Looking ahead to another year of coalition action for civic space

Grantees share challenges and solutions in an online get-together

Published: 24 November 2020

The pandemic has introduced trends such as a growing digital divide, limited media freedom, and growing disinformation around Covid-19. Limitations thought unthinkable just a year ago such as lockdowns, banning assemblies and gatherings, and tech surveillance are now common and come with human rights implications. Still, CSOs have to some extent tried to counter these developments. In Bulgaria, for example, the draft NGO law on freedom of association has been now interrupted due to the protests that have spread over a couple of months. Similarly, in Slovenia environmentalists have been litigating to protect their rights to participate in important decision-making processes. These topics and more were discussed on the first day of the online get-together Civitates organised for its grantee partners working for a strong and resilient civil society.

On the first day of the get-together the grantees were joined by several of our foundation partners for a session under the slogan ‘I am a funder, ask me anything’. It is the second time Civitates organises such a Q&A session that allowed funders to get impressions about the imminent questions grantee partners have in relation to grant-making in general. A guest-speaker and a senior legal adviser from the International center for not-for-profit law (ICNL), Vanja Škorić, joined the conversation with the grantees and shared, visions, tools, and publications on how EU law can be used to protect civil society actors.

The second day of the online get-together was dedicated to discussing challenges and solutions to common problems our grantee partners face.

Advocacy for civil society inclusion in the pandemic recovery

With Covid-19 a lot of European countries have seen the introduction of tough measures and restrictions. It is to civil society organisations, however, to monitor the developments and prevent the state from imposing unnecessary limitations. A task that proves to be easier said than done when everybody is working from home and gatherings aren’t welcomed. Hoping that nobody is watching, some governments have tried to change laws and introduce measures that have nothing to do with public health, for example, the recent developments in Hungary and in Poland. CSOs fear that human-rights and democracy may not be receiving the necessary attention as it is difficult to advocate for anything that isn’t Covid-19-related at the moment as the public and the media are preoccupied with the pandemic. Having this in mind, the challenge for CSOs is to stay ‘attractive’, cut through the noise, and beat the algorithm to be able to draw attention to matters important to democracy.

Our grantee partners shared that to be able to advocate, CSOs should use the situation to present the role of civil society in different fields, engage constantly with people and communities using hope-based communication, and focus on long-term opportunities so as not to lose momentum.

Online activism

A common question among CSOs is how to get the same impact online as offline, how to motivate people to be active especially when everybody is tired of sitting in front of their computer screens. Keeping media connections alive is key but also challenging in a world of online events. A common frustration is that although there are multiple tools for online engagement, most CSOs aren’t confident they are using them in the best possible way. Technical questions popped up in the conversation but not about the common technical challenges we all face, but about how to involve people in online activism that may not have the needed tech skills. To do all these successfully, the group shared that the best practice is to explain, explain, and then explain again before the start of the event how a given tool works. Preparing the content is of utmost importance, but so is assigning concrete tasks to team members and selecting tools/platforms that have an added value to the content of the event and the outcome one is hoping for.

Hope-based communication

The pandemic shouldn’t silence CSOs’ voices and communication is key. Even if it is a short memo, it can still help CSOs further their causes. Lack of hope and long-term vision in society make the task difficult but not impossible. To show that it isn’t only politicians who create the future, it is essential to break the negative narrative and send out a positive message, agreed our grantee partners. Among best practices, the grantees named collaboration with local media, defining your audience and finding ways to engage ‘the undecided middle’, giving more examples of how CSOs contribute to a better society and emphasising that such society is both possible and needed.

Coalitions going local

The levels of civic engagement differ within country regions with areas outside of the bigger cities being usually less active. It is mainly because it is more difficult to mobilise local groups and get them out of their comfort zones. Another reason is that in some areas there are no NGOs active in the field of democracy. How then to engage these groups that are traditionally difficult to mobilise in times of a pandemic? A solution could be to partner with local organisations that have a different focus such as education, for example. Other approaches could be to start small with training, consultation, or even a small donation for a local project to increase the capacity of the people living in the region. With time, CSOs could build a reliable partnership in the region and thus, reach and engage more people. The effort is important because regions outside of the big cities are usually underrepresented in civic networks and cooperation and as a result have lower levels of activism. Civil society actors need everybody on board as change is impossible without a joint effective response.

Information about the convening

Within the framework of Funding Plus, Civitates regularly gathers its grantees to foster cooperation and cross-border networking. This was the fourth meeting with the grantees working for a strong and resilient civil society.

Due to the Covid-19 crisis, the convening was held online, spread over two afternoons (2 and 3 November 2020). Thanks to our facilitators from Kumquat Consult the discussions were almost just as engaging as when in person.