The Swissair Aid for Children Foundation is committed to the education and well-being of children around the world. The foundation benefits from the strong attachment felt by former staff to a company that no longer exists.
The news hit Switzerland like a shockwave when Swissair was grounded in 2001. Its employees were faced with an uncertain future, their very livelihoods at risk. The confusion of this time also impacted the Swissair Aid for Children Foundation. ‘The level of uncertainty was huge,’ says Marcel Hungerbühler, the current Chair of the Board of Trustees. He adds: ‘Nobody knew what exactly was going to happen to the foundation.’ Finally, the Board decided to continue so it did not leave the scores of children and partner organisations it supported around the world in the lurch. This decision paid off, and the foundation was able to continue its philanthropic engagement even after Swissair’s time had come to an end. ‘The foundation’s donations remained as high as during the best times when Swissair was around,’ says Marcel Hungerbühler. This was by no means a given. Why? Because most of the donations came from Swissair staff – and today, too, they come from former employees, their friends and family.
Brand loyalty and solidarity
Marcel Hungerbühler highlights this incredibly strong connection to the company as one reason. The Swissair Aid for Children Foundation benefits from the solidarity and team spirit felt by former Swissair staff. The way the foundation came into being is also a unique element of its recipe for success. It was not established by Swissair itself or its management: it was the company’s employees who took the initiative. ‘It was a spontaneous action by Swissair employees,’ explains Marcel Hungerbühler. ‘During the 1956 crisis in Hungary, they wanted to do something themselves to help young Hungarian refugees.’ Cockpit, cabin and ground staff collected money, and were ultimately able to give 10,000 Swiss francs to the Hungary House in the Pestalozzi Children’s Village in Trogen. Employees’ dedication led to the foundation attracting a growing amount of support from management. Generous donations were made to the foundation at events and anniversaries and it received even greater support from the company. The foundation had gained such a firm foothold that many employees transferred their donations to it as a direct deduction from their wages. These regular donations enabled the foundation to expand its activities. The first Swissair House in an SOS Children’s Village was made a reality in 1976.
Children’s aid in the Philippines.
Marcel Hungerbühler, Chair of the Board of Trustees.
Children at the Swissair House in the SOS Children’s Village at Bhersaf, Lebanon.
Children around the world
Since then, the foundation has donated 10 million Swiss francs to SOS Children’s Villages. ‘This sum makes us the most significant donor for the SOS Children’s Villages Switzerland Foundation,’ says Marcel Hungerbühler. ‘Every other year or so, we finance the construction of a Swissair House in an SOS Children’s Village – we’re at 23 now – and cover the ongoing costs for a “Swissair family”,’ he explains. The airline’s global network played a major role in making the collaboration a success. Back then, its employees had even longer rest periods when they flew to far-flung locations, giving Swissair crews the opportunity to visit the foundation’s projects on the ground. Plus, employees could benefit from the opportunity to fly at reduced rates: ‘Whether Mumbai, Karachi, São Paulo, Beirut or Nairobi, the Swissair Aid for Children Foundation was always very close to its projects,’ says Marcel Hungerbühler. Alongside SOS Children’s Villages, the Swissair Aid for Children Foundation supports 20 or so partner organisations around the world. Today, the foundation still sets great store by visiting its projects on the ground. One of its trustees is responsible for each project, so its Board of Trustees, comprising 23 people, is deliberately large. It’s not just the committee’s size that sets it apart: its stability does, too, with the Board having had just six Chairs since the foundation was established.
The current Chair, Marcel Hungerbühler, spent half his professional life abroad. He’s spent time in all four corners of the world, from London, New York and Singapore to Manila. The first time he really came into contact with the foundation was in the Philippines. A pilot’s wife was the sponsor of the local ‘Swissair family’. She visited the children at regular intervals, and the children knew who she was. ‘One of the boys was desperate to become a pilot,’ explains Marcel Hungerbühler. Ultimately, he was indeed able to train as a pilot. ‘This boy, who grew up in an SOS Children’s Village, is now the captain on an A320 with an Asian airline.’ It is this proximity to the projects and the involvement of trustees that make these stories a reality. This generates trust – especially with donors, who know just how their financial support improves people’s living conditions. And it’s this close attachment to a brand that no longer exists, and its values, that is still impacting the foundation today. The strength of this brand ensures many former Swissair employees continue their commitment to the foundation: a large number of them still have donations to the foundation deducted directly from their pensions. The figures presented by Marcel Hungerbühler illustrate the result of this: ‘This year, the foundation has been able to support its partners to the tune of 850,000 Swiss francs.’