Foundations in Central and Eastern Europe Regaining strength

Promoting democracy is one of the focal points of the Körber Foundation, which was early engaged in Central and Eastern Europe
Promoting democracy is one of the focal points of the Körber Foundation, which was early engaged in Central and Eastern Europe | Photo (detail): © Körber-Stiftung/David Ausserhofer

Under socialism, there was no place for civic engagement based on self-determined purposes. In the meantime, the foundation system in many countries of Central and Eastern Europe has been awakened to new life.

After 1945, the idea of the foundation had almost completely disappeared from the view of people in Central and Eastern Europe. Its resurgence in post-socialist societies has been observable for some time now, as has also a political and cultural transformation that should not be underestimated. Targeted projects of individual Western foundations, such as the Robert Bosch Foundation and the Körber Foundation, already showed the possibilities that existed in the region for foundation work before 1990. The region lacked, however, the social as well as the legal, political and economic conditions for fostering its own private foundations sector. Moreover, even before 1945, there were only comparatively few foundations in Central and Eastern Europe. This was due to the unstable political conditions and the sometimes desolate economic situation, but also to a historical scepticism about the foundation model.

Poland and Slovenia reactivated old laws

Nevertheless, attempts to revive this sector could already be seen in the 1980s. In 1984, Poland enacted a new foundation law, which was based on an earlier one from the 1920s. In parts of former Yugoslavia, for instance in Slovenia, a dead-letter law was reactivated. But the breakthrough of the foundation sector in the region is indebted to the Hungarian-born American investor George Soros, who, as an adherent of the philosopher Karl Popper, looked upon an open society as essential for the transformation of political culture. Beginning in 1988 in Hungary, Soros founded “Open Society Foundations” throughout the 1990s in several countries of the region and endowed them with substantial resources. Their objectives include civic education and the promotion of civil society.

After 2000, other American and European foundations set up special programmes for Central and Eastern Europe. Scholarships for young academics, such as those from the Alexander von Humboldt-Foundation and the exchange programme of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, made possible study visits in the West. The European Foundation Centre (EFC) tried with some success to combine the process of transformation with the development of a foundation culture. Yet in the eyes of many Central and Eastern Europeans these efforts were initially felt to be foreign bodies. One attempt at a deeper anchoring was the establishment in 1991 of the Foundation for Polish-German Cooperation (SDPC) with its headquarters in Warsaw. It originated in the permission granted by the German government to use a large part of the Polish currency debt to fund projects of reconciliation and cooperation.

Development of an independent civil society

The Czech Republic went significantly beyond this by transferring a large part of the proceeds from the privatization of the state enterprises into a foundation investment fund, which helped to strengthen the capital base of new foundations. Decisive in this was the demand, repeatedly raised by Václav Havel, the first president of the Czech Republic, that it should be regarded as a duty of the state in such an historical situation to promote the development of an independent civil society.

It was obvious that private funds would not suffice for the foreseeable future. However, in nearly all the countries of Central and Eastern Europe in the 1990s, legal frameworks were created along modern civil society lines. To this purpose, these countries sought expert advice and compared their laws with Western ones. They thereby generally adopted a narrow American understanding of foundations in the sense of pure sponsorship, while authoritarian patterns of thought were still alive in their administrative bodies. These difficulties were surmounted by a political will that was predominantly oriented to civil society. Model databases such as Klon in Poland, a database on non-governmental organisations, and foundation directories additionally promoted the development.

Although still not comparable in size to its Western counterparts, the foundation sector has again gained a foothold in all the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Today it faces the same political and economic challenges as does the foundation sector of Western Europe.