U.S. nonprofits have much to offer new democracies


Serving as part of a training team for nonprofit leaders i Eastern Europe is an instant lesson in the effectiveness of democracy. It may not be the tidiest political system in the world, the saying goes, but it sure beats the alternatives.

I recently accompanied Dr. Lester Salamon, director of the Institute of Policy Studies at the Johns Hopkins University, on a training mission to Bulgaria.

The former communist nation, strategically situated at the crossroads of Europe, is now in the midst of a staggering political and social transformation. Since the fall of communism in late 1989, the Bulgarians have struggled to develop a sound political system and infrastructure.

The Bulgarians have much that they can be proud of. They have endured the oppression of communism without accepting the hideous dogma of communist rule. Education is highly valued, and the arts flourish, as our visit to the Bulgarian Opera proved.

And, above all, the Bulgarians have held fast to their tolerance for ethnic and religious diversity, a society-wide trait which should work wonders as it discovers the rich frustrations of the democratic process.

While the Balkans are mired in ethnic conflict, Bulgarians live in peaceful co-existence. Ethnic Bulgarians, Turks and Gypsies, Orthodox Christians, Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims all work, pray and celebrate within the European melting pot that is modern-day Bulgaria.

As the communist empire fell, and fragile democracies tentatively hobbled to their feet, a disturbing realization emerged.

While government and the private sector are its cornerstones, a democracy cannot thrive without the contributions of its Third Sector, nonprofit institutions.

Without the communist state to deal with the myriad social problems that typically confront every country, there was a significant gap produced from the political upheavals.

Also, communism instills in its subjects a passive acceptance of governance. Communism, by its very nature, is top down. The communist state presumably knows what is best for its subjects, while a democracy must have the participation of its people.

"Unless a democracy is rooted locally, it cannot succeed," Dr. Salamon says.

Therefore, as soon as Eastern Europe began its journey toward democracy, Dr. Salamon's Institute for Policy Studies began to train the nonprofit sector at the local level.

Funding for the project came from a variety of sources, including The Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and the Sasakawa Peace Foundation. Nonprofit leaders in Russia, Poland and Hungary have already been trained.

Each host country has a sponsoring institution, which handles all in-country logistical issues.

With 75 participants, the Bulgarian training workshop was in the capable hands of Valentin Mitev, executive director of the Union of Bulgarian Foundations, an umbrella group established to provide support to this sector. Bulgarian nonprofits are called foundations, not to be confused with the grant-making foundations typical of the United States.

According to Mitev, "training opportunities like these are very important to our country. In the post-communist period, nonprofits will have a critical role to play in our society. We have much to learn, but we are also eager."

What we take for granted in our country is a matter of considerable import for nonprofit leaders in developing nations such as Bulgaria. Over our 200-year history, and more specifically, since the turn of the century, we have worked hard to develop a culture of caring that crosses all three sectors.

In developing nations, individual giving is not a cultural norm yetTaking action at the local level is fraught with the fears instilled by communism. In such a case, American nonprofits can offer our Eastern European colleagues a future of possibilities.

I have no doubt that Bulgarians, with their unique culture and thirst for knowledge, will take the ball and run, adapting our approaches to the nonprofit sector to their unique needs.

Next week I'll examine the hows and whys of training in a foreig land.

(Les Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at 71 Bathon Circle, Elkton, Md., 21921; [410] 392-3160.)

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