The English version of the State of Civil Society Report in the EU and Russia 2016, dedicated to five countries – Germany, Hungary, Poland, Russia and Spain, was published in May 2017. This was preceded by a meeting of the authors of the Reports for 2016 and 2017 in St. Petersburg and an open discussion "Current Threats and Hopes for Civil Society Organisations in Europe: Different Countries – Similar Agendas?". This took place on 21 April at the German-Russian Exchange premises. Polina Schetinina, an organisation’s intern, reflects on the discussion.
The discussion was moderated by Elena Belokurova (German-Russian Exchange St. Petersburg, member of the Steering Committee of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum) and was attended by members of the research team Andrey Demidov (University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands), Ulla Pape (University of Bremen, Germany), Ieva Petronytė (Vilnius University and Civil Society Institute, Lithuania), Simone Poledrini (University of Perugia, Italy) and Pamala Wiepking (Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, the Netherlands).
Each of the experts described the current situation of civil society in his or her country, mentioning the challenges that are perceived as the most important for civil society organisations and possible ways of overcoming these challenges.
Pamala Wiepking gave a talk about difficulties that civil society organisations face in the Netherlands. She reported that the problem of fundraising is becoming more and more topical for the Dutch NGOs, and that is why it is necessary to implement new technologies, such as online platforms, establish connections with already existing donors, intensify cooperation with other organisations for reaching common goals and attracting finances. In Wiepking’s opinion, it is also necessary to work on the NGOs’ image, to talk about their positive impact on society.
‘At the moment, due to the economic crisis, the financing of the NGOs in Italy is also shrinking and that is why many organisations turn into commercial entities that offer social services,’ noted Simone Poledrini. Thus, there is an increase in social entrepreneurship as a source of the NGOs’ financial and economic sustainability. The expert said that reporting was a very important aspect of the NGO’s activities. In addition, civil society organisations are currently in search of new ways to improve their governance and strategic planning.
The necessity to improve NGOs’ governance was also mentioned by Ieva Petronytė. Effective perfomance of organisations requires specialists in Public Relations who could build a positive image in the public eye. Among positive trends, the expert noted that civil society in Lithuania was on the rise. For example, the percentage of youth participating in elections increased from 18% in 2012 to 46% in 2016. Nevertheless, civic engagement is still insufficient: 69% of the population does not participate in the activities of any public organisation.
Sociologist Ulla Pape noted that the state of civil society organisations in Germany was considered relatively positive and stable. The main difficulties relate to current trends in society. Moreover, there is a problem with attracting private donations – so far this aspect leaves much to be desired. Other challenges for NGOs are related to insufficient public support. Pape believes that in order to solve this problem, it is necessary to invest in PR, as well as attract the right people to manage these processes. Another challenge are organisations’ reporting requirements, and the reporting takes a lot of time. As for successful practics, it is possible to talk about new communication approaches and ideas of more active involvement of volunteers and migrants in the development of civil society.
Andrey Demidov shared the results of his analysis of various indices of civil society development in the EU and Russia. Most of them show the weakness of civil society and NGOs in Eastern Europe in comparison with the West, and the situation in Russia looks even worse than in other Eastern European countries. These trends are intensified by state pressure on NGOs, especially in Russia, and in recent years in Hungary and Poland. The problems connected with the legal base and the state support of NGOs are the most difficult ones to solve.
However, there are also positive trends in Eastern Europe, such as a general increase in volunteerism and interest in civic engagement. In addition, existing challenges allow organisations to reconsider their development concepts and introduce innovations to their activities.
One of the central topics of the discussion was the question of assessing the impact of NGOs’ activities on society, the participation of young people in civic activism, new areas and directions of NGOs’ activity, their cooperation with newly emerging civic initiatives.
Overall, as the experts say, the main challenges of civil societies in Europe today are connected with search for new financial sources: There are high hopes for crowdfunding, attraction of private donations, social entrepreneurship. But many organisations now talk about the existing difficulties as an opportunity to rethink their mission and strategy, update the image, diversify the sources of finances and get closer to their target audiences. NGOs everywhere recognise the importance of collaborative work, building coalitions to achieve common goals.
These and other development trends of civil society organisations in certain EU countries and Russia can be found in the State of Civil Society Report.