Sonia Zhivkova

Head of Corporate Partnerships SOS Children's Villages in Bulgaria

Never give up

Watch the story trailer

It was very easy for me to choose the Harvesting story that I would like to share with you. I will present the most successful project in my professional life.

I started working for SOS Children’s Villages Bulgaria in 1990. 24 years out of 26 I work as a fundraiser. If I had to describe my profession in one word, it would be “Challenge”. We, the fundraisers, have a motto: “You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince.” which means, when approaching new donors and partners, you very often hear “no”, “not now”,” not you”. This can be deeply discouraging. Luckily you succeed to attract new supporters from time to time and that is always a good occasion to celebrate. But it is difficult! Most of the time you feel disappointed and you are simply ready to give up.

Going back to my first years as a fundraiser, I immediately remember my first visit to Innsbruck in 1992. Nobody was doing fundraising in Bulgaria at that time and the colleagues from the Austrian SOS Children’s Villages Association were the first ones teaching me how to start. The first fundraising campaign I carried out was the “Silent guest” campaign. It brought us the first Bulgarian donors. In the next years I designed a lot of campaigns, that increased the number of donors in our database up to 17 000 – a real success for my small country!

In 1998 we evaluated the fundraising results for first time. The analysis showed a negative return on investment. I.e. we invested a considerable amount of money in carrying out fundraising campaigns, but the raised income could not even cover the expenditures. This was a special turning point in my professional life. Fundraising stopped to be pure creativity and nice communication that bring satisfaction. We had to switch to business ratios. We started planning, monitoring, evaluating, based on key performance indicators. Every year we set quite ambitious targets that we never succeeded to fulfill throughout the years.

Bulgaria is no easy ground for fundraisers
Let me give you some information about our fundraising market. Bulgaria has a population of approximately 7 million inhabitants. The minimum salary in 2016 was 210 € and the average salary about 500 €. To do fundraising in the poorest country of the European Union is a real challenge. Despite all efforts of the past years, we did not have the chance to reach the targets. Try to imagine how demotivating this was for my colleagues and me. Many times I was just about to give up and leave but I am still with SOS Children’s Villages because of a very personal reason that could be topic of another story.

Let me share now the story of the biggest success in my carrier. All the time, working as a fundraiser, I wanted to develop a fundraising project that would bring considerable financial results. At the fundraising market it is very important to be the first, even when you are the best. If you don’t make it to be first, you should at least be the second. Three years ago our strongest competitor UNICEF launched a very successful project through the ATMs of a Bank named Pireaus. We decided to replicate UNICEFs idea.

A real win-win project
Once having made the decision, we approached the DSK bank, one of our biggest corporate partners. We started the negotiations in June 2014, trying to convince the bank, that the ATM project will affirm their good image and will be an excellent example for Corporate Social Responsibility. Every person who withdraws money from the DSK ATMs would get the message that the bank supports a good cause. The bank liked the idea and approved the project in October 2014. DSK started to develop the donation software and invested 35.000 €. It took almost one year to accomplish the project and to start with the first tests. The project was launched on 3 December 2015.

What is the ATM project about?
It is very simple: If you need cash you go to the ATM to withdraw money. You insert your card and you choose the amount you want to withdraw. Now a next screen appears. A little girl holding a flower asks you if you would like to donate one Lev  (0.50 €) to SOS Children’s Villages Bulgaria. You can choose between “I am donating” and “No, I do not want to donate”. By just pushing a button, you become a donor of SOS Children’s Villages. At the end of the process you receive your money and a receipt stating that you donated one Lev for SOS Children’s Villages Bulgaria. One Lev is such a small amount that, everyone can afford it.

We had no idea if people would be willing to donate for us organization via ATMs, although we knew that UNICEF reported good results. The “WOW-day” came soon! The person in charge of the project at DSK called us two days before Christmas. He told us to expect the transfer of the first amount in the afternoon. We started making forecasts how much it could be. One supposed 1.000 €, another one 1 500 €, a third one 2 000 E. I decided to dream big and made a forecast for 3.000 €. And the winner was: No one! The first payment exceeded 8 000€!!! Even though only one third of all ATMs of DSK bank had the donation software installed before Christmas! The second transfer came in the first week of January 2016:  11 000 €, the third ten days later– 13.000 € etc. We collected around 40.000 € within one month. Just for comparison, the biggest corporate donation we had ever received within the last five years amounted to 25.000 €.

Now we automatically receive a transfer every week amounting to 29.900 Leva (approximately 16.000 €). „Why is it exactly 29.900 leva?” I asked the person from the bank. “There is a regulation”, he explained, “that says, if there is a transaction over 30.000 Leva, we and all banks are obliged to check  whether  it is considered money laundry and have to declare the correctness to the Bulgarian National Bank.” .

The sum generated by ATMs from 3 December 2015 to 15 June2016 amounts 315 000 €. If the donation intensity continues like that we expect the huge amount of 700.000 by the end of the year! This means self-sufficiency of SOS Children’s Villages Bulgaria in 2020 is achievable!

This is my story with a simple message: Do not give up; work hard and success will come! Success is always the best motivation for future results!

Sonia Zhivkova 

joined SOS Children's Villages 26 years ago and she proudly sees herself as “the living memory of the organisation”. She is Head of Corporate Partnerships at SOS Children's Villages in Bulgaria.

Moving from traditional ways of fundraising to approaching donors today via new channels, offering them new products form the great challenge in reconciling tradition and innovation.

This is the ability she discovers as a great treasure in her work. She discovers on the top of all value systems, the family. To be loved, happy, healthy and share in the joy of other family members are moments which arouse the feeling of completeness in her life. Dancing, taking in fresh air from nature in the wood give her good kick in life. She is typically urban – she loves Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria with all her luxuries and worries.