The article was written by Zarina Vasileva within the project "Digital Democracies vs. Digital Dictatorships" (ACF/970) of the Bulgarian center for not-for-profit law financed by “Active Citizens Bulgaria” Fund under the Financial Mechanism of the European Economic Area 2014-2021.
97 million leva were donated during the crisis year of 2021, with every second Bulgarian making a donation, according to the Annual Donation Analysis of the Bulgarian Donor Forum (BDF)
15 million leva in the help of more than 1500 various causes and 1500 people making donations every day. This is what the balance sheet of DMS - Single Donor Number 17,777 looks like for 15 years.
Real people with their saved lives, fulfilled dreams and won battles are standing behind those numbers. In recent years, we have witnessed dozens of charity campaigns that managed to raise large sums even in just one day. What is the engine which drives Bulgarian altruism? Can the act of giving be seen as a value and can we teach it? What challenges do organizations and donators face today?
Donation as a personal choice and a sign of civil responsibility
We, humans, are naturally built to give and create good. Performing acts of kindness towards other people is such a natural process that the opposite behavior is defined as pathology. This ability grows along with personality, knowledge, and experience, therefore it's extremely important to be introduced and motivated from an early age.
The act of giving induces a strong sense of joy and deep gratitude regardless of which side of the giving act we are on. Moreover, it builds a positive image in society and increases the credit of trust. Collective commitment along with mutual altruism is one of the strongest social norms that underlie self-respect. Precisely self-respect itself and the joy of helping others are the basic foundations for the development and function of the personality.
According to Teodora Bakardzhieva - executive director of BDF, the analysis of how donation practices are developing among individual, corporate donators and foundations clearly shows that donation is being established as a value among both institutional and individual donators. Even more so - it has been recognized as a meaningful and natural way of participating in society. Not only in emergency crises, which cause a spike in the donation wave, but also outside of them, people are still choosing to support numerous causes with which they feel long term emotional connection:
Although on an annual basis companies and foundations donate the most, and only in third place are individual donators, in recent years we have maintained the tendency to increase the number of people donating. On the other hand, the fact that Bulgaria is still the poorest country in the EU is also evident in the donation culture - people who did not donate indicated their financial situation as the reason for this. That being said, the survey conducted by Alpha Research on the donation attitudes of individuals shows an increase in donation activity among donators who are not of active working age and do not live in big cities. This was a particularly noticeable trend specifically in 2020 when people were responding to overcoming the health and social related consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.
BDF is convinced that the value of donating is an invariable part of traditional education, therefore one of the organization's successful initiatives is the "Learn to Donate" program, which is being held for the seventh year in a row in Bulgarian schools. Within the framework of the initiative, representatives of local civic organizations are included as speakers and guests on various topics, and children begin to naturally recognize the teams and causes of active organizations and associations in their community. The development of empathy and responsibility in children is the basis of the program, which teaches them how to be sensitive and useful to their community, says Boryana Kirilova - communication expert and coordinator at BDF:
The effect on the children is unconditional - the longer they participate in the program, the more they learn basic values related to both the ability to see the need of others, as well as the ability to help. What's more, is that students engaged in the program achieve higher success and have greater achievements.
Such programs provide children with skills to recognize and manage their emotions, as well as coping mechanisms for unfamiliar situations. According to studies, school-age children learn empathy from prosocial media content due to a lack of sufficient resources in educational programs.
The role of the media in building a culture of giving is extremely important not only among children. A reflection of the direct dependence on published charity materials and donations is found in the following ratio: According to the BDF analysis - in 2020, publications about charity and volunteering have doubled - a total of 105,599 in comparison to 48,428 in 2019; the topic of charity is communicated with a positive tone, marking an increase of 35% from 25% in 2019. It is observed that during extreme situations - natural, humanitarian, and social crises, the topic of "donation" enters the agenda of the media more actively, and when they show more specific appeals for support or successful examples of how through donation and volunteering, a significant change is achieved, the number of people donating in the respective year, as well as the volume of support provided, also increase.
Nadia Shabani, director of Bulgarian Center for Non-Profit Law, is also convinced that donation is not only an act of empathy but also a form of civic behavior, which must undoubtedly be nurtured and the necessary conditions must be created for it:
Today, civic behavior is increasingly affirmed, but it is directly dependent on two factors - how we develop and enrich the culture of giving and volunteering; and what the state does as a policy to create the right conditions for that behavior. Although the crises with the coronavirus, the Ukrainian refugees, and the natural disasters have unequivocally shown the healthiness of Bulgarian society and its ability to cause real change, the culture of giving as part of society's behavior and education is not sufficiently developed. The environment is extremely important for the development of this culture - it should have minimum obstacles for the person who decided to donate, and should be facilitated in his intentions. This is where the role of civil organizations is - not only to shorten and facilitate the path but also to provide full accountability to the donator because transparency and accountability to the donator are the guarantees that the processes are correct. Through their main tools - volunteering, donation, and mobilization, civil organizations are the ones who help people manage various causes and processes and convince them that the donation is not significant, in terms of how big it is, but in terms of the act of donation. However, civil organizations are too few for Bulgaria and are decreasing more and more due to lack of sufficient incentives and opportunities for people to be civically active.
Nadia Shabani's words are supported by the data from The Sustainability Index of NGOs in Bulgaria for 2021, which shows a serious decline in both NGO employees and volunteers. Only 13,736 of the civil organizations (whose number according to the Registration Agency is over 23,000) have submitted financial reports. According to the Index, this is the true indicator of the actively working organizations. Employees in non-governmental organizations in 2020 were 28,672, and volunteers - 72,065. For comparison, in 2019, employees in civil organizations were 29,000, and volunteers - 86,000. According to the Index, Bulgaria ranks 10th place, even after Ukraine, with the worst assessment of financial sustainability.
Among the main commitments of the organizations that professionally work to develop the donation and civil sector is to follow closely how institutions build the environment in which civil organizations work - to what extent the state recognizes its commitment to promote the civil sector and specifically donation or vice versa – creates obstacles and limitations:
One of the successes we are very proud of is winning no VAT on donation SMS. We continuously monitor the field of law-making through the prism of a civil organization on how far the rights and interests in the civil sector are protected. In recent years, there have been attempts to push through various laws that directly or indirectly limit the rights of association, the rights of civil organizations, introduce additional administrative burdens and commitments for non-profit legal entities. Behind these attempts are political parties that openly state their agenda and political ambitions. They are adept at public speaking and manage to polarize public opinion and impose their beliefs. Although the civil sector is inhomogeneous, we manage to unite our efforts against similar risks to our civil rights, says Teodora Bakardzhieva.
Saving a life with one SMS
One of the most common and urgent campaigns on the DMS donation platform are those related to the treatment of children and the elderly. Despite their success rate, Teodora Bakardzhieva believes that they should not compensate for the commitments and responsibility of the state:
We wish that DMS will evolve into a platform where there are no campaigns to treat people. This, on one hand, will mean that the state institutions are doing their job, that there are no deficits in access to health care and that everyone can benefit from the services that the institutions provide them in a very efficient way. On the other hand, the individual donator's attention will be focused on other meaningful campaigns and projects. Unfortunately, the situation is such that almost half of the active campaigns on the DMS platform are for providing expensive treatment and rehabilitation. These are also the campaigns that require a timely response and gain support the fastest. It is because of this urgency and enormous responsibility that we do not compromise on guarantees that the procedure for launching the fundraising campaign for the necessary treatment is followed
Campaign approval processes on the platform are extremely streamlined – when all documents are secured, the DMS public board makes a decision to allow campaigns extremely fast – within 24 to 48 hours. In urgent crises and disasters, as the latest example is the flooding in the villages of Karlovy Vary, such decisions are made very quickly.
Teodora Bakrjieva also reveals some of the foundations on which the donation platform is built - accountability and transparency:
They are the key drivers of trust in both urgent and long-term and sustainable causes. The platform provides real-time data on donation SMS sent or received donations online and via bank transfer, as well as monthly reports so people can keep track of what has happened regarding a specific campaign. We also seek feedback from the teams that launch campaigns to track progress and success rates and ensure that everyone who has backed the campaign fully understands their personal contribution. It is also important that these results are presented clearly and accessible, and not just as dry statistics. Very often in the case of treatment campaigns that do not continue, the relatives of the deceased decide that the collected and unrealized donations so far will be donated to another treatment campaign that they would like to help. People are extremely grateful, because together with the donation, the feeling that you are not alone, that you are understood and supported in this unjust battle is conveyed. We always strive to objectively present the story without allowing ourselves to abuse the trust and dignity of people and their loved ones.
The BDF team is adamant that it is unacceptable for appeals for the treatment of children to be visible through campaigns that are extremely disrespectful to the personality of children and their families.
It is important to recall that children are recognized as moral and legal subjects possessing fundamental rights. According to the UN Convention on the rights of the Child, they must lead a full and dignified life in conditions that ensure their dignity, encourage independence and facilitate their active participation in society. The child has the right to an opinion on all matters concerning him. Violation of these rights cannot be justified by the objectives of the campaigns. The well-being and dignity of the child should be paramount. Moreover - publishing photos and materials showing children in vulnerability and suffering not only violates basic legal and ethical norms and puts children at risk, but also dooms campaigns to failure. According to research, images that show smiling and happy faces evoke similar emotions and donators evaluate the campaign in a more favorable light, wanting to preserve the feeling of happiness with their donation.
Donation as culture and responsibility
The basis of prosocial behavior is the need for interaction between people, but along with the desire to understand the other and show compassion, it is also one of the social norms from which we most strongly derive self-respect. The history of donations in Bulgaria, collected in the three-volume encyclopedia "Donation" and published by the BDF, shows precisely the versatile and worthy image of the Bulgarian donator. People of different social status, education, and financial capabilities are united only by empathy and a desire for a dignified life. Firmly convinced that "it makes sense to bequeath lands, money, stocks, properties and thus build a modern country", they created a generous and ethical community, the fruits of which we still enjoy today, despite its death during the communist rule.
Today, philanthropy is both leaning on those healthy roots while trying to make up for the worst period in its history. An important aspect of today's culture of giving is the increase of more critical donators. They make a conscious decision to donate their funds, materials, or labor and then seek feedback on how their donated resources contributed to solving a problem or realizing an idea. Donors' self-awareness and criticality make them increasingly wary of campaigns and their organizers.
Among the positive examples in the dialogue between the state and the civil sector, experts from civil organizations report the establishment of the Council for the Development of Civil Society. In its efforts to respond to the Ukrainian refugee crisis, the state is turning to civil society organizations working on grounds. This lays a good foundation for dialogue and trust between the institutions and the civil sector. More than forty civil organizations from all over the country are involved in the created working groups.
The council is, on one hand, a platform for the voices of civil organizations to be heard, and on the other, a means of influencing the executive power to be more open to people and civil initiatives. With the background of the dynamics in society and in the presence of major crises of any nature in recent years, the process is not easy, the but we are nevertheless convinced that this is the tool that can guarantee the dialogue between institutions and people, says Nadia Shabani.
Facilitated in their desire to help meaningful causes, donators would support them more systematically, not just sporadically. The BDF is convinced, that the reason for this is because donation, apart from being part of a person's natural desire to create and be part of something good, is also a joy that we all need.
According to a study by Alpha Research, commissioned by the BDF - every second Bulgarian donated in 2021. Most often, it was cash, followed by goods/items, and lastly through personal labor. In addition to the traditional choice to donate to health care causes, there is also a trend to support campaigns of specific corporate and civic organizations, and to purchase products tied to a cause.
The many successful causes of recent years prove that when people witness and strongly recognize the need for support in a crisis, disaster or other injustice, they find ways to respond, help and donate. Today, however, it is increasingly important that giving is not just a spontaneous act of empathy, but a conscious and responsible choice. Because intelligence and charity are the greatest human values.
About the author:
Zarina Vasileva is a long-time journalist, she was awarded the prestigious award "Journalism for Development - 2020". She graduated in "Law" and "Journalism and Media". She is currently a doctoral student in online journalism at the Faculty of Journalism and Mass Communication of the University of St. Kliment Ohridski".