Bulgarian Donor’s Forum: can the rest of us do it as well?

While, over the years, there were lot of attempts to create functioning donors’ forums in Western Balkans countries, I don’t know of any example (if you do, please share) that it really worked both in terms of time as well as achieving their purpose. Now, when so many of the foreign donors left (or are in the process of leaving), it seems that – in most of the countries – we even stop attempting to create such forums.

And that’s pity, because functioning donors forum can have even more important role now, when we have local philanthropic organizations and entities, and why not, individual philanthropists. Promoting and advocating for philanthropy would be much more successful with combination of local players – such as foundations and corporations; not to say anything about supporting local donors to give more effectively. And, Bulgarian Donors Forum proves this!

Not only that BDF is very active, but corporations comprise majority of their membership and it’s quite respected and popular: the number of applications for membership steadily grows! So here is some useful info on how and what BDF does and succeeds, what are its challenges and dilemmas.  

Moving with the times

As Krasimira Velichkova, BDF Director says, back in 2003 BDF did really start as an initiative of 10 grantmaking organizations (mostly foreign), with (no surprise there) the idea to develop civil society as well as to establish network among donors. However, when many of them left the country or stop grantmaking activities, people in BDF noticed that – in terms of amounts – the biggest player in the field of giving were actually Bulgarian companies and corporations that started to invest in community projects. BDF moved with the times, and in 2007started to invite corporations to become members, while mission of the Forum changed to reflect new circumstances: to contribute to the development of a positive public attitude towards philanthropy. The BDF will work for the development of philanthropy, by improving the legal and fiscal environment for philanthropy, providing a platform for cooperation among the donors and supporting the coordination of their donor policies.

What does BDF actually do?

BDF works in four key areas.

Creating enabling environment for philanthropists is one of the most important. Krasi says: “We work on advocacy initiatives…but it’s very important to note that different issues for which we are advocating are coming from our members: they signal to us what issues/challenges they have. We then start researching that area, building our knowledge and then campaigning. For example last year we managed to change regulations about SMS donations, SMS’s for public benefit campaigns are free of VAT. Also, one of the issues that we are working on in the last couple of years is so-called hidden advertising in the media (media don’t mention the name of donors as it is considered hidden advertising). We are working with Parliament on changing the laws and regulations as well as Council of Electronic Media, relevant Ministry… While Council has changed the policy and is not fining media if they mention names of the corporations and foundations when they’ve invested in public benefit issues, we are still working on changing the regulations.”

She adds: “We always search and find partners for our advocacy efforts, other CSOs, foundations, corporations.”

Much of BDF efforts are directed toward working with media to improve public perception on philanthropy. Working with media is not easy, Krasi explains: “We keep trying to find different angles in promoting philanthropy – just to say it’s good thing to do is not a good approach in our experience.”

So, to attract media’s attention, BDF organizes a number of annual high-profile public events (such as Annual Philanthropy Conference, a competition for Top Corporate Philanthropist etc.).

It also creates various publications. Such is e.g. Encyclopedia of giving – history of philanthropic giving in Bulgaria 1878 – 1951. But, equally importantly BDF distributes the stories from Encyclopedia every two weeks on one of the most visited online media; the stories are read by average 10,000 readers per article. BDF also publishes an annual report on trends in philanthropy in Bulgaria in cooperation with National Revenue Office, does an Annual poll about philanthropy etc.  As Krasi says: “Media like facts, trends and numbers…”

She further points out: “The important thing about media is that we have personal connections with editors and directors – it took us 4 years and it’s constant effort because they are changing. The work with media is about developing those relations and keep your contacts updated, always answering the questions: So what? What difference does it make when someone makes the donation? At the same time, we are informing them of what we are doing, but also what are members are investing in.”

BDF also works hard to help and support its members to be more effective in their giving. Their members receive standard service offer (membership package) but also individual services such as trying to find best partners, or best projects in areas in which they want to invest. While they are providing that service to their members they are also open to help individual people who call them and say that they want to give 100EUR for education, and to whom they should give it? Finally, BDF also works to help local CSOs to raise their capacities for fundraising from local donors.

How does the whole thing functions?

BDF is membership organization, governed by General Assembly that is comprised of all members. GA selects Board of Trustees who meets more often and – among other things – decides on new members. Board works closely with BDF Director and staff. BDF also allow observers, but they do not have voting rights.

Members pay annual flat rate as membership fee – which means it doesn’t matter how big or small company is, they all pay the same amount. Foundations pay smaller amount, but even observers have to pay something for the privilege of being associated with BDF work.

I’ve asked Krasi what she thinks is most useful for their members? In other words, what’s in it for them? She says that “for corporations it’s advising on partnerships and advising on their community investment programs; for foundations it’s linking them with partners/corporations as well as advocacy.”

Why is it successful?

Explaining why is BDF so successful, Krasi says: “there are several factors; leadership is very important: not only the team and me but also the Board, because their involvement and readiness to support with ideas is most useful. Next, our work gives our members the feeling that there is overall direction in which BDF is going. Further, our efforts in creating better environment for donors and better attitude of the media is very much appreciated. Relations are also very important: we pay a lot of attention in nurturing personal relations with our clients. People appreciate that – at any point, on any issue I can call at least 40 people to say I have this problem and ask for their advice/help.” 

But, one of most important things, she adds is “BDF work to make efforts of their members more public and more positive and the fact that BDF gained credibility and reputation in Bulgarian public; now our members are proud to be associated with us!”

All this is not to say that BDF is not facing many challenges; like the one that is recurrent – dilemma if BDF should really work on philanthropy development or it should become only service provider, because philanthropy development is part of the mission of foundations who are also BDF members.

This I suspect might be an issue in Western Balkan countries too – in each country there are local foundations that have promotion of philanthropy as well as advocacy in their missions. So, would something like BDF be a competition? I don’t think so, because umbrella and membership organizations can do more than one foundation. And if the cooperation works well, as in Bulgaria, then everybody wins.

Krasi adds that also “variety of members and their individual interests makes things tough sometimes”. However, these are dealt with when they come up, like in every other organization. But she adds that she “would really like if there were more such organizations in the region, because we don’t have much opportunities for peer learning.” And while they are learning from other such organizations in CEE (Ukrainian forum, Romanian forum etc.), she feels that there are specific aspects of working in our region that would be useful to share.  

At the end I’ve asked Krasi if she has any recommendations for others who want to develop donor’s forums. She says: “working toward outside environment is the key.” And it seems that BDF has got that one right!

Many thanks to Krasimira Velichkova from Bulgarian Donors Forum for her time and openness. If you wish to find out more about BDF, please contact kvelichkova@dfbulgaria.org

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Aleksandra Vesic