Striving to Thrive in Turbulent Times

Assessing the sustainability of CSOs and the growing impact of external threats.
July 01, 2023

Civil society organizations (CSOs) are a key pillar in defending and strengthening European democracy, but find themselves working in an increasingly hostile environment. Political pressure, smear campaigns and excessive bureaucratization are affecting CSOs’ capacity to accomplish their objectives and counter malign influences. More and more central governments are trying, directly or through proxies, to hamper CSOs’ activities, control their funding and are even targeting the wider civil society with manipulative and false accusations.

We attempt to identify CSOs’ key needs and challenges in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, the brutal war of the Russian Federation against Ukraine and, as we see with increasingly regularity in the last few years, attempts by national governments, in both EU and non-EU countries, to control CSOs and limit their independence. CSOs have been a target for years, but what we see nowadays in Azerbaijan or Georgia, in Hungary, or even the attempts of some Romanian political leaders, suggests (more) difficult times ahead. There is an unprecedented need to support CSOs and strengthen their capacity to survive these difficult times, but also to empower them to influence the public agenda and counter what we perceive as Russian-oriented public policies against the sector.

Our assessment included a sample of 40 CSOs, all of them being recipients of Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation grants. Most of them are from the greater Black Sea Region, while a smaller number being from other EU countries. This sample cannot represent the entire CSO sector, but it does provide common stress points across the group, which may be relevant for a larger number of organizations. These findings are substantiated by both quantitative and qualitative data, using online surveys, in-depth interviews and focus groups as research tools.

CSO unsustainability is on the rise. Making ends meet and running down uncertain funding in service to an organization’s core activities is far from an ideal working environment. Staff retention should not depend on adherence to the values of the CSO, but to long term strategies and sustainable practices. Shortcomings such as these affect not only the potential impact of the organizations, but also their capacity to influence the public agenda as excess effort is directed toward securing enough resources to maintain operations.

External threats are growing. National decision makers are implementing Russian-oriented policies and altering the regulatory environment to cause CSOs undue burden and implement a climate of fear. In our assessment, the external threats to these organizations are very real and may be more detrimental than their financial constraints. The threats are regarded as greater in non-EU countries, with Hungary being an example of an EU member state with a similar behavior, where CSOs are even forced to register abroad due to fear of repercussions.

Financial sustainability is at risk. CSOs need more predictability in funding if they are to build real long-term planning development strategies. With few exceptions, CSOs’ budgets are mainly based on grants, with almost no significant resource diversification. Core funding is often unavailable, while longer-term grants are usually an exception. Longer-term and predictable funding programs from the same donor or group of donors are limited. These shortcomings should be better tackled by both the donors and the CSOs through a joint effort of assessing the needs and investing in their upscale capacity.

Investing in people. CSOs (and donors) need to provide more support for the people working in the sector, including dedicating funding channels for staff well-being and capacity-building measures. Burnout is affecting CSOs’ staff, with fewer solutions on the horizon compared to other sectors. Professional development needs to be ranked higher in CSOs’ strategies, putting more emphasis on staff needs, both at the individual and organizational level.

Reduce bureaucracy by improving the project cycle design. Most CSOs in this assessment require more flexibility in project implementation and reduced bureaucracy for both the application and reporting phases. Donors should aid the CSOs in focusing on only the needed data for assessing the impact of their interventions. Burdening the work of CSOs with complex and, in some cases, even frustrating procedures leads to excess effort being invested in pleasing the donors, and not in the actual project activities. Cases of burdening procedures are becoming more and more present.

Strengthening Donor-CSO dialogue and consultation mechanisms. CSOs should be involved in the design of the donors’ calls for applications and objectives and their opinion should be taken into consideration. In some cases, CSOs consider that there are gaps between what they perceive as urgent or critical and what some donors follow as their strategies. This is of course a very debatable topic, but using transparent practices in the relation of the two entities would not only strengthen their relationship, but would also produce more qualitative interventions.

Supporting CSOs to maximize the impact of their interventions. Communication and using M&E data seem to be rather neglected by the CSOs. The former is perceived only as a mandatory component of specific projects, and very few CSOs are working to build a real
communication strategy that emphasizes them and their work. Secondly, even fewer CSOs are using data and M&E to assess their activities and impact and, based on the findings, to adjust their interventions. These are some main reasons why CSOs give the impression of punching below their weight and why they are ill-equipped to even counter the false narratives and accusations they face.

Defending CSOs against external attacks and increasing partnership and networking support. Donors can have an important say and are in a privileged position to act whenever particular CSOs or the sector is at risk. As pressure on CSOs is increasing, and some are directly targeted, donors need to stand up for the organizations. Providing more support for networking and facilitating partnerships between the CSOs also helps build a more sustainable and resilient sector.

Read the full report.