Romania: fight against the anti-democratic wave

Romania‘s foundation and philanthropy sector, at a glance:

Number of foundations: In 2015, the National Non-Profit Register listed 16,623 foundations. A report by the Civil Society Development Foundation (FDSC) shows that, in fact, only 5,436 of these foundations were active. (Source: Romania 2017, The Non-governmental Sector: Profile, Tendencies and Challenges)

As regards funding bodies, there are only 50 such foundations (including private foundations, corporate foundations and community foundations).
Main umbrella body: The Association for Community Relations (ARC), established in 2001
The FDSC, established in 1994
State of the sector: Resilient, innovative, but facing burnout due to limited number of staff and big number of roles they have to play.

Being funded mainly from international sources for almost 20 years, the non-profit sector in Romania did not develop in an organic way. Many of the local organizations have built their project portfolios base on the priorities of European funding bodies, without strategic thinking of their own. Other organizations were built based on money from international foundations that came with a different thinking. They invested in organizational development and empowered the local NGOs to define their role according to their vision. In the last few years, we have seen more and more organizations supported by local and multinational companies and by individual donors. These organizations are better integrated into their community and have a very different energy and vison.
Biggest opportunity in the sector: Collaboration – organizations, companies, and individuals working together for the greater good.
Biggest challenge for the sector: The volatile legislation and the shrinking space for civil society.
Rucsandra Pop
Photo: National Development Program for Community Foundations, ARC

26 April 2019

Interview with Rucsandra Pop, Director of the National Development Program for Community Foundations, ARC

Rucsandra, what are the three broad issues that will drive Romania’s foundation and philanthropy sector in the next 10 years?
The drivers that will have the biggest impact on how philanthropy will look like in the next 10 years are, without any doubt, politics and the value conflict. We are in a moment in Romanian history where we face a big divide between the actions of the party in power – with its populist and anti-democratic measures – and the values of a big part of the active, urban population – who stand up for a European Romania.

The silver lining of this turbulent political context is that it is forcing people, otherwise unengaged, to become active citizens, to start fighting for their rights and their future. Donating is just one of the tools with which people show the values they stand for. Still, it is difficult to say how Romanian philanthropy will look in the next 10 years. If we win the fight against the anti-democratic wave – which is not sure – we will need to build a new way of functioning in society. One thing is clear – the civic organizations that were pretty low-profile in the last decade have re-emerged, and, at the same, new and very vocal organizations have been established. 

Technology is another driver that has changed the way philanthropy looks in the last few years and it will have an even bigger impact in the years to come. What technology has done so far is to help democratize the act of giving. Anyone can be a fundraiser for any cause, just like anyone can be a donor, regardless of his or her wealth. Until 2012, there was no infrastructure for individual donors to support the causes they believed in. Now, people can donate through the internet, direct debit, and text messages. The technology offers the right infrastructure to make fast, transparent, and recurrent donations. In 2012 our organization launched two giving mechanisms that have raised, so far, almost 19 million euro for Romanian NGOs.

Local leaders, especially with the generation shift to millennials, will definitely have a word to say on how philanthropy will look. We already see leaders that have theories of change for their community, bold theories that could empower and strengthen local communities. These community-focused visions inspire leaders from other cities to get involved.

Which topics do you expect philanthropy to focus on?
Health and education are the areas when the biggest amounts of money are being invested, both by individuals and by companies. As an example, at the beginning of 2019 an important company made the biggest donation in Romania ever – 10 million euro for the construction of a hospital for children with cancer. This fundraising campaign brought together more companies and a huge number of individual donors. I expect that trend of investing in health and education to continue, because these are two systemic issues that Romania urgently needs to address, because people’s life and wellbeing depends on them. 

As I have the chance to work with community foundations in Romania, I see very positive trends there, and the sustainable growth of community philanthropy initiatives. People care more and more about their hometown and they want to contribute to a better future for their communities.

Regarding civic engagement and democracy – as long as Romania faces political challenges, people will donate their money to causes that increase the level of participation and engagement, both in political and civic actions.

As the traditional press is slowly disappearing, there are more and more independent media outlets that support themselves with donations. In Romania, donating has become a way of showing that you care for democracy, and that you stand for European values, and basic human rights.

What is traditional philanthropy in Romania, and how do you expect this to develop in the future?
It is difficult to speak about traditional philanthropy in Romania, as the country was under a communist regime for almost 50 years. As during communism there was no private property, philanthropy – which had a strong tradition before – ceased to exist for almost half a century. One can say that philanthropy, as a field, had to reinvent itself after the fall of communism, and this came with pluses and minuses. The disadvantage is that there are very few funding bodies at the national level – a couple of foundations and a dozen corporate foundations. The other thing is that the old money – of families belonging to wealthy families – has barely been accessed. The major advantage is that philanthropy is evolving and it is adapting to the international trends and the national needs. Organizations understand the need for modern, comprehensive fundraising, and Romanians are more and more confident in organizations’ power to change the society, and they want to be a part of that.

What role will philanthropy take?
I see mainly three roles:

  • Bringing actors together to develop systemic solutions
  • Defending the state of law and democratic values
  • Building capacity in the sector and stimulating local leadership

Will Romania’s philanthropy be more nationally focused, or will it also be regional and global?
Romania is the European country that has had the biggest number of emigrants in the last few years. Romania’s philanthropy cannot be nationally focused because there are Romanians living abroad, and the people living outside the borders are both donors, but also receivers, of support – especially when it comes to big communities settled in Italy, France or Spain. Also, there is a more global consciousness that makes Romanian react to tragedies that are happening outside the borders. Individuals, more than companies and foundations, contribute as a reaction to international crises, as they understand that in a globalized world things that happen outside the borders influence the local wellbeing.

Is there any other subject that you consider to be vital for the sector?
For me, the most important subject is resilience. I see the next few months and the coming years as crucial for philanthropy not only in Romania but also in all countries where the space for civil society is shrinking. The question is how will we use our power and knowledge to reinvent ourselves and our work in more difficult times? Is resilience embedded in our way of doing things? Will we be able to contribute to the wellbeing of our communities when the resources are more scarce and the conditions tougher?

Are there some developments we are not yet aware of at an international level but which you see coming along in the future?
Once we joined European Union, most of the international funding bodies which made major contributions to the sustainability of civil society ceased their activity in the region. Even though donations in Romania – both from individuals and from businesses – have reached a record level in the last few years, in order to have a sustainable sector there is still a need for strategic funding. Major international foundations who have a bold vision and understand the value of strategic philanthropy can be a way to counterbalance the challenges that Romanian organizations might face in the near future.  

If people want to get informed about news and trends in the sector in Romania, where can they find this information?
Good question. I would say that Romanian practitioners find information on philanthropy more from international publications. There are very few, if any, publications in Romania that can inform people working on philanthropy. Nevertheless, there are studies that are being regularly issued by big umbrella organizations – such as the ARC or FDSC – that research the dynamic of the field and make the information available both for non-profit professionals and for a wider audience.


Compiled by the EZ-Scout seconded to the Association of German Foundations

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