Case study 2
Community Foundations in Romania
Mihai Tudorică | Association for Community Relations
Doris Cojocariu | Iași Community Foundation
Marian Dobre | Cluj Community Foundation
Rozália Csáki | Odorheiu Secuiesc Community Foundation
Ciprian Ciocan | Sibiu Community Foundation
Cristiana Metea | Țara Făgărașului Community Foundation
Gabriela Solomon | Vâlcea Community Foundation
The context in which the community foundations developed
The history of community foundations in Romania started in 2009 when, under ARC leadership, a national program for supporting community foundations was launched, in cooperation with the Environmental Partnership Foundation and the PACT Foundation, and with the financial support of the C.S. Mott Foundation, Trust for Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe, and the Romanian American Foundation.
Even though community foundations are part of a national network with the same mission, they try to and must adapt to the community in which they operate.
As regards the collaboration between them and local authorities, their national network also has common standards concerning their interaction with the political environment. However, the community foundations do not have a common strategy for such collaborations, mainly because the local context, with all its needs and problems, is different for each of them. Consequently, they adapt their strategies to the local context.
Usually, they conduct their activities at the municipal level, but they may also extend them to the county level. Currently, there are 19 active community foundations in the country, which focus on financing local initiatives, motivating the community, mobilizing local resources and managing funds. They run their activities under the umbrella of the Romanian Federation of Community Foundations and organize similar programs, such as swimathons, running events, bike-a-thons, YouthBanks, STEM education funds, etc.
They conduct their activities according to a series of common standards and principles, including a guiding principle that stipulates that the board and members should actively seek to understand the needs, the resources and the opportunities present in their geographical area.
Community foundations have a real impact in their community, since they act as philanthropy hubs by supporting the involvement of private donors and acting as local interfaces between different parties: local NGOs, businesses and authorities. For example, the Sibiu International Marathon 2020 is organized by the Sibiu Community Foundation, along with the Sibiu Community Sport Club and Gray Projects, with the main sponsor being Visma Software, alongside a large number of other local partners. The event is also co-financed by the municipality of Sibiu, through the Sports Agenda.
In their statute, community foundations define their mission to support the development of the geographical area in which they operate. According to data from the community foundations, between 2008 and 2018, they spent $6,822,473 on in-kind donations, health cases, project implementation, scholarships and grants.
At the local level, the situation is more fluid, with patterns that differ from one community to another. The community foundations’ local strategies depend on the community they serve: some operate within a poorly developed CSO system, but with an active civic spirit (Sibiu), some in a community reluctant towards civic participation (Odorheiul Secuiesc) and others within an engaged and active landscape that nevertheless presents certain problems (Cluj-Napoca).
The reasons for CSOs’ lack of involvement in dialog with the authorities differ from one community to another: a reluctance to participate in such processes to avoid becoming politicized, a lack of trust in the political parties or simply demographic issues. The collaboration
between the two sides is also influenced by the attitude of some of the local authorities, since many of them do not seem to fully understand the importance of an organized civil society, do not trust CSOs or are simply not transparent enough to gain the trust of citizens and CSOs.
Despite these challenges, there are local communities where the dialog between CSOs and local authorities is productive, thereby laying the foundations for fruitful cooperation (Cluj-Napoca, Iași, Sibiu).
Local best practices
Based on our research, it does not appear as if any local government collaboration strategy has been defined, neither on the part of the local authorities, nor on that of the community foundations; instead, we found subjective contexts that are typically influenced by subjective criteria, such as a mayor’s openness, a local authority’s informal culture of dialog or the relevance of the project to the local authority.
As for the community foundations, their strategies for how they interact with the political sphere seem to vary: some of them choose to remain apart in order not to be perceived as politicized (with minimum interaction such as asking for permits to use public spaces) while others go further by being involved in different kinds of discussions / collaborations initiated either by the local authorities or by CSOs. Either way, they take caution into consideration in formulating their strategy.
Apart from this lack of strategy, there are some examples of best practices that are worth mentioning, such as:
- Țara Făgărașului, where the local authorities have been very open about partnerships for some time, both at the mayor’s level and that of the administration, which has produced both formal and informal collaborations (the municipality provides NGOs with facilities and covers some of their utility costs). For example, when the community foundation decides what projects to implement next, it communicates with the municipality’s Projects Office in order to determine if there are any overlapping initiatives and to decide which party is better placed to implement them. Besides this good communication with the City Hall, the local authority is also financing one of the most well-known projects within the community, a bikeathon and the Crosul Cetății Făgăraș race, which are organized by the community foundation. In its activities, the community foundation also tries to collaborate with different partners; at the moment, it is trying to implement a project together with the National Agency for the Roma and the local municipality.
- Sibiu, where the dialog between CSOs and the local authorities has not been affected by political battles and the political parties appear to understand the value of productive collaboration, especially due to the positive influence exercised by some local councilors (who were previously themselves active in NGOs) and also because the collaboration takes place in a small community, which makes it easier to be maintained.
- Cluj-Napoca, where the clear interest of the local authorities in maintaining a dialog with civil society took the form of a formalized channel and periodical meetings. The Cluj Community Foundation can also point to a number of examples of productive collaboration with the local authorities, such as the Com’ON Project (a form of participatory budgeting for young people), in which it worked together with the municipality, together with another NGO. The community foundation’s role in this project was to manage a large fund through which different projects were financed. Another project is its five-year partnership with the municipality regarding community development in Bontida, a village where the Electric Castle festival takes place and where the foundation acts as the owner of a private fund for investing in local development projects. In these two projects, the community foundation played the role of grant-maker, administering both private and public funds. Despite these examples, in the past two years, the community foundation managed
- to maintain only informal partnerships with some parts of Cluj City Hall, such as the Social and Medical Care Directorate and the Local Development Directorate. At the meetings organized by the local authorities, the community foundation is currently a normal participant (at least in the past two years), but, in the past, it also served as an advisor and partner.
- Iași, where the collaboration between the community foundation and the local authorities is limited to specific projects. Most of the time, the community foundation chooses to play a more consultative role, instead of a proactive approach geared towards collaboration with the local authorities. Despite this internal strategy, it has collaborated with the local authorities, mainly on urban development projects, such as establishment of the city’s skate park. It received sound support from the municipality in the form of technical expertise on urban revitalization and rehabilitation as well as help with project implementation and with navigating the local bureaucracy. On another project, again relating to urban development and revitalization, which it carried out together with the local Technical University, the community foundation awarded a grant of EUR 10.000 to the most innovative and bold idea for transforming a student campus. Even though the municipality did not provide funding for the initiative, it supported it with technical help and manpower. The interviewee notes that the community foundation’s way of working with the local authorities may be limited to specific projects and that it prefers a more consultative approach, but that she is aware that there are other community foundations that pursue a more proactive and sustainable approach to engaging with the local authority, such as the Oradea Community Foundation. The Iași Community Foundation, however, prefers to play a consultative role on projects related to education, active citizenship and youth.
Local challenges and strategies
The road to collaborations has not been an easy one for the community foundations, given that they had to – and still have to – face many challenges along the way. One of these is the lack of formalized channels to facilitate dialog and collaboration between local authorities and civil society (Sibiu, Odorheiul Secuiesc). In some cases, such dialog takes place as a result of European programs that force the decision makers to organize public consultations, and in others due to personal relationships based on trust that the foundation / association has managed to build up over the years.
The needs of the local authorities shape their attitudes towards collaboration – if the local authority feels that it can gain something, as in the case of the COVID-19 outbreak, it will accept collaboration; in other cases, the local authority often believes that it knows best and that outsiders should not question its activities.
Apart from the above-mentioned challenges, CSOs also have to face fluctuations and changes in political parties. However, in some communities (Cluj, Sibiu), maintaining regular dialog and collaboration with CSOs has started to become the modus operandi, thus making it difficult for an incoming administration to fully disband these processes, mainly because the community foundations already have a solid reputation in their respective communities.
Problems may also appear due to a lack of transparency on the part of the local authorities, for example in Cluj, where the municipality refused to fund one of the community foundation’s flagship projects because of “frivolous” reasons, as the foundation maintains. In its opinion, the municipality does not have a transparent system for awarding non-refundable grants, one that would focus on addressing problems rather than just on correcting mistakes and that would make it possible to evaluate the utility of a project for the local community.
Despite some successes in the community regarding such collaboration, the local authorities are still reluctant and anxious about openness to civil society, in contrast with the business sector where things are moving at a faster pace.
In order to overcome these challenges, each community foundation has defined its own strategy:
One example is the Sibiu Community Foundation’s focus on building trust. As stated by our interviewee, building a relationship based on trust was difficult, hence the foundation’s strategy was first to build a good reputation among the local community so that it would come to be seen as a partner for the local authorities. The capacity of such collaborations to shape new local public policies depends, in his point of view, on the experience of positive relations between these actors. As a starting point for future collaborations, the community foundation is deploying one of its best-known projects, the Sibiu International Marathon, which, according to our interviewee, acts like a business card in facilitating collaboration with the local authorities.
Other community foundations also apply this strategy, and they agree that having a strong portfolio of successful community projects and investing in professionalization help them to reach out to partners within the local authorities with whom they want to collaborate.
Mutual trust seems to play a significant role in building long-lasting collaborations. As regards the community foundations that we interviewed, they tend to have to take the first step towards building trust, which has thus become an essential starting point in their strategy to facilitate collaboration and dismantle prejudices on either side. At least initially, an NGO should be seen as giving something, because requesting something would start the conversation on the wrong foot.
How to make it work?
Advice for better collaboration
“Trust is built on successive episodes of successful collaboration.”
–Ciprian Ciocan, Executive Director of the Sibiu Community Foundation
As regards to suggestions for improving the collaboration between CSOs and local authorities, each of the community foundations gave different answers based on their individual experiences: professionalization of NGOs to enable them to present an attractive portfolio of past projects; greater NGO awareness and understanding of the various procedures that govern public administration; building a strong community and finding allies in the community; treating the collaboration as a mutual resource; efficient communication (and communication channels) as well as transparency on the part of both parties; or simply asking for the things one needs.
When it comes to participatory budgeting, one of our most important fields of interest, the community foundations we interviewed had different experiences, depending on the local context.
In some communities, such civil engagement still manifests as an image-building exercise for the mayor, with little effort to promote the underlying process or to implement it fully. On the other hand, examples of successful implementation and best practices can also be found, but this does not mean that things could not be improved: local authorities could also make the procedures more flexible and exercise greater transparency in the implementation of projects.
When it comes to participatory budgeting, community foundations can act as catalysts for action within the community, helping citizens to find solutions to local problems or collaborating with the local authority in decision-making processes.
For example, in 2018, the Sibiu Community Foundation organized a meeting for citizens to identify the local needs together and come up with project ideas for the participatory budget contest organized by the municipality; 9 of the 36 eligible projects that were proposed came out of the meeting organized by the foundation.
The Cluj-Napoca Community Foundation was also involved in supporting Com’ON Cluj-Napoca, a project that aims to involve young people in the participatory budgeting process. During the 2015 and 2016 editions, the project was professionally managed by THE PONT group, while the technical implementation of the most voted initiatives was coordinated by the Cluj Community Foundation. At present, however, the foundation is no longer part of the project.
In Țara Făgărașului, the local community foundation was a member of the jury in the participatory budgeting process. Apart from its involvement in evaluating the projects proposed by the citizens, the community foundation also tries to give projects that were not approved a second chance. For example, it is currently implementing a street art project that was previously proposed for the participatory budgeting process but did not make it to the finals. The public spaces used for this project are being provided by the municipality.
Apart from the issue of the informal working culture stated above, there are some (apparently) simple things that can be done in order to facilitate the work of associations and foundations in Romania and increase the quality of their work:
An updated CSO registry: When looking for possible partners, CSOs rely on a list of NGOs put together by the County Council plus hearsay; they do not have any other official list to help them in this regard. The list on the website of the Ministry of Justice is insufficient, simply because it does not provide any information as to whether an CSO is still active or not. The list contains little to no updated data regarding an organization’s activity and offers no filters or search option based on areas of interest. An updated registry would help both local CSOs and the local authorities to get to know each other.
Better local authority websites: Sometimes, the websites of the local authorities also represent a challenge – with little to no available information, convoluted site maps and outdated data.
Less bureaucracy: Sometimes, excessive bureaucracy has been one of the most challenging aspects of collaborating with the local authorities; tortuous reporting and documentation requirements, included the need for scanned and printed invoices, and so on.
Training on budgets: Community foundations would benefit from receiving training on budgets, especially on how to understand them, how to follow the money in a certain field (e.g. education), how to understand long-term budgetary strategies, and determining what information should be publicly available on the local authorities’ websites.
Even though, at the national level, community foundations have common standards regarding their relationship with the political environment, there is no common strategy concerning their collaboration with the local authorities. Each community foundation has enough leeway to adjust to the local context and to follow its own strategy. As we have seen in the above-mentioned cases, the local context may be influenced by subjective factors, such as a culture of greater transparency and openness on the part of the local authorities.
In their communities, the foundations can plan an important role, as catalysts that bring different parties together, including other CSOs, the local authorities and private and business entities.