The Story of PROTECTA: Trying to Reconcile Organizing and Service Delivery

February 17, 2010

Two years ago, Mladen Jovanović, one of three founders of PROTECTA, a Serbian NGO, took my online executive program on strategic frameworks for NGO leaders. His analysis of the organization’s strategic challenges reflected the mission struggle many good organizations that start out focusing on advocacy have as they grow and gain donor support.
The Center for Civil Society Development, or PROTECTA, was founded in 1997 to harness the energy of Serbian youth in promotion of positive social change at the local and national level after the years of upheaval and political confusion. Civic engagement had been decimated along with economic vitality. PROTECTA began by providing technical assistance to other NGOs that were trying to establish themselves in a hostile environment. In 2000 it launched a successful voter registration campaign and organized election monitoring. This success brought PROTECTA to the attention of international donors who wanted to alleviate the humanitarian crisis created by the influx of refugees (or internally displaced persons) in southern Serbia from Kosovo after the fall of Slobodan Milošević. PROTECTA was in a position to mobilize local volunteers to serve in this emergency and use new donor support to grow the organization. Over the next few years this service work, while essential, began to take a toll on the enthusiasm of the youth volunteers and the interest of some of the PROTECTA leadership to continue their political action work. There was good-natured recognition within the organization that it had become quite donor driven.
The political challenge that PROTECTA is currently taking on is to educate the electorate and advocate for decentralizing the industry, culture, university, and sports institutions that were all centralized during the communist and socialist regimes, or “Belgradized” as the citizens call it. This challenge is very consistent with the early objectives of the organization. Tension in the organization arises over a couple of issues. First, while there are several funders for the decentralization work, including USAID, there continue to be other donors who encourage service work. While Jovanović is interested in focusing the programs toward advocacy, this effort is stymied by the lack of funding flexible enough to fund it. The decentralization project has grown to represent 55% of the organization’s revenues, but most of that is in very specific project support from donors. Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which has supported PROTECTA for the past five years, primarily for its work on democracy building, is the only funder that provides institutional support for staff and administration that does not get covered by the other funders. The mix in external support is echoed inside the organization, where PROTECTA's other two founders are more comfortable with multi-mission programming. However, in the pursuit of youth development to promote European integration and understanding, these founders have gotten involved in a political reform network whose current focus is on combating organized crime, something PROTECTA has no capacity for.
While the objective of having more general support is part of this story, the more subtle one is how difficult it is for a nonprofit to stay the course of civic mobilization rather than move into the provision of services, especially while trying to get larger and stronger. It is really almost too much to expect an organization like PROTECTA to "just say no" to the obvious need confronting them and to funding from donors who believe in them. The call I make is for funders, like RBF in this case, to embrace and support—even to encourage—the organizing work alongside the service work. The latter work is necessary to contain the worst conditions, but the former is necessary for long-term democratic strength.
Monday's post: Striking a Balance Between Supply and Demand.
Tuesday's post: Perhaps Change Starts at Home: University Outreach Programs.

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