Education as an opportunity
for improving social

Journalist: Simon Eppenberger | Photographer: Marc Welti | Magazin: Green opportunity – November 2021

Charitable organisations are increasingly being run based on economic considerations. This is because good intentions and a well-known brand are no longer enough in the long run when it comes to being committed to a more equitable world.

Martin Bachofner studied law in St. Gallen and business in Liechtenstein. He never expected that his life would lead him to the lush green hills of Appenzell Ausserrhoden. For about a year now, he’s worked there as the Managing Director of an internationally renowned organisation based in the village of Trogen: the Pestalozzi Children’s Foundation. In 2021, the foundation isn’t only celebrating its 75th anniversary. It’s also undergoing a transformation.

This is why the Board of Trustees has employed the services of someone like 48-year-old Martin Bachofner, who doesn’t see any contradiction in combining economics with social sustainability – and even considers it an urgent necessity. He runs the foundation like an SME that has to make a profit. ‘We have a duty to all our donors,’ the Bern native says.

A cost-saving programme is just one of the measures he’s planned as a way to reverse its losses over the next two years. ‘We’re living off the familiarity of the brand. But we must change if we don’t want to lose our strengths and become irrelevant,’ Bachofner comments drily.

The Pestalozzi Children’s Foundation was founded in 1946 to care for children orphaned by war. For decades, refugees were housed at the children’s village in Trogen. This all changed seven years ago, when the foundation focused on providing better education for disadvantaged children locally in 12 different countries. Some 200,000 children currently benefit from this. In Switzerland, the children’s village is a place for cultural exchange. The foundation is supported by more than 55,000 donors as well as bequests and public sub­sidies.

Temporary assistance

However, cost-effectiveness is only a means to an end as far as Bachofner is concerned. What’s more important for him is that his work has meaning. He’s driven by the desire to ensure that the greatest possible number of disadvantaged children abroad have access to good education. In conjunction with this, he promotes cultural exchange and media literacy among young people in Switzerland.

The children’s village in Trogen hasn’t housed any refugee children since 2014. As far back as the 1980s, those responsible recognised that they could achieve far more by providing support in the children’s home countries than by hosting 120 of them in Switzerland. Today, this global commitment is at the heart of everything the foundation does. It’s active in some 800 schools in a dozen countries. Teachers and partner organisations are trained locally for up to nine years.

“Too often, you can see sustainability being exploited as a selling point.”

Bachofner believes that this is an appropriate length of time to help improve children’s lives in a lasting manner. ‘We don’t want to make people dependent or make ourselves indispensable. Our approach involves passing on skills with regard to education and child protection and making sure that local staff are trained to do their job independently and thus sustainably,’ he says.

This foreign strategy has proven successful and is now due to be expanded significantly. The growth target is ambitious. ‘We want to reach 400,000 children by 2030,’ ­Bachofner says. Today, about 200,000 children benefit from the services provided by the foundation. Conventional donations alone aren’t enough to reach this goal.

Martin Bachofner (48) grew up just outside Bern, studied law at the University of St. Gallen and obtained a master’s degree in business administration in Liechtenstein. He’s worked for the publishing company Marquard Media in Munich and in the financial sector in Liechtenstein. More recently, he spent seven years as the CEO of Gstaad Saanenland Tourism. Before becoming involved with the Pestalozzi Children’s Foundation, he was the CEO of the tourism organisation Bern Welcome. Bachofner lives in Trogen and Lyss in a blended family with his daughter and his partner’s two sons.

New business models

There’s also great demand for investment in Switzerland. Before the pandemic, thousands of young people from both Switzerland and abroad used to gather at the children’s village to reflect on racism, discrimination and their own behaviour and operate a radio station for young people. This is due to be started up again.

However, many of the two dozen or so buildings in Trogen are showing their age. Some are dilapidated and the paint on some of them is starting to peel off. Renovating them will be expensive. But Mr Bachofner sees it as an opportunity: ‘To date we’ve had about 25,000 overnight stays. That’s something we can build on, and we want to develop new tourist-based business models.’

The pandemic has also forced the foundation itself to change. Whereas the decision to move to emergency assistance was obvious abroad, children and young people in Switzerland could no longer travel to Trogen. Those responsible for education quickly developed children’s rights workshops which could be held in classrooms. They also visited schools with a mobile radio studio to teach 11- to 13-year-olds about responsible use of social and traditional media and raise awareness about the disastrous consequences of fake news and hate. Bachofner smiles when he describes the enthusiastic feedback he gets from children.

“We don’t want to make people dependent or make ourselves indispensable.”

According to Bachofner, many companies could also learn from the honesty and commitment that younger people show when addressing social issues. Because the demand for responsible and transparent products is growing, companies must react to it sooner or later. ‘This doesn’t always lead to a real shift in thinking. Too often, you can see sustainability being exploited as a selling point, even when there’s nothing actually behind it.’ Other companies won’t even go that far, he points out, preferring instead to get involved in charity work to ease their own conscience or that of their customers.

Bachofner considers an integrative approach to be the most promising one in the long run. This involves companies holistically and honestly considering their situation vis-à-vis sustainability. Changes are then implemented based on the companies’ own convictions and with long-term support from everyone concerned. ­Bachofner argues that ‘This will open up new opportunities, including for society as a whole. It will also pay off financially for companies sooner or later.’ He therefore regards the issue as a top priority that CEOs and board members shouldn’t ignore.

What, then, do social sustainability and social justice mean for him and his organisation? ‘The foundation isn’t a protected workshop, of course, but we don’t have unfair wage gaps and we’re committed to providing equal opportunities and promoting the professional development of our employees.’

Asked about what he thinks are the biggest global challenges in terms of sustainability, Bachofner says we need to be very humble: ‘I’m not some kind of sustainability guru, but what we urgently need is less greed. We must be more responsible in the way that we use natural resources.’ Bachofner stresses that these resources don’t just include the environment but also people, who have very different opportunities in life depending on where they were born.

Long-term changes

This is why his vision for the world of tomorrow is a humane society with equal opportunities for all. As a realist, he knows that this can’t be achieved. Nevertheless, he’s convinced that ‘a lot is still possible’. By this he means the long-term changes which could be brought about through social pressure.

One example he cites is the climate movement, which has helped bring about new legislation and changed consumer behaviour. He’s also convinced that investing in education always gets the best results: ‘The more well-educated young people we have in the world, the better they can shape the future.’

Bachofner believes that education and knowledge go hand in hand with an openness to new experiences and a willingness to reflect on one’s own behaviour. That’s the basis for change, he explains. That’s why his favourite place in the children’s village is right next to the schoolhouse, where your gaze wanders from the land out over Lake Constance. ‘Far-sightedness and having a broad horizon are fundamental to making progress,’ he says.


Martin Bachofner – In the spotlight

What achievements would you like to look back on in 30 years’ time?
I always want to be able to say that my efforts serve a greater purpose. I want to have learnt a lot and be proud of myself.

What personal goal do you hope to achieve?
To continue learning and still be able to get over mountain passes on my racing bike without electrical assistance when I’m 80.

What advice would you give your descendants?
To get as broad a perspective as possible. This helps you to think in a nuanced way. One of the most important things is looking after your own health.

What did 2020 and the coronavirus pandemic teach you?
This might not be true for many people, but it showed me that we can do without a lot of things. It does us all good to reflect on what we have.