The Network of Estonian Nonprofit Organisations, or NENO for short, is the single and largest Estonian organisation uniting public benefit nonprofit organisations. It was established in 1991 as the Estonian Foundation Center and opened its membership to associations in 1994. NENO unites approximately 110 (subject to increase in coming years) large and medium-sized active and operational public benefit nonprofit organisations in Estonia from all fields. NENO’s goals are to foster development trends and provide support services to Estonian nonprofits, increase public awareness, advocate for the interests of its members and other public benefit NGOs, and improve working relationships with the public and business sectors. Furthermore, NENO’s work is divided between three programmes: 1. the development programme, which deals with legislative creation and relationships between third and public sector, 2. the information and support programme, which deals with trainings and information sharing to strengthen NGO capacity, and 3. the membership programme, which offers various services to members like counselling.
NENO is member of AGNA. Affinity groups are groupings of CIVICUS members that exist to take forward CIVICUS’ mission and values. The Affinity Group of National Associations (AGNA) brings together national associations from around the world. National associations are those organisations, which provide and give a collective voice to civil society in their countries, serve as interlocutors between civil society and other sectors and struggle for the creation of an enabling environment for civil society at the national level.
State/civil society relations:
How does the state view and relate to civil society in your country?
Estonian civil society has heralded significant developments in almost all aspects of non-profit and civil society sustainability in recent years. Estonian non-profit organisations are regularly gaining public popularity and nurturing support from both the public and business sectors. We have already seen a number of occasions in which non-profit organisations have had a profound impact on the politics and general development of Estonia. As a result of these developments, the state has recognised the non-profit sector as an equal and important partner. Civil society organisations (CSOs) no longer wait for “the call” to participate in discussions, but rather take the initiative in policy-making and social innovation.
Have there been any significant changes in relations between civil society and the government in your country in the last year?
The year 2012 witnessed the growth of civic activism in Estonia especially in the field of advocacy. The ‘Dirty Money’ controversy involving the ruling Reform Party, mobilised people to protest on the streets and to write petitions demanding more transparency and openness in the political system. A former Member of Parliament (MP) of the ruling Reform Party, wrote in a newspaper article in May, that in 2009-10 the party’s secretary general, currently the Minister of Justice, asked him to donate 7,600 euros of unknown origin to the party. He claimed that dozens of members had donated funds to the party in a similar fashion, including other MPs.
Although the party rejected the accusations and the subsequent criminal investigation was ended 5 months later due to a lack of hard evidence, the wider public did not find the party’s denials convincing. The protest movement that followed continued to grow, resulting in street demonstrations in several Estonian towns, petitions demanding more transparency in party funding and more dialogue and openness in the political system.
Civil society issues have been widely discussed in the media from different angles. At the same time the public sector’s willingness to respond to the needs and complexity of the CSO sector has decreased. While the Estonian civil society has become more active in advocacy, the public authorities have become less responsive, especially at the national level and in Tallinn, the capital and largest local government of Estonia. The increase of activism is especially visible in the form of non-formal networks of like-minded people such as the Estonian Internet Community (who organised a wide-spread protest against the multinational treaty, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which was seen as breaching the freedom of expression and privacy) or the ‘Anti-Deceitfulness’ movement.
A network known as the ‘Government Guards’, coordinated by think tank Praxis, Open Estonia Foundation and Estonian Public Broadcasting, was formed in January, to follow the government’s progress in fulfilling its action plan for the current four-year term. CSOs and experts from all walks of life evaluate the execution of 536 pledges written into government’s coalition agreement, publishing their findings regularly on the www.valvurid.ee website.
What conditions do you feel need to be in place to allow for a good relationship between the state and civil society at a national level?
The Estonian Civil Society Development Concept (EKAK in Estonian), initiated by CSOs and adopted by the parliament in 2002, serves as an agreement about cooperation principles between civic initiative and public authorities. EKAK is a document that defines the mutually complementary roles of public authorities and civic organisations, and lays out principles and mechanisms for cooperation in shaping and implementing public policies and building civil society in Estonia. When those principles are followed then we can talk about a good relationship between the state and civil society. For more information, see The Estonian Civil Society Development Concept in English
The legal and regulatory environment:
Are there any particular challenges with the legal and regulatory environment for civil society? (e.g. are the laws outdated / inappropriate / inadequate / over-complex / partial / not properly applied / adequate)?
The legal environment for CSOs did not change in 2012. However, many stakeholders feel that it does not respond to the growing needs and complexity of a quickly developing CSO sector.
Social enterprises – an emerging trend where organisations use market-based strategies for social ends – in particular, feel uncertain about their status, as no specific legal forms exist for them. The law permits non- profit organisations to engage in economic activities unless these are “the objective or main activity” for the organisation. Theoretically, an organisation violating this article can be dissolved by a court; however, there is currently no precedent for such decision.
Some organisations feel that the status of volunteers in CSOs needs to be clarified in the law.
No progress was made regarding the public sector’s and CSOs’ different interpretations of CSO eligibility for tax benefits. According to the law, an organisation has to be charitable and operate in the public interest to be included on the government’s list of CSOs eligible to receive tax benefits. CSOs advocate for the removal of the charity clause from the requirements, since the Tax and Custom Board interprets this term narrowly, rejecting organisations that do not provide their target groups with goods or services for free. There are approximately 2000 organisations in the list.
What recent trends do you feel have enabled or restricted the efficiency of civil society?
The main problem for CSOs in terms of organisational capacity is the lack of people in a country with a population of just 1.3 million. While the number of new organisations grows by approximately 1500-2000 every year, the amount of people involved in CSOs has remained more or less stable at around one third of the population. This means that the ‘average’ CSO has become smaller every year and CSO leaders are often juggling huge workloads. One third of CSOs in Estonia have less than 10 members and only one fifth have more than 50 members. Approximately 40% of the population participate in organised volunteer activities (e.g. every year approximately 30,000 people attend the popular “Let’s Do It!” community work day in the beginning of May), but only 6% does it on regular basis.
Target groups are generally well acknowledged – as a rule, CSOs evolve from the groups they represent. More attention should be paid to constant communication between CSO leaders and stakeholders. In some cases these channels function well, in others the members and beneficiaries would rather leave the decision making for leaders and become more active only when they are not satisfied with organisation’s work.
Funding environment for CSOs:
What is the reality of funding in your country? (Access to funding/ patterns of donor support/ restrictions on funding etc.)
Project grants are the prevalent type of funding, while institutional grants are more common on the local level and in some ministries (e.g. for youth and cultural organisations). In addition to sectoral funders (such as The Council of Gambling Tax, Environmental Investment Center etc.) there are two foundations that focus specifically on CSO capacity building and civil society development as a whole: the National Foundation for Civil Society (financed from state budget) and NGO Fund (financed by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway). The latter launched a new four-year funding period in the end of 2012.
As public funding has not yet recovered to pre-crisis levels, many CSOs turn their eyes towards the private sector. Social entrepreneurship and other means of earning income from economic activities as well as collecting donations are increasingly prevalent. There is training available as well as support opportunities for starting these activities.
A working group of public sector and CSO representatives have put together new guidelines for harmonising the principles of public funding for CSOs. This concept focuses both on project as well as institutional funding. The draft concept was published for consultations in fall 2012 and in the beginning of 2013 these guidelines will be tested in some ministries and local governments before being presented to the government for approval. A series of training sessions in this field was also launched at the end of year for public officials at the national and local levels.
Generally Estonian CSOs tend to stick by the same funding schemes that they have previously used and do not think of alternatives unless there is a pressing need. According to 2010 data, approximately half of all Estonian CSOs receive funds from three or more sources, while roughly one fifth are funded from a single source. Financial management systems are in place in organisations that are active on a daily basis, while many others act on project-to-project basis and cease their activities if no funding is currently available.
Where is money going and for what purposes?
The majority of CSO funding comes from domestic sources, mostly local governments and national foundations. Approximately 7 million Euros is designated directly for different non- profit organisations from the state budget in forms of project grants and institutional support. However, in addition to CSOs this figure includes the funding for non- profits established and controlled by public authorities. CSOs can also apply for funding from various competitive grants, some of which are meant solely for CSOs, while in other cases CSOs have to compete with private companies and public sector organisations.
A study conducted a few years ago showed that more than two thirds (out of 226) of Estonian local governments outsourced at least some of their public services to CSOs, mostly in the fields of social services, culture, sport and other hobby-related activities, youth work, etc.
Currently the number of private donations from both individuals and companies is approximately 20 million Euros. Charities for children and animal shelters are particularly successful in financing their activities from donations. Membership fees are mostly symbolic and provide little income.