Partnerships without borders – softer skills needed

Jacek Wojnarowski and Nev Jefferies

Immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, there was an exponential increase in the number of contacts between Western organizations, both donors and NGOs, and their counterparts in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). While early contacts were often marked by mutual ignorance, valuable partnerships did emerge. But it is surprising how long it took for what seem like obvious lessons to be learned.

While other articles in this issue of Alliance focus primarily on relationships between Western donors and NGOs in CEE and the CIS, this one looks at both donor–NGO relationships and NGO–NGO relationships. What is interesting is that the flaws frequently identified in donor–NGO relationships are so often mirrored in those between the richer Western NGOs and their Eastern counterparts.

One well-publicized example of early contact can be found in Romania, which attracted massive attention in the Western media and saw an armada of Western organizations set off for the Balkans to rescue the Romanian orphans.

But there were also other, less paternalistic, encouraging examples of international solidarity. A group of West European foundations created the European Foundation Centre; the Fondation de France helped to set up and supported financially its daughter organization – Fondation de Pologne; Lester Salamon of the Johns Hopkins University brought its Philanthropy Fellows to Poland in 1990 and along with major US funders launched a number of training programmes for the third sector. A number of Dutch foundations organized a consortium for assistance to CEE, and this was mirrored by the establishment of Charity Know How in the UK. Independent foundations were followed by a number of the multilateral agencies and individual government-funded schemes.

Early ignorance

These early contacts were often marked by mutual ignorance. Goodwill often overcame the difficulties but relationships, even between NGOs, tended to be primarily ‘donor–recipient’ in nature, with the Eastern ‘partner’ simply implementing activities designed and funded by the Westerners. Later, the financial or material donations made by Western organizations were accompanied by ‘technical assistance’ – mostly training, typically in Western management techniques.

But large-scale technical assistance programmes were not always appropriately designed and did not consider the actual absorptive capacity in the region. Some multilateral donors – the EU Phare Programme is a good example – have often stimulated donor-driven projects or programmes that were not relevant to local needs. ‘Technical assistance’ funds often went to expatriate experts. In Poland they tended to stay in the Marriott Hotel in Warsaw, the country’s most luxurious at the time. The scale of the phenomenon led to the term ‘Marriott Brigade Syndrome’ being coined by Polish NGOs.

A dawning understanding

As the 1990s unfolded, Western organizations and their Eastern counterparts have gradually understood that while the differences between East and West have blurred and shifted, they are still there. The legacy of the cold war divide is more subtle and complex than all of us had understood.

In particular, there was a need on the part of Westerners to better understand that Central and Eastern Europe and the CIS had a history which included a charitable sector, semi-formal organizations, clubs and networks which had existed before the communist period, and to some extent during it, in manifold legal and illegal forms.This rich tradition of individual and community action and the values which support it have too often been ignored by Westerners, who behaved as it they were introducing these ideas for the first time.

Second, the simple export of models based on different legal, cultural, social and political conditions was gradually understood by both Eastern and Westerners to be seldom appropriate. In the field of fundraising, for example, Western approaches are often embedded in certain traditions and assumptions about market behaviours which do not necessarily exist in the region.

Perhaps the most perplexing aspect of this story is just how long it took before these rather triumphalist approaches were dropped and better practices introduced.

Towards more equal partnerships

In some countries, with richer charitable traditions, indigenous NGOs partnering with Western organizations were able to reduce the asymmetry in the relationships. NGOs with stronger project design skills and more management know-how could take a more proactive position vis-à-vis Western aid and know-how. They were able to reject some proposals brought from the West, and in some cases were equal partners in project development. For weaker organizations, it remained more a patron–client relationship, with difficult topics censored lest assistance be withdrawn.

The Stefan Batory Foundation – one of the largest private non-endowed foundations in Poland – aimed from the very beginning to foster partnerships between NGOs, both in country and abroad. Initially, these efforts were focused within the region. The priority was to overcome the legacy of the totalitarian past and to build new relations between nations and individuals. It also made efforts to guide Western partners into the Polish non-profit world — the German Marshall Fund of the United States, the Ford, King Baudouin and C S Mott Foundations, Charity Know How, and the Fondation de France, among others.

The relatively stable financial situation of the Batory Foundation (it is supported by George Soros), and the fact that the Western partners knew that there was a genuine will to work together, enabled it to become an equal partner. Soros-funded organizations and others that enjoy long-term strategic support are thus in a unique position to develop this ‘culture of cooperation’.

While many so-called ‘partnerships’ were very unequal, it would be wrong to lose sight of the very valuable impact that many of the relationships forged across Europe have had.  Relationships between individuals and organizations have sometimes had a significant ripple effect as ideas and inspiration have spread. The best partnerships have been based on common purposes and common values, and an ability to understand and accept the other partner’s differences and needs. Diplomacy, empathy, cultural sensitivity, a willingness to compromise – all of these ‘softer skills’ are even more necessary for successful partnerships across borders.

The future

What is the future role for such partnerships? Over the next ten years, the process of building a Europe based on diversity and mutuality will depend heavily on relationships between citizens, not just states. While NGOs in CEE and the CIS need to build relationships with private and public sectors within their own countries, Western and Eastern NGOs have much to gain by working together on pan-European issues such as the impact of the EU accession process, globalization, environmental issues, human rights, and not least the challenge of establishing a lasting peace for the entire continent.

One particular challenge confronting NGOs in CEE and the CIS is the scale of social need.   The creation of  ‘welfare states’ in Western Europe afterhe Second World War has not been matched by governments in either CEE or the CIS after 1989: indeed governments simply withdrew from supporting many social services. NGOs will need to be dynamic, effective and professionally managed if they are to make any real contribution to filling this vacuum. Cross-border partnerships can help here if they are based on an equitable balance, allow for the two-way transfer of know-how, and encourage creativity, efficiency, professionalism and financial sustainability. Both Stefan Batory and Charity Know How intend to play their part in developing and fostering partnerships that demonstrate these qualities.

It will take decades or generations to increase wealth in CEE and the CIS. What could be done relatively quickly, however, is to transfer the very precious tradition of a ‘culture of giving’, which people in the region have largely lost. This could be an important focus for future partnerships between Western organizations and those in CEE and the CIS. (See also Nilda Bullain’s comments on this issue at the end of her article.)

Jacek Wojnarowski is Executive Director of the Stefan Batory Foundation. He can be contacted via email at

Nev Jefferies is Director of Charity Know How. He can be contacted via email at

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