between international organisations, government and local NGOs.


International organisations not only need to take time to identify good local delivery partners on the ground but they also need to have good intentions to share control with these local partners – something that doesn’t always happen. Sharing control with local partners makes operational sense and, also, can help build valuable political capital.


Relations between international organisations and local stakeholders in Turkey have not been optimal, particularly around communications, sharing control and exchanging information. This comes at a cost both to international organisations and local NGOs alike. Some international organisations have not been able to to complete registrations to continue operations in the country; and many local NGOs could have benefited from credible international supporters who could have helped local stakeholders improve their advocacy – there could have been much better integration of projects.


Ayla observes that risk tolerance becomes low when dealing with politically volatile situations -- the civil space has gotten smaller in the country.


This has had a direct impact on her operations, which they have been able manage by adapting, thinking creatively and moving outside their comfort zone. For example, they have started seeking partnerships with municipalities and local NGOs; as opposed to their traditional central government relationships. They have also started to explore collaboration with local, loosely formed initiatives.  In other words, these challenges also brought opportunities for them and there is a bright side to how they’ve managed these developments. 


However, not all organisations have had such a positive outcome. Ayla notes that there are many organisations that have been shut down in Turkey.


Ayla looks at the context with optimism, highlighting that this fragile situation can also be an opportunity for creativity and for doing things in a different way and, indeed, for appreciating the smaller wins one has.


Ultimately, if what you’re offering meets the needs of your constituents and communities, then you’ll get somewhere. In the case of Ayla’s work, what they offer in terms of education, training and childcare all resonates with people. Their organisation is apolitical and they focus on meeting local needs – adaptability is key.


When asked whether it helps to be a Turkish organisation when operating in Turkey, she was unequivocal: yes, of course it helps.  Working in Turkey as a foreign organisation can be very difficult. She laments that there aren’t many foreign organisations in Turkey since there is much that international organisations and local NGOs can learn from each other.


Ayla’s key takeaway: have perseverance as you pursue what you believe in. Change rarely happens overnight. If you believe in it, just keep going. Don’t give up, change does eventually happen.


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