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Reflections from the Regional Sustainability Academy 2015

By Otar N. Makharashvili
Bolder Giving ©

With woods of firs, pines and spruces in the background representatives from various Civil Society Organizations from Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo and Macedonia gather in Zlatibor, Serbia to pitch their 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. I think someone just had a breakdown... But nothing about this scene is real! In fact, it’s nothing but a simulation.

Just one program piece of a week-long Regional Sustainability Academy program, an initiative of South-East-European Indigenous Grantmakers Network (SIGN) which was established in 2009, to create an enabling environment for 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 strengthening civic organizations in the region and the infrastructure on which they depend,that includes support for policy development to create a legal framework in which civil society can flourish and professional development for CSO representatives to enhance the ability of these organizations to function at the highest levels of effectiveness and accountability.

Through Sustainability Academy, 50 local CSO representatives from five countries learn the basics of fundraising from individual donors, social entrepreneurship, nonprofit storytelling, financial sustainability, transparency and accountability as part of the academy.But most importantly, they collaborate, exchange ideas, face the past of political instabilities, conflicts and shifting cultural identities, reconcile and build on the prospects of peace, democracy, and sustainable future for the region.

And I’m fortunate enough to be here to talk to them about nonprofit storytelling, to help them explore strategies for finding the emotional core of their mission and connect it with the people they wish to reach and fundraise from through stories of their groundbreaking work – which I realize are in abundance.Most groups represented here are small, volunteer-run, grassroots Civil Society Organizations but their passion and dedication to their causes is without limits.Ranging from trying to fundraise locally to promote rights to independent living and mobility of the blind and persons with impaired vision, seeking support for experiential and psychological help to cancer patients and their families in overcoming problems that they might face during medical treatment, promoting community-led decision making in environmental protection and local development, protecting rights of local minorities to rural developments – stories you hear and issue areas on the table are indeed diverse. Yet the challenges are almost identical: general lack of trust in the civil society sector, deficiency of transparency and accountability and poor economic conditions.

Foreign NGOs charged with implementing the massive international humanitarian and reconstruction efforts in the region have actively promoted and supported the emergence and development of civil societies based on western-style NGOs andbut the effort to promote local philanthropy is still somewhat new with local CSOs, who were heavily dependent on fragmented foreign aid, just now starting to consider the idea of asking for money locally. Yet groups represented in the academy talk about their work with such immense power, genuineness, passion and humility that it’s hard to be skepticalabout the viability of their efforts. They tell stories of successful community mobilization and local fundraising campaigns, discuss donor engagement strategies and share very personal and sometimes hilarious stories from their meetings with various local donors. 

In a region with 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, to collaborate, to start small and grow from there. They also need more time to fail and learn from their failures, time to succeed and learn what worked and what didn’t, time to tell the stories of their work in a much more engaging and inspiring ways and finally, time to collaborate with their peers through conferences like this one. The seed has been planted and steady growth is almost imminent.

Otar N. Makharashvili is the Program Director at Bolder Giving generous supporter of SIGN Network.