Make priorities — once you start humanitarian work, you will see how many people need your help. You will try to help them all, but also, you must make some adjustments, see what is urgent to be done immediately, and what can wait for a little. But always make a good agenda for yourself, so when the time comes for those open items that are waiting, you do not forget it.
For someone who wants to set aside money to establish a Philanthropic Foundation or Fund, what does it take to make sure your resources are being impactful and truly effective? In this interview series, called “How To Create Philanthropy That Leaves a Lasting Legacy” we are visiting with founders of Philanthropic Foundations, Charitable Organizations, and Non Profit Organizations, to talk about the steps they took to create sustainable success.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Her Royal Highness Crown Princess Katherine Karadjordjevic of Serbia.
HRH Crown Princess Katherine was born in Athens (Greece), on 13 November 1943, and is married to HRH Crown Prince Alexander of Serbia, the only son and heir of HM King Peter II, the last monarch of former Yugoslavia.
Crown Princess Katherine has dedicated her life to helping the others, her charitable activities have been numerous, especially since the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. Her Royal Highness has brought much-needed relief, especially to children, the elderly, and all those in need regardless of religion or ethnic origin.
Crown Princess Katherine is the patron of several humanitarian organizations including Lifeline Humanitarian Organization, for over 25 years, with offices in Chicago, New York, Toronto, London, and Athens. At the beginning of August 2001, when the Royal family finally returned to Serbia, after decades of unwanted exile, the Foundation of Her Royal Highnesses Crown Princess Katherine was established in Belgrade, Serbia with the aim to continue and increase humanitarian activities.
Thank you for making time to visit with us about a ‘top of mind’ topic. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today?
I would like to thank you for this opportunity to have an interview with your magazine and to get your readers acquainted with the work of all the wonderful people who have so generously helped me and supported me in following my life mission of assisting and providing for others. Only with the great help and devotion of the supporters of the Lifeline Humanitarian Organization and my Foundation in Belgrade, all the good work that we have done has made it possible.
The first experience that I would like to share with you is my parents, I was inspired and set on this life-long journey by them, they were great humanitarians and philanthropists in Greece. At that early age, they taught me that there is no greatest joy in life than the joy of giving and I learned by their own example. I am so grateful to them, I wish all the parents would give such an example to their children. I could see that my parents were the happiest when they were doing something good for others, and I can say that there is no greatest pleasure than knowing you have made a difference in someone’s life and that you have changed it for the better. And no greater prize than the honest smile and appreciation on the face of a person you have helped.
The second important point in my life, when I got even more inspiration, was when I met and married my husband Crown Prince Alexander. He is my King as well, and I respect and admire him tremendously. Meeting him was an answer to my prayers. Seeing the great love he has for his nation inspired me to focus on humanitarian activities and on the people we admire and respect, the same nation I fell in love with immediately. And I am grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to help our people. My husband also learned from a young age to always help his people, continuing the work of his parents, grandparents, and all his ancestors. And I wanted to join him on this mission. It is our duty, to always be there for the people of Serbia and the Republic of Srpska. And the people know how we feel for them and return their love to us.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? We would love to hear a few stories or examples.
I would say — determination, persistence, and most important — love. Without love and compassion towards others, we have nothing. And the other character trails are important to pursue your mission, and not get distracted by obstacles that come in a way. Because obstacles, as in any other aspect of life, come and go, and we must continue.
I will give you an example, from almost 30 years ago. In 1993, during the terrible and unnecessary conflict, Serbia was already under international sanctions and embargo, against which I strongly raised my voice, speaking to all permanent members of the United Nations. At that time, I was shocked by the fact that the aid was not distributed equally to all, but it was only being distributed to some. I remember showing photos of babies to UN members, and asking them “Can you tell from the photo what is the religion of these babies? If you cannot, then why are you separating the help that you are sending!”
At that time, my husband was still considered to be an enemy of the state, we were living abroad and desperately wanted to help our people. It was not easy, but we found a way to make the delivery of isolation — sterile room for hematology patients. It was done with great help and support of Prof. Dr. Ida Jovanovic, who is today, together with other prominent and respected doctors and professors’ part of the Royal Medical Board, a team of esteemed medicinal professionals, who have been supporting my work and giving me priceless advice, and to all of them, I am very grateful. And I am very happy that this, and many other donations came to Serbia during the terrible war, regardless of the many obstacles and difficulties. As I like to say — when there is a will, there is a way.
Maybe another nice example is more recent when my husband and I finally came to Serbia. We renewed the tradition of the Royal Family — giving presents to the children without parental care, with difficulties in economic development, etc. for Christmas and Easter. We rejoice them with gifts for the two greatest Christian holidays and bring them the joy and spirit of holidays. In the years before the Covid pandemic, we always had big receptions for the children at the White Palace, where we could deliver the gifts in person, and enjoy their laughter and happiness. At one of these receptions, there were two orphans, a brother, and a sister, who were separated during the 1990’s war and hadn’t seen each other for years. They met each other in the White Palace in Belgrade, and at that second I called the competent authorities to immediately organize that these two children be placed in the same orphanage that very same day. Keeping it waiting for a few more days was not an option. And it was resolved, the siblings got back together.
What’s the most interesting discovery you’ve made since you started leading your organization?
It is not that much of a discovery, but a confirmation of something I knew a long time ago and that is — there are so many good and kind people in the world, who are selfless and willing to help the others, but they can be discouraged if they are alone, feeling like their contribution is only a tiny drop of water in a big ocean, that cannot make a larger impact.
But when they are united, working together for a greater good, they see that their contribution is not small or insignificant, but that it is making a great difference. And they are then motivated even more to continue. It is something I have seen with the Serbian diaspora during the war in former Yugoslavia in the 1990’s — they were all willing and ready to help but did not know how to send aid. That is why I opened the first office of Lifeline Humanitarian Organization in Chicago and continued by opening others in New York, Toronto, London, and Athens. And of course, my Foundation in Belgrade, when it became possible and we came to our country, in 2001.
By uniting people, and creating a large network of help, we can do so much. And it is an important message for everyone.
Can you please tell our readers more about how you or your organization intends to make a significant social impact?
We will continue our mission because there are so many people who need our help and support. And the results that we have already made a great impact.
The activities of Lifeline Humanitarian Organization and my Foundation in Belgrade are mostly focused on three sectors — health, social protection, and education.
– The priorities in the health sector are the provision of necessary medical equipment and the renovation of hospitals, as well as the medical education of doctors in Serbia. So far, various projects have been completed, often aimed at the most vulnerable population. In years behind us, I am proud that every city in Serbia has received a donation for their hospital or health center. From the largest clinical center to the smallest ambulance in the village at the end of some road, we do not make division, all of them who need our help and support have got in and will receive it in the future. Because their cause of saving lives and preserving the health of their patients is the noblest cause, and they all need every assistance possible.
Regarding medical education, the Foundation has organized seventeen major international medical conferences and training programs for physicians in Serbia and abroad. Thanks to the activities of the Foundation and its cooperation with various humanitarian organizations and foundations from abroad, such as the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, several grants provided funds for additional training and further medical education for many doctors from Serbia who were sent abroad for training. Medicine is a science that has new findings and new achievements every day, and the exchange of knowledge and experiences in every area of health care is of high importance for doctors and, most importantly, the well-being of their patients. We have only recently had a very successful 12th Serbian Diaspora Medical Conference, and are looking forward to the 13th, which will be held next year, from 15 to 17 June 2023.
– In the social sector, through annual events organized by the Foundation, several vulnerable groups such as children without parental care, children with disabilities, children and adolescents with problems, as well as refugees, the elderly, and people with difficulties in intellectual development have been assisted accordingly with their needs.
– We are also working to provide the best possible conditions for learning for children. The educational system is widely helped through projects that include renovation of school facilities, providing computer equipment for IT classes, desks, chairs, and whiteboards for classrooms, equipping school libraries with books, and providing pupils with school supplies.
What makes you feel passionate about this cause more than any other?
It is knowing that you have made a difference. The honest smile on the face of a child, a handshake, and a hug from a person whose life you have touched, are priceless moments and the strongest motivation to keep working. The love that we receive from the people is the greatest gift.
Without naming names, could you share a story about an individual who benefitted from your initiatives?
In 2008, I received a call from Professor Jovicevic, saying that there is a little girl in the Children’s Clinic, who had a very hard form of acute leukemia, and was in a very difficult situation, because Serbia was not performing bone marrow transplantation at that time. I called my friends in Greece and organized her transportation to Aya Sofia Hospital in Athens. Since her bone marrow is so specific, they could not find a donor for her, and she was receiving treatment for two years. When the donor was finally found, her disease came back in its worst form. The situation was very dramatic, but I could not let this little angel die when she was so close and endured all the fighting.
My friends from the United States have told me that there is a new medication, which just started being used in America. I went to America, called the director of the company that produces this medicine, and told him: “Please help us, I want this medicine, we have a child who is dying!” He was surprised and said to me that it is not possible, the drug is still not registered in Europe, and I told him “I will sleep in front of your office until you give me the medication”. We managed to get it, I organized the transportation to Athens, the medication worked, and thank God, also did the transplantation, and she is now a beautiful 25-year-old young woman.
We all want to help and to live a life of purpose. What are three actions anyone could take to help address the root cause of the problem you’re trying to solve?
I would not limit the number of actions to three or any other number, it is important is to act. If you have the willingness to do something, do not leave it to be only an idea, but take steps of making that idea realized.
My suggestions for everyone who wants to be involved in humanitarian work are — to determine what is the institution or group of people you want to help, see what their most urgent needs are, plan of helping, and as already said, include other people who have the same motivation and desire in your activities. Because everything is easier and much more efficient when we join forces.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Create A Successful & Effective Nonprofit That Leaves A Lasting Legacy?” Please share a story or example for each.
These are the things that you need to find within you before everything else. And these would be:
– Willingness to help — I already mentioned several times in this interview how much the contribution of all people who have been supporting my vision means, and how priceless and essential it is. And their willingness to help others is what makes it all possible. During the terrible conflict in the Yugoslavia, despite all obstacles, we organized convoys and convoys of humanitarian help to go to war-inflicted areas, and I also on many various occasions personally visited the Republic of Srpska to deliver the aid and to be with our people, so they know there are people who care for them and want to help them. Many trucks from the United Kingdom were sent to our people, and Virgin airlines helped me tremendously in transporting medical equipment from the United States. I even remember delivering candle making machine to the hospital, so they could have light without electricity.
– Determination and readiness to act quickly — there will always be obstacles on a way, but no matter how big or small, do not let them discourage you. If you are determined and focused on your work, you will succeed. But also, when you see an opportunity, use it immediately. I remember being on a plane once, and I met this professor from Germany, an expert on genetics, I spoke with him, and as soon as I landed, I called Professor Ana Jovicevic, a member of the Royal Medical Board, and asked her if Serbian doctors need education, because I made good contact. And I knew that the new machine was about to arrive soon at the Serbian hospital. So, thanks to this contact, as soon as the machine arrived, the group of our doctors went to Tübingen and had training and education to use the machine, which was very important for them.
– Good planning and organization — Think ahead and leave no questions open. You must always think three steps ahead and have everything covered in advance. Also, do not procrastinate but resolve any question you have as soon as possible. As I like to say, “do not leave a question for tomorrow when you can have an answer today”.
– Make priorities — once you start humanitarian work, you will see how many people need your help. You will try to help them all, but also, you must make some adjustments, see what is urgent to be done immediately, and what can wait for a little. But always make a good agenda for yourself, so when the time comes for those open items that are waiting, you do not forget it.
– Good team of people — You can never do everything on your own. You always need good people around you to support you and to do the job needed.
How has the pandemic changed your definition of success?
The pandemic has affected the lives of each person in the world, but it could not affect the mission of helping others. It only caused that we had to put the focus of our activities on helping the health system, but we have not forgotten the other areas.
Lifeline offices and the Foundation in Belgrade raised donations for hospitals across Serbia and the Republic of Srpska, to help doctors and nurses, who are the true heroes of our times. They are risking their lives every day in the fight against the enemy which cannot be seen, going across the limits of their strength and durability, for the benefit of all of us.
When the outbreak of the virus occurred, we together managed to provide the hospitals with the necessary equipment, medical supplies, and protective surgical face masks and gloves. From the very beginning of the pandemic, I also managed to connect the Clinical Centre of Serbia with the well-known Mayo Clinic in the United States, so Serbian doctors, especially those who were main for the fight against pandemics, and doctors from Mayo Clinic were able to exchange knowledge and experience on COVID-19.
At the beginning of the pandemic, we also got a request from the Clinical Centre of Serbia to provide rooms for the doctors to be next to the Hospital. The arrangement was made with Tesla Hotel, which is located across from the Clinical Centre, and the hotel was closed at the time, to open on the same day and to provide accommodation for 30 doctors, so they can be available 24 hours per day for their COVID-19 patients. We also arranged for food to be delivered to doctors in the hospitals, as well as the computers for the hospitals, so they could much more efficiently process important data.
And we continued in the second year of the pandemic. In the conditions like this, when most people and countries were focused on their own problems, I am so happy that there are people who did not forget to support others.
How do you get inspired after an inevitable setback?
I already said a lot about this in previous questions, setbacks are part of every work, but when you know how much that work means to others, how many lives were touched, and how many people are still waiting for your support, you just go over those setbacks and continue. I will always remember this little boy in one Belgrade orphanage. We went there to bring presents to the children, and the counsellor in the orphanage noticed that one of the boys is missing, they could not find him anywhere in the building. They were panicking, when the boy suddenly appeared, they asked him where he went, and he said: “My princess is coming, I wanted to pick a flower for her”. He was a true young gentleman. And gestures like this, the true and honest love is what makes all setbacks not relevant.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non-profit? He, she, or they might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would not like to make favorites or to point out somebody because I want to call everybody who have in their hearts the devotion to helping others to join us. When you make a difference — it is the greatest prize of them all. When we are united and work together, we can do so much good, change so many lives for the better and make a positive impact on the world.
The people of Serbia and the Republic of Srpska need our help and support! They rely on us, we rely on you.
You’re doing important work. How can our readers follow your progress online?
First, I would like to thank you for this opportunity to share all this information with your readers.
Much more can be found on the website of my Foundation in Serbia — www.lifelineaid.org and there, in the contact form part, you also have the websites of Lifeline Humanitarian Organization offices in Chicago, New York, Toronto, London, and Athens.
I would also like to invite everybody to visit the presentation of the Royal Family of Serbia — www.royal.rs and get better acquainted with numerous activities in other fields, and the tradition of Serbia and the Royal Family.
Thank you for a meaningful conversation. We wish you continued success with your mission.