ESTONIA: Positive developments improve funding outlook for CSOs

(CIVICUS Monitor) On 25th February 2018, the Estonian Human Rights Centre gave a positive overview of the respect for freedom of association in the country between 2016 and 2017. The Centre found that: 

“Even though the world is looking on with worry at the shrinking of Civic Space right here in Europe as well, to the point of predictions that free democracy and human rights might have been a passing phase in global history, there has been no tangible regression in Estonia. The new Government that assumed office in November of 2016 rather continued liberal and even more social policies, making several promises in their action programme, which the third sector has asked for years“.

Measures to create an enabling environment for civil society organisations (CSOs) included the government’s attempts to diversify funding sources for the sector. A high level of dependency on the public budget has been an ongoing issue for Estonian civil society. As a result of the government’s efforts, however, some improvements have been noted, including an increase in annual donations to organisations from private citizens. Other positive initiatives include the Impact Fund launched by the Good Deed Foundation at the end of February 2018. The idea is to match constructive projects by CSOs with private donors. At its launch, the Fund had already attracted 300,000 EUR and announced its goal to reach half a million EUR by the end of this year.

Currently, the Ministry of Interior, which is responsible for supporting civil society development, is also leading a feasibility study on the possibility of introducing public Social Impact Bonds (SIB) to strengthen the link between NGOs and private investors on specific social issues. According to the Good Deed Foundation,

The issue will then be tackled by a capable NGO that can provide an innovative and effective approach. If the proposed solution yields better results than the existing public service during an agreed period of time, the government shall reimburse the investment to the investor with interest“.

The Foundation, together with the Estonian Social Enterprise Network and the Praxis Centre for Policy Studies, released a study in 2015 underlining the positive impact that the measure could have. The study found that “the Estonian state, investors and NGOs are ready for testing social impact bonds as a novel performance-based financing model”.  The government also accepted a proposal by civil society to create a mechanism for people to donate their tax return to NGOs of their choosing.

Though critics within the NGO sector believe that the government is attempting to avoid reforming the tax system to allow donors to exceed a limit of 1,200 EUR in donations, such initiatives do show that funding for civil society is on the government’s agenda. Both the Impact Fund and the Social Impact Bonds are positive measures which would incentivise private support for CSOs.

A major drawback of many of these models, however, is that they tend to be directed mostly to charities providing services, rather than NGOs working on advocacy. As a result, advocacy-oriented CSOs must often rely on voluntary work and contributions. A lack of funds hinders the level of impact their activities could have. This obstacle could be reduced by a new Active Citizens Fund supported by Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein and managed by the Open Estonia Foundation and the Association of Non-Governmental Organisations. Four million EUR will be allocated to the development of civil society, active citizenship and human rights, including related advocacy activities.

In the last update, the CIVICUS Monitor and its research partner reported that instances of vilification and attacks against some civil society organisations involved in advocacy had occurred at the end of last year. Such instances and cases had a chilling effect on some NGOs specifically working on LGBT and human rights. In response, the Human Rights Centre noted that it has become increasingly wary, fearing that such attacks could occur again, especially ahead of elections in March 2019 and given the potential for more antagonistic parties to be voted into power. For example, civil society noted how relations with the Minister of Justice detiorated after a representative of a minority right-wing party was appointed to that position.

This perception is not universal, however, as other CSOs enjoy strong cooperation with both the Minister of Justice and the government at large. The tensions that do exist between civil society and the government at times seem to be connected to trends within society where more sensitive topics – such as gender equality and LGBT rights – are considered more controversial. While several civil society organisations do work on these issues, they tend to integrate these into other aspects of their work.

Featured image: Good Deed Foundation