At the limits of sustainability: how CSOs struggled to work in 2021

What problems did CSOs face in 2021, what support did they lack and how did they survive the crisis? New survey results tell the story.


Around 900 heads of CSOs in different regions of Russia took part in the survey. It was done by The Centre for Research into Civil Society and the Non-profit Sector of the Higher School of Economics and the Agency for Social Information. It assessed six aspects of reliability of CSOs – finances, organisation, staffing, IT, communication work and reputation.

Main problems

The survey showed that in 2021 the main challenge for CSOs was lack of funding, though the indicator has decreased from previous years: during the crises of 2008 and 2014 the number of CSOs complaining of a lack of funds was steady at about 60%, now 48% say they are experiencing a lack of funds, says Irina Mersiyanova, Director of the Centre for Research into Civil Society and the Non-profit Sector of the Higher School of Economics. The second most widely experienced problem was shortage of qualified personnel, affecting 16% of those polled. Some of these said they could not take on specialists because of a lack of funds. Other problems cited were changing legal frameworks, lack of good management, psychological problems in the team, and constantly growing demands for CSO services. CSOs also mentioned a lack of support from potential sponsors and business (27%), local authorities (26%), and the public (19%).

Worsening problems

Some respondents said the pandemic had not made problems faced by CSOs worse. Others said the opposite. Half said they lacked financial resources. Elena Topoleva, of the Agency for Social Information, said that of course finance was important, but she did not agree that it was the most important factor in stable working. She thought motivationwas the main factor. 

8% said they increasingly felt that their work was pointless. 7% said they lacked motivation, and 5% were burned out. Staffing was a problem, especially finding replacements for staff who leave. Maintaining staff members’ emotionalcommitment was becoming more difficult. 

Members of CSOs commented that not being able to work directly (face-to-face) with beneficiaries had been a crisis for staff and volunteers, affected motivation and had led some to stop volunteering altogether. Other points made were lack of communication with companies, greater demands from donors, impossibility of doing strategic planning, pandemic-imposed constraints on work and low technical skills.

Where did help come from?

In the first half of the year 87% of NGOs who responded expected support. Mainly from state authorities at any level, or from business and the population. 58% of CSO heads banked on help from local authorities, 36% from regional authorities, and 20% from central government. Only 9% did not expect help from anywhere. Topoleva said that CSOs turn to federal authorities not so much for funds as for a “signal”, in the form of legislation that supports their work. She did not think that the federal or regional authorities would reduce their support for CSOs. Not everyone agreed – 

Yury Belanovsky, head of Danilovtsy, a voluntary organisation, did not agree – he said the pandemic meant that there was less money for the state budget. So government funding would decrease and spending would be on high priority matters. 

Some organisations said they only survived thanks to presidential grants. Many CSOs said the best support came from tax incentives, state grants and changes in the law. But others were critical of bureaucracy and lack of help from business.

The new world

74% of CSOs said they had changed their way of working. 42% had managed to adapt to new ways, 39% had partly managed, and 16% had not managed to adapt. Only 22% said they had planned the changes they made, while 45% said some changes were planned, others were spontaneous. Among the most common changes were moving to on-line working (41%), organising events remotely (32%), and redistributing tasks between staff (24%). One of the biggest challenges had been lack of IT equipment. Topoleva suggested that greater cooperation between CSOs was important for them to function more effectively.


More than half of those surveyed found their work in 2021 “satisfying”. Interviewers said that CSO leaders spoke more willingly about “external factors” such as improvements to the legislative framework, professional education and so on, but less about “internal” matters, such as their relations with the authorities, improving management, and staffing. This was seen by Mersiyanova as possibly a lack of understanding of management issues. Experts felt that it was important for sustainability that internal issues were understood: if an organisation has self-confidence, it will interact better with donors and partners, get better funding and improve its reach.

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