Community foundations? In Hungary? Yes!


Tamás Scsaurszki


Thanks to a shift in attitude towards community foundations in Hungary, local groups are now embracing the concept and are starting to build community foundations.

The Community Foundation Support Programme announced a call for proposals from local groups to establish community foundations in their communities in December 2014 after months of preparation. We selected seven groups to support with funding and capacity building, out of a total of 28 letters of intent. Both the quality and the quantity of responses exceeded our dreams – Hungary is thought of as the only country in Central/Eastern Europe that has missed out on the success story of community foundations. In the last two decades Hungary has seen neither a grassroots wave to establish community foundations, nor a more strategic nationwide effort to promote the concept, although NGO activists have been talking about community foundations for years. So why are local groups embracing the concept now?

Shift in attitude
The basic attitude to community foundations in Hungary had shifted significantly. Ten years ago people would say a ‘community foundation is probably a good idea, but it wouldn’t work in Hungary and definitely not in our community’ but by 2014 many said they were positive that it was a good and achievable idea in their community. The question was more about whether they personally could devote enough time and energy to the task now.

The change could probably be explained by the increased value associated with localism: people and SMEs are more eager to engage in improving the community where they live and operate, which is demonstrated by the growing practise of giving and the increasing popularity of volunteering. The success of Ferencváros Community Foundation, the first such foundation in the country, has also strengthened the feeling that developing community foundations was achievable in Hungary.

The potential seen in Hungary in 2015
Our local groups embrace community foundations as more than just new non-profits: they see them as institutions that, while dealing with complex and long-term tasks, take small steps to bring closer their desires for their communities. Members of the organizing groups love their communities, and therefore want to make improvements through contributing their energy, skills and time. People also talk about an institution that is different – independent of the local government and beyond party politics. These transparent, credible institutions are built on voluntary contributions from the community. They want community foundations to bring in a new culture of giving based on relationships – as opposed to transactions – both for local wealthy people and those who have left the community or the country. They also want to learn best practices in connecting local business development with philanthropy, or promoting values that need reintroduction, such as local self-determination and responsibility. Finally many groups regard community foundations as a vehicle to ‘connect them to a bigger or national structure’ to learn from others doing similar work, to share and be supported, and to feel the strength of people joining forces.

At a more practical level, one of the issues local groups would like community foundations to address is the deterioration of their communities. Tens of thousands of people have left communities throughout Hungary and there is a serious shortage of investment in community life. Communities lack places, forms and opportunities for people to come together to decide about the future of their communities. The response reflects a desire to support community revitalisation efforts as well as to boost local arts and culture that expresses local identity and development through special projects such as food self-determination. Another, related issue, is decreasing public and corporate funds for local nonprofits and community groups to address issues important to the local community – such as helping teenagers of disadvantaged background to fit into school better – or simply providing an opportunity for residents to enrich local life and engage in pastime activities. As a response, organizers expect community foundations to be a constant source of funding for grassroots organizations and groups; grantmaking itself is seen as an important activity that strengthens the very fabric of a healthy, rich and diverse community life.

This is where local groups are now when it comes to converting the value of the concept of community foundation to concrete ideas, activities, and organizations in Hungary. This is surely just the beginning of their journey.

So far the Community Foundation Support Programme has been supported by the NGO Fund of the EEA/Norway Grants; more recently the C. S. Mott Foundation joined to support our efforts.

Tamás Scsaurszki works in the Community Foundation Support Programme.

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