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LET’S DO IT THE BEST WAY

WORDS/PHOTOGRAPHY: MIA MEDAKOVIC

TIMO STEGELMANN IS AN ECONOMIST, WHO GRADUATED IN 2002 WITH HIS THESIS ON FOREIGN TRADE, PROCUREMENT AND LOGISTICS IN HUMANITARIAN AND DEVELOPMENT PROJECTS. DURING HIS ECONOMIC STUDIES AT THE NIEDERRHEIN UNIVERSITY OF APPLIED SCIENCES HE ALREADY WORKED AS A FREELANCER IN THE FIELD OF FINANCIAL CONTROL, MONITORING AND REPORTING TO INSTITUTIONAL DONORS AND GATHERED HIS FIRST EXPERIENCE IN THE WESTERN BALKANS IN SARAJEVO AS EARLY AS 1995. THROUGH VARIO­US ASSIGNMENTS BETWEEN 2002 AND 2012 IN INDONESIA, ZAMBIA, SOUTH AFRICA, HAITI, ZIMBABWE, BOSNIA, KOSOVO, MONTENEGRO, ALBANIA AND SERBIA, BEING IN CHARGE OF MULTIMILLION EUR PROJECTS, HE GATHERED A LOT OF EXPERIENCE IN THE DEVELOPMENT SECTOR. FOR PRIVATE REASONS, HE MOVED BACK TO BONN IN 2012 TAKING OVER THE FI­NANCE DEPARTMENT OF THE GERMAN NON-GOVERNMENTAL ORGANIZATION HELP – HILFE ZUR SELBSTHILFE E.V. AFTER ESTABLISHING A NEW WORLDWIDE FINANCIAL ACCOUNTING AND CONTROLLING-SYSTEM, MR. STEGELMANN WAS APPOINTED AS THE DEPUTY MANA­GING DIRECTOR IN 2017 AND AS THE MANAGING DIRECTOR IN 2021. IN MID-2023 HE DECI­DED TO MOVE ON TO A NEW CHALLENGE AND IN EARLY 2024 STARTED THE BUSINESS EMPO­WERMENT AND SUSTAINABLE TRANSITION ASSOCIATION AND GROUP (BEST).

HOW DID YOU FIND YOURSELF IN THE NON-GOVERNMENT SECTOR? YOUR EXPERIENCE IS VAST IN SERBIA, AS WELL AS IN THE WORLD. SINCE THE BEGINNING OF 2024, TOGETHER WITH YOUR TEAM, YOU CREATED A CONTEMPORARY APPROACH TO THIS KIND OF WORK, AND AS A RESULT, CREATED BEST.

Actually already back in high school I was inter­ested in other cultures and countries; therefore, I participated in a school exchange program with a school in Harare/ Zimbabwe organised by the Welthungerhilfe, a German NGO. Somehow this experience has shaped my life.

During my economic studies I worked as a free­lancer in the humanitarian and development aid sector, mainly in the field of financial control and traveled a lot around the world.

In 2002, I was hired for a six week assignment to develop an EU funded project in Serbia – and then I stayed for almost 10 years, even though the project was finished within 2 years. I can kind of laugh about this now.

Well, actually my team at that time said that out of these 10 years, I was a maximum of maybe 2 years in Serbia and the rest somewhere else in the world. That might be true, but besides Germa­ny, Serbia had become my new home. Together with a great team in the region we achieved a lot and I am grateful for that time. As an economist, I am of course especially proud of the more than 5.000 startups we build up, but that’s for sure not the only thing.

Although I moved back to Germany in 2012 and had a challenging professional time there, I al­ways stayed in touch with some people in the region.

Last year we, that is, some highly motivated Ser­bian and German people, created the BEST as­sociation.

TELL US MORE ABOUT BEST – BUSINESS EMPOWERMENT AND SUSTAINABLE TRANSITION. WHAT IS IT EXACTLY?

The BEST (Business, Empowerment and Sus­tainable Transition) initiative brings together a small number of exceedingly well-connected, experienced development managers and ad­visers. We, the founders, have been part of the aid industry for many years and know how im­portant it has become to serve political needs and priorities with public money. We understand how huge multinational organizations, bilateral aid agencies and jet-set NGOs have grown from massive government funding and how the cre­ativity of new ideas sometimes vanished. We do not wish to build such an organization, nor do we want to compete with them. However, we all We do not wish to build such an organization, nor do we want to compete with them. However, we all learn from life and we learn from what we did and what we do.

That’s why, as the Serbian BEST association, we are concentrating only on CSR cooperations, but we understand CSR not only as Corporate Social Responsibility – but as Corporate Sus­tainable cooperation and our clients understand this too. Our Motto:

– Let’s do it the BEST Way.

– We do B2B solutions and by that we mean with B2B – Business to Beneficiary

The Serbian BEST association is part of the BEST Initiative/group and concentrates its ac­tivities on CSR solutions which are individual­ly shaped to the benefit of the companies and the local populations needs. Especially with the transition towards the EU, all Serbian companies have to think about CSR measures, but they also have to see the advantages and the possi­bility to grow with it. CSR should not be seen as a legal must, but as a great thing to have.

ARE COMPANIES READY TO BE SOCIALLY RESPONSIBLE? HOW DO YOU SEE CSR (CORPORATE SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY) IN THE 21ST CENTURY?

Yes and No. However, let me please first re­phrase the question you asked or add a very important aspect: Are nongovernmental organi­sations and associations ready to understand all aspects of CSR?

I would like to add this here as I see the prob­lem as two folded. NGO’s – Non Governmental Organisations (and by the way also international organisations) see CSR often just as a funding instrument to get donations, but not as a devel­opment tool for sustainable actions. We at BEST like to call the S in the CSR not Social but Sus­tainable.

I think companies are often ready and do see the great potentials and advantages of CSR. Or let’s better say, they are willing to do something, but do not know how to do it. This often results in ad hoc financing of some activities – which I do not say is always bad and sometimes these are nice small projects – but they are not sustainable. We are looking at this in another (BEST) way.

Overall, CSR activities can be an effective way to boost marketing and sales by improving brand image, creating a competitive advantage, in­creasing customer loyalty, improving employee engagement and generating positive publicity. It all starts with the customer and – what is very important and often forgotten – with the employ­ees. Serbia and actually the entire region have lots of potential for investors and sustainable long term businesses, but unfortunately also a lot of social issues which still need to be ad­dressed.

It is difficult to predict the future, but let me re­fer to current European statistics: Today, CSR has become an integral part of doing business and is increasingly driving consumer choice. For instance, nearly 90% of consumers would pur­chase a product because a company supported an issue they care about, while 75% would re­fuse to buy a product if the company had a differ­ent stance on an issue. In Germany, CSR is also a big factor in attracting talented employees, as people want to work for a company that upholds strong values.

I strongly believe in the growth of the market in Serbia and think that BEST really can support companies to be prepared and at the same time really make a change with fruitful long term so­cial projects which are not just policy driven.

WHAT IS THE MAIN DRIVING IDEA OF BEST?

Real development in a country you can only achieve together with businesses. The overall aim of BEST is to develop businesses, empow­er the communities and region, thus creating a long-term positive change. Smart Growth, tak­ing into consideration the knowledge and skills of specific target groups is essential for the self-sustainability of all the activities and busi­nesses supported. We are not reinventing the wheel here, but we put people together, bring in our knowledge and are building a cycle. The impact we can all achieve together is for us the driving force.

WHAT IS THE PROCESS OF DECIDING ON NEW PROJECTS? WHAT PROJECTS ARE YOU CURRENTLY RUNNING?

We do not do long assessments of projects, but of course we analyse systematically. I do not want to sound arrogant here but with our expe­rience we mostly know a good project when we see one and we can tell the difference between beneficiaries with real potential and those where the impact of funding and support will be neg­ligible. Good projects we are happy to develop further and to support. The project has to fit to the cooperation.

One of our current projects is the “Love for Ev­ery Child” project which is dedicated to providing support and assistance to children from dys­functional families where parents are addicted to drugs, alcohol, gambling, or are serving pris­on sentences. The aim is to offer psychological support, develop skills and abilities according to developmental and school age, provide cultur­al, artistic, sports, and health education through group workshops, individual work, and cultural, artistic, and sports activities. The project also includes educational and counselling work with parents to develop and support parenting skills and competencies, as well as assistance in re­integrating into social life during or after rehabili­tation, or within post-penal acceptance, with the goal of achieving the most functional rehabilita­tion and integration into family and social life.

WHAT MAKES BEST STAND OUT FROM THE ORGANIZATIONS?

In one sentence I would say: We are implement­ing CSR with an impact.

Our biggest differences are that a) we always use local partners to implement the activities; b) we analyse the businesses we work with; c) we know the region and always involve the local development plans; d) we work with clear inter­mediate and final results; e) we are not planning only short term actions but long term partner­ships; and f) transparency is important for us.

THE TOPIC FOR THE RYL MAGAZINE MAY ISSUE IS ‘ODE TO WORK’. DO YOU LIKE YOUR JOB AND WHAT DOES WORK MEAN TO YOU?

For me it was always important to do a job I like. My wife, who really supports me a lot and without whom I would not have achieved a lot of things, sometimes said I was more married to the organisation I worked for than to her – this might have been true; I really liked my job and the organisation I worked for. However, we should not forget, behind a strong man always is a strong partner. At least this was always the case for me.

Last year was a turning point year for me; I turned 50, my child is already 10 and lots of oth­er things happened also within the organisation I worked for.

Together with my family I made the decision: It was time for new challenges and some changes. Now, I again do what I like and that means a lot to me.

My work is two-folded: on the one hand I engage myself in the BEST Association and on the other hand I offer consultancy services in the develop­ment sector.

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