Your Know a Community by Its Shared Spaces

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A new public space in the village of Kliment, Karlovo Municipality

A residents’ association in the Bulgarian town of Lyaskovets built a recreational area in their apartment complex, complete with a gazebo and a flower patch. Some of the funding came from the municipal fund in support of local initiatives and the AGORA Platform, but residents also fundraised among themselves and shared the labor. In the end, they created a rulebook for use determining who maintains what when in the shared space and specifying that “if you break it, you fix it.”

“With this, they made a contract with each other that they bear collective responsibility for what everyone has done with their work. That’s the way to make it sustainable,” says AGORA Platform director Emilia Lissichkova. “It may sound simple, but this is an example of a community that found a sustainable solution to its need. That’s what we aim for with our work.”

For the past 13 years, the AGORA Platform has been uniting communities in Bulgaria in aid of local causes and supporting their efforts to solve problems together. In cooperation with chitalishta, civic organizations, cultural institutions, business associations, and municipalities, and with the long-term support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and other partners, the AGORA Platform has been a catalyst for the success of hundreds of local initiatives nationwide.

A gazebo is an excellent spot for residents’ meetings

“Developing Philanthropy at the Local Level” is AGORA’s latest program in support of local community development, implemented in partnership with ABF. Through the program, the organization will fund project proposals stimulating local philanthropy, reviving philanthropic traditions and nurturing a giving culture, building a positive attitude toward giving, and encouraging cooperation in the field between civil society organizations, local government, and business.

In an interview for the ABF newsletter, Ms. Lissichkova spoke about what AGORA does, what the program’s objectives are, and why communities need common causes to thrive.

America for Bulgaria Foundation: The AGORA Platform has worked in the area of local community development for the past 13 years. What does that entail?

Emilia Lissichkova, AGORA Platform: AGORA is an acronym in Bulgarian that stands for Активни Граждански Общности за Развитие и Алтернатива (“Active Communities for Development Alternatives”)—that is, our focus is on community development.

We work where people in a given territory have a shared life, can set collective goals and mobilize, and can attract partnerships and support from local authorities, local businesses, and each other to achieve common goals. We work for the community to come together, to develop a common vision, to solve its problems, and to offer support to its members, creating further cohesion within the community and building a sense of interconnectedness, solidarity, and trust.

Emilia Lissichkova

We have organized many community discussions and strengthened local communities’ capacity for participation, relying mainly on our partners in the chitalishta. For us, the chitalishte (singular—a community center; plural—chitalishta, ed.) is the Bulgarian agora—the main gathering place for the community, especially in smaller towns and villages. This is where local people can come together to discuss problems and seek solutions in neutral territory, assuming their responsibilities as active citizens, without waiting around for institutions to do something for them. That is why chitalishta are so important in local development.

We also work with communities through local nonprofits, cultural institutes, youth organizations, libraries, and informal citizen groups. We help communities mobilize local resources in support of this civic and community activity.

How does it happen? People can become active, they can be provoked to come together in search of solutions, but solutions always require resources—funds, human resources, expertise. We found an answer in partnering with local municipalities and building municipal funds in aid of local initiatives as a sustainable tool for marshaling local resources in support of this activity.

In partnership with local authorities, we established nine municipal funds for local initiatives, which have continued to encourage local activity over the years. The funds supported 67 local initiatives in three years, which I think is good local activity, because here we are talking about small-scale funding, even if it manages to initiate change by backing initiatives from the bottom up and mobilizing great additional support. The initiatives are implemented almost entirely with voluntary labor from the community and support from local businesses in the form of equipment, materials, consumables, and expertise.

All this support happens spontaneously; it is not a special focus of the work of the municipal funds. It happens first because of the relatively small amounts provided by these funds and also because of community solidarity. No matter how small, a donation that is meaningful and directly related to the needs of a community manages to attract greater support of all kinds simply because it concerns the lives of the people who are there. Everyone wants involvement in and ultimately ownership of the result.

Festivities marking the opening of a playground area in Montana

Results achieved this way are much more sustainable because when you have invested labor, time, and emotion in something, you have a real stake in its preservation.

ABF: What are the types of projects that communities unite around?

E.L.: They are all kinds. The Business for Harmanli Association is an example of how businesses in the city of Harmanli have come together and each year select a cause to raise funds for. It can be funds to help a specific person, but they also fundraised to improve the quality of education in the district. They built an IT lab at a local school to give students greater access to modern teaching resources. They also conducted a robotics demonstration. These initiatives were a spontaneous community response.

The AGORA platform supported the creation of “At the Harman” festival [another initiative of Business for Harmanli, ed.]. Every local company contributes whatever it can in putting the festival together—tables, tents, electricity, food. This is something businesses in Harmanli achieved together, and they are proud of their accomplishment. Every business owner there, no matter how big their company turnover or staff, dons a “Volunteer” or “Business for Harmanli” T-shirt and lends hands-on support to the event for two days. Together, these people were determined to show that good things could happen in their city. There is philanthropy, volunteering, and a shared vision here, but there is also a lot of responsibility.

AGORA Platform reps meet members of the local community in Kardzhali

In Montana, for example, in the run-down yard of a local chitalishte, local residents built a playground with gazebos and recreation areas [with the support of the local municipal fund, ed.]. The ground needed to be secured, so local businesses provided heavy equipment to level and prepare the terrain. They raised additional funds from the community to build a fence and install video surveillance. The place turned out beautifully: not only was it a good spot for mothers and their children to spend a pleasant time together, but it also became a venue for children’s parties—something the community didn’t have before.

I’m not saying that a playground is something extraordinary; it is extraordinary only when it is not there. A solution must address the problems of the local community. It may not be the best, most innovative, or most technological solution, but it is their solution.

Of course, this is something they could do on their own. They could organize a fundraising campaign. They could meet, have a discussion, and find a solution. But sometimes they need a catalyst—someone to provide a spark, bring them together, get them talking, and create a mechanism for the community to solve its problems together. I’m not saying this can solve all problems. It is simply an approach that encourages participation, making people better and allowing them to live better together.

Interaction in the community is very important, both among its members and between its different structures—citizens, local government, and business.

ABF: What role does philanthropy play in community development?

E.L.: Philanthropy is an element of community development. It is also a tool. Various philanthropic tools could be sought to mobilize local resources for a meaningful cause. Financial resources can come from outside or inside the community, as is the case with our municipal funds. Invariably, though, almost all labor is voluntary and local.

Local philanthropy concerns everyone. Everyone could contribute. This is about values, the things that sustain a community—solidarity, empathy, a shared life and vision that everyone can participate in. Cultivating a giving culture is a process. It is hard to imagine a successful fundraising campaign in an estranged community where nothing happens. It might happen, but under different rules, not the rules of a well-functioning community bound by trust and empathy.

ABF: Is fundraising the focus of the Developing Local Philanthropy RFP, or should project proposals strive to cultivate more lasting attitudes to giving?

E.L.: The focus is on giving as a value. People are innately good, and a person can be good in different ways. One way is to give—that is, to show empathy for the challenges experienced by others. Giving is a very personal act; it shows awareness of where you stand in relationship to the people you live with. Philanthropy is a value that is nurtured, a value that has a long tradition in our society, a value that has helped build our universities, chitalishta, many public buildings, and public infrastructure.

The COVID-19 pandemic awakened the giving spirit in many places, but the practice of giving can definitely be improved and made more sustainable.

Theater play in the chitalishte in the village of Mezek, Svilengrad Municipality

ABF: What are the kinds of proposals you hope to see in the Developing Local Philanthropy RFP?

E.L.: We hope to see creativity, knowledge of local specifics and the interconnections that exist on the ground. We are not just looking for fundraising ability; money is important, but money is a consequence of a shared value. This is why the RFP goals include building positive attitudes toward philanthropy, developing local capacity for giving, and instilling a culture of giving.

The capacity of an organization to implement its idea is also very important. And then there is sustainability: it is easy to raise funds once, to run a one-time campaign; it is much harder to be sustainable, to find a way for local people, organizations, and businesses to make a lasting commitment to the processes of giving.

We expect to receive some interesting, innovative ideas. They may have a research element, they may develop expertise or embark on a study, or they may seek or develop new tools for stimulating philanthropy. There may also be an educational element such as aiming to instill these values in the younger generation. The focus may also be on building stable local relationships between business, civil society, and local authorities in support of local philanthropy.

Of course, the project may focus on a local cause in need of support. The support can be financial, or it can take the form of materials, equipment, administrative or other expertise. Mobilizing nonlocal resources for local causes is welcome, and so is the introduction of technological means for encouraging philanthropy.

Lyutenitsa festival in the village of Kurtovo Konare. The T-shirt says “Queen of Lyutenitsa”

Chitalishte – the Bulgarian Agora

An authentic Bulgarian public institution, the chitalishte was a hub of social life for nineteenth-century Bulgarian communities, and, in many small towns and villages, it still is to this day. Chitalishta were trailblazing institutions, often serving as the first educational centers, libraries, theaters, cinemas, interest clubs, and lecture halls in town. Because of their important role as community centers, they became focal points of revolutionary activity during the national liberation movement in the 1870s.

Chitalishta were at the forefront in responding to the COVID-19 crisis last year. Chitalishte teams in many places organized charity events, disseminated information, and distributed food, medicine, disinfectants, and PPE to help the most vulnerable Bulgarians.

Chitalishta are also key partners of the AGORA Platform in its efforts to support local community development. Over the years, AGORA has worked with 300 of the nearly 3,600 chitalishta in the country, and its network of active partners currently numbers 150 such community centers.

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