Alberto Lidji, Global CEO of the Novak Ðoković Foundation

We’ll be Here for Many Years to Come

The Novak Ðoković Foundation was among the hosts of the Duchess of Cornwall during her visit to the project "Family outreach worker" in Belgrade. Together with representatives of UNICEF and Zvečanska Centre, Her Royal Highness was also welcomed by Alberto Lidji, Global CEO of the Novak Ðoković Foundation, who introduced her to the project and explained the mission and vision of the charity led by the world’s number one tennis player.

“Her Royal Highness was extremely personable and engaging, taking the time to meet every single person and hear their stories. Everyone had the opportunity to share a bit of time with her, and I think that made it all the more special. One could tell she was enjoying the visit and the event lasted much longer than originally planned,” says Alberto Lidji, speaking to CorD magazine.

“I had the opportunity to have a substantial conversation with HRH and in the process realised just how well versed she is on Early Childhood Development. As it turns out, she’s the Patron of a UK-based charity that also supports children in their very earliest years. We agreed to continue the conversation and explore whether some international collaboration could be possible,” reveals Lidji.

What was the reason for your meeting? Could you tell us more about the Family outreach worker project that she came to support?

The British Royal family has a long tradition of supporting charities and worthy causes. When the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall decided to plan a visit to Serbia, it was natural that they wished to identify charitable work in the country that has a strong impact.

Fortunately, the support of the Novak Ðoković Foundation for the Family Outreach Worker Programme has yielded strong results over the past three years, which made it a compelling proposition for them to consider visiting. I met HRH in my capacity as Global CEO of the Novak Ðoković Foundation, and it was wonderful that representatives from UNICEF and the Zvečanska Centre were also thereby bringing likeminded organisations and individuals together there is no limit to what we can achieve.

The Family Outreach Worker Program aims to prevent very young children from being institutionalised. A real effort is made to engage closely with those families most in need, and very close attention is paid to the wellbeing of the very youngest and most vulnerable children.

There is abundant research on the long-term detrimental effects on children who are exposed to prolonged toxic stress, low levels of parental stimulation, and separation from family and familiar surroundings. Therefore, wherever possible and appropriate, we underscore the importance of protecting the family unit and deploying resources to ensure this is achieved. The Family Outreach Workers provide an invaluable service to society, and we are truly heartened by the success the programme has had over the last three years.

Novak Ðoković sent a video message, which was played during the visit. What was the focus of his message?

The video was great, and I’d encourage readers to have a look at the full version online.  Novak wanted to lend a personal touch in honour of HRH’s visit, and since he was in the middle of the tennis tournament in Indian Wells, he felt that sending a video on this occasion would be a very nice touch.

I showed the video to HRH while children and Family Outreach Workers surrounded us – it was very special. Novak’s message was very moving. He explained the hardships faced by the very youngest vulnerable children in Serbia and the importance of his family’s support to him as he was growing up, as well as referencing the impact the programme has had over the past three years. He concluded by thanking the Duchess for her presence, which unavoidably helps to bring our cause to the forefront. It’s hard for policymakers not to notice when such high profile visits occur – and for that, Novak and our Foundation are thankful to HRH.

Royal Visit

Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cornwall was extremely personable and engaging, taking the time to meet every single person and hear their stories. Everyone had the opportunity to share a bit of time with her and I think that made it all the more special

What are your tasks and responsibilities as Global CEO of the NDF? Are you satisfied with your team and is your work enjoyable?

Some tasks are what you might expect: finance, strategy, marketing and communications etc.  However, this job is unique. We bring the best of the not-for-profit world with a truly entrepreneurial mindset and no two days are alike. For instance, we have the Rio Olympics later this year, and it’s fascinating to see how the opportunity of such a high profile event could be used to increase the profile of the Foundation’s work and Early Childhood Education and Development. On the other hand, we have our eye on Milan and are preparing to host a truly memorable Gala Dinner during Fashion Week later this year.

The work is challenging but fascinating – when you realise just how many lives you can influence and how much public awareness can drive your cause forward, sometimes it’s difficult to switch off and relax – there is a lot of excitement. I also focus a lot on building partnerships, both formal and informal. A collaborative approach is key so that you can create an ecosystem that leverages everyone’s best attributes for a greater purpose. Our conversations are wide-ranging and extend from foundations and corporations to leading academics at top universities and policymakers across the globe.

I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without the support of an outstanding team. There are so much talent and such a diverse range of experiences within our family. I never stop learning from my colleagues and, likewise, hopefully, some of my experiences rub off on them as well.  It’s a privilege to work for the Novak Ðoković Foundation, and I’m genuinely humbled by the quality of the charitable work we do and the team’s boundless energy.

Royal Visit
DUCHESS OF CORNWALL met with the families from The “Family Outreach Worker Program”

The Family Outreach Worker Programme aims to prevent the institutionalising of very young children. A real effort is made to engage closely with those families most in need

How did you become CEO of NDF?

My experience in the not-for-profit sector is firmly rooted in education, having worked in early childhood education, higher education at the university level and, most recently, informal education. As a father of two very young daughters, my heart gravitated back to supporting Early Childhood Education, and when this opportunity arose, I knew it would be fantastic.

What started as an exploratory chat in Monaco quickly unfolded into very substantive and positive discussions. Our personalities clicked very well from the outset, and our passions for early childhood were very much a common denominator – as Novak and Jelena’s son Stefan is around the same age as my daughters.

What projects is the NDF working on at present and what are your plans for 2016?

Our projects are focused on Early Childhood Education (ECE) and Development.  While they may vary in precise composition and approach, the theme is constant.  Among our key work to date, we have established wonderful preschools, facilitated high-quality teacher training and support families at risk.

We are currently in the process of establishing nine preschools (projects either in the pipeline or due to start shortly), and we are also reviewing the 1,400 funding applications received during our last ‘call for projects’.

This year, we are also starting to explore the creation of a ‘Fellowship’ programme, through which we will support some of the very brightest PhD and Post-Doctoral researchers focusing on ECE. This will enable us to drive growth in the body of knowledge on ECE and support young researchers who will make inroads globally.

We plan to be more active on the global stage, particularly in terms of advocating the value of ECE and Development to policymakers, corporations and society at large. We are in a unique position that Novak’s voice is heard far and wide, and we want to ensure we leverage this as much as possible. Novak’s role as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, for instance, provides him with a platform to emphasise the importance of our cause.

Royal VisitWe know almost everything about Novak Đoković as an athlete. Tell us more about his charity work, or rather the humanitarian work of his family, which includes his wife Jelena, who is said to be the initiator of many activities?

Novak has a disarming charm and humour. He articulates his passion for Early Childhood Development very clearly, and his passion is always evident. He is indeed much more than just the Founder or name on the letterhead. Both he and Jelena are intimately acquainted with the day-to-day work of the Foundation, and their support is invaluable on many levels. It’s also nice to see that someone who’s at the top of his game is still actually even more driven when it comes to appreciating his family. TV viewers hear him reference his family during victory speeches and it’s heartening to see this also extends off camera.

Being a good person and achieving one’s personal best is how I would describe Novak. He’s much more interested in achieving his personal best, irrespective of what others around him may do. That’s refreshing to see.

Jelena Ðoković practically built NDF and is continuously engaged and active on the most pressing issues faced by children from disadvantaged communities. It could be said that the energy Novak has on the court is matched by the energy Jelena has in humanitarian activities.

Jelena is relentless and has boundless energy. There’s always a smile and an inclination to see the glass as being half full. Her knowledge of the Foundation and every project we make possible is impressive. Somehow she manages to combine the top level strategic view with a thorough grasp of all the moving pieces that make up our Foundation.

She has a curious mind, and it shows – I know we both value the insights from the Harvard Business Review, hold the Financial Times in high regard and continuously strive to gain new experiences and learn new ways of tackling opportunities. Fortunately, all of these attributes are combined with a love for philanthropy, which enables the Foundation to do great things.

She made me feel at home from the very first day I joined the Foundation and is always available for a chat, to discuss strategy or ideas. This is an attitude that is evident throughout the whole team, and it provides the ingredients for high team performance and collaboration.

Royal Visit

Novak wanted to lend a personal touch in honour of HRH’s visit, and since he was in the middle of the tennis tournament in Indian Wells, he felt that sending a video on this occasion would be a very nice touch

What is the NDF’s ultimate goal? Do you have some long-term plans?

We focus on Early Childhood Education and Development, paying close attention to the most disadvantaged segments of society. Our strongest presence is in Serbia, but we appreciate that Novak and the Foundation have an opportunity to make a difference globally.

We have a healthy sense of urgency since we realise the world’s spotlight is on us now, while Novak is world number one. We need to maximise our opportunities now and ensure the Foundation is thriving and vibrant long after Novak makes his final exit from Centre Court. This ensures we make an impact for generations to come and reassures our supporters that we’ll be here today, tomorrow and for many more years.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have clear targets for 2030, some of which are aligned with our view of the road ahead. Target 4.2, for instance, aims to ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development and education – no matter where in the world they’re based or what their financial or family situation happens to be. This is a universal goal.

The realities of our world mean that financial resources are crucial to being able to make an impact. We are working actively on building an endowment so that our Foundation’s financial position is strong in the decades to come.  Novak and Jelena have been incredibly generous in supporting the Foundation – so much so that every single Euro and Dollar donated can go straight to the frontlines – but we also very much need the support of other individuals, corporations and foundations to join us on this philanthropic journey.

You were previously Director of Development at the Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award Foundation. Can you reflect on that and compare the two Foundations?

There are similarities and differences. The similarities are that the management teams of both organisations are simply outstanding, the passion for changing the world runs deep, and education and youth are at our core. The differences are vast, however.  The Duke of Edinburg’s International Award was founded 60 years ago, is present in more than 140 countries and supports around a million young people at any given time.

Both foundations have very big hearts, and that is really why I worked there and why I work here now.