The penultimate day of November was an opportunity, after a long break, to gather in Belgrade with colleagues and associates from the civil, public and business sectors and discuss philanthropy in Serbia: news, developments, but also upcoming struggles for a society that gives and does good. This year’s National Conference on Philanthropy was dedicated to community foundations, as a form of organization that allows local communities to utilize the resources they possess in local philanthropy, to accomplish ideas and solve the problems they face, whether it’s the improvement of the neighborhood or the inclusion of sensitive groups in various activities. The conference was organized with the support of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.
Giving back to the community is important to the broader progress of society
“Giving is one of the frameworks and main values of the European Union. The involvement of citizens in decision-making processes and changes in communities are important for the wider progress of society,” said Nicola Bertolini, Head of the Department for Cooperation of the Delegation of the European Union to Serbia. “The fact that 850 community foundations operate in 22 countries across Europe confirms that philanthropy through local action can generate approaches and solutions in a very wide range of topics. Community foundations also played an important role in crisis periods, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, when they positioned themselves as reliable and efficient organizations that recognized the moment and had the capacity to use philanthropic resources for local and urgent needs. They are certainly an important factor in building an efficient European philanthropic infrastructure,” said Bertolini.
The importance of community foundations and philanthropy was also addressed by Shanley Pinchotti, Director of the Office of Democratic Governance and Economic Growth at the American Agency for International Development – USAID in Serbia: “Giving as a value is deeply embedded in Serbian culture. The shift that Serbia achieved during the last five years and the great desire to establish community foundations in different parts of the country shows citizens’ willingness to participate in philanthropy and take care of their neighbors and fellow citizens.”
Biljana Dakić Đorđević, executive director of the Trag foundation, recalled the progress that Serbia has achieved in the field of philanthropy, and the fact that this is the result of joint actions of citizens, such as community foundations: “With the support of the Trag Foundation, this year were founded three community foundations – in Niš, Pančevo and Stara Pazova, which together collected more than 45 thousand euros in donations. Trag Foundation has doubled the mentioned amount, and the provided funds are used to support local initiatives – so far 67 ideas of citizens’ associations and informal groups have been supported for various areas of activity: culture, education, sports, arrangement of public spaces, assistance to marginalized groups, environmental protection … Such initiatives restore the citizens’ confidence in changes in their environment and ensure its progress, but also that they themselves play an important role in it”.
Community foundations in Serbia were launched as part of the program “Our local foundation – community has a say!”: “Our wish was that by supporting informal groups who want to establish community foundations, we would come to the point where they connect people who have funds with those who have ideas and to collect funds from individuals and companies in their communities to redirect those funds and resources to citizen initiatives. This inspires citizens to further motivate their neighbors, relatives and friends to change something in their communities. It also serves as a meeting point for them and a place to build trust and faith, with the power of citizens to influence what happens in their environment,” said Marija Mitrović, Director of Philanthropy and Partnerships at the Trag Foundation.
From an idea to tangible progress in the community with community foundations
The participants had the opportunity to learn more about the process of establishing community foundations in Romania, which now even has a Romanian Federation for Community Foundations, and whose model inspired the Trag foundation to establish community foundations in Serbia. Stefan Cibian, the Board member of this Federation, who is also the head of the Fagaras Community Foundation, pointed out: “Community foundations are important, because they represent an opportunity for people to contribute to society, but also because they can help overcome mistrust between citizens and public institutions, which was the case in Romania for a long time. Community foundations help us to strengthen the community, to create mechanisms based on care – care for the community, learning and cooperation with people with whom we would not otherwise get in touch or cooperate.”
The importance of community foundations for the development of the communities in which they operate is presented from the point of view of the foundations themselves, but also from the point of view of the initiatives supported through open calls conducted by the foundations, as well as through the results of research on the connection between these foundations and civic activism.
The representatives of the foundations themselves from Niš, Pančevo, Stara Pazova and Zenica shared their experience of starting community foundations.
They presented the process of founding, designing and announcing the first open calls for projects and their selection. On the one hand, it is important that foundations leave room for people to express themselves which topics are important to them and which problems they want to solve, which issues they want to unite around. On the other hand, they represent a great opportunity for even those who think that their initiatives are too small and insufficiently formalized to be recognized or receive support, still manage to get funds and take the first steps towards sustainability.
Cooperation between the civil and business sectors is represented by thematic units on giving to the community. The examples of the companies BlackRock and Arup, as well as the Science and Technology Park Niš, have shown several models of giving to the community, even when there is no CSR program in the company, but there is a desire to support and strengthen organizations and initiatives, either through direct donations or through volunteering.
Special attention was paid to investing in women’s organizations and launching socially important campaigns dealing with the topics of gender equality and the fight against violence against women. Bambi and IKEA shared with the audience how they deal with these issues internally, how they use their reach to get to women who need support, and how by drawing attention to the fact that equality should start at home, they influence the information of the wider public. The Užice Women’s Center, as a women’s organization that has developed a range of services for women in situations of violence, as well as its own social enterprise Retex, which employs vulnerable categories of women, presented its positive experience of cooperation with the business sector.
The topic of unsuccessful and less successful attempts in fundraising campaigns was presented through a conversation with the Center E8 / the Spotlight Theater and the Center for Positive Youth Development – CEPORA.
If we are hesitant to try our hand at community fundraising, we should keep in mind that the only mistake we can make is not trying fundraising at all. It is important to start, and even if the campaign does not bring the initially desired results, it leaves us room for learning and improvement.
The conference was rounded off with an address by Veran Matić, Executive Director of the Serbian Philanthropic Forum, who referred to the improvement of Serbia’s position in the field of giving for the common good: “Citizens have shown that they possess a high degree of responsibility and a sense of public interest. The ranking of Serbia on this year’s World Giving Index and the jump from 48th to 27th place, out of a total of 119 countries, shows that our fellow citizens are strongly aware of solidarity and humanity, which represents a good basis for the further development of philanthropy in Serbia.”
In the end, it was concluded that people in Serbia do recognize the importance of giving, and that it is important for them to participate in decision making processes and changes that affect them directly. The role of community foundations is to ensure a safe space for this to happen, with funds that do not have to be large, but will be directed to topics recognized as important by citizens. In addition to the three established foundations in Serbia, which have already held eight open calls and support neighborhood projects in Pančevo, Niš and Stara Pazova. We are also working in a very dedicated manner on developing first community foundations in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where initiative groups have been formed to further establish a community foundation in Bijeljina, Sarajevo and Zenica. The community foundation has recently held their first open calls for supporting small initiatives, while the communities of three other cities/districts in Serbia are recently in the process of establishing their foundations.
Photo: Nemanja Knežević