Estonian Civil Society

Estonia, a small country with a vibrant society, has heralded significant developments in all aspects of nonprofit and civil society sustainability in recent years. Estonian nonprofits are regularly gaining in public popularity and successfully nurturing support from both the public and business sectors.

The current legislative environment for nonprofit organizations in Estonia is favourable, organizational capacity and financial viability are on the rise, advocacy and lobbying skills are noteworthy. We have already seen a number of occasions in which nonprofit organizations have had a profound impact on the politics and general development of Estonia.

At this stage, however, many organizations are still struggling to plant their feet firmly on the ground. Organizations currently offer a wide range of services in such popular fields as health care, education, accommodation, schooling, counselling and environmental protection, as well as in less common fields such as economic development, administrative and supporting services, etc.

When compared to other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, studies have shown Estonia’s nonprofit sector to possess a rather well-developed infrastructure. In 2003, NENO began working with the state owned foundation Enterprise Estonia to train and coordinate the NGO module in regional development centres. Part of this process involved combining and reconstituting the former business advisory and NGO resource centre. The development centres together with umbrella organizations and networks form a functioning and supportive infrastructure for Estonian nonprofits and civic activists.

Media coverage of nonprofits is generally favourable and their activities are typically presented in a positive light. Related to a number of important on-going issues, it can be noted that in the first half of this year there were virtually no newspaper articles, TV programs or radio broadcasts which ignored the role of nonprofits or the civil society related to these issues.

Nonprofits have mastered different skills in order to survive. The skill to adapt to new conditions, which could mean turning to project-based funding or providing services, has proven to be a critical survival skill. Organizations rely on a diverse range of income sources: direct support from the state and local governments, grants from foundations, programs of the EU, membership fees, fees for services, volunteer work – all are currently being utilized by Estonian organizations.

Participation in policy-making

Participation in the political process is most common among larger organizations. Most draft laws are forwarded to nonprofits for comments, but frequently with a very short notice to respond. In some cases, nonprofits have impacted the law-making process in public. They have organized public seminars and forums, analyzed the impact of drafts on popular opinion, challenged political parties, provided reports and expert opinions, etc. “Participation” was a common theme in 2004, with the State Chancellery developing the concept of the Good Practice of Participation together with and among civil servants and nonprofits.

This was preceded by two initiatives based on EKAK: the Estonian-Danish joint project “Strengthening Cooperation Between the Estonian Public Sector and Business Associations” was commissioned by the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications; and Open Estonia Foundation (OEF) has commissioned a project entitled “Participation and Consultation in the Decision-Making process: Research, Analysis and Recommendations”. Good Practice of Participation deals with informing, consulting with and involving of citizens via nonprofits.

To enhance social dialogue and participation in the political decision-making processes of the society, the network and Forum of country-wide nonprofits, trade unions, organizations of entrepreneurs, rural organizations, universities and political parties was established, in order to find out common priorities for the Estonian society and common solutions to social problems.

There are representatives of 58 organizations involved in the network of social dialogue. The first Social Agreement was signed on October 20, 2003.


Estonian organizations are funded from a variety of sources: membership dues, public sector appropriations, grants, project grants (financed by local and international foundations), payments for products and services, and donations from private persons and businesses. Indirect assistance comes in the form of tax allowances and in-kind contributions. Another important resource for the associations is the contribution of time and energy by members and volunteers.

In 2004-2005, the fundraising situation has improved. Many organizations benefit from loyal donors, ongoing partnerships and increased member support. The Baltic-American Partnership Program (BAPP) has also solicited applications from NGOs (infrastructure support, member development, local development, promotion of EKAK). This year, earned income for NGOs has also increased, especially in the social, cultural, sport and liberal education fields. The private sector has also been actively involved in supporting NGOs, notably through the work of the Charities Foundation – an initiative mediating professional entrepreneurial support to nonprofits.

One of the goals of the EKAK activity plan was to establish transparent funding mechanisms to support civil society organizations with state funds. Currently a consultant is working with nonprofits, ministries and political parties to design these guidelines. Local support for NGOs is relatively good (though varies by region) as local governments increasingly recognize the work of NGOs, and issue contracts for services. In addition, local community foundations have been established in three regions in Estonia.


In the course of the development of EKAK it became obvious that current statistical data was not sufficient and reliable enough. Currently the precise statistical information needed for decision-making is not available; data-collection is not being organized systematically and data-collectors are not usually familiar with the specific characteristics of the nonprofit sector; the system of national accounts does not allow full overview of the sector and there is neither systematic effort to improve the situation, nor the financial resources for that. As a result, the improvement of nonprofit sector statistics became one of EKAK’s short-term priorities

. In 2002-2003 with the support of the Baltic-American Partnership Program in Estonia, policy center PRAXIS conducted a pilot project to map the current state of statistics in the Estonian nonprofit sector and offer policy recommendations. The activity plan for the EKAK for 2004-2006 sets a goal to develop an adequate register of associations and foundations and give descriptive statistics of civic initiative. It is important to add additional data to the existing register, systematically control and update the existing data and detail the classification of nonprofits by their activities.


Volunteers are utilized by a lot of organizations. However, the status of volunteers and the actual content of the term still need to be clarified. To successfully involve volunteers, organizations need respective legal framework. Some nonprofits are working to increase the capacity of organizations to involve and manage volunteers as well as reward them, but broader national vision, action plan and resources are needed to really enhance volunteering. Tartu Volunteer Center is working on this topic and an EKAK joint committee will submit proposals to the government.


As the civil society matures, there are many promising signs in local philanthropy developments. Community foundations have survived the early years. Corporations have become more ‘strategic’ in planning their community investments, both financial and non-financial. High net individuals are becoming more active, and there is considerable interest in some of the newer trends in philanthropy, e.g. venture philanthropy.


Legitimacy and accountability of the nonprofit sector is vital to Estonian organizations. In addition to conferences, discussions and workshops dedicated to the topic, Estonian organizations have adopted a Code of Ethics. It deals with issues like democratic governance and management, civic courage and care,

sustainable and responsible utilization of assets and resources, accountability and reporting, openness and transparency, independence and avoiding conflict of interest, keeping to one’s word, respecting the ownership of ideas, and tolerance.