The Trust for Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe is the parting gift to the region of six US foundations that have been funding civil society there for over a decade – and in some cases much longer. The aim: to ensure that the non-profit sector and its infrastructure are sustainable in the long term. Funds will be distributed by partner organizations in each target country. A meeting in Banska Bystrica in Slovakia in early July brought together Trust board and staff, Slovak and Czech partners, Slovenian grantees, and other key members of the Slovak sector to look at progress so far.
What is the Trust really trying to do? ‘The Trust is about survival of the sector,’ said one speaker. ‘The Trust is stimulating foundations in the region to step back and start to think about their long-term future, and the Trust’s own ten-year timeframe will give them time to do this,’ said another. ‘It’s about the sustainability of the sector, especially how to sustain the political, public policy arm of the non-profit sector in Slovakia,’ said a Slovak speaker. ‘At this point in the transition OSI wanted to provide large institutional grants and move beyond “let 1,000 flowers bloom” and small grants that no longer make a difference,’ said Deborah Harding of the Open Society Institute. ‘Advocacy is the central interest of the Trust,’ she said.
Advocacy here clearly includes both advocating on wider issues – the environment, human rights, etc – and advocating for the needs of the non-profit sector itself. In Slovak, apparently, there is no translation of the word, but Pavol Demes (a known Slovak NGO activist, currently with the German Marshall Fund in Bratislava) didn’t see this as a problem. ‘Advocacy means knowing how to achieve change – and it’s no coincidence that the Trust partners are themselves all organizations that have done this.’
It’s not that advocacy is the only aspect of the non-profit sector’s work that matters, rather that it’s the aspect that is most difficult to fund. The Trust definitely doesn’t see its role as supporting service delivery NGOs: they can be supported through fees and government subcontracting. Currently, funding for advocacy in Slovakia comes from intermediary organizations such as the Open Society Foundation (OSF) and the Ekopolis Foundation, which are largely funded by foreign foundations, and from EU funds. ‘In the long run,’ said one speaker, ‘we must look to local funding.’
What are the options? Building substantial foundation endowments is one – but the Donors Forum and the wider NGO community failed to persuade the government to endow foundations with some of the proceeds of privatization, as happened in the Czech Republic. Tapping into Lottery proceeds is another option to be explored. Although the Trust does not see service-providing NGOs as part of its remit, Tamas Scsaurszki (Mott Foundation) suggested that they are well placed to perform an advocacy role: they have income from services and contact with the target groups on whose behalf they would be advocating.
Progress to date
As reported in the last issue of Alliance, the Trust has now selected partner organizations in both Slovakia and the Czech Republic and made four smaller development grants to Slovenian NGOs. The two Slovak consortiums are the only organizations to have started implementing a Trust programme. The OSF-led consortium has already made a first round of grants and announced the second, while the Ekopolis-led consortium is near to completing a two-round process of making institutional-strengthening grants under their ‘Your Land’ programme.
Out of a first group of 48 NGOs, 16 were selected to submit full proposals. Consortium staff members worked with them to develop these on a one-to-one basis, and decisions will be made in July 2002. They found that some NGOs had already started to think about their institutional future and survival, and to focus on possible ways to mobilize resources locally, while others – though seen as influential and effective – focused totally on projects and had not even started to think in these terms. In these cases, the programme helped kickstart the discussion.
According to Boris Strecansky of ETP Slovakia (the other half of the Ekopolis consortium), the main difference between the Trust programmes of the two consortiums is that Ekopolis/ETP will re-grant all Trust funds, while the OSF consortium will be running its own operational programmes as well as making grants. It also has a more detailed programme structure, focusing, for example, on building capacity for evaluation and improving the legal and fiscal environment for NGOs. ‘Our grant programmes are designed to be wider and more reactive. We have been careful not to define our programmes too narrowly, thus leaving NGOs space to create proposals within the Trust objectives.’
Another difference, Alena Panikova of OSF pointed out, is that the OSF consortium has created new programmes to address the three main objectives, while the Ekopolis consortium will basically continue with its Your Land programme, enriched by the new institutional strengthening programme.
When it comes to institutional-strengthening grants, both consortiums are very much on the same wavelength. Both are looking for organizations that make a significant contribution to civil society as a whole and offer leadership on the issues they work on. They have very similar objectives and codes of ethics and have already developed practical ways of working together: a common website and shared email list, regular staff exchanges and colloquiums.
Why Slovakia first? A cynical answer might be: ‘You have to start somewhere.’ An answer that is often given is that Slovakia has the most developed sector in the region with a strong consensus about its needs and priorities. Is this true?
What is clear is that the Slovak non-profit sector was forced to enter the public policy arena in order to present its case to the Meciar government, which was extremely hostile to the sector. As a result it has a well-developed infrastructure and a clear sense of what the priorities and needs are. The Gremium of the Third Sector consists of annually elected NGO leaders whose task is to represent the NGO community to government. There are also regional gremiums, a donors’ forum, the Eco Forum for environmental NGOs, other topical structures and other networks such as the Rural Parliament. ‘That’s probably why this meeting is here,’ said Strecansky. The independent survey conducted prior to the initiation of the Trust work also indicated a promising combination of needs and opportunities within the non-profit sector.
But not everyone agrees about the overall strength of the sector. There are few local gremiums, and local-level advocacy is generally not well developed; the service delivery sector is weak, and at 23 per cent the level of government support to the sector is very low.
Nor is the Slovak sector unique in its vision. The Czech sector clearly has an equally strong, perhaps stronger, consensus about what its needs are and how they can be met, largely owing to the influence of the Czech Donors Forum. Because of this the shortlisted proposals were all very similar, and this is one of the reasons why the Trust was able to select a single partner in the Czech Republic – the second country to have a Trust partner.
The selection process
Various aspects of the selection process seem to have been significantly different in the Czech Republic. The proposals were initially put forward from consortiums, but the Trust then asked them to submit them as separate organizations. Why the preference for a single Czech partner?
According to Trust director Jacek Wojnarowski, they wanted to avoid the difficulties of coordinating between the two consortiums and making decisions within consortiums experienced in Slovakia. There were good reasons for selecting two partners in Slovakia. For one thing, the proposals were complementary, with the Ekopolis consortium stronger on institutional strengthening and the OSF group better placed to influence policy in the capital, Bratislava. In such a highly centralized country, it was in any case important to have a partner outside the capital.
But such reasons were less obvious in the Czech Republic, so the demands of simplicity and ease of working prevailed. The VIA Foundation is thus the sole partner, with four implementing partners (including two from other parts of the country) to carry out parts of the Trust programme. Its own focus will be institutional strengthening of NGOs, including foundations, and strengthening the infrastructure necessary for further development of the Czech non-profit sector.
Negotiations between the Trust and the VIA Foundation also seem to have been more straightforward than with the Slovak partners. ’This may be because VIA’s own mission and programmes – community development, NGO development and promoting philanthropy – are such a perfect match with the Trust’s,’ suggested Director Jiri Barta.
One difference between the Trust and the Ekopolis consortium was over the size of grants: it ended up withdrawing one programme from the proposal, preferring to try to get it funded elsewhere. Wojnarowski is adamant that it is not the role of the Trust to support small grants in rural areas: ‘It’s a stability mechanism.’
The credibility challenge
Taking on such a big grant will inevitably pose practical difficulties, at least initially, for the newly selected Trust partners, all organizations with full programmes of work already. It is also a great responsibility: as Barta pointed out, there is a huge amount of work to be done, and in the Czech Republic VIA is solely responsible for seeing that it’s done. For those working in consortiums, achieving consensus among the different partners and coordinating organizations with their own ways of operating will be challenging.
But the real issue seems to be one of credibility within the sector. It isn’t easy for any organization to take on the task of deciding which of its peers within the country most deserve to receive sizeable grants for institutional strengthening. There may well be resentment on the part of other organizations, perhaps of similar standing within the sector, that were not selected for the task. One way of minimizing these difficulties is for organizations submitting proposals to the Trust to consult widely within the NGO sector and ensure maximum buy-in for their approach.
It was no accident that the questions raised by the Slovenian NGOs at Banska Bystrica focused largely on this issue. The four NGOs receiving Trust development grants are working together to develop a blueprint for the development of the sector in Slovenia, the aim being to find the best way to use Trust funds to strengthen their sector. But they see building the right strategy as an immense challenge: at present they lack even a legal definition of an NGO, and it is difficult to identify the main players. A centre for NGOs was established just a year ago. In this situation they need to be very open and transparent, and to consult as broadly as possible. They therefore wanted to know whether Slovak NGOs generally accepted the Trust partners’ priorities for the sector, and what steps had been taken to consult with them.
The strongest answer came from a Slovak NGO at the meeting: ‘This is the programme we’ve wanted for years. There’s something in it for all NGOs.’ But both consortiums had their own answers as well. Both had consulted some sort of expert group first; both had held consultative meetings across the country to discuss their proposal. Both emphasized their previous experience of fostering civil society in Slovakia.
It is clear that the Trust activities are already encouraging collaboration within the non-profit sectors of the target countries. In Hungary, a country with little tradition of cooperation where the sector has always been fragmented, NGOs have come together almost for the first time to discuss the future of the sector. Greater communication and collaboration between the different partner countries is also occurring.
Given the amount of innovation going on as a result of Trust activities, sharing of information and ideas should surely be maximized. Will the Trust set aside funds for this rather than leaving it to individual bilateral initiatives, it was asked. Wojnarowski’s preference is clearly to find another organization to facilitate this – one possibility is Freedom House, which manages the regional component of the DemNet programme whose focus is largely cross-border exchanges. Other possibilities include the EAST-EAST Programme administered by OSI and the Visegrad Fund (covering Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia and co-funded by respective governments), based in Bratislava.
And the future?
Will the Trust look for different partners after three years? At present Wojnarowski has ‘no idea’, but the Trust does envisage some sort of long-term support for its partners. Twenty-five per cent of Trust funds are being used in this first stage, and the next step will probably be to establish endowments, but it’s not clear what role, if any, the present Trust partners will play in selecting organizations to receive them. An international group will carry out an ongoing review of Trust activities, including visits to the partners, so that they are in a position to make recommendations for the next phase.
But this is to look ahead: in the more immediate future, a Polish selection should be made in December, two Polish candidates having been chosen out of an initial group of 15 to submit full proposals. The Hungarian selection, expected in July, has now been postponed, and the Trust will be discussing a new approach with the Hungarian non-profit sector. The Slovenian NGOs clearly have a formidable task ahead of them, and Romania and Bulgaria will be next.
- Valuable comments were received from the following: Jiri Barta of the VIA Foundation; Alena Panikova of OSF; Boris Strecansky of ETP Slovakia; Jacek Wojnarowski of the Trust for CEE.
- The five foundations are Atlantic Philanthropies, Ford Foundation, German Marshall Fund, C S Mott Foundation, Open Society Institute and Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF). Ford has been funding in the region since the early 1970s, RBF from the early 1980s, OSI from 1986.
- Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia.
- Alliance, Vol 7, No 2, p17.
- Alliance, Vol 7, No 2, p48.
- The Czech Donors Forum will focus on creating a better legal and fiscal framework; OSF will support public policy and advocacy groups; the Partnership Foundation will, together with the VIA Foundation, focus on strengthening regional foundations (VIA will focus on those that received endowments from privatization, Partnership on those that did not); the Civil Society Development Foundation will provide the connection to Brussels and the EU agenda.