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


Boris Strečanský


Read Part I of this series.

In the 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.

In the previous blog I showed how the voices from the civil society and philanthropy field corroborate with the findings from the evaluation of the five philanthropic pooled funds supporting civil society in the CEE since the nineties until early 2010s and offered several arguments supporting this position. In this one I build on that and offer several examples from the current context to endorse findings of the study.

The changing context

There are differences in context between the late nineties / noughties and early 2000s, the period from which the study drew lessons, and today.

Let’s have a brief look at what happened between 2008 and today. New phenomena emerged and shaped the current world into a very different one. Social media’s debilitating role in distorting the public sphere has not been an issue in the nineties and early 2000s. The disappointment with global capitalism due to the financial and sovereign debt crisis of 2010-12 and its spillover effect on the critique of philanthropy and its democratic legitimacy was also less present in public discourse then than today. Also, the closing space of civil society by authoritarian, hybrid, and democratic regimes accelerated much faster after the colour revolutions and the Arab spring in the 2010s. The annexation of Crimea, the subsequent refugee crisis in Europe, Brexit. The salience of and awareness of the rise of social and economic inequalities and political populism across the globe and in the EU and the CEE is starker today.

The above description aspired to offer the contextual evidence to support the claim that civil society development is more than the organisational capacity and project funding, which is the underlying critical claim of the study. Community philanthropy organisations, as one of many civil society actors contribute to institutional development to nurture the practices, customs, and traditions of volunteering and giving. At the same time, they face financial sustainability challenges and the Covid-19 uncovered their vulnerabilities. And even despite the pooled funds assessment reflected on its interventions in a different context than we have today, findings and lessons remain relevant. Why?

Covid-19 stress-test

Let’s look at the community foundation field in Romania. The first community foundations emerged in Romania in 2008 and were nurtured through infrastructure support provided by several pooled funds’ grantees. The field grew in number and quality and based on the most recent information there are 19 serving communities which contain 52 per cent of the country’s population. They are small organisations that depend on flow-through funding, which is based largely on fundraising via events and community outreach. 

So what did the Covid-19 stress-test uncover in this particular case?

The evidence corroborates with the pooled funds’ findings that community philanthropy really develops local giving to respond to community needs. 17 out of 19 community foundations set up emergency response funds supporting hospitals and vulnerable groups in their communities, and in aggregate, they raised over $1.4 million in a few months, which is 20 per cent of the sum of all grants expended by the field since 2008.

This also underscores another finding of the pooled funds assessment, namely the importance of infrastructure for civil society’s institutional development. In this case, community foundations acted as infrastructure organisations for solidarity and community cohesion in their communities, which had systems, credibility, and capacity to react to both mobilise and satisfy the civil society demand to help those in need.

While the birds’ view indeed confirms a positive assessment, the situation becomes more nuanced in a close-up view. Let’s look at the Sibiu Community Foundation Sibiu in Romania. The Sibiu CF launched a campaign that raised over $100,000 from over 2,000 individual donors and almost $400,000 from 92 companies to the community to emergency fund that supported tests, medical equipment, ICU operations, and other health and medical purposes in the community. 

However, one of its key efforts, is the Sibiu International Marathon, which over the years, became the largest fundraising sports event in the country and, as such, served as a flagship fundraising, communication and community building initiative for the foundation. The Covid-19 pandemic prevented the community foundation from holding the event, which had severely impacted its income and challenged the foundation to adapt its fundraising strategy, which is not an easy task. The plan is to strengthen its local giving campaign and develop a recurring giving relationship with their donors.

Sibiu, like all community foundations in Romania, and most across Europe have to look anew at their own financial sustainability challenge, which connects to the main finding of the pooled funds report.

Final note

The above case offers additional evidence that the pooled philanthropic fund lessons have a validity and that the role of long-term flexible core support, in contrast with the short-term project cycle is strategic and relevant today as well. And acknowledging the vital role of community philanthropy for the bottom-up development of civil society capacity. Let’s hope these findings will be put in practice.

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

Tagged in: Covid-19

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