Civic Europe's impact story

More than three years of Civic Europe have passed and we look back with gratitude and appreciation: Altogether, we were able to support more than 100 organizations and teams over these past years. The program was successfully implemented in 12 countries all over Europe. Both program strands, the Idea Challenge and the Capacity Building, strove to support organizations and individuals in the peripheries and in places that we called civic deserts. We conducted research on civic deserts selecting four specific regions in Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria.

While some elements of the program have already ended in May this year, the whole Civic Europe program ends by April 2023.

On this site, you’ll find an overview of results and outcomes, but also recommendations and learnings from the Civic Europe team who reflected on the specifics of the program. Of course, you’ll also find beautiful pictures and links to all of the program’s publications.

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Idea Challenge Community Meeting in Eger 2021 (Photo by Olga Zarko)

An external evaluation of the program was done in 2022 by the consultancy Reflectory. The Reflectory report is a retrospective impact analysis identifying strengths and providing recommendations. You can download a short version of this external report here. It presents the key success factors and specifics of the program design and approach.

What we achieved

Results in Graphics & Numbers

How to measure results and outcomes easier than in numbers? We prepared a couple of graphics for you to illustrate Civic Europe’s outreach.

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Impact fields of the Idea Challenge winning ideas

Civic Europe brought over 1000 ideas from 12 countries to one database on the Idea Space, which also served as a tool to connect, get inspired by others, and establish new contacts among peers. The diversity of topics, challenges, and impact fields of the selected locally rooted projects in both cohorts (2020, 2021) are reflected in the following word cloud:

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If you want to learn more about the Idea Challenge winning ideas, you can browse them on our website for the year 2020 here and for the year 2021 here. Furthermore, we published two booklets with short, fun interviews introducing all the winning teams and ideas.

Booklet Winning ideas 2020: View here.
Booklet Winning ideas 2021: View here.

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Photo by Jan Dolar

Capacity Building Content and Formats

Civic Europe’s Capacity Building offer came in many formats and types in all program strands and included a huge variety of topics.

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Civic Health Index and ‘civic deserts’ mapping

The Sofia Platform team engaged in advocacy and research for so-called civic deserts as the main geographical focus of the program. The results give insights into the local civic context and allowed us to formulate recommendations relevant to civil society in general, philanthropies, researchers, policy-makers, and media. The key findings and recommendations are available in the report From ‘civic deserts’ to civic cohesion. Detailed data for the four regions including interactive maps of the local actors and the methodology are also available on the mapping website. Check the video below for a short introduction to the research and the term of so-called civic deserts.

Besides mapping civic deserts, Sofia Platform Foundation created a Civic Health Index for Bulgaria. Read more about the results here.

What we learned

In late August this year, we sat down and reflected on our three-year experience in the Civic Europe program. We decided to write down the most important takeaways that we would like to present to you as recommendations and learnings; essentials that made Civic Europe special and contributed to its success.

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Photo by Olga Zarko

We refer here at times to an external evaluation of the program that was done by Reflectory, a consultancy focusing on reflective research and practice. The Reflectory report is a retrospective impact analysis identifying strengths and providing recommendations. You can download a short version of this external report here. It presents the key success factors and specifics of the program design and approach.

We will also include citations that we collected from partners and winners of the Idea Challenge during reporting and anonymous feedback surveys.

The concept of so-called civic deserts was the starting point for all our activities in the program. Civic Europe wanted to dive into the local sphere and reach individuals and organizations in peripheral areas of Europe. We define so-called civic deserts as places perceived as having little to no opportunities to actively participate in and learn about civic life, mainly because of deficient civic infrastructure and low civic literacy (read our full definition here).

We advocated for so-called civic deserts to increase the visibility of those peripheral regions, towns, and cities that are often overlooked, but where civic life needs the biggest boost. Using the term 'civic deserts' sparked discussions that led to more internal awareness as well as external visibility.

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Photo by Olga Zarko

“From Civic Europe, we learned the language and the research behind community involvement and why they matter. The program helped us connect the dots between the larger phenomenon of democracy’s decline, especially in Eastern Europe, and local belonging on the city scale. The idea that this is what is missing resonated with us: Belonging and participation really start in our own communities first.” Reporting Winner 2021

The team of Sofia Platform Foundation published a research paper on the topic in chosen regions in Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria. You can read more about it here.

We have always believed in the power of cooperation – especially on the local level. Civic Europe would not have been that impactful without its partners in respective participating countries: For spreading the Idea Challenge call, we used scouts in each of the 12 countries. The Capacity Building program was not only implemented by local partners, but also co-created with them in a tailor-made approach and with consideration of local specifics and needs.

Choosing the right method to find partners is key to success. We found our scouting partners through an open call in our broader network, because we had a very specific task and specific criteria to be filled. For choosing capacity building partners, we used a mixed method of personal recommendations, deep talks, and criteria for selection such as commitment and dedication to bringing about change and proximity to local community. We asked ourselves “Where is the greatest potential for impact?” and were ready to invest in potential instead of already-developed capacities. Taking time for the decision helped us to get to know potential partners and to estimate whether we are like-minded enough to co-create the program.

We are convinced that the investment in people and teams holds great potential for bringing about local and social change. The Civic Europe team was striving to look beyond project outputs and results because we believe the process towards reaching those results is equally important. When it comes to social change, personal growth and organizational development are as influential as the implementation of activities in local communities.

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Photo by Jan Dolar

That is one of the reasons we included the shortlist interviews in the selection process of the Idea Challenge. Talking to all shortlisted candidates gave us the opportunity to get to know the local context and idea better, but also to check on the sustainability and overall potential of the project team behind the idea. We wanted to include candidates in whom we could envision great potential for learning and growing with Civic Europe.

When drafting the application form and selection criteria for the Idea Challenge, it was important for us to keep the program’s focus in mind: Supporting individuals and organizations who usually have limited access to resources and funds for civic initiatives. To reach that goal, we put effort into a more uncomplicated application procedure that is clearly open for new(er) or small(er) organizations or initiatives in remote areas.

Additional to the “easier” application process, we opted for having simplified bureaucratic processes for grantees, to be able to focus on the truly important: implementation of the projects, professional development of individuals and organizations, and community building.

“Civic Europe is a very flexible program, adjusted to the needs of the territories and organizations. A program that favors intervention in communities rather than management-related bureaucracy.” Feedback Winner 2020

We worked as intermediaries between our donor Stiftung Mercator and our local winners. Even though we could not avoid the donor-role, we always strived towards a more eye-level, partnership-like relationship, where it is possible to talk about failures, learnings, and to grow together through human connections and personal exchange.

One of the main goals of Civic Europe was professional development of individuals and organizations. The needs-oriented Capacity Building approach we chose takes the complexity of each person or organization and their environment into consideration and tailors different learning paths and choices for different needs. “The process is the goal”: The professional self or organizational development always included self-reflection and encouraged participants to try out new things.

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Photo by Jan Dolar

“One of the driving forces behind this program was the perceived lack of opportunities for those in underdeveloped areas to engage and live their full potential as engaged citizens. As evidenced through interviews and implementation reports, the project succeeded in inspiring individuals to apply their own power and personal agency.” Reflectory 2022

Participants shared that the program helped them not only be more financially resilient during the pandemic, but also provided a space for shared vulnerability, common reflection, and learning from each other. We used peer exchange formats during our in-person meetings and during our regular online network gatherings to connect people, engage them with each other, and to inspire a common learning process. We also offered extra funding for learning exchange travels among different participating organizations and were happy to see that this offer was used and received well.

From the feedback of our participants, we can conclude that the international scope of Civic Europe gave participants a set of added values:

1) It nurtured a sense of belonging to Europe; to share similar experiences, challenges, and values on the local level across countries.

“We share challenges with many communities around Europe.” Feedback Winner 2020

2) The international environment served as stimulus for widening horizons, personal networks, and future collaborations.

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Photo by Jan Dolar

3) Last but not least, motivation is a key impulse and should not be underestimated. The feeling that one is not alone in the quest for social change is encouraging, inspiring, and affirming.

“We are amazed how Civic Europe managed to make us all feel like a part of a big family that is well supported. Even from afar, we felt that we were part of something special and we loved the Coffee with Civic Europe sessions. It also made us feel that we are not alone; we realized that all organizations face more or less the same issues. We strongly felt solidarity and cooperation even though we have never seen most of the people in person.” Reporting Winner 2021

What will continue

Closing stages are never easy. Even though the program is ending, we want to emphasize that the Civic Europe network will become part of the MitOst community. New partnerships and friendships will outlast the lifetime of the program.

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Photo by Olga Zarko

There are more than 100 organizations, teams, and individuals who benefitted directly from Civic Europe and were strengthened within those three years of our work. They were able to extend their own network, learn, exchange, and increase capacities, and they will continue their work and engagement in the local communities – where social change starts.

The local communities where Civic Europe projects were taking place have learned that local voices count. They got to know each other and their own community better and experienced that change is possible.

With that, we very much hope to have sparked some flames of civic engagement and social cohesion in Europe that will continue to burn.