The time and location of the interview greatly influenced which NGOs were interviewed. Most interviews were conducted in REC Local Offices, which are generally located in capital cities throughout CEE, so naturally the majority of yhe NGOs that were interviewed for this study are from capital cities. In Poland, however, interviews were conducted at a national NGO meeting in the small town of Kolumna, so most of the NGOs hailed from other large cities; and in Slovakia, most of the NGOs interviewed are from the countryside. In the end, the NGOs' location (i.e. capital city, other large urban center, rural area) doesn't seem to have much influence on other organizational characteristics.
The history of the environmental movement in Central and Eastern Europe stretches back to the decades before World War II, and in every CEE country some environmental organizations continued to exist under the supervision of the communist governments. Many of these groups were established in the 1980s by the Communist Party or as part of communist youth organizations; typically, they were associated with some type of government organization and focused on nature conservation or environmental education. The results of the interviews confirm that the NGOs that were established before 1989-90 are usually nature conservationists that focus on a particular geographical area or a particular species, or that have a background in biology and/or geography.
Unlike the mail questionnaire, the interview questionnaire differentiates between the date of creation and the date of registration. Indeed, the two dates often differ, but rarely by more than five years. A few of the NGOs were not registered at the time of the interview, a circumstance that might be a result of the selection procedure. (Unregistered NGOs are not eligible for REC grants, so REC Local Office staff members may not have been familiar with the unregistered groups when requesting interviews.)
According to the results of the interviews, NGOs of all sizes (as measured by the number of active members) exist in every country. The same is true for the size of the NGOs that were interviewed: they ranged from groups with less than ten active members to groups with more than a thousand members. Albanian, Croatian, Lithuanian and Slovenian NGOs rarely reported employing any paid staff, while NGOs from the Visegrad countries and Romania reported significantly more paid staff than the NGOs from other CEE countries.
About one-third of the NGOs that were interviewed did not report their annual budgets, making it difficult to provide a clear picture of budgetary characteristics. NGOs reported annual budgets that ranged mainly between USD 10,000 and USD 50,000, but there were large differences between countries. For instance, Albanian NGOs are relatively poor, whereas most NGOs in Romania and Poland are blessed with relatively large budgets. (Note: The results provided by the mail survey are definitely more reliable on this topic.)
The second most important activity of environmental NGOs in CEE is organizing actions and activities related to nature conservation, often in connection with biodiversity issues or with the protection of a certain species. According to the results of the interviews, organizing protest actions, campaigning, and directly lobbying government institutions are most often carried out in Hungary, Slovakia and Poland. This may be explained by the fact that many more interviews were conducted in these three countries. (The same may be said for networking and coordination activities on the national or international levels.) Topics like sustainable agriculture and ecotourism were mentioned only rarely.
Researching different environmental issues is moderately popular, but it is almost never reported as an NGO's only activity. Research is mainly conducted on biological issues or as part of an environmental education project, such as water monitoring conducted by high school students under the guidance of an NGO.
There are several reasons why NGOs choose a particular activity or topic. Although it is difficult to break down all the possible reasons into a few general categories, most NGOs reported the motivations for their own activities as follows:
It is not easy for NGOs to measure their own success. According to the interviews, the two main reasons NGOs assessed themselves as successful are: they achieved their goals, and their NGOs are growing more sustainable, or at least surviving. Some NGOs reported they were successful without actually reaching their goals.
Other criteria for measuring an NGO's success include increased levels of cooperation and networking, heightened public awareness, and recognition from governments, ministries, the public or other NGOs. Having any kind of direct environmental impact is seldom mentioned as a criterion for measuring success, and it was only mentioned a few times in Poland, Slovakia and Hungary.
Many interviewees attempted to explain why past projects or certain parts of their work had failed. According to them, the most acute problem is the lack of consistent funding for long-term projects, and for the maintenance of qualified staff and offices. Internal obstacles include interpersonal conflicts, high staff turnover and a lack of volunteers. External hindrances include troubled relationships with national governments and their institutions, conflicts with other NGOs, and effective lobbying against NGO campaigns. A few NGOs said they could not provide final results of their projects because they were still under way or because long-term results were still unavailable.
The funding sources for these NGOs are quite diverse. Nearly every group receives at least some money from external funding organizations, making them the most important source of financial resources. The REC is usually mentioned as one of the favorite financial supporters; other important funding organizations include PHARE, SOROS/Open Society Institute, EPCE and MilieuKontakt Oost-Europa. NGOs also receive financial support from foreign governments, either through foreign embassies or from NGO networks that are supported by foreign money. Most of this external support is supplied by Western governments.
The second most popular source of funding is from different types of governmental bodies. Local authorities were mentioned most frequently as financial supporters of environmental NGOs, and they often offer practical support in the form of office space and office supplies. But overall, governments in CEE do not provide much funding for the environmental movement. An exception is the situation in Hungary, where nearly every NGO that was interviewed receives financial support from the Hungarian Parliament.
About one-third of CEE NGOs receive some money from their members, but membership fees are usually very small and do not account for a significant portion of their budgets.
Two other possibilities for funding were mentioned by a few groups: sponsorship by private businesses and selling their own expertise, such as publications or research results. Corporate sponsorship seems to be somewhat more popular in Croatia, Slovenia and the Visegrad countries, but it is either considered unsatisfying or it provides only a very small part of the NGOs' budgets. Self-sustainability is not a reality (yet) for the NGOs that were interviewed for this study. Only a very few have been able to profit from their own activities.
Fund raising is considered a very important issue for most NGOs. Interviewees expressed an interest in participating in courses on fund raising, making international contacts, and acquiring additional staff experienced in fund raising. Most NGOs perceive themselves as inefficient fund-raisers and so believe they will continue to struggle to obtain the funds to necessary to continue their activities. About half of the interviewed groups have a fund-raising plan, but no relationship seems to exist between the existence of these plans and the NGOs' positive outlook on their actual financial situation. Fund raising is necessary, but most NGO members admit that they don't like it. A complaint heard frequently is that "the time and energy that we could use on our projects is wasted on fund raising." NGO's try to find practical solutions, which usually means every project leader is responsible for his/her own project and its finances. This approach results in another common complaint: no money for the maintenance and organizational integrity of the NGO itself (office space, staff and supplies). NGOs seem to find funding for specific projects, but funding is seldom continuous. Of course, this is also a result of the funding organizations that provide funds for implementing projects, but not for maintaining the NGOs themselves.
Most NGOs understand the importance of being informed about, and having contacts with, possible funders. Contacts with (local) governments, local businesses and external funders is a matter of survival. For example, one Croatian NGO has a board of important and well-known people who arrange sponsors for the NGO. Almost all NGOs mentioned their "run on grants applications and call for tenders" in order to get their projects secured. Finally, NGOs perceive fund raising as a difficult, ambivalent issue; NGOs want to be as independent as possible from political parties, businesses and government, but at the same time several groups admitted that they can use all the money they can get.
In some countries, NGOs identified their national governments as external problems because certain CEE governments have not recognized the importance of (environmental) NGOs, and usually don't allow them to get involved in social and political processes. NGOs in Slovakia, Croatia and Lithuania have negative attitudes toward their respective governments, and hope to change the unfavorable tax laws that apply to them.
Most NGOs admitted that cooperation wasn't as good as it could be, and that it could definitely be improved. The desire for more NGO cooperation, both at the national and international levels, derives from the idea that NGOs that cooperate will be stronger and reach their goals more effectively. They will also have greater access to information, training, experience and fund-raising opportunities.
NGOs identified their specific training needs on two levels. First, at the organizational level, NGOs desire training with respect to fund raising, writing project proposals, accounting, building networks, strategic planning, organizational development, lobbying and working with the media. Second, some NGOs believe that technical training on specific environmental topics will make their staff more qualified, and help their organizations operate more efficiently. These topics range from ecotourism and sustainable agriculture to ecology, water monitoring and "how to campaign."
In general, cooperation among NGOs within a given country and within CEE was perceived as a necessary component of solving environmental problems. NGOs also believe it is even more important to establish better contacts and working relationships with governmental organizations, especially with decision-makers at the national level, in order to have a real impact on the future of the environment.
Almost every NGO that was interviewed cooperates with other NGOs in their own country, at least on the level of information exchange. To conduct joint projects or organize meetings, NGOs prefer contact with local NGOs. Most NGO representatives in a given city or village know each other, although this does not necessarily guarantee that their organizations officially cooperate. Many of the Hungarian NGOs network on the national level; in other countries, national NGO networks and annual gatherings are being established. NGOs that were not able to cooperate successfully mentioned lack of time, different levels of knowledge and no potential partners working on the same issue as problems that hindered their ability to initiate any kind of cooperation.
Cooperation between NGOs from different countries is somewhat less popular than the intranational variety, but it does exist. When international cooperation does take place, East-West cooperation is slightly more common than East-East cooperation. East-West cooperation between NGOs is focused on information gathering, experience sharing, and eventually on obtaining financial support from the Western partner, while East-East cooperation mainly occurs within the framework of international NGO networks.
The interviews revealed that cooperation between NGOs and government authorities has different characteristics in each country, especially when it involves government officials at the national level. NGOs generally understand the importance of such cooperation, but only about one-third of those that were interviewed actually succeeded in establishing contact with one or more government ministries. Most NGOs do not consider ministries of environment to be very helpful or open to environmental NGOs. NGOs perceive the ministries to be manipulative, unwilling to communicate, distant and unapproachable, and they only work with NGOs when they are forced to, for example on national environmental action programs.
The best form of cooperation NGOs can hope for with national governmental authorities, especially those from ministries of environment, is mutual personal respect and a relationship based on constructive opposition. Very few NGOs have succeeded in establishing such cooperation, and when they do succeed, it is usually with ministries other than the ministry of environment. A few cases of effective cooperation with ministries of education, health, water, transport and agriculture were mentioned. One of the most common and effective types of cooperation between NGOs and national authorities is the close cooperation between nature conservationists (bird watchers, for example) and national park authorities.
The second most frequently mentioned type of cooperation is with local authorities. Although such relationships are sometimes characterized by discord, they are usually considered positive experiences that yield useful possibilities for the NGOs involved. Cooperation between NGOs and local authorities in small towns and villages is generally better than it is between similar groups from larger urban centers. An important issue for all forms of cooperation, and especially at the local level, is personal contact with influential people in city hall. Close cooperation with green party members in local parliaments is also beneficial for NGOs, according to some interviewed groups. Although contact between NGOs and local authorities is more frequent and often stronger than with national authorities, it is much more common to obtain practical or financial support than it is to establish joint projects with local authorities.
The most important criticism of the REC, both of the local offices and of head office, is that the REC doesn't concentrate enough on environmental fieldwork. Many of the NGO leaders that were interviewed opined that the REC could benefit from closer and more personal relationships with the NGO communities across CEE. REC staff, for example, could visit each NGO that receives a grant.
About half of the interviewees suggested that the planned decentralization of the REC, in favor of more responsibility and independence at the local-office level, could help to solve the communication problems some NGOs have experienced with REC Head Office. Several NGOs cited a preference for more flexible financial requirements and less bureaucracy in granting-related activities. REC publications are readily available as long as NGOs are on the REC's mailing list, though some of the groups mentioned the importance of making publications more available through REC Local Offices. Translating REC publications into local languages was also suggested as an opportunity to improve contact with the NGO movement in CEE.
Those groups that have had experience with the Junior Fellowship Program are quite satisfied with it, although some would prefer a stricter, more product-oriented approach.
Overall, the NGOs that were interviewed expressed a variety of opinions about which NGOs the REC should support. The majority of the groups, especially those from Albania and Romania, believe that the REC should support only the biggest and strongest NGOs because these groups will have a larger environmental impact. All types of NGOs working on all kinds of environmental topics expressed a need to receive support from the REC.
Interviewees believe it is important for the REC to promote all types of cooperation, both between NGOs and national governments, and between NGOs at the national and international levels.
NGO experiences with the REC were overwhelmingly positive, and many of the NGOs that were interviewed did not criticize the REC at all. If and when the REC is able to implement the NGOs' recommendations, it may well receive an even better evaluation of its performance in the future.
These international funding organizations provide environmental NGOs with grants, training, expertise, equipment and information (in the form of leaflets, books, stickers and so on), but their most important task is to provide NGOs with the funding they need to run and organize their projects. Some NGOs in Albania, Croatia, Hungary and Romania, for example, have received office equipment or grants to buy office equipment, such as video cameras, computers or fax machines. Four NGOs mentioned they once received 500 trees and some promotional material. Not surprisingly, every NGO that was interviewed wishes to continue cooperating with their current funders.
Most NGOs believe they are successful, although the justification for such a belief seldom relates to the direct environmental impact they have. Despite their perceived success, most groups also suffer from an acute lack of funding, qualified staff and equipment. The most serious problem is locating consistent funding; in other words, figuring out how to make their groups self-sustainable. In several countries the current governments are perceived as the NGOs' largest external problem. Lack of interest in environmental issues, combined with negative attitudes toward environmental NGOs and unfavorable tax laws, do not make the lives of NGOs any easier.
What funding NGOs do receive comes almost exclusively from external sources. Membership fees provide constant but relatively small incomes, and local and national governments in CEE sponsor only a small number of the NGOs that were interviewed for this study. Obviously, fund raising is a hot issue for most CEE NGOs. As for cooperation, NGOs often cooperate with local governments and with other environmental groups from their own countries, but international cooperation receives little attention. Cooperation with national governments is considered very difficult and so is all but ignored. These NGOs perceive cooperation as important to achieving their goals, and so would like the REC to help to establish more of it in the future. Almost all the groups that were interviewed reported some experience with the REC and other international funding organizations, and they provided several comments and recommendations about improving the REC's programs and services. The main criticisms of the REC are that it is too bureaucratic, and that REC staff spend too much time in their offices, rather than out in the field interacting directly with the NGO movement.
The hypothesis that organizational profiles of CEE environmental NGOs can be defined by the four distinct geographical subregions was not supported by the information gleaned in the interviews. On the contrary, the results suggest that CEE should be divided into only two parts, the first consisting of the Visegrad countries and Romania, and the second containing the remaining countries of CEE. NGOs from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia typically have larger budgets, more employees and members, better contacts with international funding organizations, and higher levels of cooperation, both with organizations and agencies in their own countries and with those in other countries. Campaigning and lobbying are practiced only by NGOs from the Visegrad countries. These trends all lead to the preliminary conclusion that the environmental movement in CEE is divided into two separate parts based on organizational characteristics and activities.