With Mott support, retired NBA star’s foundation is improving lives, growing philanthropy in Serbia

Vlade Divac assists refugees at a camp near Belgrade, Serbia. More than 1,000,000 people passed through Serbia in 2015.
Vlade Divac assists refugees at a camp near Belgrade, Serbia. More than 1,000,000 people passed through Serbia in 2015.

Vlade Divac was one of the first European basketball players to star in the National Basketball Association, but it’s the philanthropic work he launched after retiring from the NBA that has created lasting benefit for the people in his native Serbia.

“I grew up in a very beautiful environment, we had a nice country and good values,” Divac said. “But I spent one year in America playing basketball and that summer when I went back home, everything was turned upside down with civil war.”

The ethnic conflicts that took place throughout the 1990s in the Western Balkans region caused thousands of deaths, left many people displaced from their homes and led to the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. Divac said he felt terrible for kids who were growing up in that turbulent environment and wanted to find out how he could help them. That desire to help children and the many adults living in the aftermath of the wars propelled his charitable endeavors. One memory in particular stands out for him.

“During a visit back home sometime after I retired from the NBA, I came across a friend of mine who was helping displaced people in a camp near Belgrade,” Divac said. “I was really surprised that there were still people living in refugee camps from wars that had happened 20 years before and I knew nothing about it. I just thought if a foreigner was helping them, we Serbians should be doing even more.”

A Divac Foundation team member helps a young refugee try on a new pair of shoes.
A Divac Foundation team member helps a young refugee try on a new pair of shoes.

In 2007, he and his wife founded the Ana and Vlade Divac Foundation to assist refugees and people within Serbia who were displaced by the Balkan wars. Since then, the foundation has evolved into a leading member of the region’s emerging philanthropic community. With support from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, the couple and their foundation have worked to develop a culture of giving in Serbia.

“Partnering with organizations like Mott was amazing for us. We’re of course happy for the financial support but what we’ve learned about growing philanthropy has been even greater,” Vlade Divac said. “We continue to look at it as a learning process to help us keep growing into the future.”

Over the past decade, the Divac Foundation has raised over $10 million in Serbia and helped 300,000 people to improve their living conditions, employment, and education.

While the foundation has successfully used Divac’s popularity and reputation to raise funds from businesses and individuals, he credits his staff, led by Executive Director Ana Koeshall with developing their programming beyond humanitarian aid. What started with just three people assisting with the refugee crisis has grown to a staff of more than 30 working in four strategic areas — emergency relief, employment, community progress, and philanthropic development.

“Mott’s focused investment into our development has been crucial to helping us grow sustainably and become a long-term partner in building our communities,” Koeshall said.

A Divac Foundation team member helps a young refugee try on a new pair of shoes.
Divac Youth Funds provide broad opportunities for youth to engage in sports, art, cultural and social activities in their own communities.

The Foundation is committed to engaging young people in communities throughout Serbia through its Divac Youth Funds. The funds promote youth-led community development solutions by empowering and training adolescents to engage with their local governments, businesses and neighbors.

Koeshall said she is excited about the progress with the youth programs. In just two years, the young people involved in the Divac Youth Funds have mobilized local governments and the private sector to fund nearly 75% of the total cost of the more than 380 youth-led and implemented community activities.

This year has brought the Divac Youth Funds model recognition and significant funding from the European Union. That funding will allow the program to expand to six countries throughout the region to advocate for incorporating youth voices and viewpoints into national youth policies.

“That the Divac Foundation is now working on a regional level to strengthen other national organizations truly demonstrates the power of funding resources that are designed to empower,” Koeshall said. “We’ve benefitted from funding from Mott and others to build our capacity and our systems, and we are now in the position to be able to replicate that relationship with nonprofits throughout the region.”

Going forward, the priorities for the Divac Foundation include building its endowment and developing a sustainable employment program. Most of all, the Foundation will continue to lead efforts to increase local giving and philanthropy in the region.

“Philanthropy was something no one in Serbia was really talking about 10 years ago, when we started,” Divac said. “I’m so proud that now things are changing, and that we’ve been able to help raise interest and get people involved with the different causes that are important to their own society and community.”