Celebrating 20 years of community foundations in the Visegrad Region

25 years ago last month the Berlin Wall fell, sparking a wave of civil society development across Central and Eastern Europe. Within this, there are the over 30 community foundations of the Visegrad Region (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia) who celebrated “20 Years of Community Foundations in V4 Countries” with a conference in Bratislava in September 2014 organized by the national associations of community foundations, as well as with the launch of new material outlining their achievements.

Each of these organizations has different roots: sometimes it was EU money that opened new possibilities, in other instances it was thanks to international foundations that were supporting the building of civil society, while in other contexts it was as a result of national programmes building local organizations. The first, the Healthy City Community Foundation, was established in 1994 in Banska Bytrica, Slovakia and is thriving today. The Visegrad community foundations differ from each other with regards to national legal regulations, operating models, range of activities, resources and potential. But each had the benefit of being established by charismatic local leaders and activists that wanted to make a difference in their communities, and it is this motivation that still drives these organizations.

They prioritize learning and growing, and these community foundations cooperate and learn one from another through robust regional cooperation. A fundraising idea from the Southern Czech Republic is implemented in Northern Poland, practitioners from the Czech Republic present their projects to Slovak community foundations, volunteers from Poland visit volunteers in Slovakia, a new Hungarian organization uses the knowledge and expertise of Czech and Slovak community foundations, etc.

In their view, these organizations play a bridging function, offering a neutral space connecting communities and donors. While some critics may ascertain that civil society in Central and Eastern Europe is still relatively weak and immature, the Visegrad Foundations merely need point to some of the impressive statistics they have backing up their work: 40,000 grants and scholarships directed to local projects; USD $53 million raised in communities where trust is not a standard currency; USD $8.5 million contributed towards endowment building to ensure the long-term sustainability of these organizations, etc.

On the occasion of their 20th anniversary, Aneta Kapel of the Academy for the Development of Philanthropy in Poland talked with the GFCF about this dynamic network of organizations.

GFCF:  What do you think have been the major accomplishments of community foundations in the Visegrad Region over the last twenty years?

Aneta Kapel: We think that the major accomplishment has been returning to the tradition of community philanthropy, which was disrupted during communism. Community philanthropy has once again become a significant issue, and we think this is also because of community foundations’ enormous contribution to the building up of civil society in the region: building social capital on the local level, meaning trust and the feeling of responsibility for the community, has been their most significant contribution. Community foundations’ work is so different from the rest of civil society because of the presence of donor advised funds, as well as the huge amounts of volunteers that are attracted to the work – this is also what makes us distinctive.

As part of our network, we have been encouraging individual community foundations to more clearly communicate their own accomplishments, and they have developed short films in this regard which can be viewed online.

GFCF: Could you tell us a bit more about how these organizations are engaging with communities and responding to identified needs?  

AK: Grant and scholarship programmes are the most common activities of Visegrad community foundations. Under the V4 Program, we have financed plenty of projects, identifying local needs using many different tools. The programme has also allowed us to share best practice with regards to balancing donor interests with the needs of the community. The needs across the region seem to vary greatly: from education scholarships for students and other children’s’ projects, to adapting public spaces and artistic projects, to more sophisticated work around advocacy, legal advising and supporting the development of NGOs.

What we find very interesting, and a common characteristic of those in our network, is that fact that these organizations seem to put more emphasis on issues that are not typically part of wider social debates, but which may still be extremely important to the local community. One such example is work being done around local traditions and history. The other characteristic that ties these organizations together is their engagement with youth, particularly through youth grant programs.

GFCF: How important has regional contact and peer learning been in the development and success of the community foundations in the Visegrad Region?  

AK: Since establishing our programme in 2007 we have organized several study trips among community foundations in the region, and we strongly believe that the issue of peer learning is getting more and more important every year. Through links we have already made, these developing organizations have been able to share best practice, and exchange experiences frankly. Concretely, there have also been several instance in which organizations have made successful joint bids for funds from external sources (for example joint events for volunteers from the Nitra Community Foundation in Slovakia and the Generations Foundation in Poland, or the joint Grundtvig project developed by the Snow Mountain Community Foundation in Poland and the Southmoravian Community Foundation in the Czech Republic). Some network participants have also developed cross-border cooperation or exchange in specific areas, such as a legacy/bequests giving campaign started in the Czech Republic which was later adapted by the Slovaks. This year of 20th anniversary celebrations has also initiated closer collaboration and discussion.

GFCF: Could you tell us more about the conference that was organized to commemorate this anniversary? Is there anything specific or interesting emerging from the event regarding a role for these organizations over the next twenty years?

AK: From the participant point of view, it was really important to experience the feeling of unity and “togetherness” of the Visegrad community foundations and I left feeling very confident about future cooperation between these organizations. We are currently trying to measure the influence made by the community foundations in our region via a joint project co-financed by the International Visegrad Fund called “Change comes from the bottom up: Community foundations’ role in 25 years of building civil society.” The aim of the project is also to plan a way forward for community foundations in the years to come, based on past learnings.

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