Urmo Kübar

In the last year’s report we conceded that a strong civil society is based on three equal and mutually influential bases. First of all, the society needs to contain values that favour civic initiative – a widespread understanding of the need for it and the desire to act as an active citizen. Provided these values exist, there need to be opportunities to realise them – an environment that allows fulfilment of such a wish, be it in the form of a non-governmental organisation (either as an officially registered organisation or as a looser, often temporary framework of like-minded people) or as individuals if they so wish. Third of all, there need to be well-rounded skills to use the opportunities well and productively. None of these three bases on its own is enough for a functioning civil society, however, it is noticeable how improvement or decline in one will have an influence on the other bases. For instance, organisations that function remarkably well can instil faith and interest in the civic initiative in less active people, greater participation raises the importance of the topic on the political agenda and stacks as an argument in making necessary changes in legislation or the practice of public power towards civic initiative.

Changes in values, opportunities and skills do not generally take place rapidly even on a personal or a small group level, least on the level of the whole society. The 2009 Estonian Human Development Report draws as one important conclusion the stagnation and signs of fatigue in several areas of life. What can be pointed out as development during one year in the field of civil society?

Reporting requirements of non-profit organisations

The most important change in the activity of non-governmental organisations could be publishing of annual reports of non-profit organisations in the commercial register. In earlier years it depended on each non-profit organisation itself whether the report was made public, however, the legislative amendment equalised non-profit organisations with other legal persons in this regard. The initial reaction brought on some negative rather than positive media reports, where the journalists mediated some of the more scandalous findings in the reports. Some of the organisations also complained about the complicated reporting requirements,[1] although the only change was the requirement of digital presentation of the report. However, the amendment will create an opportunity to gain an adequate overview of non-profit organisations in Estonia in the long run, the resources available to them and the value they create. This creates advantages for better cooperation with the public sector (for example in inclusion, funding and delegating public services, each of which has a problem with lack of proper information regarding active organisations) as well as with the business sector and the private persons (donating and voluntary work decisions can be based on a much more thorough analysis than before). On the other hand, the question of whether an approach in reporting uniform to all non-profit organisations is right or whether it can have a hindering effect on smaller and less capable organisations and thereby obstruct the civic initiative, is also founded. The changes in the Foundations Act adopted at the end of the year, abolishing the current general duty of auditing for foundations without turnover and assets can be pointed out as a positive example.[2]


Another important development in the relations between the public sector and the civic initiative in 2010 was the devising of a development plan for years 2011–2014, which the government authorised in February of 2011. The development plan sets the activities that government offices will take on during those years in order to strengthen the civil society. It consists of five topics: citizens’ education, capability and vitality of citizens’ associations, citizens’ associations as partners in providing public services, inclusion, charity and philanthropy. The development plan includes a plan of action including activities, the responsible institutions and the costs. The effect of this decision will materialise in the following years, but the inclusion process of more than six months gave hundreds of people from the public sector, the third sector and the business sector a reason to think about these topics in detail.

The developments in the immediate cooperation possibilities between the public sector and the civic initiative tended to be rather small. An analysis on inclusion practice in government offices compiled by the PRAXIS Center for Policy Studies and the Institute of Baltic Studies stated that even though the understanding of reasons and objectives for inclusion have become more similar for government offices and the interest groups, the problem is the absence of unified bases for inclusion between various ministries, which results in decisions and skills of specific officials being the deciding factor in inclusion.[3]

Most problems in specific inclusion processes arise from setting their objectives, evaluating the results, initiating the process as well as concluding it. The inclusion is most successful when there is constant communication between the parties. The non-governmental organisations see the formality of the inclusion as the main obstacle, which means the decisions have already been made in the ministry; the officials, however, cite the passiveness of the interest groups and the poor ability to see the big picture besides their own interests.

The National Audit Office of Estonia analysed the capability of the local governments to support non-governmental organisations,[4] which, to a large extent, brought up same old problems as the two-year-old survey on allocation of state budgetary grants; the objectives and purposes and monitoring principles of their use have not been thought through and they function based on custom, a hunch or informal agreements; the line between support of organisations and delegating a public service is hazy.[5] Therefore it is difficult to evaluate the productivity of allocating grants. It is difficult to tell what kind of influence these ongoing budgetary cuts had on the funding of non-governmental organisations and on the delegation of public services (on state and local level) as there is no direct data available. According to the survey of Tallinn University about half of the organisations on average have claimed that their profit has remained the same in comparison to 2009 and a third have stated that their profit has diminished.[6] In the appraisal of the Minister of Regional Affairs Siim Kiisler, the economic depression has caused setbacks in delegation of public services, as the local governments resorted to cutting back on delegated actions in the environment of budget reductions.

Civic initiative

It is difficult to point out the developments of 2010 in changes of values facilitating civic activity and initiative, as there is a lack of recent studies. Based on the data of the population survey of a few years ago, about a third of the population[7] participates in activities of non-governmental organisations and about a half[8] of the Estonian population takes part in voluntary activities. The traditional “Teeme ära!” day of civil actions in the beginning of May 2010 brought together more than 30,000 people who took part in various cleaning or other actions. Civic initiative has been covered more and more by the media and discussed in social discussions, a sign of the latter has been the increase of election pledges in programmes of political parties for the 2011 Riigikogu elections.

The active process of creating new NGOs continues; about two thousand of them are registered each year. This, however, cannot be taken as a direct sign of increased civic activity as reasons for founding NGOs can be manifold. The new organisations tend to be small in membership size, which has resulted in the decrease of average number of members of organisations: five years ago the average number of members in non-profit organisations was 31, in 2009 the average amounted to just 20 members.[9] A third of the NGOs have up to 10 members, another third have 11–30 members and a fifth of NGOs (five years ago it would have been 28% of NGOs) have more than 50 members. According to the organisations the number of active members in the organisation is also smaller than before: the average number of active members in 2004/2005 was 18, now it is 8. This decline is relatively greater than the general decrease of number of members. This further increases the leader-centric pattern widespread in Estonian NGOs, where the success of the organisation depends on its leader, whose fatigue endangers the continuity of the whole organisation.

Another apparent trend next to the active creation of organisations is the short life span of the NGOs: about half of the organisations who participated in the survey have been founded within last four years and two thirds of the organisation within last ten years. This is an important indicator, especially in the case of NGOs (less so with foundations) as the age of the organisation tends to help predict its other parameters and behaviour in activities of civic initiative. Younger NGOs tend to have fewer resources, fewer cooperative relations within the third sector as well as without, less knowledge of possible support structures etc. Younger and smaller NGOs also have fewer sources of funding (an average of half the NGOs in Estonia have up to two sources of funding), and therefore a greater danger that a loss of one source may result in extinction of the organisation.

A positive sign is that the inclusion of volunteers has increased, up to two thirds of organisations have a relevant experience as of today. However, the volunteers are not usually included regularly, but mainly as additional labour in organising events, substantially less often as experts and in day to day activities.

Another good sign is the increased networking between the NGOs. Half the NGOs participate in networks on the local level, more than a third on a state level and 13% of the NGOs on an international level. A little bit more than a third of NGOs marked no cooperation relations on any level. Cooperation tends to be informal. For instance, belonging to a network of organisations has not increased over the years. Increased networking indicates arriving at a more mature stage of development – other organisations are less perceived as competition and there is understanding of the fact that goals are easier to reach when organisations support one another, it also refers to higher visibility of the organisations. The next step towards a stronger NGO could be a merging of similar organisations.

At the same time the number of ties of cooperation outside the third sector has decreased, which is probably explicable by emergence of new organisations which lack such connections and the ability to administer them. The NGOs’ main cooperation partners are (in the order of importance): local governments, the business sector, government offices, educational institutions and the media.

Very little cooperation is conducted with political parties. The main forms of cooperation are (in the order of importance): execution of common projects and actions, financial support, devising common positions, support in the form of commodities for execution of activities, information, providing and receiving consultation and expert opinion, devising new initiatives in a field and providing or ordering of remunerated services.


The development of the third sector in Estonia seems to progress somewhat controversially. The smaller part of NGOs is increasingly visible and professional in their activities, include other persons and organisations, and shape the image of civic initiative in Estonia. Yet an increasingly larger part of acting NGOs is young and has little experience as well as a small membership; and they are preoccupied with building their organisation and locating the necessary funds for operating.


[1] For example, Eero, Endel (2010). Kas surmaotsus väikestele ja vaestele mittetulundusühingutele? [Death verdict to small and poor non-profit organisations?] Videvik, 26.08.2010.

[2] Foundations Act. RT I 1995, 92, 1604 … RT I, 17.12.2010, 20.

[3] Foundation PRAXIS Center for Policy Studies and NGO Institute of Baltic Studies (2010). Valitsusasutuste kaasamispraktikate analüüs [Analysis of inclusion practice of government offices]. October 2010. Available at: http://www.ngo.ee/uuringud.

[4] National Audit Office of Estonia (2010). Kodanikuühendustele kultuuri-, spordi- ja noorsootöötoetuste andmine valla- ja linnaeelarvest. Kas toetuste maksmine on läbipaistev? [Payment of grants to non-governmental organizations for culture, sport and youth work from local government and town budget. Is the payment of grants transparent?] National Audit Office’s report to Riigikogule, 25.02.2010. Available at: http://www.ngo.ee/uuringud.

[5] Foundation PRAXIS Center and Tallinn University Centre for Civil Society Study and Development (2008). Kodanikeühenduste riigieelarvelise rahastamise analüüs [Analysis of funding of non-governmental organisations]. October 2008. Available at: http://www.ngo.ee/uuringud.

[6] Tallinna University Centre for Civil Society Study and Development (2010). Kodanikualgatuse institutsionaliseerumine Eestis 2009/2010 [Institutionalising of civic initiative in Estonia 2009/2010]. Available at: http://www.ngo.ee/uuringud.

[7] Hinno, Krista; Lagerspetz, Mikko ja Vallimäe, Tanel (2008). Kolmas sektor arvupeeglis [The third sector in numbers]. Tallinna University International and Social Studies Institute Centre for Civil Society Stufy and Development. Available at: http://www.ngo.ee/uuringud.

[8] Foundation Emor, foundation PRAXIS Center for Policy Studies et al. (2008). Vabatahtlikus tegevuses osalemine Eestis [Participation in voluntary activity in Estonia]. Available at: http://www.ngo.ee/uuringud.

[9] This and the following data from: Kodanikualgatuse institutsionaliseerumine Eestis 2009/2010. [Institutionalising of civic initiative in Estonia 2009/2010]