From a young age we all subconsciously have a sense of where our strengths lie and we feel a “pull” towards that direction; especially when that inner calling has to do with a desire to help other humans. Such is certainly the case with Epaminondas Farmakis, the Managing Director of the Solidarity Now network in Greece.
“It was always my internal will to be involved and contribute to the philanthropy sector, but it was by accident and good timing that it came about,” he tells me from his pristine office in Athens. It’s endearing to note that color bursts into the room in the form of his young daughters’ brightly painted, wooden desk which is on the ready for the times she visits to “help him” at work.
Epaminondas studies at Washington and Lee and then Georgetown University led to NYC and positions at the IFC, Nasdaq and then Meryl Lynch in the asset management division.
At first glance, that career trajectory might seem like galaxies away from the philanthropic world. However, it was a contributing factor. “Having worked in such a high demand environment where everything was geared for profit got me thinking what a waste of time it was; instead, we should be working to give resources to people who need them the most.” Returning to Greece, Epaminondas served his two year mandatory military service. “There’s a social role in the service; it brings you in contact with people from all ages and social groups with different problems. This changes your priorities and puts everything into perspective.”
That perspective came at exactly the right moment; it was then that the Stavros Niarchos Foundation was starting to set up. “It was good timing,” Epaminondas says. “I met with them and my decision to enter this sector was reinforced.” He joined the SNF and in his 17 years of managing worldwide operations, set up their offices in Athens, Monte Carlo and NYC. He was also instrumental in assisting over 1200 nonprofits worldwide with an allocation of 1.1B Euro.
He then began his own consulting group, elpis, where he and his core team tried a different approach. “We had no endowment so we turned to fundraising abroad and in Greece.” They managed to successfully raise approximately 10M euro including the 7.3M euro EEA Grants program for Greek NGOs. It’s widely accepted that Epaminondas and his team succeeded in contributing much to Greek civil society.
But the opportunity to be the Managing Director of the Solidarity Now network in Greece (part of the Open Society Foundations) was one too great to pass up. “I believe the Solidarity Centers are a very unique and holistic approach to solving problems,” he tells me referring to Solidarity Now’s two Centers, in Thessaloniki and in Athens, which each fund and house teams of NGOs. “In one site the beneficiaries have easy access to more services than if those services were dispersed around different locations. I believe that collaborative spaces are the key to impacting the future instead of everybody trying to do their own thing.”
He tells me that the toughest part of his job is that no matter what, one can’t change the situations themselves; only the effects of those situations can be remedied. “You get a sense of fulfillment but often there’s also a sense of despair at being unable to help enough.” I can’t imagine how overwhelming that must be on a daily basis. “It’s difficult,” he agrees. “The only way to ‘move past’ is with new programs. Because there’s always hope that with each new program you’ll be able to help a wider group of people.”
I know for a fact, that many people find the nonprofit and volunteer sectors to be very intriguing but they don’t know how to get involved on a personal level. He agrees and offers that the best thing anybody is interested in volunteering could do is to either approach NGOs directly, or go through organizations such as Solidarity Now who wish to serve as a base for introducing volunteers to various NGOs. “Discern where you would most like to be involved and then simply approach those organizations that focus on that issue.”
I ask him to share an inspiring story that stands out in his mind. He recalls a recent meeting with a young Somali boy whom he’d first met in December when the boy visited the Athens Solidarity Center with his parents in need of medical and psychological services. “We assisted in getting him enrolled in school and in the three months since I first met him there was such a visible change in him. He went from being very reserved to feeling like he belonged in society.” As Epaminonda recounts this it’s obvious that it’s a story he holds dear. “I think that if you keep the individual that you’re trying to help in focus then everything else falls into place.”
There’s such a thing as being at the “right place at the right time.” But it’s our choice whether or not we accept the path we’re being offered. Epaminondas’ choosing to follow his inner calling towards the philanthropic sector has in turn helped countless people live better lives. Talking to him affirms that the decisions we make in life impact not only us but many others too; if we take a step back we can clearly see the long-reaching affects all of our decisions have. Let’s try to make them good ones!
(Article originally published in The Huffington Post on April 3, 2015)