“We took a deep dive in a tragic reality” – lessons from reading proposals

Roots and Wings responded promptly to the coronavirus crisis by establishing the Leap into the Future! Fund. The publication of a call for proposals led to 24 NGOs submitting applications. Reading grant proposals proved to be a cathartic experience for all of us, painting a dire picture of the fragility of the Hungarian NGO sector, showing communities left entirely alone, and highlighting the need to save lives and implement radical change.

Roots and Wings Foundation felt called upon to respond quickly to the human and economic emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic; with the authorization of our supporters, we were able to reallocate the funds we had previously been entrusted with.

This is how our foundation created the Leap into the Future! Fund with the intention of providing financial support to NGOs working at the local level to alleviate the human suffering and socio-economic losses brought about by the pandemic. We want the Fund to emphasize the values that are important to us: strengthening social trust along with networks of interpersonal and professional relations and social solidarity, as well as securing the conditions of freedom for autonomous community action. We are embarking on building a more liveable and more just future.

24 NGOs responded to our call for proposals; 5 of them requested money for direct local interventions (distributing food, cleaning agents and masks), 4 for online coaching of disadvantaged school children, and 9 for practical operating support, i.e., for the continuation of their regular activities. Five applicants applied for projects outside the scope of the Fund, and 1 application was not eligible.

Altogether, we provided ten NGOs a total of €11,000.

The grant applications exposed each and every member of the selection panel to a devastating picture of the current state of Hungarian civil society organizations. “It was depressing to read the applications in the dark – it’s always easier to be smart during the day,” one of us said.

Fragile, extremely fragile – the state of the CSO sector

“The instinct of hunting for hope was at play within me; I hoped to steal some hope from others. The text of the applications submitted, however, made me face the present reality, the terrible situation we are all in, with the force of shock. The fact that large, significant, well-embedded and well-connected organizations that had proven their worth and used to enjoy widespread professional recognition now find themselves in such an utterly desperate situation in the wake of this crisis shook me to the core”, declared one selection panel member.

“You are taught that in times of crisis, saving human life takes priority. Saving material assets comes only second; the construction of new structures takes place in the third phase. The latter will be extremely difficult due to the lack of financial resources and the fact that professionals are clearly leaving the sector, if not the country, which is of course hitting the sector hard”, expressed another.

Reading the applications gave us the strong impression that the NGO sector is experiencing its worst crisis since regime change, and that the consequences of the crisis are still difficult to make out. Even the organizations with the most solid backgrounds were shaken, mostly because they couldn’t resort to functioning as usual, and many of them had lost some of their donors and some of their chief human capital , i.e., their staff, who were quite simply forced to look for other lines of work. And many of the activities and organizations that are disappearing won’t be magically resuscitated once the crisis is over. The fragility of the civil society sector has never been so evident in the last 30 years.

Doing the Job of the State

“It is outright nonsensical that instead of raising awareness, doing advocacy work and exercising pressure, NGOs are called upon to finance and carry out public tasks. This is an enormous problem”, expressed one of our colleagues as a matter of principle.

“You simply can’t have the state declare that education shall go online overnight without, at the same time, providing for the means necessary for society to comply. Obviously, the state is neither required nor able to immediately fund local civic initiatives in an emergency, even if these are already out there in the field, close to those most in need. Nevertheless, one is justified to expect the state to create and operate structures that will not abandon those in the greatest deprivation, leaving them to their own devices” – a further point expressing the state-NGO relationship we think would be necessary, but is currently far from reality in Hungary.

Under ideal – or should we say normal – circumstances, NGOs should now be concentrating on making online education even more meaningful, as well as on building people-to-people contacts and social trust in this trying situation. It is not the job of civilians to provide the required laptops and internet access. The state should be able to provide this to this in need, in large batches, quickly and cheaply.

The crisis puts a familiar issue in stark relief. For the time being, the assistance provided by civil society organizations to those in need masks the lack of state involvement, so that neither the state withdrawing from crisis zones, nor society at large is forced to face the consequences of their decisions. Who benefits from this situation?

Saving lives first, to be followed by radical change

“The crisis amplifies existing processes and problems – I can see the imprint of general, chronic anomalies,” one of us said as it became clear from the applications received that the state had abandoned those living in the greatest deprivation, right in the middle of the health and economic crisis. Moreover, the degradation of the social subsystems designed to help those in need is now taken for granted, as if it were completely natural: even NGO staff working “in the field” they know so well would not even think of turning to the state to obtain help.

“Remember what we have just read and witnessed: we have taken a deep dive in a tragic reality. Let’s save lives first, then start to implement radical change, because it just can’t go on like this anymore. It is intolerable that this is how the state relates to us all, especially those unable to stand up for themselves” – this was the concluding remark closing the discussion about the applications.

We believe that the Roots and Wings Foundation has now done what it was able to do by providing support for the most disadvantaged social groups and for the boldest NGOs. We shall not stop here; through our programs, we intend to build a more agile, more responsible and more cohesive society.

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