Nadja Swarovski is a member of the Executive Board at the Swarovski Group, the world's leading crystal manufacturer, which was founded by her great-great-grandfather Daniel Swarovski in 1895 in Austria. She began working in the family business in the mid-1990s and since 2012 she has overseen Swarovski's Global Corporate Responsibility efforts. In 2013 she established the Swarovski Foundation, which is headquartered in London, to consolidate the company's long-term commitment to charitable giving.
How did your philanthropy begin?
My great-great-grandfather Daniel Swarovski, who founded our company in 1895, had strong humanitarian instincts. He believed passionately in supporting his community and that business should have a responsible relationship with people and the planet. This philosophy has been part of our DNA ever since. It is extremely important to us that we retain the philanthropic values that the company has put at the heart of its decision-making for the past 120 years.
One of our flagship programmes is the Swarovski Waterschool, which we established in 2000. Water has always been central to the Swarovski story – it was the abundant supply of fresh water provided by the River Wattenbach that led Daniel to choose Wattens in the Tyrol as the company’s home, and water has provided much of the power needed to manufacture Swarovski crystals over the past 120 years, making us acutely aware of the fragile balance that must be maintained between people and the planet.
The Swarovski Waterschool programmes began in Austria and are now active in seven regions: Austria, Brazil, China, India, Thailand, Uganda and the United States. Working with schools and non-governmental organisations, we help educate and empower present and future generations to understand and practice safe and sustainable water use. I’m very proud to say that the Waterschool’s programmes have reached around 670,000 people in that time.
We then set up the Swarovski Foundation in 2013 to give our philanthropic activity new focus. We live in a world full of many worthy causes, but, like every philanthropic entity, we focus on specific areas to create maximum social impact. Our three main pillars of activity are: fostering culture and creativity, promoting wellbeing and human rights and conserving natural resources. They reflect areas of humanitarian support that are part of the company’s heritage, so it was a natural evolution for us to focus on these areas.
What is the extent of your support for charities in donations worth £1m or more, including money banked in your foundation or given to a cause over an extended period?
The Foundation has given £5m over three years, supporting 30 projects in 12 countries. For our first project in perpetuity, the Swarovski Foundation was a major donor to the new Design Museum in London, which moved into its incredible John Pawson-designed building in Kensington in November 2016. Within the museum is the Swarovski Foundation Centre for Learning, which will attract up to 60,000 learners annually – both schoolchildren taking part in hands-on workshops and adult learners and design professionals looking to develop their practical and digital skills. It will bring together the worlds of formal education, informal learning, and professional design, and our ambition is for the centre to be a world-class hub for design education that will nurture a new generation of young design talents.
In financial terms, this is the most significant partnership for the Swarovski Foundation to date. It is also very exciting for the Foundation as it is the first physical embodiment of our commitment to supporting education in the creative sphere.
How do you decide which causes to support at this level? Have you favoured causes changed over time?
The Swarovski Foundation is driven by these important questions: How can we make a positive difference? How can we change lives? How can we use our power and expertise to create a long-lasting legacy?
The areas the Foundation focuses on are born of the business and its heritage and expertise, but the Foundation is a separate entity registered as an independent charity. It is governed by a Board of Trustees, chaired by myself, who are all international experts from key fields including human rights, economics and law, and we approve projects unanimously. Rather than imposing an approach on our partners we employ a light touch, built on an ongoing dialogue and an exchange of knowledge. We believe that working with our partners to achieve mutually agreed objectives yields the best results.
While the specific organisations we support do change over time, both the business and the Foundation have always had a consistent interest in promoting culture and creativity, improving wellbeing through education, empowering women and caring for the environment. These areas of focus mean we partner with a diverse variety of charities and organisations all over the world.
How does it feel to be able to offer this level of support?
It is an honour to be in the position to offer support to partners who do such crucial work. The real reward, though, is when we get feedback from the people who directly benefit from the projects we support. One Waterschool student told us: “Knowledge is like a tree. Now that it has been planted in me, it is up to me to spread the seeds to everyone I know.” A young woman on our Room to Read Girls' Education Programme said: "Education is the tool through which I can become independent - both financially and emotionally. I can tell my family, 'look what I am capable of achieving!'". There is no better feeling.
Have you ever been particularly pleased with a donation?
All of our projects are so fulfilling, but our response to the Nepal Earthquake Crisis was particularly inspirational. As well as being a donor to charitable projects, the Foundation is able to provide support to partners when people are suffering and need urgent help, such as in times of conflict or natural disasters. Following the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, both the business, through matching charitable donations from employees, and the Foundation supported the Shikshya Foundation Nepal. The charity’s efforts to provide immediate disaster relief as well as aid for long-term sustainable rebuilding efforts were not only incredibly inspiring but life-changing.
I am also honoured to be an ambassador for Women for Women International, as women’s empowerment is a cause very close to my heart. The Foundation supports their programme in Nigeria, which gives women access to knowledge and economic resources to enable them to lead change towards a peaceful society. We hope that at the end of the project, the participating women will be stronger and empowered to use what they have learned to lift their families out of poverty, teach other women about their rights, and become catalysts for peace and progress in their own communities.
What are your plans for developing your philanthropy in the future?
The Swarovski Foundation is still fairly young, so we plan to continue with its strategic objectives in our three core areas, supporting global charitable initiatives in a sustainable manner to create positive social impact. Our targeted approach to philanthropy means we make carefully considered decisions to work with partners where we will see maximum impact which can be measured over a period of time, however, we realise that when trying to effect major change it is important to take the long view — be patient and remain passionate.
The Waterschool has recently expanded with two new pilot projects in Thailand and the United States. We will continue to assess new locations around the world, however we are also looking online to enhance the Waterschool’s reach. Part of this will take the form of a new web platform for the Waterschool with safe spaces for children to take part in online school exchanges and open-source teaching materials available. This is one way we can widen our network without having to lay down a physical footprint.
Are there any other thoughts on the experience of being a large-scale, transformational donor that you would like to share?
There are three things we like to keep at the forefront of our decision-making. One is to be passionate. For example, we strongly believe in the importance of empowering women, so we are always looking for opportunities to further that, both through the business and our philanthropic partnerships. The Foundation supports Women for Women International in Nigeria as well as Room to Read Girls’ Education Programme in India, while in 2015 Atelier Swarovski launched the UN Women’s bracelet, for which 30% of sales went to the UN Women’s Safe Cities campaign.
The second thing is to be inventive. If a project or partnership doesn’t meet the required criteria for funding, we consider other philanthropic support. For this, the Foundation often works with the broader Swarovski business to support good causes, such as through our Upcycling initiative where Swarovski crystals are donated to charitable organisations to use in workshops and activities to promote creativity and the development of new skills.
The third is to encourage a wider spirit of giving. There is a real culture of generosity at Swarovski. It does not exist in one person, location, department or team. It is the way business has always been done: it is generous to its core.