Community philanthropy’s role in building civil society CEE in the COVID context, Part I


Boris Strečanský


In a recent article Merrill Sovner, William Moody and Barry Gaberman submit that the key lessons learned of five pooled philanthropic funds in their effort of reviving civil society in Central and Eastern Europe in 1991-2007 are equally relevant for philanthropy’s role in the civil society support in current Covid-19 pandemic context.

Their findings are based on an extensive inquiry with former grantees, partners, and collaborators from the region in 2019. A key conclusion is that ‘Community philanthropy, with its bottom-up approach to developing local giving, has a wide view of community needs and plays an important role in building a culture of civil society support‘. In an effort to contribute to rekindling the conversation around supporting civil society I examine the two key findings with corroborating evidence from the field noting the changing context and then apply a ’stress-test’ in the current environment.

Flexible and core funding

One of the key findings the authors make is that flexible and general support/core funding makes a difference in civil society-building. The authors call for foundations supporting civil society to transform their funding relationship from project-based to general purpose.

The field agrees. Four workshops held in May and June of philanthropy support networks from Europe (ECFI and DAFNE) that explored philanthropy’s role in building resilience within civil society came to the same conclusion that flexible and core funding is crucially needed.

Calling for a flexible and general-purpose/core funding is being heard from different sides. For example, Rupert Strachwitz and Rolf Alter in their recent paper in which they introduce the Philanthropy.Insight tool, argue that the prevailing approach of impact measurement in philanthropy that stresses efficiency and cost-effectiveness is insufficiently positioned to provide for real accountability of foundations. Underrating of long-term outcomes deprives foundations from contributing to valuable assets of healthy society – as is volunteerism and philanthropy.

Carola Carazzone, Director of Assifero, the foundation support organisation in Italy, has been championing the concept of ‘trust-based funding’ of the third sector, thus releasing it from the starvation cycle created by hoc project funding and unleashing its potential. 

All these three examples from practitioners and thinkers are very well compatible with the argument for flexible general support funding in foundation work.

Advocacy and challenge functions

Second finding is that there are segments in civil society that require special attention and that foundations can plan and act beyond the electoral cycle, which gives them the advantage of taking and practicing the long view, which in this particular effort is essential. Authors argue that the civil society development efforts need to pay attention to ways how to support the embedding of civil society to societal fabric via practices in civic education, participation, civic engagement, and giving and that these elements cannot be missing from the long-term project as civil society building is. To provide an example they draw on advocacy and watchdog organizations because they face strong adversarial pressures exerted upon them by those in power. Also, community philanthropy organizations deserve more attention because they cultivate local society to support and source civil society.

Civil society as institution-building process

These findings and lessons indicate that civil society building is an institution-building process that requires foundations to look beyond the development of organisational capacity and the short-term project implementation. It suggests that it is an effort that needs to address the intangible and subtle qualities of the civil society ecosystem that emerge not only through activities or complex interactions of various actors but are also shaped by the roles and functions these actors perform in their context. These subtle qualities are norms, practices, social customs, and even traditions that grow over time and are self-maintained and self-developed in an optimal situation.

The Covid-19 pandemic created an unprecedented crisis that tested the civil society resilience not only in the CEE. It is indeed a stress-test that can indicate how these subtle qualities of institutional development and civil society’s embeddedness actually work under duress. The test is on.

Read Part II of this series.

Boris Strečanský is a consultant for European Community Foundation Initiative/Center for Philanthropy.

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