Bulgaria’s bottom place in terms of public trust in NGOs. The case of an Active Citizens Fund project and beyond.

“The quality implementation of all project proposals financed by the Active Citizens Bulgaria Fund and the achievement of the goals and indicators set in them is of paramount importance for us …”

The quote is from a letter from the Bulgarian team of the Active Citizens Fund [1], 10.07.2020.

“The operator of the Active Citizens Bulgaria Fund highly appreciates any opinion and feedback regarding the management and implementation of the projects financed within the fund. In this regard, your opinion as an expert who briefly participated in the implementation of one of these projects was also carefully considered by the Fund Operator’s team…”

The quote is from a letter from the management of the Active Citizens Fund, 14.09.2021.

An indicative fact from the letters is that the “citizens” are not present and are not a party or object of any attention – they are mentioned only in the title of the organization. This is another answer to why we are where we are.

Another fact is that we receive an average of one letter a year – obviously the topic and the issues we raise are not important…

Another fact is that we receive an average of one letter a year – obviously the topic and the issues we raise are not important … It is interesting how late the Bulgarian operator of ACF will realize the need for a serious debate on the issues raised. And these questions are basic – do funded projects work for or against civil society? Do they affirm democratic values or support the status quo of the past?

Where we are?

RED LIST: Bufo periglenes, the Golden Toad, was last recorded on May 15, 1989

The question is standard and the short answer is: At the bottom. According to the trust criterion, NGOs in Bulgaria are “at the very bottom” globally. Or if the bottom of trust has any levels, Bulgaria is at the lowest. This is not a surprise, nor the only ranking in which we lead from the bottom up.

The marsh element here is not accidental, but it has another meaning – the team of the site supports the protection of endangered marsh species.

But NGOs  in Bulgaria as a sector and as separate organizations do not ask questions like this. They prefer to exist in an environment of self-sufficiency that they have created for themselves. Citizens are often just a backdrop to what is happening as a result of NGO projects.

How does this happen and why does it go “unnoticed”?

White water lilies are a typical marsh plant in European areas of deeper water.

Over time, a formal system of relations has been established that uses a bureaucratic model copied by the state administrations in Bulgaria (which have never been reformed). This model is completely compromised. That is why the place of Bulgarian NGOs in terms of trust in them is the “bottom” according to a global Gallup study.


In one of the profiles of this ranking, the countries are divided into two groups – Top 10 and Bottom 10 (ten at the top and ten at the bottom). Bulgaria is the last of those at the bottom, or the most accurate definition is that we are “at the bottom of the bottom.” Many Bulgarians are already accustomed to such assessments. And NGOs are obviously used to it, probably the bottom already seems like a comfortable place to them. Maybe they are hoping for a new project line, for “getting out of the bottom zone” …

The question that seems rhetorical is whether funding organizations, including the Active Citizens’ Fund, have also become accustomed to the latter and accepted it as the norm.

The technology to get to the bottom and like there

Marsh in shallow water on a lakeshore

If you are familiar with the cuisine of an NGO, you probably have a hypothesis based on your own experience – how does this happen? And what is the technology to get to the bottom, stay there for a long time and start liking it.


Bottom technology includes a system of rules designed to manage and control projects. Characteristic of these rules is “a lot of accountability” and “no efficiency” – so they could be described briefly. In practice, they allow a project to have zero efficiency or even lower if it has significantly contributed to the collapse of trust in NGOs.

Technology necessarily involves dependencies. In the case of local organizations that are “established”, their heavy dependencies are also established – from local authorities, from companies and everything that holds some levers of influence. And no values of civil society matter against this background. Broken through these dependencies, the goals of each project and each specific activity are distorted.

The wall

For NGOs to be there, this speaks to a sustainable trend that does not start now, with any project like ACF / 238 of the Active Citizens Fund, but long before it. This project is just another brick in the wall. And this wall is an obstacle for people to recognize and develop an authentic civil society and organizations. When some walls formally fell in Eastern Europe, others like this emerged. This is a wall between NGOs and the Society. Of course, this journey to the bottom of the world rankings cost a lot. Because these walls are expensive.

The funds should analyze it, but each project has contributed to raising this wall of interest to NGOs. This wall protects NGOs from the Society. It is better not to interfere in their work, nor to be interested in the effectiveness of the implemented projects.

If, on the one hand, the funding institutions are not interested in this issue, and on the other hand, the society is not interested – the conditions are ideal for creating a marsh in which interesting biological species such as Bulgarian NGOs develop.

Without their knowledge, the working people in our communities have financed these projects and, accordingly, these processes through their taxes.

An important conclusion is that this situation is

Result of the rules

Many kinds of birds nest in marshes; this one is a yellow-headed blackbird.

and the regulations governing the projects.

Therefore, it would not be fair to blame an NGO – because it simply takes advantage of the opportunities provided by the “rules”. One brick is not to blame for the whole wall, but also the fact that the bricks have no interest in the wall falling.


What does the analysis of one case show – project ACF / 238?

Project ACF / 238 is “Advocacy campaign for social housing and housing plots in the municipalities of Stara Zagora, Plovdiv, and Maritza” and has been implemented for 18 months since October 2019.

It shows that in practice a wrong model of selection, funding and control has been imposed. The result of this wrong model is that everyone is (almost) a loser.

To what extent the case ACF / 238 is typical, or an exception – this should be the subject of another analysis. And what part of the projects work by imitating activities, far from the ideas and values ??for which the respective programs that finance projects are created. But these questions require answers.

The practice necessarily includes “Imitation”

NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) have reached a new kind of “professionalism”: In it, imitation of activity, adjustment of reports, manipulative approach to people have become virtues that help them to exist in this form. If an “expert” appears who can report an event without it happening at all, it will be very much appreciated.

This approach and the current rules allow:

  • An organization that is not the author of the project to receive a contract for its implementation.


  • A team that is far from the spirit of a project and does not believe in the meaning and necessity of it should be obliged to work on it for months and years.


  • To hold formal events – such as a one-day conference lasting 111 minutes, etc. (If this group of reporting and receiving organizations lives on another planet, maybe those minutes are really days and months – the question may be unexplored)


  • To hold press conferences in which the main points of view and key participants are absent. The information presented through the media manipulate the community for which (on paper) it works.


  • Low or no competence in the areas in which the project commits to work. The only respected competence is “the preparation of reports that can be accepted without problems”. Experts who hold on to their reputation, it is normal that they do not want to participate in such a vicious model of work.


  • They allow the interests of the community to be put last – probably the most important consequence of all.


  • For this to happen with a project like ACF / 238, he points out that it is allowed and the current rules tolerate it and make it a practice. How widespread is this practice – this is an important question that requires special attention. Now we can say that if it were an exception, we would not be at the bottom.

Wonderful  NGO conferences

“Established” NGOs have an “Established” entourage of people they invite when they have to organize a conference on a topic. The topic does not matter, nor the competence of these people. The important thing is to have a presence, a hall that looks full, and photos.

About 30 people come who are aware that they are participating in an imitation of an event and no one has any illusions that it makes any sense.

NGOs in Bulgaria have gained a lot of experience. They formed a cynical attitude towards social reality. For them, conferences do not make sense anyway, so their formal holding is mandatory. In the case of project ACF / 238: 30 people, 111 minutes, a few photos, if possible without conflicting points of view not to spoil the relationship with the government (this is one of the mandatory dependencies), catering on foot and done. The one-day conference is over.

This approach has become the norm, and attempts to do it right – to deviate.

As this cannot be hidden from the community – the collapse of trust in such organizations and NGOs in general is a logical consequence.

Convenient NGO press conferences

NGOs are on the verge of excellence – to hold many conferences and press conferences, and to say nothing. This only seems easy at first glance, it requires a lot of experience, a lot of won projects, mastered funds and established positions at the local level. Thus, a zero effect on the specific work can be achieved and a new bottom of mistrust among the community. The community has no voice, it cannot give a press conference. And since distrust is not measured by anyone, it doesn’t matter to them. The caravan of NGO carts is leaving – what more could they want. And the projects are going well, so is the funding. The dreams of the Bulgarian NGOs have been realized (especially of the established NGOs). And let no one mention citizens, civil rights, democracy!

The NGO press conference looks like this (in the case of project ACF / 238):
It is announced without much noise. A limited range of media is invited, if possible at a minimum. Participants are selected who can speak without saying anything, the participation of potential community representatives or experts who have something to say is diverted. A few photos for the reports, and you’re done. The press conference went unnoticed as it was organized.


Possible solutions


If someone shows the will and common sense to introduce some logic that puts the interests of civil society first, it will not be difficult to do so. These are just a few ideas in this direction:

  • The selection of projects and organizations must be open and allow for real competition of ideas. The current selection generates clientelism and mediocrity. The market for ideas does not work in this area. Many NGOs have actually been living in times of socialism. The mechanism must enable an organization created today to reach a contract for the realization of its idea.


  • It is necessary to have internal competition in significant projects.


  • This will prevent the possibility of a small team to unite around making reports and photo sessions and “forget” about the meaning and interests of the community.


  • Independent analysis of the effectiveness of each project.


This can easily be realized in the presence, as we have said, of good will or “political will”. Each activity and each project has a precisely defined target group. An objective study among this group, done by an independent party, will make each project many times more effective and will help to break away from the bottom of the next ranking. You just have to give the community a chance to say what has actually been done and what the effect is.


  • Prioritize effectiveness over reporting.


Last but not least, it will enable the creative and valuable people in the organizations to really work. There is no doubt that the people and organizations of the ACF-238 project, and not only them, will replace imitation with real work for the benefit of local communities when placed in normal conditions. In place of the current ones, which allow all these “NGO practices” to exist and keep us at the bottom of global rankings.

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Note: The Ideas Blog team supports efforts to protect the rare and endangered species that inhabit the swamps.

Question: In case a significant part of NGOs in Bulgaria work in the way described here, how does this affect the development of Civil Society?


[1] The Active Citizens Fund was set up to help Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein fund projects in Europe to strengthen democratic values and civil society and to support inclusion, democracy and active participation.

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1 Response to Bulgaria’s bottom place in terms of public trust in NGOs. The case of an Active Citizens Fund project and beyond.

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