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Interview: Marie-Laure Muchery and Ekaterina Mandova of Civitates

For our inaugural JFF funder interview, we spoke with Marie-Laure Muchery and Ekaterina Mandova at European pooled fund Civitates, which started in 2017 as a response to negative trends in the democratic space in Europe.

Fund Manager Marie-Laure moved to Civitates in January 2021 from Fondation de France (one of the founding funders of Civitates), where she was a grantmaker for a decade, focused on democracy in the context of shrinking space in North Africa. Ekaterina, whose background is in journalism in Bulgaria, joined Civitates as Programme Officer in April 2020. The interview took place in September, and has been edited for length and clarity.

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Sameer Padania (SP)How did Civitates come about, and why did the participating foundations decide a pooled fund was needed?

Marie-Laure Muchery (MLM): In 2017, there was a clearly negative trend regarding democratic space, and especially space for civil society, that could be witnessed in different countries in Europe - in countries with “illiberal" tendencies, like Poland or Hungary, but also elsewhere in other forms. And there was a small group of foundations that knew each other from the EFC conference or had worked together, who were thinking that this is not just a problem for civil society in Poland or Hungary, but it's also a European problem - and it deserves a European response.

So these 15 foundations decided to start thinking “How can we address this question of the shrinking space for civil society in Europe collectively?”, because there was this shared concern, but there was also a shared ambition to stick to democratic values and principles - respect for human rights, rule of law, and democracy. Not just the idea of democracy, but the practice of democracy in European countries.

So they started working together, [contributing] financial resources, of course, because Civitates was set up as a pooled fund to pool resources from different stakeholders, but also their expertise on the topic. Some of these foundations were already very active in defending or protecting civic space, while others were not so active on those issues, but thought that joining a fund like this would be a great way first to show their solidarity, and then to explore the topic for their own foundation. They also all brought activities, contacts, experts, and practices to the table.

SP: How did you personally come across Civitates? Did you know it before you joined?

I was actually following the Fund when I was a grantmaker at Fondation de France, focusing on issues dealing with democracy in context of shrinking space for civil society, especially in the aftermath of the Arab Spring in North Africa. Fondation de France joined Civitates at the very beginning because we wanted also to have a view into what's happening [with this trend] in Europe.

SP: And with so many funders involved, how is it governed and how does it operate?

MLM: As a pooled fund, each foundation that contributes to the fund has a seat in the overall governance, so we have a steering committee of now 22 members representing each foundation. It’s very important to us that there is no requirement of time or resources to be part of the pooled fund. We don't expect the same level of involvement from each foundation - some foundations are very new to the topics, but for others it’s central. Some are contributing a big chunk of their budgets, where for others it’s really tiny - but that's doesn’t matter to us. We have 22 people around the table and we want to have this collective work, where everyone has their say, but everyone's still free to entrust decisions to the others. This trust building requires, of course, a lot of time and effort at the beginning, but once it's there, it's actually very comforting to see that there is this common trust and decisions that are taken that apply to the whole group is endorsed by the whole group. For foundations arriving later in the process, our team get them on board with the background information they need to be part of the discussion.

We also give flexibility to the funders, to contribute to the whole fund, or to focus on one specific line of work that is more relevant for their own foundation. With the latest subfund for independent journalism, a few foundations have joined us specifically to contribute to this line of work. It doesn't mean that they're not interested in what's happening in other lines of work, just that they have decided to make the most of their time - but they still follow and are responsible for the whole thing.

SP: So within the broader phenomenon of shrinking space, what are those specific lines of work, and Civitates’ focus?

MLM: Its focus is on how to strengthen democracy, and how to respond to the threats that we experience in our European democracies today. There are many aspects where we think democracy is threatened - but the idea of Civitates is not to address all of them. There were two main challenges to democracy that they wanted to tackle directly. First, civic space for civil society organisations, to be able to protect their enabling environment and their ability to operate in their respective countries. And second, issues around the information sphere, how citizens can have access to reliable information, free from interference, to be able to make informed decisions and to be able to take part in democratic debate.

We decided to focus first on supporting collective action in different countries in Europe - from very formal coalitions, to [situations] where people will just basically strategise and find ways to resist the framing space. For the last three years we have supported a dozen coalitions throughout Europe, and all of them have their own way of addressing this challenge. Some developed a communication campaign to raise awareness of the problem of shrinking space, to make people realise there is a problem - sometimes it's not so obvious to the man in the street that there are clear dangers to the rule of law. Others developed mechanisms to protect themselves when they are directly attacked by the government or by campaigns. And others tried to develop advocacy work on specific topics to resist laws that could have very negative effects on democratic states.

The idea from the very beginning was to send a clear signal that, for Civitates, this deterioration of the civic space is a European issue. It's already very advanced in some countries, but we also see some very worrying signs in other countries that could very easily lead to the same consequences. So that's why we have this wide approach in different countries, and not only in specific contexts in Eastern Europe.

Going back to the second threat to democracy, on the information sphere: our first focus at the very beginning of Civitates was to support initiatives that would expose the issue of disinformation, fake news, and to also support actors that would research, expose, and advocate for regulation. Since we started this line of work in 2018, there has been a lot of discussion at the European Union level, and there are several legislative processes - like the DMA, DSA, the European Democracy Action Plan - looking at what the threats are to democracy, and how regulation, especially of Big Tech, at the European level can help. That's why we have decided for the coming months to focus our support on organisations that are well placed to advance their advocacy work [including this recent round of grants].

SP: And what about the decision to set up a fund specifically for public interest journalism you mentioned? And why did you take an open call approach?

MLM: We decided to launch the Independent Public Interest Journalism sub-fund last year, because journalism has a key role in how information is actually produced, disseminated and consumed today. Without reliable information, without independent media, there is no democracy. So once again, it’s related to this idea of protecting democracy.

Independent public-interest media organisations exist in Europe, but not many have found a viable business model that allows them to stay independent and to be there in the long run. And the focus for Civitates is not to fund their journalism work, for which there are other sources - but the more background work, the organisational strengthening of those media is not something funders usually find very glamorous. That's where we saw that we could really help, in supporting the organisations to strengthen their infrastructure and strengthen their model, to be able to play this key role of a viable information source. That's also why we decided not to go for project funding but for core funding, multi-year funding, at least three years of support, because we know also that this strengthening of the organization doesn’t happen in just a few months.

Ekaterina Mandova (EM): The decision to have an open call was actually easy for us, as, because Civitates was funding journalism for the first time, we needed to learn about the field, and having an open call, although it was a really heavy procedure, allowed us to get to know many great organisations that are developing independent public interest journalism in their countries. We received 311 applications, and first we went through the applications to see whether they meet the basic criteria. Afterwards we have quite a big expert review panel - all anonymous - selected for their expertise, because we want a mixture of people that work on the ground in journalism themselves, or that know journalism through their work in philanthropy or infrastructure organisations, working to support journalism in one way or another, and people from academia who are researching journalism. Also geographic spread was quite important as we were going in a new field, journalism’s very local, and language plays a big role, so the group was very powerful from all the languages that it contained. The experts really followed the work of the organisations that are applying to be able to give us the best advice they could. Sustainability was a big criterion in the final selection, because it was important that we were funding organisations that would not disappear once the grant period is over.

The final process was long, it took two meetings with the experts, and the foundation partners, to have a discussion, raise questions, to be sure that we were picking the right applicants in each country.

SP: What are you communicating with the choices you made in that first round of grantees? What do the choices tell the wider sector about Civitates?

EM: The spread of countries was a logical extension of our umbrella topic of supporting democracy in Europe. We took into consideration the media landscape and how difficult the situation for journalists was in a given country, but we also took into consideration journalistic excellence, and how important organisations were as voices within their own community. So these were the guiding lines for the final decision, and yes, it's true that when we look at the spread of the organisations, there are quite a lot of them based in Eastern Europe. We also felt with the limited budget, that was where we could make the biggest difference. We felt that some organisations do great work, but they had huge budgets, and for them Civitates would be just a drop in the ocean, whereas for other organisations, our limited budget is actually life saving. From the applications, it was also obvious that there are great organisations doing amazing work, but Civitates can’t fund all of them, not even half of them! So we really needed to make difficult choices. It was also obvious from the applications that media organisations in certain countries had the experience of applying for funding, and for some, their reputations were good but it was maybe only their second or third application.

SP: As somebody from one of the countries where Civitates might be able to make the biggest difference, what future do you want for the fund?

EM: We have the ambition to inspire more funders to embark on the journey of core support for media organisations. Civitates won't be able to fund all the great organisations out there, so the field itself needs more joint efforts to fund independent public interest journalism initiatives like what we’re funding now. Especially in countries like Bulgaria - where this type of journalism barely exists, and where I discovered only a handful of organisations making this kind of journalism - giving the example that this is the future in a way, because in post-communist countries, it's very difficult to get away from governmental funding and government advertising as a source of funding. I think Civitates sets a really great example for funders that core support is essential, and really supports democracy to its core, because journalism is at the core of democracy. It also sets an example to organisations to be brave, to be set up by individuals that have a vision, and give them an example that funding exists somewhere, and at some point, your organisation may be one of the funded ones. This for me is what we want to achieve in the next couple of years. And where the fund is going, I really believe core support is the key. There’s no single answer to all the problems of journalism, but core support gives organisations breathing space, time to experiment, so a business model can emerge that could work for most of them, and this can be a great example for other organisations struggling with the same problems.

SP: So three or four years in, what do the funders think? Does it match up to their original motivations for getting involved?

MLM: We had this survey of our funders after a couple of years to understand better their motivations. For us, it's important that people don't consider Civitates as another grantee - it’s a project that they're really responsible for, that they're engaged in, and committed to, for at least a few years. But their motivations are very diverse. You have some that have their own strategy that is a kind of copy paste of Civitates’ strategy, or the other way around, and for them it's a way to reaffirm their strategy, or to reach out to other countries where they're not maybe that active. It’s a way for them to have a bit more impact in Europe, and not just in one specific region or one specific country. You have other foundations that were also ready to explore a new topic or a new area, to be more in touch with a wider network, not only of foundations but also of experts, organisations working in the field that they would maybe not directly approach. When for example you’re based in Germany, and your main focus is Germany, you don't have time or resources internally to go everywhere. You have also foundations for whom it’s interesting because it's a way to identify potential grantees, who in a few years will have grown with Civitates and have reached a certain level of maturity that allows them to join their own portfolio. And you also have foundations that are there to be in touch with other funding practices - many are are not used to working with core funding or multi-year support - and that's also a way for them to reflect on their own funding strategies and practices. So it's really a safe space for these learning experiences.

EM: In the line of work we have on journalism this is all evident - the learning, and the peer exchange - because it's an interesting mixture of foundations that are traditionally funding journalism and those that have no experience in funding journalism. It is very interesting to observe exchanges and the trust that peers have towards each other. It allows funders that are a bit hesitant to start funding journalism, because they just don't have experience in that, or they find it too risky, Civitates allows them to be part of a group and make decisions together - not to have to try the water for the first time on your own.

MLM: It is also a way to mitigate or to share the risk, especially on issues that can be sensitive. Some foundations are not used to this idea of defending [civic space] or resisting [negative] trends that can go into political territory. Obviously Civitates is not political, but when we talk about democracy, everything is political. Some foundations might be more comfortable supporting such grantees through Civitates than doing it directly. Basically, it's a way for them to not be the only one, and not be on the front line. But we also see that, for the grantees, being funded by a group of 22 European foundations, standing on the same principle that there is a problem with democracy today, it makes it easier for them than being the grantee of one single foundation.

SP: What do you think other funders can learn from the way Civitates works?

MLM: Nothing is fixed, basically - Civitates is still young, we have three or four years of experience, and we have not decided that our way of working would be that one, and not others, which is I think one of the added value of a fund like this. We can experiment with things, change things, we can decide to explore new ways of working - and that's okay. It’s maybe not so easy when you are a big foundation with 4,000 grants going out every year, where you have to have heavy procedures to make sure that this is possible.

A couple of examples of how we work differently: We decided at the very beginning that we would help coalitions of actors to emerge, and to consolidate. We didn't know if the coalitions we would support were already existing or maybe they would emerge in response to our call. So we decided in our first call for proposals to have a two-phase call: first, to give them the opportunity to strategise together, and then to support their work for two and a half years. For other lines of work, we had a different approach. For the strand on journalism it was quite clear from the very beginning as Katja said that we would have a very open call where we would gather proposals from all over Europe. We received a lot of applications. And then, it was quite clear from the beginning that we would select a few number of grantees, and we would follow them for three years, with core funding. That's also something that is not fixed - once we are at the end of the grant period for this cohort, we can decide that we want a different approach because that's what is needed on the ground, or that's what we hear from the experts or from our grantees.

So we really wanted to adapt and to have this flexibility to adapt, and not just to get in very rigid, working processes, because that's not our DNA. And that's not why we were set up. It's very interesting to see how foundations that usually have those heavy processes are happy to be in Civitates because they see it as a way to experiment, like a sandbox.

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For more about Civitates, visit their website.