CSOs sustainability and the growing impact of external threats

CSO unsustainability is on the rise. The working environment is affected by financial constraints, limited predictability in funding and almost no significant financial resources diversification. Staff wellbeing has very few dedicated resources, with burnout affecting CSOs’ staff. Professional development needs to be ranked higher, putting more emphasis on staff needs. Some donors’ excessive bureaucratization impacts CSOs’ core activities.

External threats are increasing

Political pressure and smear campaigns are affecting CSOs’ capacity to accomplish their objectives and counter malign influences. More and more central governments are trying, directly or through proxies, to hamper CSOs’ activities, control their funding and are even targeting the wider civil society with manipulative and false accusations. National decision makers are implementing Russian-oriented policies and altering the regulatory environment to cause CSOs undue burden and implement a climate of fear.

Most CSOs underline an increasing threat coming from their national illiberal governments, especially in non-EU countries, such as Georgia, Armenia or Azerbaijan, but also affecting EU member states, including Hungary and Romania, with legislative changes putting additional pressure on the CSO sector. Hate speech against CSOs is on the rise, with the political parties and state-funded media ginning up public pressure to impact their activity. Disinformation against the sector is wreaking havoc, especially implying that CSOs are used for “destabilizing” the countries (usually) with the support of foreign actors.

Understanding CSOs’ needs

A lack of financial resources is the key issue hampering civil society organizations’ long-term sustainability. The takes many forms, including insufficiently diversified resources, lack of core funding, (way too) short-term grants, and very few multiannual grants. Most assessed CSOs are financially unstable and unable to perform long-term financial planning due to the precarity of their resources. With a very high dependence on grants, especially short-term ones, most organizations barely make ends meet.

In the long run, this is affecting CSOs’ missions, as most of them are struggling to remain sustainable, and is also impacting the sector’s capacity to work together, as the scarcity of resources is putting the civil society organizations in a very competitive environment that hinders their collaboration outside specific projects or consortium-led activities.

Staff wellbeing is nowhere on the agenda

Staff wellbeing is considered a critical aspect by all CSOs, but up until now, this component has been rather informal, coordinated by each organization, without meaningful investment by donors or any dedicated lines of funding. This is a key aspect that needs to be taken into consideration and CSOs’ capacity building needs to look not only toward training programs and skill sets, but focus more on staff wellbeing and support. This need has been heightened by both the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine.

CSOs assessment. About the report

Our assessment included a sample of 40 CSOs, all of them being recipients of Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation grants. Most of them are from the greater Black Sea Region, while a smaller number being from other EU countries. This sample cannot represent the entire CSO sector, but it does provide common stress points across the group, which may be relevant for a larger number of organizations. These findings are substantiated by both quantitative and qualitative data, using online surveys, in-depth interviews and focus groups as research tools.

A quantitative study included one online survey, completed by 40 CSOs from a total target of 60 organizations. The questionnaire included 22 items, of which the majority were open-ended. The available data were substantiated by in-depth interviews with 16 CSOs and a focus group discussion with 9 CSOs. The organizations from the interviews and the focus group were different, although some of them were part of the quantitative study. A detailed explanation of the methodology is provided in the report.

The full report, available in English language can be accessed here – Striving to thrive in turbulent times. Assessing the sustainability of CSOs and the growing impact of external threats. It includes an (i) internal assessment focusing on CSOs’ financial resources, human resources, internal procedures and team management activities, communication and advocacy, networks, M&E strategies and engagement with the donors and a dedicated analysis to the (ii) external threats impacting CSOs sustainability.

An executive summary is available here.

Raportul este disponibil și în limba română – Eforturi pentru a rezista în vremuri turbulente. Evaluarea sustenabilității OSC-urilor și a impactului în creștere al amenințărilor externe.


This publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union and the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation. Its contents are the sole responsibility of the authors and do notnecessarily reflect the views of the European Union and the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation.