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Source: Brussels Donor Circle Facebook page

A different way of feeling at home

Through diaspora donor circles, Romanians support causes in the country and unite communities. 

200,000 Romanians leave Romania every year. Some put in their luggage photos, memories, maybe with the hope that they will return sooner than later, maybe just to stay close to home. Some take their whole family and break (almost) totally from what's going on here. And others take the Donor Circles with them.

Donor circles are a way to stay connected to the realities at home and, above all, to lend a helping hand. They function as bridges between donors and organizations, but also within that community. 

The Donor Circles started in Romania in 2013, after Madalina Marcu, from the Association for Community Relations, saw the model of the event on a visit to the UK. It may seem like a regular outing with friends over a glass of wine or a very good networking opportunity. So it's not just an informal outing – at Donor Circles, participants know they can be part of the story of an NGO looking for funds to complete a project. 

The format is a standard one – three organizations present their project through an ambassador, people can ask questions about the project, then the donors in the room bid donations. This is where the magic begins. Someone donates 100 lei, then someone else follows them, then the third person says he will double the donations of a fourth person. Then another donor says he will donate 300 if another 3 donate 50 each. There is a lot of laughter, any trace of tension dissipates, even though many donors come directly from work. Enough money is also being raised in a short time. 

Some Donor Circles in the country already have 7 years of existence. Some of them managed to raise an enormous amount of money, such as the Donor Circle organized by Friends for Friends, where more than 18,000 euros were raised in a single evening for independent journalism projects in 2018. At the Donor Circle organized by the Brasov Community Foundation, in November 2019, the team of the Donor Circle raised 73,710 lei (of which 10% for the organization expenses) for 3 local projects.

Ioana Traistă and Cătălin Gheorghe live in Brussels. They both have a consistent history of working in non-governmental organizations in the country. Cătălin was our colleague at ARC, one of the three people who founded the organization in 2001, and Ioana worked at pact foundation, which activates communities in southern Romania. We talked about how the first Diaspora Donor Circle appeared, the one they organised in Brussels. Then, we wanted to understand why an organization in the country would get in touch with a diaspora initiative, why they would beat thousands of kilometers to get to present their cause to communities that are not directly affected by their work.

First of all, where did the first Circle for the Romanian Diaspora in Brussels come from?

The motivation of the Romanians abroad is related to the fact that they are in a community of people who want to change something. "It's important to feel that you belong to a community and that you have things in common, to share common values. And together we get to achieve our goal, that it's not about the amount, it's about the fact that together we can do this.

When you're away from home, you don't have many ways to get involved. You can volunteer, but remote volunteering only often puts additional pressure on the organization, which, if it wants not to lose you, must create a volunteer program or dedicated activities for remote volunteers. You can go once a year, twice, but more than that you can not. This is where the donation comes in, which for us is a way of civic engagement. You channel your resources to support organizations where it hurts the most, to sustainability", says Ioana.

Another option is to find an engagement mechanism that has the infrastructure ready to donate, that has already done the research work for you, that knows that an NGO is transparent, serious and that it can act to solve a problem – that is, what a circle does. And you, as a donor, come and support with confidence.

And for organizations? It means communities of donors that would have been very difficult to reach, but that you can activate more easily when the bridge of trust is already made by the circle.

"The circle brings the community together, just like in the country, but maybe it has stronger effects. We're away from home, sometimes it's hard to have contact with organizations in the country because of the distance, if you bring them here it reduces physical distance and fear of donating.

It's also the part of creating a community. There is a bubble that gathers and does things, gets involved in civic activities. We meet with them at other events as well. There are people who want to change something, to get involved. The circle brings them closer."

Joan makes a clear observation: they do philanthropy, not charity. The moment they choose an organization to invite to the Circle, they look at their ability to change systems. "On the principle we do not give oranges to children, but we do things that help them in the long run," she continues. 

From here, they do not put conditions to how the money will be used inside the project – the classic percentages to cover salaries/protocol/operation that do not exceed X% of the total funding. The funding from the Circle does not put additional administrative pressure on the NGO. Organizations apply with a new project or a project they are already running and are usually from areas such as civic education, democracy, independent media, community development, minority rights. "Non sexy" philanthropy, as Joan called it, the kind of causes that do not arouse as much emotion as those of social or health, for example. From our experience at ARC, in the above fields there are several organizations that work rather on the grassroots. For them, 2,000-5,000 euros have a significant impact and, on top of that, they also have the gateway to a new audience.

Once this loophole has opened, the relationship is maintained – donors receive reports of expenses for transparency. Donors become aware of the effects of their donations – how to donate, where to donate. I mean, it's also part of philanthropic education, by the way, we don't do charity. The circle encourages organizations to build a lasting relationship with donors, cultivate it, and keep close to those who are very far from the country.


Philanthropy "non sexy"

For Cătălin Gheorghe, circles mean funding opportunities that really make the difference for the organization. It's a conscious discussion that the organisers of the Brussels circle have when it comes to selecting the causes. The organizations that come in are usually those that work on the grassroots, directly with the beneficiaries, that solve some concrete problems in a community. So far, the Brussels Donor Circle has mostly selected "non sexy" cases that work on the grassroots.

It sounds cynical to label a sexy cause or not, but it makes sense. Usually, the causes that are easiest to donate to are social, education, or health. A donor can connect emotionally more easily to the problem of "children need a hot meal at school to be able to hold on to study". Rather abstract problems, the resolution of which does not have an immediate effect, such as the lack of civic education or sex education and the effects they have on a society as a whole, are most of those that do not receive as much funding. There are those that are not necessarily considered emergencies. A lack of mass is urgent in the face of a lack of education about democracy, for example. That's not to say they're not as important to the health of a society.

Catalin tells me that the target is usually set at 2,000 euros per project, which they have successfully exceeded each time. The average amount raised thus reaches somewhere between 2,200-2,500 euros for each NGO present. The Circle in Brussels started in 2017, and at the first four editions they raised approximately 40,000 euros for 12 initiatives in Romania. 


Who donates these sums to Brussels?

Usually, the 65-70 people present at the Circle are divided into 3 large categories. In the first category, donors have an attachment to the mission of the invited organization – for example, when Sex vs. Barza was present, "we had people who necessarily wanted to donate for sex education", says Catalin. Then there are the emotional donors – they impress their cause and they feel they really need to donate. It's an intrinsic need to solve a problem. And in the last group are those who donate for participation. From their experience, the first 2 groups are the most numerous and donate the most, and the 3rd group is the one made up of people who keep coming back to events.


What does a donor profile look like?

"The donor is a woman, I think she works rather in the European or associated institutions, she is about 30-40 years old, 5-8 years since she left the country. Donors are people with great attachment to Romania, but they no longer have such constant and solid direct ties to make their own donations. The fact that we propose verified causes to them helps them", says Catalin.

Diaspora Donor Circles began to emerge after the success of the one in Brussels. It is also the case of the London circle, which has so far had 2 events with some record numbers of participants – the first edition with 70 people in the hall, and at the second almost 100. We talked to Rares Pamfil, the initiator of the project in England.


How to create a community

Rares attended 4 years ago at INSPIRE, a training course for philanthropic counselors organized by ARC, where he learned more about The Funding Network (TFN), the umbrella under which all Donor Circles are organized in England. The moment came for Rares, who was looking for a long time for a method to be closer to the causes in Romania, but to allow him to have time for his job and life in London.

"I'm concerned about philanthropy. Early in my career, I studied about social entrepreneurship at university and wrote my dissertation about U.S. foundations, how they make decisions, how they measure their impact, and how they do strategic planning. I worked in the foundation of a family in London and at the Ashoka office in Washington, where I was running projects for foundations.

Seeing what culture of charitable donations exists in America and England, I said that there is a great potential to increase donations in Romania as well. Supporting NGOs in Romania, even the very small ones, is very important because for niche problems you always need a more specialized intervention, more at the grassroots level. The circle is a way for those in the diaspora to do something for Romania without changing their job, it is a good first step to do something for Romania without returning home."

After seeing the results of the circle of donors in Brussels, Rares and the team organized the London Circle, which happened simultaneously with the second event in Brussels, on June 14, 2018. The message was clear – the diaspora is a force that can work together for Romania, even if it separates thousands of kilometers.

The first London Circle of Donors gathered 70 people. It's not at all a small thing when you think that those people were brought together by 3 people, the main team of the event. Friends called friends, some friends called personalities, other friends were related to networks of Romanians in London, such as GRASP, LSRS, Romanian Cultural Institute, Rațiu Foundation. The first event started with the right and due to the proximity to TFN and the Frederick Mulder Foundation, the founder of TFN, who donated the first thousand pounds, but also with the help of donations from Romanian personalities settled in London, such as Nicolae Rațiu.


Move the needle enough to lead to a change

Circles aren't just about money. They could become a springboard for an NGO working on the grassroots, get to know more donors, get to know more donors, get to know other people who can support their work, not just financially. To move the needle not only to raise funds, but also to generate social change and fulfill its mission.

An NGO that comes to present its cause at the Circle does not only benefit from sums raised on the evening of the event. It's more of an immersion in a community that you don't have access to every day; for example, Romanians in London are familiar enough with the culture of donation and the culture of philanthropy, so the first step towards them is as done. A participating organization has the opportunity to reach the middle of a donor audience that has never heard of it before, but who is present there with an open mind to help it. You have the opportunity to arrange meetings with similar organizations in London, to try to exchange an experience with them. You can keep a connection in the future with Romanians in the diaspora who are relevant to the work you carry out. Then you have the opportunity to get a beautiful experience in London, to visit the Tate Modern, to come back with a new perspective on your work from home.

There are two very telling examples of organizations that have accomplished more than just fundraising at the circle. The first example is the Love for Life Association, founded by Raluca Ciulei. Raluca left a career as a data scientist in Switzerland to work with students and teachers from the villages on non-formal education activities. He develops course supports and activities for teachers and has made a 1,200 km march to make the problems of students in villages more visible. The organization works at the grassroots, and Raluca is the only full-time person in the association, so all the fundraising effort falls on her shoulders. After the London Circle of Donors, where she presented her cause, she raised funds and her organization received two donors who wanted to contribute financially after the event, one of them being Nicolae Rațiu, and the other even Rares. 

The support then, but also after the event, meant increasing the capacity of fundraising and connecting with other networks. It was an opportunity for the organization to grow, to get a little closer to the fulfillment of the mission and to forget for a while the care of funding.

ADEPT Foundation is another example of how the intervention of the Circle can change the course of an NGO. The Foundation participated in the second edition, where it raised £3000 from donors present in the room. At the same time that ADEPT members were presenting their case on stage, they were competing for a grant of 30,000 euros for which they needed as many votes as possible from the public. After the event, the organizers of the circle sent all participants a message of thanks, but also a request – to vote for ADEPT to access the grant. From here, people voted and took the time to ask their friends to vote. In the end, ADEPT received the grant.


One thing at stake is creating a network

The success of the events also means many themes of thought for the organizers. How to scale the event? How do we link other types of networks in each country together, such as churches, schools and theaters in Romanian, which also raise funds for the country?

During this period, there is also the question of how to keep the community close in situations of major crisis, such as the one caused by Covid-19. When everyone isolates themselves for their own good, how do you bring them together? One of the answers is the creation of a formal network of Donor Circles of the Romanian diaspora groups.

"The most important opportunity brought about by Covid-19 is to answer the question: what do we want to do with the network of circles. The movement is in its infancy, but if it were clear to us how we want to work together in the future, all circles, it will be easier for us to react when a situation similar to the Covid crisis is repeated. Let's see where we go with the network because there are already 8 groups", says Ioana Traistă.

All diaspora circles consult each other, share materials and ideas in such a way that events go smoothly and their organizers do not reinvent them every time. But the purpose of the network is deeper than just coordination – it could become a means of rapid crisis response and a strategic support for organizations in the country, which they can even include in fundraising strategies.

Perhaps the most important question is how to link the network of diaspora donor circles so that their impact is felt at the level of society in the country. To move the needle, as Rares said. Diaspora circles will continue to emerge and the challenge is to find the way and goals of working together. All the organizers know each other, exchange ideas, hear each other often and send their materials and ideas from one to the other, so it's only a matter of time before we have a network in the truest sense of the word.

For organizations, circles connect them and help them access an audience that would not otherwise have direct contact with Romania. That's one of the reasons why the second London Circle of Donors took place in English – they didn't want to restrict anyone's access, they even encouraged anyone to participate.

Romanians who left the country are often an audience that seems inaccessible to NGOs in Romania, because of the distance, because of the lack of honest communication with the diaspora or because of the organization's low capacity to fundraise abroad. But diaspora is a valuable resource that we are increasingly realizing, not just in terms of fundraising. There are people with the experience of living in another country, who assimilate a foreign culture, who live personal and professional moments that, perhaps, they would not live in Romania. All these things mean an audience more aware of the power of their involvement, more responsible and, why not, with a better material situation than in the country.

For the millions of Romanians who live abroad, Circles can become a way to gather and feel a sense of familiarity. To feel at home for an evening. These events have the opportunity to succeed in things that would perhaps be more difficult to do in the country: to connect and reconnect Romanians with what they have left behind and, especially, to feel that they can offer a vital help to those left. 

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