For Bulgarian community foundations, the real work still lies ahead

Monika Pisankaneva

In July 2010, the Mott Foundation set up a series of site visits to community foundations in Bulgaria and held follow-up discussions among community foundation experts and practitioners from Bulgaria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Romania, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The visits were part of a learning initiative to reflect on the development of community foundations in Central and Eastern Europe. As the initiative shows, Bulgarian community foundations have come a long way – raising funds and establishing themselves as local grantmaking entities – but if they are to become catalysts for fundamental change in their communities, they still have a long way to go.

This article is based on reflection papers written following the field meetings by Alina Porumb from the Association for Community Relations, Romania; Boris Strecansky from the Centre on Philanthropy, Slovakia; and Haralan Alexandrov from New Bulgarian University, Bulgaria.

Firm foundations
The community foundations in Stara Zagora and Yambol have achieved unquestionable success, says Haralan Alexandrov, securing a considerable donor base, building a network of partnerships, and constantly upgrading their institutional capacity. The fact that, in the midst of a raging economic crisis, both community foundations have maintained financial stability and launched optimistic fundraising strategies is quite remarkable. All experts agreed on this point.

This was not Boris Strecansky’s first visit to community foundations in Bulgaria. He writes that in 1997-98 he also visited several Open Society Clubs, which were then considered nascent community foundations. However, that experience was very different from this one, he feels – the main difference being that nowadays these institutions are much more clearly shaped towards the community foundation concept than they were 12 years ago.

Community foundations have managed to tap into private resources in their own communities, agrees Alina Porumb, encouraging individuals and businesses to donate to their community. This is not easy in the Bulgarian context, requiring conviction, creativity and courage. You have to build relationships with all those who have the potential to become a donor, and you must be prompt, professional and strong.

The next stage

However, as Haralan Alexandrov points out, the two community foundations are still at an early stage of their development. These comparatively young organizations are well integrated into their communities, and enjoy a high level of legitimacy compared with other NGOs, which are often seen as outside entities, implanted in communities and supported by foreign agencies. They have established themselves as trustworthy local actors and prestigious partners for various local initiatives. The challenges they now face are how to build on these achievements and develop their leadership.

The context in which the Bulgarian community foundations operate is a challenging one, adds Boris Strecansky. This is partly because of the need to develop a middle class, which is the potential key source of individual donors, but also because of a social conservatism which means that these communities are caught between the traditional world views of an elderly population and modern trends in culture, society and business. How to reflect these dilemmas and integrate them into their work is a challenge to the community foundation leadership. However, there are many ways in which community foundations could help improve quality of life, given rising inequalities and the needs of different groups within the communities.

Alina Porumb sees a challenge for the Bulgarian community foundations in terms of fund development. In spite of their obvious fundraising success, she believes they still find fundraising very challenginge. As a result, they are trying to make the best of existing relationships and continu the styles of donor interaction that have worked so far. However, she points out, giving relationships have strong transformative potential for donors. A community foundation may be a valuable guide they trust, provided that the foundations see themselves as being in a position to be able to support this transformation in the long run.

From ‘supportive agencies’ to ‘change agents’: the role of WCIF
A key conclusion shared by all visiting experts was that the Bulgarian community foundations could be guided by the support organization Workshop for Civic Initiatives Foundation (WCIF) to gradually transform themselves from ‘supportive agencies’ into ‘change agents’ (in Haralan Alexandrov’s words) in their respective communities. They should be encouraged to start questioning and evaluating the long-term effect of their grantmaking on a regular basis, and linking their grantmaking strategy more closely with the needs of marginalized social groups, as well as with social innovation. They also need support to help them emancipate themselves from immediate donor expectations and apply more creativity to using existing funds for fostering progressive social transformation in their communities.

The community foundations should still remain in a financial support role, argues Alina Porumb, but they would be clear about changes they want to see in their communities, and they would encourage the groups they support to be clear about those changes as well. If community foundations are able to go beyond seeing their communities just through the eyes of their potential grantees or donors and develop the confidence to view them independently and articulate this in a clear support strategy, they could achieve a higher level of impact with the same resources. They could also give others the sense that they can influence their own lives positively.

Boris Strecansky argues that WCIF could try various ways to stimulate the community foundations to increase their inclusiveness and responsiveness to changing needs, and to involve more and new community actors in their work. This may include creating opportunities for dialogue, asking questions, offering different perspectives, and creating a space for the community foundation leaders to reflect upon the work they do and look for answers together. WCIF may consider facilitating opportunities for cross-national peer exchange and learning so that the community foundations are familiar with practices in other countries and can both share and receive inspiration.

The more funding the community foundations secure from the community, says Haralan Alexandrov, the more emancipated they will become from external sources. In order to become agents of empowerment on their own terms, community foundations need to develop a deeper understanding of the forces that exclude and disempower individuals and groups in their communities, as well as an awareness of the implicit power dimensions of their philanthropic activity.

But engaging with such issues can be controversial and needs to be carefully considered. The empowerment agenda would likely meet resistance from the establishment – local politicians, administrators and business elites – on whom the community foundations are dependent for donations and political support. Any empowerment strategy, therefore, should not involve direct confrontation with the powerful, but focus on opening and sustaining a reflective space in the community: engaging people in an ongoing public debate on ethical issues such as equity, justice and power distribution.

Social innovation means different things in different contexts. In Bulgaria, it is innovative to persuade donors to go one step beyond the traditional humanitarian giving programmes. Most donations still go to children’s welfare and education institutions that should be supported by the state. The projects that the visiting experts in Stara Zagora and Yambol saw contribute to existing institutions, particularly public ones, but do not unleash new, bottom-up civic engagement, underlines Boris Strecansky. He recommends that the community foundations should take a further step in embracing social innovation by supporting start-up grassroots movements and initiatives.

Moving to the next level
‘When we began supporting community foundations in Bulgaria several years ago,’ said Vera Dakova from the Mott Foundation, one of the principal supporters of community foundations in Central and Eastern Europe, at July’s reflection workshop, ‘the “mission impossible” was to encourage local people to donate and to establish active community foundation boards and volunteer support groups. Today, you – the experts on community foundation development in Central and Eastern Europe – have called community foundations’ achievements in local giving and volunteering “technical issues” in the sense of something that we could already take for granted and consider normal. And beyond that, you raised questions about the long-term goals of the community foundations’ grantmaking and the way in which their grants address social justice issues in the communities. This opens up a new agenda for donors and support organizations to assist the community foundations in becoming enlightened local agents of change. This is a bittersweet moment for us – sweet to realize that we have arrived at a place that only 10 years ago we considered a dream world; but bitter to realize that there is a further frontier to conquer.’ 

But there are signs that the process is under way. As Haralan Alexandrov points out, the field visits provided some evidence that a critical reappraisal of the purpose of community foundations is beginning among the staff and board members of the community foundations. For example, they are speaking about the need to support kindergartens and other public services with mixed feelings of pride and discontent. Learning about the limitations of their own culture will enable the community foundations to transcend these and to apply social creativity in their grantmaking. This act of self-empowerment and emancipation will gradually transform the Bulgarian community foundations into actors that are reinventing their communities.

Monika Pisankaneva is Community Foundations Program Manager at WCIF, Bulgaria. Email

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