Civil society fundraising in Belarus: time to go local and crowdfund?
Belarusian civil society celebrated Freedom Day in the heart of Minsk on 25th March thanks to a massive and successful fundraising campaign. Grassroots fundraising may be uncommon in Belarus, but a steady trend for the success of such campaigns has emerged.
During the Lukashenka era, the state has generally viewed civil society organisations (CSOs) with great suspicion and severely restricted their activities. CSOs faced serious difficulties both raising funds in Belarus and obtaining them from foreign donors. As a result, CSOs depended too heavily on foreign aid.
A changing political situation expands opportunities for new fundraising strategies. Civil society needs to focus on local sources of funds and work closely with target groups, businesses and the government. Recent success stories demonstrate that such practices have become possible.
However, this wisdom largely applies to one-off projects, events or short campaigns. Long-term projects remain virtually impossible to sustain through local fundraising. Organisations and the media, especially those dealing with human rights, democracy and the promotion of reforms, still rely on external support to continue their activity.
The state restricts, citizens ignore
Almost all Belarusian non-governmental organisations (NGOs) report that they have an unstable, even miserable, financial situation. The situation does not surprise in light of state restrictions on both local fundraising and foreign aid.
Mandatory registration of foreign aid with the Department for Humanitarian Affairs of the Presidential Affairs Office impacts all NGOs in Belarus. The regulations list certain activities for which foreign grants cannot be used, and in 2011 the government introduced criminal liability for violating the procedure for obtaining and using foreign aid.
Despite this, foreign aid functions as the most important source of revenue for Belarusian CSOs. They bypass legal ways of receiving it and usually bring cash to the country or invent other ways to obtain it. The state often uses difficulties with legalising foreign aid as a tool for cracking down on civil society, as in the cases of Alieś Bialiacki or a more recent case of independent trade unions.
Raising funds inside Belarus remains complicated due to restrictions on the independent economic activity of CSOs and also on sponsorship by legal entities. Businesses are afraid to donate to initiatives, with the exception of cultural or charitable ones, since the state can easily find a reason to make any business in Belarus illegal.
Ordinary Belarusians, meanwhile, have a vague understanding of what civil society is and why they should donate money to other citizens through such organisations. Maryna Dubina, a Green Network environmental activist, told Belarus Digest that citizens do not want to fund CSOs because they do not know them, do not trust them, and lack the will to take responsibility for public issues.
People are particularly afraid to engage in issues which are high on the government’s agenda, such as the Belarusian-Chinese Technology Park and the nuclear power plant. In such cases, citizens fear state repression.
According to Andrej Jahoraŭ, director of the Centre for European Transformation, Belarusians occasionally support grassroots initiatives dealing with simple problems like children, the disabled, vulnerable groups or issues related to popular personalities. However, a more institutionalised activity would not manage to finance itself through crowdfunding.
This, of course, results from government policy that has excluded CSOs from public life for decades. However, blame for civil society’s dire financial situation does not rest with the government alone. Many representatives of civil society appear hooked on foreign grants and lack an incentive to change fundraising strategies.
Recent funding shifts and the rise of crowdfunding
As Yury Čavusaŭ argues in the Belarusian Yearbook overview, the political warming in relations between official Minsk and the West changed donor strategies among the main sources of foreign aid to Belarus. The EU has increased its financial assistance, but it redistributed funds in favour of state bodies and the structures affiliated with the state. Thus, at the end of 2017, the EU published a programme of financial assistance to Belarus, which offers up to €136m to promote reforms. Meanwhile, CSOs note a significant decrease in grant opportunities for civil society in Belarus.
Some CSOs began to adapt to the new situation by changing their fundraising approach vis-a-vis foreign donors, or by redirecting the focus of their activities to cooperation with the authorities. Initiatives like the October Economic Forum and Minsk Dialogue presented successful examples of collaboration with the government on the highest level.
Other CSOs, especially small organisations and new start-up projects, turned to fundraising inside Belarus: these crowdfunded projects boomed in recent years. The platforms Talaka.org and Ulej.by offer over 2,000 projects for crowdfunding in all spheres of life, encompassing technology, culture and art, urban issues, education, travel, sport and society.
While not all of them, of course, raise the necessary funds, a number of large-scale success stories and many smaller ones have occurred.
The most successful and perhaps the only long-term crowdfunding example is the charity platform Imena (“Names”). In 2017, the platform managed to collect $165,000 for 12 projects. The funds also covered the full expenses for a team of six people including salaries. The team itself admits that they did not expect such a successful outcome.
Currently, the campaign to crowdfund the publication of translations of Sviatlana Alexievich’s five volumes into the Belarusian language has gathered five times more than required; $100,000 instead of the original target of $20,000.
Surprisingly enough, campaigns with a clear political flavour have also succeeded in raising funds. The BY_help campaign that started in March 2017 raised $55,000 to help Belarusians and their families who suffered as a result of the March public protests, the White Legion case, and other political activities.
The most recent #BNR100 campaign gathered $27,000 to organise Freedom Day celebrations – marking the 100th anniversary of the proclamation of the Belarusian People’s Republic. Traditionally one of the major annual actions by the opposition, this year the authorities allowed the holding of a peaceful Freedom Day celebration with a concert in the very centre of the capital. The event attracted up to 50,000 people.
Despite state-imposed restrictions, these obstacles do not make local fundraising completely impossible. Sviatlana Zinkievič, head of the Office for European Expertise and Communication, in a comment for Belarus Digest notes positive trends of local fundraising. Organisations that previously could not even consider engaging in local fundraising now implement successful projects. The range of issues and projects which cannot collect funds constantly decreases.
Crowdfunding platforms and competitions like “Social Weekend” present a fine opportunity not only for raising funds but also for increasing the visibility of such initiatives. They can also consult the CSOs very professionally so that both experienced and young organisations have a chance to succeed.
The numerous success stories prove that CSOs can operate in Belarus, at least partially, with the support of local donors. But to be fair, the long-term activity of any organisations so far looks impossible through local fundraising alone. While it became easier to crowdfund for a book, an event or campaign, an independent civic organisation or a media outlet still cannot survive without institutional support.