On the hazards of NGO grant applications
OLEG SHARIPKOV: Why do NGOs submit such foolish and expensive projects to grant-making contests?
Oleg Sharipkov, executive director of the Penza community foundation ‘Civil Union’, addresses questions which have arisen following the publication of NGO applications to regional grant-making contests.
On social networks and in the press they have received, to put it mildly, mixed reviews, which boils down to the fact that the applications are not only useless and laughable, but also contain repeatedly inflated budgets. Talk has turned to both corruption in the allocation of budget funds, and the lack of results of previously distributed grants. Sharipkov outlines four points to keep in mind when discussing grant contests and their participants.
1. Distribution of local grants for NGO projects has become much more transparent in recent years
In 2014, for the first time, all projects submitted by NGOs to local grant-making contests were published online. At the time, this went virtually unnoticed, drawing neither media nor public attention. On Facebook two or three people commented on my post about it. Before this, projects were not published online, the commission consisted solely of government officials (or at best included one ‘public figure’), and in fact everything was decided by one official.
In 2009 Penza region’s NGO Coordinating Council prepared a document entitled ‘Corruption in the allocation of funds for NGO projects’. This caused some commotion in the relevant offices. Following this, in 2010 I wrote a long article entitled ‘NGO sector thrown back ten years’, which detailed how and to whom money intended for Penza NGOs was allocated. We made a number of enquiries to local government officials, but could not find out who received funds earmarked for NGOs! Our requests were met with non-committal replies. Nobody, even when directly requested, provided a list of NGOs which have received funding.
In 2011-2012 the situation began to improve, with requests yielding lists of winners and even details of the amounts received, but this showed that the lion’s share of the budget found its way to a few organisations. The situation relating to the distribution of grants only began to change for the better in 2013. This was driven by the Ministry of Economic Development’s recommendations on conducting NGO contests, local public prosecutor requirements, the attitude of some local government officials and our own modest efforts.
Today I would characterise the situation as more or less decent, comparable to other regions. But of course, it is still far, for example, from the Ministry of Economic Development’s grant allocation procedures.
2. Many local NGOs are not inclined to make their applications more qualitative
In 2007 presidential grants were distributed. In the first year, grant administrators and procedures had not yet been established, creating a strangely anarchic situation. It seemed as though nobody was in control and every NGO could win. But by the following year the financial flows had been reined in.
‘Peak opacity’ in local contests occurs around the proposal writing stage, with many NGOs having begun to ignore experience and knowledge about creating social projects. For example, NGO attendance even at complimentary seminars has significantly decreased. Indeed, why learn something and come up with good projects when you can take a shortcut and befriend the official. This does not necessarily mean that NGOs are giving ‘kickbacks’. It simply indicates the need for loyalty and participation in all initiatives run by the authorities.
Yet another fad is being at the forefront of contemporary discourse. For example, today money is given to projects focused on traditional values, protecting families, Crimea, patriotism (always focused on the military), anticorruption, free and fair elections, picketing shops selling particular products such as foreign cheese etc. Here intelligence and imagination are not necessary, with the main requirement being to follow the trend and provide some sort of budget.
This is why, now applications have begun to be posted online and society has demonstrated a slight interest in them, we see such ridiculous and foolish projects with inflated budgets.
3. Local NGO projects have already exhausted originality
A little about how NGOs are financed. Money is only ever given for projects. Or this is almost always the case. Of course, there are private contributions and donations from businesses, but in Penza they are not enough, and certainly not enough for the development of an organisation. All these local donations go entirely to current activities – caring for children, helping kitties, presents in children’s homes. But what about if you need to buy a printer because the old one is broken or you never had one in the first place, or you need to pay your accountant because the complicated accounting procedures for NGOs are simply beyond a layman’s understanding?
An organisation which has been drawing up and implementing project after project for many years, each generally lasting up to a year, finds itself on the brink of exhaustion. The pressure is constant, and should it fail to submit an application or win a grant, staff must be dismissed. Finding replacements is then extremely difficult.
It is practically impossible to find charities, foundations or government programmes offering funding for the development of organisations: the purchase of office equipment and furniture, repairs to facilities, and employee salaries. Even for the installation of a telephone, no one is willing to give.
Therefore NGOs categorise all expenses as being integral to the development of current projects. For one a computer, for another a smartphone. It is also common practice to try to attach new projects to existing ones. And so their projects are not as sparkling as they were; it is impossible to keep the sparkle for 10-15 years continuously.
4. The majority of NGOs lack reasons to be transparent and accountable, and the media have no motive to obtain information about their activities
Since some NGOs clearly focus on ‘fashionable’ projects tied to political discourse which do not involve delivering social services, or they are paid for loyalty, this fact must somehow be covered up. Therefore there are no websites, no mentions in the press, and no public reports, regardless of the fact that they received money.
Until recently this worked. For example, according to our figures, in Penza only around 40 NGOs (of 444 in total) have their own website, of which fewer than 20 are updated. Roughly the same statistics apply to recipients of presidential grants. Annual financial and programme reports are virtually absent from these websites. Our latest report on the state of civil society discusses this in detail.
The media on both a local and national scale write about NGOs along the following lines: “Penza region receives 3.24 million roubles for NGO projects. The Anglers’ Association will hold a bream festival, the Association of Alien Spotters will teach locals to catch signals from Mars, and the Organisation of Young Sycophants will spend the whole year brown-nosing in the City Council and Legislative Assembly”. Meanwhile stories about local NGOs are generally only televised on public holidays.
There are different reasons for this, including both the lack of resources enabling NGOs to write an article themselves for inclusion in a newspaper, and the unwillingness of journalists to delve into the problems of NGOs.
What is the result?
Firstly, I am extremely happy that finally someone other than us is interested in NGOs and their projects. For this, my sincere thanks go to all journalists, bloggers and active citizens!
Secondly, I have concrete suggestions which I have already written about on social media.
1. We must wait for the commission’s decision on the distribution of subsidies to NGOs, and look at the list of winners and their projects.
2. Let’s ask those organisations which win to make their annual programme and financial reports available online. We are ready to provide our website for this.
3. Let’s arrange a public presentation of the winning projects (granted, this would stretch on for days) and a presentation of their results (which would likely be much shorter).
4. The media should write about what every winner does (and does not do) within their project.
5. I also suggest (and maybe we will do this) creating an informal association of bona fide NGOs. The main membership criterion would be publishing annual financial and programme reports online.
Sadly, it seems this was the last large-scale contest for NGO subsidies. The programme through which money for the support of NGOs was transferred to the region has closed, and there are unlikely to be any local programmes. But now the region has time to make future contests more transparent and effective.