“When life has been kind to you, there is a moral obligation to help others, so it makes sense to get involved in philanthropy.

“When life has been kind to you, it makes sense to get involved in philanthropy."
Bernard, Gonda and Emily Vergnes

The Bernard, Gonda and Emily Vergnes Fund was created in 2014, within the King Baudouin Foundation. Its main goal is to combat child poverty. Its activities are focused on helping to create places in nurseries for children aged under three from vulnerable backgrounds. The Vergnes family look back on how they became involved in philanthropy.

“Life sometimes brings us surprises, both good and bad. Sometimes the opportunity comes along and, without particularly realising it, you take it. That is what happened to us in 1983. I was the first person in Europe to be recruited by a small American computer software company... At that time Microsoft had only 200 employees throughout the world. By the time when I retired twenty-five years later, having created and run their European operations, Microsoft had become the company with the largest market capitalisation in the world, employing more than ninety thousand people. Our family has hugely benefited from what used to be called the “computer boom”."

“When life has been kind to you, there is a moral obligation to help others, so it makes sense to get involved in philanthropy."

“So there are many options open to us: should we manage our philanthropic activities directly? Create a family Foundation? We soon realised that if we wanted our activities to have a noticeable impact, it would mean full-time involvement. It became clear that setting up a Fund managed by the King Baudouin Foundation was the simplest and most effective way to achieve our goals. In the context of a Fund, we still have the responsibility and freedom to make choices and decisions on the activities of the Fund, while the Foundation provides secretarial services for the Fund, makes its wide-ranging expertise available, provides access to all kinds of research and manages the money set aside for the Fund’s activities in a very professional way."

“The Bernard, Gonda and Emily Vergnes Fund was therefore created in 2014, with the primary aim of combating child poverty. Our daughter immediately wanted to get involved, and she has become one of the driving forces behind the Fund’s activities.”

The goal: to help to combat child poverty.

“For a long time my husband and I had been interested in what is happening in society and concerned about poverty in Belgium”, explains Gonda. “I worked for 17 years for Doctors of the World in the area of international adoption. In several of the countries where I worked, I encountered poverty, and specifically child poverty. We wanted to concentrate on this issue in Belgium, in our own country."

“Of course we had many discussions with the experts at the King Baudouin Foundation. We read numerous academic studies on the development of children from underprivileged backgrounds. They all show that the first few years of life are the key. Up to the age of three years, the child's daily environment and their control over their five senses is what creates their capacity for physical, social and emotional development."

“We can illustrate this using the example of acquiring vocabulary. Research has shown that children arrive at preschool with a vocabulary of 1000 words on average, but children from underprivileged environments only have 500. This delay is immediately evident in terms of reading, writing and understanding, and unfortunately all too often it affects their whole life. Up to the age of three, however, children who receive continuous, high-quality care in a nursery, have shown that they are able to learn two words a day. This means that they can start preschool with a vocabulary of 1500 words, an undeniable advantage that will last them a lifetime."

“So of course we decided to focus the activities of our Fund on helping to create places in nurseries for children aged under three from vulnerable backgrounds.”

“Making a difference”

“Working alongside the King Baudouin Foundation, and following an introduction from them, we initially made a direct approach to a number of nurseries: in Molenbeek, Ostend, Antwerp... about more staff, additional equipment and a few more children who were able to benefit from attending these nurseries. We then invested in a Call for Projects, with specifications and a selection jury chaired by Magda Alvoet. About twenty nurseries were selected. These individual activities were useful and we learned a lot from them, but soon we began to feel that we wanted to develop more long-term, structural activities that were more likely to “make a difference”."

“Once again, the experience of the King Baudouin Foundation and their network made a contribution. In 2017 the Foundation put us in touch with Kind en Gezin [Child and Family]. From our first meeting with them, we offered to double their annual budget set aside to provide places for underprivileged children, for a period of 10 years. We did not realise it, but our meeting came at just the right moment. Their KOALA project was about to be launched and we were able to get involved in that. For the first time in Belgium, a long-term public-private partnership was created in the social domain, and thanks to the actions of our Fund, an additional 200 places were made available for children from families in difficulty each year."

“A similar process brought us together with Actiris, again with an introduction from the King Baudouin Foundation. We were delighted by the professionalism of the Maisons d’enfants d’Actiris [Actiris Children’s Houses] concept, which provides care for children whose parents are unemployed. An opportunity to make a difference by helping with another large-scale project came in early 2020 when Actiris had the chance to take over Crèche Midi 33. Public funding was only available to subsidise 50% of the operating costs, so our Fund undertook to subsidise the remaining 50% for a 10 year period. This allowed Actiris to take over this new nursery, which welcomes children whose parents are looking for work. This project includes both efforts to combat poverty and helping people to access work, and it could not have come into being without the vital support from the Bernard, Gonda and Emily Vergnes Fund."

“We have already visited a number of projects supported by our Fund, in Molenbeek, Schaerbeek, Antwerp, Kessel-Lo, Sint-Niklaas, Diest and Ostend…, this allows us to measure the impact of the help we provide and have a better understanding of everyone’s problems. Every time we are struck by the enthusiasm and motivation of the staff who provide the care. We also had the opportunity to meet some of the mothers, who told us about the great progress their child had made in terms of their language and also their relationships with the other children. They told us that they had got to know some new people themselves too, and this was helping to integrate in society better.”

An extra role for philanthropy

“Countries with a Latin culture are very different from those with an Anglo-Saxon culture. For a very long time, the Anglo-Saxon countries have integrated philanthropy with public sector activities. All too often in our type of countries we expect the public sector to do everything. However, there is a deficit in the public sector: they cannot do everything. Philanthropists therefore need to intervene alongside the public sector to maximise their impact."

“Viewing philanthropy as complementary to the public sector seems to make sense today, and it is one of the ways to move towards the philanthropy of tomorrow.”

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