Checking in with Roland Thomann after an unusually tumultuous start as Director

Taking over from his predecessor Tony Burgener on 1 January 2020, Roland Thomann did not have the luxury of easing into his new position as one normally would. For all of us at Swiss Solidarity, the coronavirus turned everyone’s work lives completely upside-down.

You took over as Director of Swiss Solidarity on 1 January. If you could describe the last seven months in three words, what would they be?

The last seven months have taught me humility, were very challenging, but also instructive.


How has this job differed from earlier ones?

Unlike previous positions, this one required reinventing an entire organisation within a few days. There were no processes or structures which we could have followed to deal with the social fallout that the coronavirus pandemic would have in Switzerland. We had to create new framework conditions in record time just to remain operational, which would not have been possible without our well-coordinated team and committed partners.


What image did you have of Swiss Solidarity before taking up your position, and has it changed?

Swiss Solidarity has an incredibly great potential to give Switzerland a human face and provide its people with a means to express their solidarity. We have done so successfully many times before, but I think we can leverage this solidarity even more effectively in the future.


What in particular do you like about Swiss Solidarity?

The fact that Swiss Solidarity can bring people of all ages together in support of those in need, regardless of what part of the country they live in, where they come from or what their outlook on life is, and that it is unparalleled worldwide.


After being appointed in June 2019, you said in an interview on SRF1 that you wanted to go visit projects in the field as soon as you could. But clearly, Covid-19 has put a crimp in those plans. Were you still able to familiarise yourself well with projects?

Fortunately, I have a good sense of the reality on the ground from my assignments with Doctors Without Borders, even if that was 10 years ago. In addition, all of Swiss Solidarity’s employees and partners helped get me up to speed as quickly as possible. The coronavirus pandemic also served as a catalyst for me. My initiation period at Swiss Solidarity was a lot more challenging than it might have been, and the learning curve was a lot steeper.


In that same interview, you said that changes in the humanitarian sector, the media and the way we work together are Swiss Solidarity’s greatest challenges, and that your task is to reconcile them. Do you still see it that way or has your assessment changed?

I do still see it that way, and those assumptions have been borne out. We need to manage change even more quickly in order to attract the best talents to Swiss Solidarity and remain relevant to donors, not to mention quickly providing people in crisis with the support they truly need.


Have you been able to make any progress in this respect? To what extent has the coronavirus helped or hindered progress?

The pandemic and the protective measures taken in many places around the world acted as a catalyst. Localisation measures were suddenly no longer just nice to have – they became a prerequisite for delivering assistance in humanitarian contexts. An experienced use of digital tools and an agile mentality were necessary but not sufficient prerequisites to remain functional at all. The decisive success factor was the high level of willingness and commitment shown by the entire Swiss Solidarity team, Swiss Solidarity’s partners, countless volunteers and the whole of Switzerland. In my opinion, progress is always made by people.


What projects do you have planned for the coming months?

We must not take the coronavirus pandemic and its effects in Switzerland lightly, whether in health-related, economic or social terms. I would like to work with the Swiss Solidarity team to ensure that solidarity does not stop at our country’s borders. Only a joint, global response to the pandemic can lead us to a ‘new normal’ where we can once again enjoy the beauty of the world. And in my private life, I plan to take the time to appreciate my family and friends even more than before.

Thank you very much for the interview!