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The Warsaw Voice » Society » January 21, 2009
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Generosity Amid Crisis
January 21, 2009   
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The Great Christmas Aid Orchestra, Poland's best known annual charity drive, has brushed the global crisis aside to raise over zl.32 million this year, setting a new record.

The final figure, which will probably be made public at the end of February, will be even higher as internet auctions are still in progress.

The Great Christmas Aid Orchestra first tuned up Jan. 3, 1993 to raise funds to purchase equipment for the pediatric cardiological surgery ward of the Warsaw Children's Health Center. The results exceeded the organizers' wildest expectations when over $1.5 million came flooding in to purchase badly needed equipment for the Center and 10 other pediatric cardiological surgical wards around the country.

Popular Polish radio and TV personality Jerzy Owsiak had the Orchestra registered as a charitable foundation March 2, 1993 and has been its public face ever since. The Orchestra has managed to raise more than $100 million over the succeeding years to purchase equipment for more than 650 medical establishments throughout Poland. The Orchestra has been an official public benefit organization since 2004 and now ranks second only to the Polish agency of the Roman Catholic charitable relief federation, Caritas Internationalis, in terms of funds raised.

The Great Christmas Aid Orchestra is best known for its Grand Finale, a nationwide fundraising drive held early January every year. The finale has the same format throughout Poland, and in many cases abroad as well, and consists of a musical concert whose proceeds go to further the aims of the foundation, and armies of volunteers who collect funds on the streets and hand out red heart-shaped stickers bearing the Orchestra's logo.

Donated items and prizes are also auctioned off. These may include anything from loaves of bread to all sorts of odds and ends signed by celebrities, to rides in tanks or submarines, and even having your dishes washed for a year. "Golden Hearts" plated with donated gold are also auctioned as are gold phone cards donated by Polish telecom giant Telekomunikacja Polska. You can also bid for one of the shortest numbers from well-known Polish instant messaging service Gadu-Gadu.

Every Grand Finale is given its own slogan to reflect the type of illness for which funds are being raised. The Orchestra has focused on illnesses of the heart, kidneys, ear, nose and throat over the years and has also been concerned with saving the lives of premature babies and children injured in traffic accidents.

The foundation's charter defines its mission as being "to safeguard health by saving the lives of sick persons, especially children, and to improve overall health by carrying out promotional activities and preventive measures." Apart from its high-profile annual collection in aid of purchasing medical equipment, the Orchestra assists children's hospices and runs first-aid courses and supplies defibrillators to various institutions.

This year's finale was held under the banner of "Early Cancer Diagnosis in Children." Between 1,200 and 1,300 people up to 18 years of age are diagnosed with cancer in Poland every year. Cancer may not be all that common in children and young people, and therapeutic treatment is 70-80 percent successful where it does occur, but it still causes death in more children than any other disease. The new diagnostic equipment is intended to help doctors diagnose cancers early.

More than 1,500 Orchestra teams in Poland and 27 elsewhere helped organize this year's Grand Finale, with a total of 120,000 volunteers raising funds.

There was no shortage of collectors pounding the pavements outside Poland. The Orchestra made its debut in France this year and tins were being rattled in Britain, Ireland, Germany, the United States, and Saudi Arabia. Polish military contingents around the world also rallied to the cause.

"I think that we Poles responded to the economic crisis in the best possible way by working together to negotiate a better future for ourselves," was how Owsiak summed up this year's Grand Finale.

The Great Christmas Aid Orchestra is one of the world's foremost charitable foundations. The Brand Asset Valuator (BAV), an indicator used by U.S. company BrandAsset Consulting to measure the value of brand names from 50 countries around the world, ranked the Orchestra first worldwide among public benefit organizations and overall first in Poland, blowing heavyweights like Coca Cola off the stage. BAV uses criteria including relevance, esteem and knowledge to assign values to brand names. The Orchestra came up trumps with a top score in just about every category.

"The Orchestra was looked upon with more skepticism than approval when it started collecting money in 1991. One well-known politician even questioned the wisdom of donating money to it," says social psychologist Piotr Ławacz. These days it is looked up to as a model of civic behavior.

"The Orchestra is a well-organized business that raises money for a worthy cause," says Dr. Norbert Maliszewski, a social psychologist from the University of Warsaw.

There are some who dismiss the Orchestra as being a nine-day wonder-one big media-hyped passing the hat around that takes place once a year. Other organizations, they claim, raise money throughout the year on behalf of all sorts of worthy causes without all the media hoopla.

But regardless of these criticisms, the Great Christmas Aid Orchestra brings enormous benefits. "The funds we collect during this event keep us going all year," says Owsiak.

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