The Carpathian Foundation Slovakia – Enabling environment for skill learning and civic engagement in Eastern Slovakia

Publication date: 21 Aug 2023

We interviewed Laura Dittel, the Executive Director of our Slovak partner, the Carpathian Foundation Slovakia, to learn about the organisation’s projects and achievements in the last few years as well as goals for the future.

TGE: Could you describe your organisation’s mission and key objectives in a few words?

The Foundation was established more than 28 years ago, which is a pretty long history within Slovak conditions, where modern NGOs started to grow only after the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Our original name was Fund for the Development of the Carpathian Euroregion, and we were operating in bordering areas of five countries (Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Ukraine) and supporting mainly cross-border cooperation between active people, NGOs and local self-governments in this most complex euroregion of Europe. It was way before most of these countries became members of the EU, so we did some important pioneer work in helping to build a spirit of cooperation, unity and solidarity.

Three Carpathian Foundations remained active from those times – Carpathian Foundation Hungary and Carpathian Foundation Ukraine. Both of them are the closest and most important partners for us in our activities and efforts.

Nowadays, the Carpathian Foundation Slovakia is an independent grant-making organization focusing mainly on Eastern Slovakia with a mission to make this region a place where people and organizations have accepted responsibility for their actions and their region, are actively improving the world around them, respect and help each other and work together for a better future. All our programs are designed to lead towards higher responsibility on individual and community level.

TGE: The scope of your activities has grown immensely in the past few years. Can you elaborate on the process and give some examples of recent activities and developments?

The Foundation went through  “childhood” in the first couple of years very cautiously, when we were learning how to help this region in the best possible way. We were always carefully listening to the needs of and considering our “clients” as well as our partners when designing our grant schemes. Grant-making has always been the most important instrument, often complemented with training, technical assistance and meaningful networking to multiply the effects of every invested euro.

The last four to five years were very busy and very fruitful for us. We re-visited our strategy and focussed our work on 4 main thematic areas that are most important for the region: 1. Development of civil society and active communities, 2. Education – non-formal education and innovation and inclusion in formal education system 3. Development of marginalized Roma communities mainly through early childhood development, work with families and women, including their empowerment for better chances to succeed in the job market, 4. Development of individual and corporate philanthropy and CSR.

The third thematic pillar includes a new pilot project called UPre Women which is based on an Indian example – Women with Wheels. It is empowering Indian women from slums to become professional drivers and work in a social enterprise providing taxi services for women by women. We used this inspirational concept and designed our own capacity-building and employability program for women from marginalized Roma communities to empower them, build their self-esteem, enable them to gain livelihoods and transform their lives, but also to eliminate the prevailing harmful stereotypes about them.

Our internal development was extremely sped up by Covid-19, and we completely changed our internal functioning. We started to be more skilled in using the advantages of technologies, adopted agile management, changed our internal structure and processes and even the organizational structure and management. The Foundation has always had a very flat structure, but from the beginning of 2023, we divided the leadership between two directors – where one is responsible for internal management and the other more for external relations. It was really important as our team grew from 5 people to 22 during the past couple of years, the number of our programs tripled, and our budget is larger than ever (although we are still considered to be tiny in comparison with other TGE partners).

The full-scale war in Ukraine put all of us into a very new situation where it was crucial to act fast. We never planned to be a humanitarian organization, but we wanted to be part of the needed response to this terrible situation. We quickly developed a new fundraising plan and rapid response programs for local players helping refugees, and we also started a humanitarian aid program in the first week of the invasion. These programs are still in place, to date, we have funded more than 50 local organizations serving communities in the region and helped more than 14000 Ukrainian refugees in eastern Slovakia. Our humanitarian aid is being delivered to Western Ukraine on a weekly basis. We are not planning to stop all this work until it is no longer needed, mainly as we see the fundamental roles the NGOs play in handling the situation.

TGE: Could you briefly give us an overview of the Slovakian non-profit sector? What is the space for cross-border giving, and what are the main topics of interest?

The non-profit non-governmental sector in Slovakia was, in fact, established only after the change of the communist regime. Before, some kind of quasi NGOs existed and were tolerated by the regime, but they were extremely controlled and centralized in forced structures. The sector today is really rich, consisting of different types of organizations dealing with a variety of topics, solving different problems, serving different target groups and overall, it is fairly well developed. We have thousands of small grass-roots organizations and informal groups but also a good number of well-established professional organizations partnering with the government as well as strong watchdogs and think-tanks fulfilling the important roles in controlling the state and fulfilment of the rule of law.

However, the whole sector is extremely underfinanced, and that has a negative impact on its capabilities. Many of these organizations became extremely dependent on European funding schemes as the only relevant funding source. This is often forcing mission-driven organizations to adjust to calls and funding conditions, which is not ideal in terms of staying true to their missions. Corporate fundraising is a viable but also a difficult way of raising funds due to non-existing tax incentives. However, this is slowly changing, and the majority of companies are using tax assignation (a unique phenomenon existing only in Slovakia for businesses) to support the work of NGOs. The same instrument is available for individuals, just like in some other post-communist European countries such as Hungary or Poland. Individual fundraising is a relatively new way of getting funds for non-profit projects, and it is growing systematically, as reported by online fundraising portals. The last crisis caused by Covid-19 and the war showed that individual donors can be mobilised in larger numbers around an appealing cause.

Slovakia is probably the only country in the post-communist bloc that has the Governmental Plenipotentiary for Civil Society Development, a kind of special advisor to the government on issues related to NGOs but also acts as a bridge between these two worlds. Moreover, a permanent consultancy body – the Governmental Council for Non-Governmental organizations – has been in place for more than 10 years. It is a platform for discussing issues related to NGOs but also the involvement of civil society in development of policies.

TGE: When did you decide to join TGE, and what was the incentive? Could you share the main accomplishments of your TGE initiatives?

Non-existent tax incentives for donors is very much a determining factor for cross-border giving. Slovak donors are not particularly interested to give their money away abroad, and they are still very cautious about giving in general. However, as mentioned, extraordinary situations are creating extraordinary opportunities, and we have had our first donor from Slovakia donating to another country during the Covid-19 pandemic, to the WHO Covid fund administered by our Swiss TGE partner. The amount was more than €50.000, and it was donated by a Slovak company Dedoles, who considered this as the best investment. The potential recipients – beneficiaries registered in countries where TGE is present other than Slovakia are not campaigning for donors here in Slovakia, and thus this situation will probably not change any time soon.

The Foundation conducted a couple of information campaigns raising awareness among Slovakian NGOs about TGE and its potential to gain funding from abroad but without much interest. Last year we started a new campaign targeted to potential beneficiaries – Slovak NGOs but also cultural and educational institutions with non-profit status in Slovakia. We have undertaken various activities to attract their attention and show them the advantages of cross-border fundraising, but the response is not dramatically high. The campaign is still ongoing, we have already undertaken direct mailing, personal meetings, discussion panels during events, including a large fundraising conference, and we are going to undertake more communication activities in collaboration with umbrella organizations and do some more social media campaigning.

We feel that the right moment for organizations in Slovakia to adequately use the benefits of TGE is still not here and that the Slovak non-profit sector needs some more time to dive into this specific field of fundraising, which definitely requires special expertise, networks and of course, resources.

TGE: What are the next steps for the Carpathian Foundation Slovakia? Are there any particular projects you plan to undertake?

Slovakia is on the cross-roads, like every time before parliamentary elections ( 😊 ). We will see in the beginning of October whether we go forward or backwards in every possible field, including the development of the third sector and its place in the Slovak society. In case the populists and extremists will be creating a new government with a majority of parliament seats, the sector has to get prepared for radical changes and shrinking space for its work – following the Hungarian model.

This is a threatening trajectory, and that is why the non-profit sector is (again) mobilizing and campaigning to attract mainly the interest of young people and first-time voters, and inspiring them to vote. As a member of the NGO Platform for Democracy, Carpathian Foundation is part of this non-partisan, but still political campaign, and we hope for a fair result.

A lot of plans are ahead of us. This year we started cooperating with UNICEF on a large grant-making and capacity-building program enabling access to inclusive education for Ukrainian children but also children with disadvantages and additional needs. This program is the key step that helps us make this place in Europe a better place to live for everyone. These words mean a lot to us considering the huge brain-drain from the region and the country and that young people are leaving and not coming back.

Our role is really creating an enabling environment for positive development and changes that give people hope, empower them to use their skills and power towards real activism and inspire them to be “the ones we have been waiting for” (taken from a slogan of the movement For Decent Slovakia formed after the murder of a journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancé Martina Kušnírová that made the ruling government accountable for developments in Slovakia that lead to this terrible act).