Founded in October 2012 as a new concept of neighborhood markets, the company “Meridian Express” has been involved in a large number of philanthropic initiatives, both as a contributor and idea initiator. Donation to the community is one of the main focuses and commitments of this company.

The continuous contribution to “SOS Children's Villages Kosovo” through the “Round up the Bill” campaign, and the support of students of various universities through scholarships are just two of the many causes that this company supports.

Agon Gashi, executive director of “Meridian Express,” has confessed a lot about their commitment to the benefit of the community.

When was “Meridian Express” founded, and how does it work?

Agon Gashi: “Meridian Express,” which is also part of the “Meridian” Corporation, was established in October 2012. Before the establishment of the same, all markets of this type (small and medium) were focused on large spaces, where people had to have plenty of time to go and get the necessary services. It is precisely this fact that made us think that in the near future, this will change and that people will want to have some of the most basic services close to home, in their neighborhoods. Today, “Meridian Express” has 43 points of small and medium markets throughout Kosovo and nearly 500 employees.

One of the biggest challenges we face, and I believe not only us, is the workforce. However, it is important for us to invest in the staff we have. In this regard, in 2015, the company implemented a practical strategy known around the world, the “Chartered Management Program – CMP,” which offers our managers the opportunity to further develop their knowledge through training.

Among the main issues is the fact that our company has also developed as a leader in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in Kosovo. I have been a member of the board of “The Kosovo CSR Network” since its establishment, and we have constantly tried to raise the focus both on donations and on projects with long-term, more sustainable effects.

How did you incorporate philanthropy into your business?

Agon Gashi: It is initially the values ​​of the family, and then of the company, that guide us about what we should do for the community and for the social upliftment of society. For us as a company, philanthropy is simply trust and obligation. We generate income, and we generate profit from this country from this community, therefore, a part of it must be returned to the community in different forms, and philanthropy is one of them. If we donate to the community, the environment in which we operate becomes better, and the action becomes more successful.

From the onset of our donation activities, as a company, we have had many requests to support different causes. We have had requests to help children, to help women, to support the field of music, the field of sports, and other requests, but it has been impossible to accommodate them all. Their large number has made us draft a strategy based on which we already operate in long-term periods. Personally, I think that the key to success for a company that wants to donate to the community or support it in various ways is consistency and planning.

The 10th anniversary of “Meridian Express” establishment: The company's donation of 10 thousand euros to "SOS Children's Villages Kosovo", during the ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of their friendship. Photo source: "Meridian Express" official “Facebook” page

What categories of society are supported by “Meridian Express,” and what are some of your biggest projects?

Agon Gashi: The main focus of our company is children. Any cause related to them is primary for us to consider and support. It is precisely for this reason that we have also created collaborations with various organizations such as “Down Syndrome Kosovo,” “AutizmiFlet (Autism Speaks),” “SOS Children's Villages Kosovo,” and many others. We even have long-term cooperation with the latter, which we started ten years ago. “Round up the bill” is the campaign with which, with the help of our customers, we collect funds that we send to “SOS Children's Villages Kosovo” and which works as follows: Go to any point of “Meridian Express” and while paying for the received products, you can donate the remaining cents on the bill. For example, if your bill is 4 euros and 75 cents, then you can round it up to 5 euros, where 25 cents are automatically collected in the fund for this association. The transparency is that on the fiscal voucher you receive, your contribution is recorded as the sale of an item for which we pay the appropriate taxes. This has made consumers feel more comfortable and trust us in this cause. Then, as soon as a significant amount is collected, we immediately donate it to “SOS Children’s Villages.” Close to 15 thousand euros is the amount that we managed to donate through the campaign “Round up the bill.”

After this, education is the field that we attach great importance to, and therefore, we have continuously supported students from various universities. So far, the amount donated in the form of scholarships to the students of the American University in Kosovo (AUK) is over 20 thousand euros, for the students of the American School (ASK), 5 thousand euros were donated, over 2 thousand euros to the Gjakova Rotary Club, and other scholarship in smaller amounts. Recently, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed with the Kosovar American Education Fund (KAEF), with which we promised financial support in the amount of 25,000 euros over the next five years.

Another cause supported by us is the empowerment of women, and as a company, we are also one of the few signatories of the Women's Empowerment Principles (WEPs). Within the company, we work hard to provide training, advancement, and promotion for the women working for us. In fact, we are simultaneously working on a very important project called “40+”, which is to help women aged 40 and over enter the labor market. The reason is very simple: most of them, 23 years ago, when the war happened, were around 20-30 years old, and their focus was on their families, as a result of which they did not have many opportunities for further education or access to labor market. Now, a few years later, exactly those women are afraid of entering the labor market without experience. This is the reason why we as a company have created training and opportunities for all of them, and this can also be seen as an indirect contribution to the community (generating jobs for a vulnerable group in society and then also enabling the attendance of various trainings and promotions). The idea of ​​this project came after a visit I had to one of our points in 2022, when a colleague who is over 40 years old stopped me and said, “I have to thank you day and night. It's not about the salary anymore, thanks for the salary, but that's not it. What is important, why I want to thank you, is that I made friends, young colleagues are inviting me for coffee, I have been promoted, and I have my own money”. At that moment, I realized that as a company, we should and have the opportunity to do something more, which is why we immediately met with the human resources and marketing teams and created the “40+” project.

Further, in addition to our membership in various associations where we also try to give our contribution, we are also members of the American Chamber of Commerce in Kosovo. As you know, the Charity Gala Dinner is already a tradition, and last year, in 2022, I insisted that 20% of the amount collected go to “Linja e Jetës,” which is a telephone center for suicide prevention and as a project, I found it very attractive.

Of course, “Meridian Express” also helps families in need from time to time, especially during different holidays with campaigns such as: “Dhuro edhe ti për Fitër Bajram (Donate for Eid al-Fitr)” or “Gëzoje për festa, dhuro edhe ti (Donate, let’s make them happy for holidays).”

Finally, I am also mentioning an action which is the most important for us as a company. In 2020, a colleague of ours, Astrit Heta, passed away. After two years, we celebrated the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the company and with the permission of the family, we created “Astrit Heta” award, which is awarded every year for the manager of one point, who represents the values ​​of fairness, teamwork and positive results. When I presented this award for the first time in 2022, it was one of the most emotional moments I have experienced as a leader of this company. In addition to the award, “Meridian Express” every year also financially covers a part of his daughter’s education, as a sign of thanks and respect for the contribution that Astrit made during the years he was part of the company.

The second round of scholarships from "Meridian Express": The ceremony of announcing the 18 beneficiaries for the academic year 2017/18 at the American University in Kosovo (A.U.K.).
Photo Source: “Meridian Express

What do you think are the biggest challenges in the field of philanthropy, or that you as a company face?

Agon Gashi: I'm talking in general: strengthening the triangle “state-civil society-business.” I think this is the biggest challenge and work. There are many projects, but we are a small country, and the majority run after the same project. What we need is to have a platform where priorities are set for each institution, each organization, and each business. A platform where it is known who is the biggest supporter of youth, women, and so on because we cannot support all areas even if we want to. But on the other hand, we need to spread out as much as possible so that the support for different categories is as big as possible. So that there is an address for those who want to help for a certain cause, where to go, and how to offer that support.

Another important thing is not to measure the success of the contribution in this field with the financial aspect, as we do not measure it. Success should be measured by the impact your support has had. Last but not least, transparency. Anyone who donates to the community should make transparency a key point in their actions.

Are you considering a different approach for future philanthropic endeavors?

Agon Gashi: Due to the growth of the company and the people involved in philanthropy, I think the time has come to include external stakeholders in our decision-making. As a company, we are also working on establishing a foundation, with the main focus on the long-term impact. Such a thing will also help facilitate the possibility of cooperation with other organizations and businesses for the common goal, the benefit of the community.

We are working on planning everything in the right way, as planning is the art of management. Further, part of our focus is educating people about what philanthropy is and making them aware that giving back to the community is a kind of responsibility for anyone who has that opportunity.

This interview is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents are the responsibility of Catalyst Balkans and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.

The Citizen Engagement Activity in Kosovo is a five-year initiative implemented by Kosovar Civil Society Foundation (KCSF) in partnership with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Cover photo: Interview with the executive director of "Meridian Express," Agon Gashi
Photo credits: Arbër Gjoni