We don’t talk about it at home, it’s not a matter of public debate, and it’s definitely not part of the philanthropic strategies that companies develop. But at the same time, it concerns every one of us. Martina Breňová from the Avast Foundation has participated in the development of a program that has changed attitude towards dying in the Czech Republic. The program Together Until the End works with experts and the public sector to provide systematic support for palliative care in the Czech Republic, and to improve its availability. Thanks to the program, the Czech government has started providing partial financing of selected services. Palliative care isn’t about death, but rather about the quality of life, emphasizes Martina.
What motivated Avast – a technological company – to focus on this topic?
The very fact that dying is a taboo in our society even though it concerns each and every one of us. And that’s a challenge. We felt responsible, so we decided to take a risk and change this situation. As a global leader in digital security, Avast and the Avast Foundation make use of every opportunity to support individuals and communities who are trying to create a better and safer world. What our foundation shares with Avast is our courage to look at challenges from a different perspective and try to find solutions using innovations.
At first sight, the topic of dying isn’t related to our core business. But that’s the very reason why we found it interesting. We wanted to avoid the stereotypes of corporate philanthropy and show that it’s important to identify actual social needs and problems. That’s where I see the true and authentic social responsibility of our company, which has more than 1,000 employees in the Czech Republic.
How have you approached this difficult topic?
With great humility. That is the reason why we always work with professionals and experts who focus on palliative care. The program has also helped us expand the network of people who are prepared to strategically move the whole field forward. These are the people who provide their expertise for our program on a long-term basis, such as Ondřej Sláma – an oncologist, palliatist, and chairman of the Czech Society for Palliative Medicine. Our vision is to make our impact on society as broad as possible and make professional palliative care available all over the country.
What principles is your program based on?
Our palliative care program – Together Until the End – is pioneering in both its choice of topic and its approach to solving problems. Ever since it was launched, we have wanted to give people who are active in the field of palliative care the opportunity to develop ideas, projects, and work in teams, enabling them to educate themselves, gain courage, and fulfill their visions. Our goal was to promote the creation and spread of best practices, to support pilot innovations, to share experience with others, and to help new projects become sustainable.
The success of this program lies in several simple principles: we listen to people’s actual needs carefully, we do not come up with solutions that just look good on paper, we place great trust in our professional partners and their work, and we are very flexible in financing. We also make sure that the program keeps its continuity and integrity, thus allowing it to respond to the rapid developments and overall maturing of the field, preventing our support from being counterproductive. And let us not forget intuition and common sense – those play an important role in our work. More than 100,000 people die in the Czech Republic every year. And most of them die in hospitals. Therefore, it is unimaginable for these hospitals not to offer palliative care. In 2016, we started a paradigm shift in this area.
What are your key areas of support in this field?
In each annual edition of our program, we do our best to maintain continuity and make sure that the individual activities are tied together. Together Until the End is based on a common impact principle. In other words, we work with experts to identify important target groups, identify their needs and perspective, and gradually invest in all areas that potentially and actually influence palliative care. By doing this, we support the area of palliative care from all directions, stressing the urgency of the situation. We carry out pilot solutions and we also support the operation, development, and mutual cooperation of organizations that play a key role in the development of palliative care.
Over the years, we have helped one third of Czech hospices become financially self-sufficient using our fundraising academy. We have provided financing for research and data collection in hospitals. We support expert platforms and their advocacy, and we have helped create the Center for Palliative Care – the only institution of its kind in Central and Eastern Europe. We have provided financing for newly-formed palliative care teams in more than 20 Czech hospitals and supported the development of palliative medicine as a subject taught at selected universities. The field of palliative care moves forward relatively quickly and there is a lack of experienced professionals. In order to address this, we have created a scholarship program and we also provide financing for the education, development, and foreign study visits of doctors, nurses, and other professionals. We are currently working on the development of palliative care in retirement homes, which will be launched next year.
What sum of financial resources have you invested in the Together Until the End program so far?
So far, Avast has donated more than half a billion Czech crowns (nearly 20 million euros) to its foundation. This year, the sum dedicated to the foundation’s Together Until the End program will near 150 million crowns (nearly 6 million euros). For a country like the Czech Republic, this is a large sum of money, and therefore a great responsibility.
You are trying to change the system of providing palliative care. This means that cooperation with the government is necessary. How would you rate it?
Our experience has been very positive. A few years ago, we started active cooperation with the Ministry of Health. We managed to get in contact with specific experts and officials in order to invite them to join our grant process as evaluators. This gave them the opportunity to gain first-hand experience of the practices and problems in this field. These are the people who have helped us make palliative care a priority. The ministry followed up on our pilot program in hospitals by allocating financial resources for its own pilot program, which currently consists of seven projects in six hospitals. Recently, the ministry has also signed a memorandum of palliative care coverage with representatives of all seven health insurance companies and the Czech Society for Palliative Care. We have successfully linked the Avast Foundation, the private sector, the government, and experts in palliative care because we all have our role to play and we need to change the system together.
What is more, we have recently been contacted by the Prague Municipal Authority to join an expert group and help create a new concept of palliative care for the inhabitants of Prague. For a private corporate endowment fund to participate in the creation of strategies like this one is a completely new phenomenon. This is a signal that we are trustworthy, we don’t prioritize our own interests, and we want to bring change to society. I appreciate this trust.
When will you feel that you have accomplished your mission?
With some exaggeration, I always say that the biggest success of our palliative care program will come when the help of the Avast Foundation is no longer necessary. When we get there, we will move on to a different area that needs our help. Because all people will have the option of choosing how, where, and with whom they want to spend the ends of their lives. They will have access to the best palliative care they might possibly need. I’m certain that awareness about the need for palliative care has already improved and this aspect of social care and health care has established a strong position. Moreover, there are many people, including experts and professionals, who are determined to continue developing this field. There is no turning back.
What influence has your support in this area had on Avast’s reputation?
It has had significant influence in the Czech Republic. This is far from a superficial or appealing topic chosen with the ambition to simply promote a brand and gain positive publicity. Our goal is to promote the field itself, and this authenticity has sparked great and sincere interest from the public. Even Avast employees are proud of the Avast Foundation. They can now encounter the name of their employer in places such as hospitals where their family members are receiving care. This has a very strong impact.
When we chose palliative care as a priority, we went against the expectations of people who thought we should be doing something “positive”. The Avast Foundation is currently also supporting other areas. However, starting with a topic that is essentially a social taboo… that required courage. Our goal has always been to emphasize that palliative care isn’t about death, but rather about the quality of life.
What benefits has support for this topic brought to you personally?
First of all, I am thankful that for these past five years I have worked closely with incredible people who look after palliative patients on a daily basis and who are inspirational pioneers in their field. Many of them have become my friends. The palliative acre community has an unusual and strong charisma – even the toughest doctors have a very human and spiritual dimension. We are all part of a great adventure and a unique opportunity to create positive change in our country. We are learning from each other and there is a sense of deep respect and trust between us.
From a professional perspective, this has been a one-of-a-kind opportunity to experience a version of high-quality and enlightened philanthropy – or at least what I think it should look like in my heart of hearts. Thanks to the freedom and generous support Avast has given to its foundation, we are free to choose optimal steps and solutions. We can afford to be generous. Generosity and respect in our actions and partnerships lead to mutual trust. And trust is the foundation of everything else.