Twenty years ago, near the end of the 20th century, a very difficult period for Armenia, the Tufenkian Foundation was launched. Entrepreneur James Tufenkian started the foundation in response to the most pressing social, economic, cultural and environmental challenges facing the Armenian society. Prior to launching the Foundation, James Tufenkian had already been using his business ventures to promote social justice for over a decade - first in Nepal, then in his ancestral homeland of Armenia. However, it soon became apparent that complex, longstanding issues hindering the country’s well-being could not be solved by market forces alone. Instead, they required commitment, innovation and bold action also from the non-profit sector. And this is exactly what the Foundation has aimed to accomplish.
Throughout the past 20 years, we have initiated or supported over 70 projects to combat poverty, promote education, protect the natural environment, renew national, civic, cultural and religious values, and foster social justice and respect for human rights.
Last Sunday, we got together with over a hundred of our friends, supporters, partners and beneficiaries in Yerevan to celebrate this important milestone. The program of the event, which included musical performances from our beneficiaries, a photo exhibition, an auction of an Armenian carpet, an appearance from one of the most promising young singers of Artsakh and an impromptu Q&A with James Tufenkian, was largely focused around the goal of raising funds for a new children’s center in Shirak, one of Armenia’s most disadvantaged communities, where over 50% of children live in poverty. The new center can provide a relief from difficult situations (involvement in juvenile crime, abusive home environment, challenges at school, lack of food, heating and clothing...) for over 100 children every year.
Due to the generous donations of several guests, including the largest donation of 9,700,000 AMD from Mr and Mrs Ralph and Armig Yirikian, the dream of opening a social-education children’s center in Shirak is now a close reality. “These children are the future of Armenia, by supporting them, by giving them opportunities for better life, we create better life for all of our country”, said Executive Director Raffi Doudaklian, thanking the guests for their support.
The Sunday event was the second anniversary we celebrated this year. A few months ago, we marked our 15th year of re-settling, rebuilding and developing the liberated borderlands of Artsakh, where the bulk of the Foundation’s work is currently concentrated.
However, for the first five years of our operations, all our work was focused on Armenia. In line with the needs of Armenia at the end of the 20th century, the Foundation’s work was initially aimed at improving the social protection of most vulnerable, at-risk groups of the society. The 1988 earthquake, the breakup of the Soviet Union and fallout from the Karabakh War left a large segment of Armenia’s population unemployed and cut off from society. By the end of the 1990s, more than half of Armenians were living in below the poverty line. Through a combination of several targeted programs, the Foundation provided better social protection to hundreds of families, helping them make the transition from extreme poverty into functional, productive and engaged lives.
One such large-scale project was the “Zangakatun” Social Services NGO. We initiated Zangakatun to implement a new model of combatting extreme poverty in Armenia, empowering Armenia’s most marginalized families and providing the support they need to break their cycles of poverty and neglect. In contrast to other such organizations, Zangakatun focused on “treating” the causes of poverty, rather than simply addressing the symptoms. Rather than giving handouts, it focused on in-depth work with entire families, connecting them to a complete professional support network. Results were awe-inspiring: every year, over 100 families successfully broke the cycle of extreme poverty as most beneficiaries found gainful employment and more than 200 of the NGO’s children went on to study in higher education institutions. This approach to poverty reduction/prevention was soon adopted by other organizations in the country, starting a positive trend of focusing on long-term wellbeing, rather than one-off charity.
The success of the Zangakatun NGO was just one of the examples of how we model new approaches to longstanding challenges, while pioneering projects that create changes that can ripple through multiple layers of Armenian society. Other such examples include the efforts of the Foundation aimed at better environmental protection: since 2002, the Foundation has pursued a combination of hands-on reforestation, community initiatives and public advocacy campaigns to help Armenians secure a better environment and better environmental policies – a cause that is still at the heart of the Foundation’s work.
Over the years, as the challenges facing the Armenian society changed, so did the priorities of the Tufenkian Foundation. Gradually, it shifted its focus from social protection to social justice, focusing on issues such as prevention of domestic violence, strengthening the local civil society, fostering free and fair elections, promoting human rights and specifically, children’s rights, protecting Armenia’s natural environment and, generally, making Armenia more just for all groups of the society.
Many of the Foundation’s programs, which started as one-off projects, eventually spun-off to become independent, fully-fledged NGOs in their own right. The Women’s Support Center, now a leading human rights organization working to prevent domestic violence in Armenia, is one example of a succesful Tufenkian Foundation project turned into a separate organization.
Currently, the Foundation’s work in Armenia focuses on 3 key areas: 1) support to civil society, 2) community service provision for at-risk children in disadvantaged communities and 3) improved mining legislation for better protection of Armenia’s environment.
At the same time, we continue identifying and supporting initiatives with the potential to bring Armenia one step closer to the dream of social justice for all.
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