We may have all felt it, but my colleague Richard Cook said it best. "Participatory democracy starts with each one of us as an ** individual. Each of us has to want to change something and at the same time feel capable of doing it. And, the change has to be for us, not just for me."
What Cook, a former Peace Corps volunteer, was referring to was our individual views of the democratic process. As trainers for the emerging nonprofit sector in Eastern Europe -- in this case Bulgaria -- we each had an opportunity to reflect on the role of non-profits in a democracy.
Located in the small town of Bansko, in the Pirin Mountain range near the Macedonian border, we were sequestered for a week with 75 nonprofit leaders of the newly democratized nation, part of a training mission from The Johns Hopkins University Institute for Policy Studies. While the Bulgarian participants' thirst for knowledge about nonprofit operations was unquenchable, we expected that the context into which they could place that knowledge was very different from ours in America. The harsh realities of place shed new light on our training mission.
One of the first to have to confront this disparity was Cook. As an experienced grass-roots fund-raiser in Baltimore, Cook was charged with doing several workshops on that topic. The trouble, as many participants told him through our very capable translators, was that Bulgarians do not have the same culture of individual giving as do Americans. Asking for funds is considered in bad taste.
To deal with the anticipated objections, Cook and the rest of us in the training team had researched historical precedents and current practices that could illustrate the methods we recommended. Cook visited an historic and beloved cathedral in the capital immediately after our arrival and discovered a history of giving to the church to which our participants could relate.
"We used the time after our arrival doing a lot of listening," Cook reports, "which gave us experiences and the time to adapt our knowledge of what works to their concerns." As Americans, we tend not to listen as well as we should, which is a severe handicap when it comes to training in a foreign land. To counterbalance that tendency, Dr. Lester Salamon, director of the Institute, and Nicole Etchart Mendoza, program manager of the Third Sector Project, arranged pre-trip and host-country seminars that required trainers both to listen and adapt their experience and presentations to the Bulgarian reality.
During the actual workshop sessions, objections to the use of successful practices in the United States were quickly overcome once the trainers helped participants practice actual techniques. For example, Cook required participants to do face-to-face fund-raising solicitations. They then practiced under a variety of scenarios adapting them to Bulgarian customs.
Along with the other trainers, I found that we more offered a change in attitude than a smorgasbord of techniques. In this, I was intrigued with Cook's observations of the similarities between our work in Bulgaria and his work many years ago in Venezuela with the Peace Corps.
"One of the biggest similarities to Peace Corps work is the cynicism we saw going in vs. the optimism we saw at the end of the week," says an animated Cook. "It's really a matter of attitude. When people start looking for solutions, then democracy has real fertile soil." One of the biggest contributions that Americans can make in this regard is to hold out a future of possibilities, with our sometimes annoyingly positive outlook.
The Bulgarian training experience helped reinforce for me the pivotal role that the Third Sector plays in a democracy. In America, where government, business and the nonprofit sectors are well established and highly intertwined, that role is often obscured. But, in a newly forming democracy such as Bulgaria, we are able to see grass-roots democracy in action through local non-profit efforts.
"Democracy really takes off," Cook says in summarizing his Bulgarian training experience, "when one person discovers that he or she can work together with others to effect social change." In the case of Bulgaria, the Third Sector is on the leading edge of democratization.
(Les Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at 71 Bathon Circle, Elkton, Md. 21921;  392-3160.)