Hungarian Community Foundations and the SDGs: Local sustainability in an illiberal context

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26.06.2023 / Case studies

Authors: Stefan Cibian Ph.D. and Georgi Georgiev Ph.D Candidate

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“The quality of democracy decreased in Hungary. We have seen the biggest attacks on NGOs by the Government between 2016 and 2019-2020.”1 The civil society movement in Hungary faces unprecedented systematic attempts to weaken and control the NGO sector through restrictive legislation introduced by the Hungarian government.2 The sustainability of democratic communities in such a context is rather difficult. Survival is a constant concern instead of sustainability.

Despite the illiberal national context, the Hungarian community foundations movement is growing. According to data gathered from the Hungarian community foundations network, community development, health, and environmental protection are on the top of the list with civil initiatives financed through local grants.3 Furthermore, while community foundations in Hungary do not explicitly address SDGs in their day-to-day work, they support causes that could be associated with the global Goals.4 This case study explores the development of community foundations and their relations with the SDGs in a challenging national context.

The evolution of the Hungarian community foundations’ movement 

The Roots and Wings Foundation (RWF) supports the development of the Hungarian community foundations movement. The Foundation was established in 2014 following the emergence of the first Hungarian community foundation in the 9th district in Budapest in 2011. Since then, the number of community foundations has grown to seven, explains Tamás Scsaurszki, Chairman of the Board of Trustees at RWF. 5

Community foundations and the capital of trust in local communities 

Trust is a challenge in a society where the Government turns illiberal. “Hungary is clearly performing ‘well’ in the area of corruption. For the average Hungarian, news about corruption is commonplace and by now almost uninteresting,” emphasizes a report published by RWF.6 According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index from 2018, the country joined the negative ranking of the most corrupt EU member states.7

From this perspective, community foundations bring hope that transparent support of local causes is possible. Hungarian community foundations are comparatively small and young organizations with reduced financial assets, but they have the potential to play a significant role in their communities. As Tamás Scsaurszki points out, Hungarian community foundations are responding to such challenges by building an excellent reputation through transparency in their grantmaking policies, leaving no space for corruption.8

Once they obtain the essential social capital of trust, community foundations nurture the values of independence, grass-root civil action, democracy, philanthropy, and work in a cooperative manner.9 Cooperation is among the utmost motivational factors for members of local community foundations, concludes research conducted by György Hámori from RWF.10 “It seems this factor remains among top reasons to continue working for a community foundation. Being in their respective groups is their main reason for their involvement and feeling motivated,”11 observes György Hámori.

The support organization is concerned about polarization in local communities. In addition, the growing lack of trust in independent organizations not affiliated with the government is significantly affecting local dynamics.

Local causes oriented toward the SDGs

Hungarian community foundations are well-connected to local communities and address local needs through their grantmaking practice. These needs include a focus on education, the environment, health, economic development, and inclusion – all topics well-aligned with the SDGs.

There are, however, also challenges in working on the SDGs. György Hámori stresses that constant changes in the legal environment often create obstacles for non-government organizations to contribute to critical areas of sustainable development such as environment protection, health, and building lasting partnerships with local governments and businesses.12 However, The Roots and Wings Foundation and the growing network of Hungarian community foundations counterbalances such negative trends by using mechanisms of ongoing impact assessment.13

In 2017, RWF introduced a knowledge management system providing “an accurate and up-to-date picture about the work, achievements and social impact of community foundations.”14 The platform strengthens partnerships with local communities and develops new strategies supported by data. RWF follows statistical information about those receiving long-term support from local initiatives and the number of long-term partnerships. This focus on collecting data about local communities and their challenges represents a sound basis for engaging with the relevant SDG indicators.

Conclusion

The Hungarian community foundations movement is young. However, it is constantly put to the test by a problematic national context. Sustainability looks different in a country that turned illiberal and with increasing polarization. There, the mechanism of community foundation represents a significant contribution to holding trust and agency within local communities, bringing significant contributions towards SDG 16 and 17 besides their contribution to multiple SDGs through more hands-on work in local communities.

Endnotes

  1. György Hámori, interview by Ștefan Cibian and Georgi Georgiev, May 31, 2023.
  2. Havasi, Virág. “Power and powerlessness of the civil society in Hungarian illiberal democracy between 2010–2022” Politics in Central Europe, vol.18, no.4, 2022, pp.499-529.
  3. Data provided by Roots and Wings Foundation.
  4. György Hámori, interview by Ștefan Cibian and Georgi Georgiev, May 31, 2023.
  5. Tamás Scsaurszki, interview by Ștefan Cibian and Georgi Georgiev, May 31, 2023.
  6. Tamás Scsaurszki, Iván Bardócz, Zsuzsa Rácz, Dóra Simay, István Sebestény, A Guide to Community Foundations in Hungary (Berlin: Bundesverband Deutscher Stiftungen e.V.), p.12.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. György Hámori, “Motivation and group dynamics in Hungarian community foundations,” European Community Foundation Initiative Learning Lab (2021), p. 3-4.
  11. Ibid, p.4.
  12. György Hámori, interview by Ștefan Cibian and Georgi Georgiev, May 31, 2023.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Tamás Scsaurszki, Iván Bardócz, Zsuzsa Rácz, Dóra Simay, István Sebestény, A Guide to Community Foundations in Hungary (Berlin: Bundesverband Deutscher Stiftungen e.V.), p.20

This case study was developed as a part of the project Increasing the Contribution of European Community Foundations to the SDGs, supported by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. We are grateful to the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and all interviewees and partners who made the development of the case study possible.

Departments: Policy Analysis and Outreach Department, Research Department, Center on Global Affairs and Post Development, Society, Crisis, and Resilience Program

Regions: Central and Eastern Europe

Themes: Philanthropy and Community Development, Civil Society, Democracy, and Democratization,  Sustainable Development Goals