GB No. 11, spring 1993
In November of 1991 I attended a meeting of all NGOs which was held in Turawa. As an outsider watching the proceedings, I was amazed by the style. Although everyone seemed to know each other, there was very little cooperation, a lot of arguing, and no structure. There was a lot of discussion on the Service Office, the organization in which I later began to work. There was a general fear that this office would try to become an umbrella, a unified voice for a movement that had too many ideas to be covered by any centralized entity. It was later explained to me that any organization that is centralized too closely resembles communism, and anything associated with this was in no way supported by environmental NGOs.
Over the next two months I was trained on various aspects of environmental protection in Poland, including the history of environmental activism, and in February of 1992 I began working with the movement. I realized early that Poland had a strong and influencing history and that the movement was very different from anything I had worked with in the past. I asked a lot of questions and listened carefully to the answers. I was especially interested in management aspects. Fund-raising, planning, and priority setting seemed to be priorities. However suggestions that I came up with for institutional development were turned down, with the exception of writing proposals for foreign foundation assistance. A source that is known to be questionably sustainable. So let's look at some management issues and the road blocks that exist to their development.
Membership is not seriously considered, why? First, its too much work, someone has to find the members, organize dues collection, send mailers and create a data base, there is simply not enough time to handle the management of membership. Second, there is a fear that people will send in their money just so they will feel better about themselves and they will not be true environmentalists. Third, it is hard to control things when they get large, who will decide what the members can do? How can we afford to meet with the whole group? How can we get everyone to agree on an issue? Fourth, there really does not seem to be a point to it, there are no benefits. This fourth aspect is where the real break down occurs, if there is no perceived benefits to the organization, then obviously there will be no push to develop a membership base.
What are the benefits?
Membership allows an organization to have a financial base that has no restrictions. Each new member adds to the account and does not expect a proposal followed by a financial report complete with receipts to justify the use of their money. This money can be sustainable as long as the members feel that their money is being useful. Members can be informed of their successes in many ways, such as activities or campaigns that are well publicized, a newsletter or annual report, or a meeting. These forms will convince individuals that they have helped save their environment. Members can also be solicited for funds above the basic membership cost, and this can be a very good cushion should unexpected costs surface.
Members are an easy source of support when activities require volunteers. Effective campaigns reach and educate many people and this is often an impossible task for one person. Volunteering is not only helpful for the organization, but it is often very good for the volunteers as well. It gives them a sense of accomplishment, community and belonging and also allows them the opportunity to educate themselves on various issues. The organization then receives free labour, additional word-of-mouth advertising, and once the activity is completed, a new base of experienced workers.
Democracy requires participation. I have often heard activists being very angry with the ministry of the environment because the ministry does not listen to them. In a democracy, each citizen has the right to speak their opinion, but this does not guarantee that the government will listen and in reality the government does not have to listen. It is amazing that the ministry has set up methods to listen to the voices of the NGO community, but this community needs to take advantage of these opportunities. The ministry can support a program based on technical merit, but they in turn often need to get such programs supported by other ministries in the government. Expert opinions are valuable but not powerful. Yet if an expert represents a NGO that has a membership base of 10,000, they will have valuable and powerful information. Since politicians are in their positions due to an election procedure, they will want to keep their constituency happy to ensure that their job status is secure. An organization with 200 people associated with it can not easily change the results of an election or easily influence policy.
Along this same line, membership is a base for petitions, call-in and write-in campaigns. A form letter can be created for a specific issue and sent to members. These can then be filled out and sent to a certain politician. It is a powerful message of support if 10,000 letters arrive on the desk of a politician that is about to make an important policy decision. There are many benefits in a large membership, benefits that in a democratic society far outweigh the difficulties associated with its management.
Fund-raising is another management issue that needs to be addressed. In the middle of April 1992, I was phoned by an organizer of Earth Day. They were short 20 million zlotys for their upcoming event and everyone was scrambling to find last minute sponsors. The organizers were finally able to cover their needed costs by using two relatively new techniques for the Polish non-profit sector. First they made money from individual donations that were solicited through a radio fund-raising drive. Second, they received sponsorship from a local restaurant, that asked for their logo to be visible during the event. Although these methods were unconventional at the time, they have since become more popular, as was nationally noticed during a charity drive for children with heart disease.
There are many different techniques that are not used, often because of idealist views or misinformation concerning funders. Individual donations are rarely solicited because there is the feeling that Poles are too poor to donate money. However even in this country when donation patterns were studied, it was found that pensioners donated more than any others. This is the same pattern that exists in the United States, in general those people that make less donate a much greater percentage than those that earn more. There is also the pattern that once a person donates once, they are likely to donate again.
Another form of fund-raising is finding corporate sponsors. However it is felt that corporations are in general environmentally unfriendly, especially large multinational firms. Although I agree that it can be dangerous to take money from some firms, there should be a limit. In reality, using firms to sponsor events in return for advertising, allows a source of large funds that are not usually available for non-profits. In a capitalist society there are ways to influence business. It is possible to make environmentalism profitable through increased marketing power or decreased costs of production or the image of a company can be destroyed, thus putting them out of business. But the fact is that a capitalist society is consumer driven and thus in order to make real change the consumers must be convinced that their buying habits must be environmentally friendly. Methods that can change a market economy require a very well organized and powerful movement, and this demands a large amount of funding.
Using corporate sponsors is also a really good route to develop networking between profit and non-profit sectors. Let's say NGOs are trying to get a company to change their packaging, if this company has already sponsored environmental activities, the chance that they will respond to requests will be greater if NGOs have contacts within the firm. They will also have invested in their environmental image and will be reluctant to destroy an image that is hard to obtain in the first place. This does not mean that it is a good idea to approach chemical companies, automobile companies or obviously controversial corporations , but firms like Lego, Levis, Wrigley, Coke, Ikea, Wedel, Gerber and Gazeta Wyborcza can be valuable supporters.
Along with corporate sponsors, it is possible to approach various branches of government for support. I was told at one point that taking money from the Ministry of the Environment would be a serious mistake. They would take all the credit for a particular event. I did receive money from the Ministry and they did not claim all the credit, proving that the fear was unfounded. But, even if the Ministry had claimed the success as their own, the event would have still been successful. The goal of this particular event was to educate the population, not to use all of our energy in fighting with the government.
Another effective form of fund-raising that is used in many western NGOs is product sale. NGOs can produce their own paraphernalia, like T-shirts, books, posters, calendars, hats, etc. I was very surprised to see how little of this is done in Poland. As I understand it, there are some legal barriers to selling items and this prevents some organizations from using this technique, however, there are other problems that deal more with the concept and management of retail sales. There is an ideal that selling products is too commercial, and is not good for the image of the organization. It is often difficult to order, keep track of items and market them. All these things require business skills. There is also the feeling that these items are not very sellable. I was told that a T-shirt was very expensive at 50,000 zlotys. I do not know how accurate that is for the general population. Certainly for the environmentalists that tend to have very little cash, it is a serious expenditure, but for the public, market research would need to be done. Business is tedious and scary for those that have no experience with it, but it is practical business skills that need to be learned in the environmental movement.
There are several other fund-raising methods that I will list, they have been done with non-profit events, but they are rarely used in the environmental NGO community in Poland. Product sponsor lotteries, Donor formal banquets, fund-raising concerts, sports or cultural events, rummage sales, bake sales, telephone solicitation, door-to-door solicitation, walk-a-thons, church donations, fairs, service lotteries, money boxes in public places or "environmental days" at local businesses, where a portion of their profits go to your cause. These are methods that can be successful in Poland, but they need to first be attempted.
Planning is the third issue which I will discuss. I have seen many different levels of effectiveness in my time here. But in general, there are some planning skills that are often not used. I have also noticed that the benefits of planning are not always defended. Planning takes time, all aspects of an activity need to be thought about before the first actual step is done. The people that work in the environmental movement tend to be very task oriented, that is they get things done without always taking into account the personal aspect. Even their own interest. That is they tend to work so hard that relationships suffer, as does their own morale and sometimes their own health. The irony is that with a little planning, in the long run, a lot more work is completed with less effort. Planning includes thinking about and writing down details like, what are the goals and how will each of these be accomplished, where will financing come from and who will be responsible, where will the event take place, how much will it cost, who will run the event, who is the audience, how long will it last, what supplies are needed, who is working on the project, how will it be evaluated and how will it be followed up.
Another aspect of planning is prioritizing. At the Service Office we receive many foreign visitors, they often represent funding agencies. These visitors are very interested in learning what the priorities of the environmental movement in Poland are. Unfortunately, not only is there no list of national priorities, it is hard to find any NGOs that have a clear, written list of organizational priorities. This deficiency makes planning very difficult. Organizations that have developed a mission statement, goals and a list of priorities can easily decide if specific activities fall within their domain. Without these tools programs are undertaken in a haphazard fashion. Although these happenings may be individually successful, they often detract from the efficiency of the organization and thus in the long run, they make the organization less powerful. This problem is often exasperated by foreign funding sources, that have the tendency to earmark funds for specific activities. This will often force organizations into undertaking an activity, so that they can access the much needed funds. These activities may have nothing to do with the organization's priorities, and may also require a great deal of time to complete. This drains the energy of the members and weakens the organization. In the long run, it is better for an organization to set priorities and remain focused on these, even if this means turning down opportunities to receive money for unrelated projects. Besides, it is possible that there is an organization that has the earmarked program as one of their priorities, this organization should be more qualified and motivated to complete the task. It is better to refer funding agents to the most qualified grantee, as it will be the most effective use of limited resources. This may seem like a sacrifice, but in reality it should strengthen the environmental network, if we share a resource with our neighbor, next time they may do the same for us. Cooperation will bring us closer the main goal that the entire environmental movement shares, that is to save the earth.
Planning is also often hampered by a lack of structure. In small, focused organizations relaxed structure is often more comfortable. However, as groups grow in size and scope, a lack of structure is very tedious. For example, meetings, if there are ten people at a meeting and each has their own agenda, the meeting will become very long, tempers may flare if one person dominates the conversation, then no one listens to the other members and the result is a very unsuccessful meeting and wasted time for ten people. I have seen many meetings that have had this unfortunate fate. This can easily be fixed with some simple planning. Before the meeting, a moderator should be chosen and a schedule should be written. The moderator should be honored by each of the members, but they should also be careful not to be biased. Usually it is a good idea if the moderator does not vote or voice opinions. The schedule should be followed very closely so that one issue is finished at a time. During the meeting careful notes should be taken and then a summary should be compiled for the next meeting, this will assure that no topics or tasks are missed, it is also a good way to make sure that tasks have been completed on a timely basis. This structure may seem like a lot of extra work, but it definitely saves time. Recently a group of 25 students tried out this style, they were able to have very successful, organized meetings that lasted only an hour an a half. They were very satisfied with the results.
Structure is needed is more that just meetings. Organizations should have structure as well. I have often seen arguments develop due to a lack of understanding of ones duties. If an office or program has not defined job descriptions, then it is possible that a task will be overlooked or duplicated. Both of these can be hard on morale and working relationships. It is important to determine the roles of all members of an organization, whether they are full time staff or volunteers. Most often the most valuable asset that an organization has is its people. There experience, energy, and dedication must be valued and protected. If the people in an organization are happy with their work, they will be much more likely to stay with the organization and they are also more likely to work harder and more efficiently.
Recently I went to a meeting of NGO representatives in Kolumna. It had been a year and a half since Turawa and I was very pleased a what I saw. There were many new young faces. In general the atmosphere was cooperative and positive. There were several working groups formed and many issues discussed and action plans considered. The attendees discussed some of their weaknesses and seemed genuinely interested in improving their situation. Now is the time for the leaders to come forward, share experience, give guidance and at the same time learn from the enthusiastic cooperation of the new members. It is time to not dwell on the past, but think progressively to the future. Poland needs the environmentalist's movement and so does the world.
Service Office of the Environmental Movement
ul. Szara 14 m. 34
tel. (0 22) 29-64-33