How are countries around the world responding to increased calls for greater collaboration? More specifically, how are they implementing The Partnering Initiative’s (TPI) four models of Trusted partner, supporter, connector, and systems leader? The Bulgarian experience suggests both problems and progress.
In Bulgaria, several factors stand in the way of deploying large-scale partnership initiatives. The legacy of the communist regime is a divided society. In addition, much of the language around collaborations, cooperatives, and movement building is tainted by the memory of communist rule. We have talked to farmers who, because of the legacy of forced cooperation, would rather throw their produce away than form cooperatives for big grocery store contracts.
Following the fall of the regime, the ’90s brought high levels of poverty and shortages. This has resulted in a prevailing scarcity mindset where the hoarding of information and resources is akin to survival. Collaboration requires an abundance mindset that dictates that working together increases your chances of success.
This scarcity mindset is further amplified by the small number of funders. The three main types of donors are domestic and international private foundations, companies (mainly international through their CSR investments), and individual donors. The share of the donations of foundations and companies is more than 90 per cent. The way those funders operate is also of importance. We’re still by and large a project-based environment. European projects are often quite rigid so, while resources exist, there is a scarcity of resources for institutional support, staff development, etc. This can also affect their ability to collaborate, because they do not have the freedom and time to creatively collaborate with other organizations, but are project implementers (with strict deadlines, deliverables, and project milestones that consume most of their time). As a funder, you can structure your call for proposals and processes in a way that nurtures and encourages collaboration, yet very few do so and collaboration amongst the funders themselves is rare. Distrust of institutions also remains and with high levels of corruption and the basic social contract being broken, effective collaboration becomes even more difficult.
All this considered we are making steps in the right direction. The sector is maturing, people’s consciousness is evolving, a younger generation is stepping in, new donors are emerging and globalisation has provided models and information that is shaping the way we relate to one another.
Partnership between donors and CSOs
The past several years have seen an increasing trend for corporate donors to collaborate with civil society organisations. Initially, this type of activity was offered and promoted by CSOs with a good track record in grant-giving and/or regranting. The companies saw their benefit mostly in outsourcing untypical activities, for example, grants allocation, monitoring, reporting, etc. With the success of these collaborations, companies started seeing other significant advantages – both the results of their programmes and their public image improved, as they positioned themselves as actors interested in positive social development. The collaboration between corporate donors and CSOs also benefitted the latter. These positive results have led to other donors seeking partnerships with CSOs.
Partnership between donors
Collaboration between donors is rather ad-hoc for some of the reasons given above. Recent positive examples are the emergency response to the Covid-19 crisis, where companies, foundations, and people donated to a joint fund to provide assistance to the most vulnerable communities and the joint humanitarian fund for refugees from the war in Ukraine.
However, generally, Bulgarian donors still do not see donor cooperation as a part of their strategic development.
‘Lachezar Tsotsorkov’ Foundation and Trust for Social Achievement
One prominent exception is Lachezar Tsotsorkov. Most donors in Bulgaria operate within what TPI calls the ‘trusted partner’ and ‘connector’ frameworks. As a trusted partner, Lachezar Tsotsorkov Foundation provides core financing to key partners whose mission and values align with its own. It also applies innovative support structures such as a team of supervisors independent of the foundation, whose role is to consult and assist the grantees realise their projects. This creates a safe space to address issues as they arise, builds trust, and sends a radically different message to grantees – ‘we are not here to judge your success/failures but we are a fully invested partner in our joint success’. To be a trusted partner means spending less time on spreadsheets and more time in the field having real interactions. For Lachezar Tsotsorkov, at the core of being a trusted partner is your own willingness to learn, innovate and ultimately grow as a donor.
As a connector, it supports learning communities that bring together different grantees. Its Social Emotional Learning Community brings together over 30 organisations that are jointly advocating for the recognition of SEL as an educational priority. Its connector role is also present in much more informal settings – we connect schools with specific needs to trusted NGO partners, NGOs to other funders, and everyone to useful resources. To be an effective connector it really needs to be embedded in your organizational culture, because it requires significant resources yet the immediate impact on your organization is not always evident.
The strategy Lachezar Tsotsorkov applies the least is that of ‘supporter’ mainly due to the small number of external multi-stakeholder partnerships. ‘Supporter’ collaborations between NGOs do exist – the network working on the Springboard for School Readiness project, for instance, supported by America for Bulgaria Foundation and World Bank is advocating the removal of kindergarten fees in Bulgaria and the We Care network (supported by OSF) has developed advocacy groups. It is important to note that the most successful of these initiatives had the support of a donor was willing to fund joint activities and joint collaboration with a network of NGOs.
The last word belongs with [name] of Lachezar Tsotsorkov: ‘We look at the Strategies for Collaboration model not as a spectrum through which you move in a linear fashion but a toolbox in which each strategy plays a vital role to be used in accordance with specific needs. However, we do see the presence of effective collaboration, especially that of “Systems leader” as being indicative of the level of development and progress in a society.’
Joanna Marinova is the Executive Director of the Lachezar Tsotsorkov Foundation.