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.

imenamag.by project

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.

Success stories

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.

Freedom Day advertising poster

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.




Flying University courses, Charter97.org blocked, Absurdity of the Month – Belarus civil society digest

Ulej sums up results: 137 local crowdfunding campaigns collected over $280K. Imena calls for applications to fund social projects and organizations. Social Weekend competition is launched for the 11th time. The first Repair Café is held in Minsk.

New guides for CSOs: Belarusian practitioners share the experience of how to run social media and attract local resources. Liberal Club invites youth to participate in the “Belarusian Lego” essay competition.

BAJ: 101 journalists detained in 2017. Access to the opposition website Charter97.org blocked in Belarus. BPF Youth head expelled from the university. Electby campaign announces a contest for “Belarusian Absurdity of the Month”.

This and more in the fresh Belarus civil society digest.

Crowdfunding

Ulej sums up results. From its inception in 2015, a Belarus’ crowdfunding platform Ulej.by has been facilitating the successful implementation of 137 crowd campaigns. These are books, theatrical performances, designer things, social projects etc. The authors of the projects collected over $280K.

Imena calls for applications to fund social projects and organisations. The Imena platform collects money for projects thanks to resonant materials on the Imenamag.by website. This year, the Imena has a department for working with projects. Since its inception in 2016, the Imena has supported 25 projects and collected donations of over $230K.

Local and urban activism

Social Weekend launched for the 11th time. Any Belarusian is eligible to apply for the Social Weekend, a national contest of social projects and get all the necessary resources – money, knowledge, and social capital. Deadline for applications is 28 February. Since 2013, Social Weekend got over 2,000 unique ideas, 200 were supported from local sources.

The first Repair Café held in Minsk. On 21 January, in Minsk, Repair Café was opened for everybody who wanted to repair household devices, bicycles, clothing etc. for free. Similar events are a part of the international movement spread in 200 cities of different countries around the world. The objective is to reduce waste, to maintain repair skills and to strengthen social cohesion.

The first Repair Café in Minsk. Photo: greenbelarus.info

Award ceremony Zrabili! / Done! recognised the best community initiatives on Belarus. On 13 January, in Minsk, over 50 initiatives were awarded for the successful activities during 2017. The award was founded and given for the second year in a row by Office for European Expertise and Communications (OEEC), CityDog.by and 34mag.net under the joint initiative, which expands the visibility of grassroots activism in Belarus.

101 projects participate in the #Paskarenne contest. The #Pascarenne / Acceleration contest, initiated by a non-profit platform Talaka, includes ideas that “cause pride for the country in any field”: from social and urban to entrepreneurial and technological. Winners will be named in February, following the results of people’s and expert voting. The prize fund is $5K.

Case studies in community development. The SYMPA Centre and the NGO Assembly released a collection of case studies, which describe the grassroots activism in different Belarusian locations in 2016-2017. The manual contains the stories about the organisation of the courtyard’s festival, repair of roads, changes in street names, etc.

Non-formal education

Guide: How CSOs should run social mediaNew Ideas Centre releases a guide that explains how CSOs can operate effectively in social networks. The guide is available online and created under the Public Participation project, that unites 10 organisations working together to support civic activity in Belarus, expanding innovation, exchange of experiences and mutual learning.

Manual: How to raise funds at the local levelACT NGO presents a fundraising handbook for CSOs that describes the key local sources of funds, methods, and tools. The book also includes cases of CSO cooperation with business structures, legislation aspects, as well as practitioners’ recommendations.

Flying University invites to new courses. The University offers 8 open courses involving contemporary issues, associated with the rapid technological and innovative development. The Flying University is an initiative aimed at creating in Belarus the space and environment with free thinking; it is a movement towards a modern University in and for Belarus. Applications are accepted until 5 February.

Belarusian Lego essay competition. Liberal Club invites schoolchildren and students to participate in the 5th annual essay competition. The theme of this year is Globalisation vs Belarusisation. Thirty winners will receive an invitation to a three-day educational school. The papers should be sent by 28 February.

Media

Opposition website Charter97.org blocked in Belarus. The Ministry of Information explains its decision by the reason that the website had published information the dissemination of which is able to harm the national interests of Belarus. The Belarusian Association of Journalists protests against blocking access to social and political websites.

In 2017, the persecution of journalists increased (infographics). According to Belarusian Association of Journalists, 101 journalists were detained last year (to compare: 13 cases in 2016). The total sum of fines, imposed on journalists for cooperation with foreign mass media in 2017 is €24,235.

Belarus in Focus 2017 is accepting articles. The international competition for journalists writing about Belarus in international media is annually organised by Belarus in Focus Information Office in partnership with Press Club Belarus. This year the competition takes place for the 7th time. The deadline for applications is 15 March 2018.

Other

Картинки по запросу ганна смілевіч

Hanna Smilevich. Photo: racyja.com

BPF Youth head expelled from the university. Hanna Smilevich, 18, became the leader of the BPF Youth on 24 December 2017. She was a second-year student of the BSU Institute of Journalism. BPF Youth Council considers Smilevich’s expulsion is politically motivated since she had no problems with her studies before heading BPF Youth.

10th contest of projects of Meeting Place: Dialogue program is organised by Vzaimoponimanie NGO together with EVZ Foundation. The competition aims to support projects in the interests of former prisoners of concentration camps and ghettos, people involved in forced labour and other victims of Nazi persecutions, as well as other people born before 9 May 1945. Deadline is 28 February.

Absurd of the Month competition. The campaign in the national election observation Electby announces a competition to identify anything absurd in modern Belarusian reality. It can be any violations related to the current legislation or daily life, in a governmental entity or a public space. The massages should be sent by 10 February.

Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.




Advocacy crowdfunding in Belarus: the best projects of 2016

On 15 December, the best Belarusian crowdfunded projects of 2016 received awards in Minsk. 15 finalists received funding totaling $19,500. Crowdfunding has become one of the simplest and most accessible forms of civic participation. In a nondemocratic environment, crowdfunding is one of the safest ways of practising social activism.

The best Belarusian campaigns of 2016 were mainly related to social and cultural issues, whereas few projects considered human rights or the environment. The relative unpopularity of such themes can be explained by potential conflict with state interests.

Crowdfunding as a resource for advocacy in Belarus

Crowdfunding is often referred to as a new form of civic participation. According to statistics, in 2014 the world crowdfunding market came to $16bn, while in 2015 the number was more than $34bn. However, in Belarus even traditional forms of civic participation struggle to engage the wider public. The small number of NGOs, passive engagement in public hearings, and a low level of public awareness are all symptoms of the passive and non-participatory nature of Belarusian civil society.

Nevertheless, in 2016 Belarusians demonstrated an unprecedentedly high level of civic participation through crowdfunding. Currently, several platforms help finance crowdfunded projects in Belarus: Talakosht, Ulej, and Maesens. The first two platforms, Talakosht and Ulej, allow users to create a project online and offers non-material support. Maesens suggests collecting money specifically for social projects by offering an auction of meetings.

In addition, Maesens organises an annual contest called 'Social Weekend', in which citizens and experts choose the best projects for financial support. 15 finalists of the 2016 'Social Weekend' received funding from Maesens, while most of the other 40 projects received money through crowdfunding.

The most popular genre of projects on Talakosht, Ulej and Maesens are humanitarian, cultural,å and publishing projects. Examples of notable projects on Talashkot include a translation of The Chronicles of Narnia and a fundraiser for Belarusian athlete Vital Hurkou. Other recent campaigns have included a fundraiser for Nasha Niva investigations and Christmas gifts for Belarusian orphans.

The most successful projects manage to combine crowdfunding with other advocacy tools. Imena magazine, the Swamps Protection Campaign, and the Adnak festival of Belarusian advertising are particularly noteworthy examples.

Charity, Swamps, and a Belarusian Advertising Festival

The largest and most successful crowdfunding campaign of the year has been a project called Imena (Names). The format of the magazine is unique to Belarus. Besides covering personal stories, the magazine offers readers the option of supporting groups in need. Imena also allows visitors to its website to create their own projects and organise fundraising campaigns. The project raised more than $21,000 for the magazine itself and $35,000 to support seriously ill children.

The founder Katsiaryna Seniuk was named 'person of the year' for stimulating Belarusians to participate more actively in society. Seniuk highlights the importance of motivating Belarusians to act and participate rather than just being aware of problems. The project has proved that Belarusian society can change and mobilise to provide essential support for groups in need. On 23 December the Assembly of Belarusian NGOs named the magazine the best media project of the year.

An older but equally successful advocacy project aims to protect Belarusian swamps. The In Defence of Belarusian Swamps campaign emerged as a project to inform Belarusians about the importance of wetlands. The organisers collected signatures and signed appeals to the local authorities in the regions where wetlands are most endangered.

In many cases, the authorities overturned decisions to drain swamps. This year, the project used crowdfunding to gather money to support the creation of a guide to Belarusian swamps. The campaign was also able to persuade authorities to adopt a strategy for conservation and sustainable use of peatlands.

A final example is a campaign for the Adnak Belarusian advertisement festival. Over the last 7 years, the operation of the festival has depended on sponsors. However, this year's campaign to promote Belarusian language and culture through advertising garnered additional material support via crowdfunding platforms. According to ulej.by, the Adnak campaign is one of the most successfully implemented projects, collecting more than $7,000 over a short period.

The organisers encouraged those interested to actively participate through fundraising. Nina Shydlouskaya, the head of the project, reports that the majority of the campaign's goals have been achieved. The campaign was the second most popular crowdfunded project at Ulej in 2016.

The Less Political, the More to Successful

Crowdfunding has become a significant part of civic activism in Belarus. With the development of technology, crowdfunding is growing as a resource and tool for advocacy in the world. In 2016, Belarus saw a significant increase in social participation via material support for projects spread on the Internet.

Top 10 projects at crowdfunding platforms, the best projects on Maesens, and Imena magazine demonstrate that the most successful projects in Belarus in 2016 are humanitarian, cultural and publishing projects. Some experienced advocacy campaigns, such as Budzma or In Defense of Belarusian Swamps employed crowdfunding as a new resource and were able to receive the financial support they required.

It seems that only projects with a low-level of politicisation can be successful in Belarus: advocacy and crowdfunding practises indicate that non-political projects received the most support in 2016. At the same time, neither Ulej, Talakosht, Maesens, or other platforms hosted projects promoting human rights defence, energy, or other topics which could possibly clash with the state’s interests. In a non-democratic environment, projects with a high degree of politicisation have only a small chance of survival.

Despite the increase in civic activism in Belarus during 2016, it is hard to picture how projects with politicised goals, such as Human Rights Defenders Against the Death Penalty or the Antinuclear Campaign could achieve significant results. However, crowdfunding has allowed many Belarusian to safely participate in the civic life of the country by funding important and problematic projects while remaining anonymous.