With woods of firs, pines and spruces in the background, representatives from civil society organizations (CSOs) from Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo and Macedonia gathered in Zlatibor, Serbia to pitch project ideas to a group of corporate social responsibility professionals from across the region. Emotions run high, moods swing, exchanges are tense and words of reassurance radiate through the conference space. But nothing about this scene is real! In fact, it’s nothing but a simulation.
This was just one program piece of a week-long Regional Sustainability Academy program, 6-10 July , an initiative of South-East-European Indigenous Grantmakers Network (SIGN), established in 2009 to create an enabling environment for the development of philanthropic communities in the region. Since 2012, with the support from EU and Balkan Trust for Democracy, partners from Trag Foundation (Serbia); Mozaik Foundation (BiH); Fund for Active Citizenship (Montenegro); Forum for Civic Initiatives (Kosovo); and HORUS (Macedonia) are focusing on supporting civic organizations in the region by strengthening the infrastructure on which they depend, supporting policy development and creating a legal framework in which civil society can flourish. Additionally, they are providing professional development for CSO leaders to enhance their ability to function at the highest levels of effectiveness and accountability.
Through the Sustainability Academy, 50 local CSO representatives from five Western Balkan countries learned the basics of fundraising, social entrepreneurship, nonprofit storytelling, financial sustainability, transparency and accountability. I was fortunate to be one of the speakers at the Academy as part of Bolder Giving’s Global Givers initiative – the aim of which is to establish and promote the culture of individual giving in the region. I taught groups the nuts and bolts of nonprofit storytelling and helped them explore strategies for finding the emotional core of their mission in order to connect with the people they wish to reach and raise money through stories of their groundbreaking work.
Here are some key takeaways form the conference and my conversations with various CSO leaders in the region:
- Emergence of grassroots civil society organizations: The region is experiencing a steady rise in local grassroots CSOs. Most groups at the conference were small, volunteer-run, civil society organizations, but their dedication to their causes is limitless. The issues for discussion included raising funds locally to promote rights to independent living and mobility of the blind and persons with impaired vision; seeking support for experiential and psychological help for cancer patients; promoting community-led decision making in environmental sustainability and local economic development; and protecting rights of local minorities to rural development. –The activism of small issue-based CSOs that rely on community members’ passion and dedication is steadily being reborn in the region.
- Shift from heavy dependence on foreign institutional aid to cultivating local donors: Foreign NGOs charged with implementing the massive international humanitarian and reconstruction efforts in the region have actively promoted and supported the development of civil societies based on Western-style NGOs, but the effort to promote local philanthropy is still somewhat new. The local CSOs are just now starting to consider the idea of asking for money locally. Yet, groups represented at the Academy talk about their work with such immense power, genuineness, passion and humility that it’s hard to be skeptical about the viability of their efforts. They tell stories of successful community mobilization and local fundraising campaigns, discuss donor engagement strategies and share personal and sometimes hilarious stories from their meetings with local donors.
- Increased need and appetite for regional collaboration: One of the biggest takeaways for the groups was the opportunity to collaborate with their regional peers, exchange ideas, face the past of political instabilities, discuss conflicts and shifting cultural identities, reconcile and build on the prospects of peace, democracy, and a sustainable future for the region. And while the groups focus on different issues and are separated by political borders, the challenges voiced at the conference were almost identical and thus, solutions that work may be scalable across the region.
- Roadblocks to building the culture of giving: General lack of trust in the civil society sector, deficiency of transparency and accountability, and poor economic conditions are all contributors to the lack of individual giving in the region. Solving this dilemma will take time as groups start to cultivate donor relationships, pursue more effective storytelling as a source of inspiration, and operate in sustainable, transparent and accountable ways.
But there are things governments can do too, especially as it relates to tax laws affecting philanthropy. While all countries in the region generally exempt CSOs from income taxes and provide tax benefits for giving by corporations and individuals to qualifying public- benefit activities the complexity of these laws remains a major roadblock, according to. the report ‘Tax Laws Affecting Philanthropy in South Europe,’ Bosnia and, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. ‘ The notion of public benefit goals/activities in tax law is typically narrowly construed’, the report says, ‘and does not include hosts of activities which are either enshrined in respective constitutions as constitutional values or are widely recognized by public as activities deemed for public benefit’.
In a region with a constantly changing funding landscape, promoting and establishing the culture of individual giving has never been more crucial. But it won’t happen overnight. The groups need more time to learn and to build relationships with donors, overhaul the image of the nonprofit sector, and collaborate. They need time to grow from a small start.. They also need more time to fail and learn from their failures, time to succeed and learn what worked, time to tell the stories of their work in more engaging and inspiring ways. Finally, they need time to collaborate with their peers through conferences like this one. However, the seed has been planted and steady growth is almost imminent.
Nicolas Makharashvili, is program director at Bolder Giving.