2021 CSOSI report from USAID: CSO advocacy in Estonia has improved

13. Oct 2022

Hereby we are presenting to you a summed-up report (full version here) of Estonia on 2021 CSOSI report from USAID.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are those of the panelists and other project researchers and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or FHI 360.

Overall CSO sustainability

2021 was another turbulent year in Estonia, which began with a change of government as the pandemic continued. Change of government did not reduce polarization in the country though and CSO sustainability did not change in 2021. However, change in score was reported in advocacy, which improved slightly as CSOs’ role in policy-making processes was further institutionalized during the year. Civil society has proven to be capable and trustworthy, helping both the state and those in need by organizing campaigns, collecting donations, and volunteering. According to the Estonian e-business registry, the most popular area of work for CSOs is recreational activities.

Legal environment

The legal environment governing the CSO sector did not change significantly in 2021 and remains quite supportive. Estonian civic space is open, while Estonia is rated as Free according to the worldwide report. Associations can register through a very easy process that can be completed online in just a few minutes, but foundations cannot register online. The legislation concerning the activities of associations has undergone a substantive and systematic analysis over the past few years. As a result of the implementation of a new law, applicants can now apply for registration on a specific date up to six months in the future, but only in the case of mergers or similar reorganizations. From a financial point of view, CSOs may earn income by charging fees for goods and services, establishing social enterprises, engaging in fundraising campaigns, and accepting funds from foreign donors. As well as to compete for government contracts and procurements at the central and local levels. Although there aren’t many lawyers that are familiar with CSO-related laws, they sometimes work with CSOs pro bono or at reduced costs.

Organisational capacity

Organizational capacity within the CSO sector in Estonia did not change in 2021 and remains fairly high. The capacity gap in the sector widened as a result of the pandemic: while stronger organizations were able to adapt and continued to grow, smaller ones were often left behind. But one thing is clear, all had to face challenges reaching their target groups in 2021, as they are used to having a more hands-on approach. To cope with that, some organisations have accommodated with online events or a hybrid conferences. Struggle, which is related to movement restrictions existed in those organisations, that depend on volunteers and interns. However, some organisations have employed permanent staff. Nevertheless, all CSOs are generally able to afford modern information and communication technology and internet access.

Financial viability

The CSO sector’s financial viability remained unchanged in 2021, meaning that support from the government is growing and donations are increasing, yet these indicators were balanced out by rising inflation during the year. NENO and other umbrella organizations aim to advance strategic partnerships between ministries and CSOs, including longer-term contracts and more sustainable cooperation. Estonian CSOs have access to several foreign funding opportunities. The largest amounts of foreign funding come through EU calls for grants, including the European Commission’s Citizens, Equality, Rights and Values program. The largest Estonia-based foreign funded grant program is The Active Citizens Fund (ACF), supported by the European Economic Area (EEA) and Norway and implemented by the Open Estonia Foundation. CSOs can also apply for grants under several smaller programs based in Estonia, including that offered by the Nordic Council of Ministers´ Office in Estonia.

Both individual and corporate donations have increased steadily over the past few years. NENO and the network of organizations collecting donations contributed to this success, in part by organizing the donation campaign Annetamistalgud (part of the Giving Tuesday movement).

In general, CSOs have quite sound financial management systems.


CSO advocacy improved slightly in 2021 as the government adopted several plans and policies that further institutionalize CSOs’ role in policy making. CSOs continue to prove themselves to be trustworthy and professional partners for the government and strategic advocates of their stakeholders’ interests. An advocacy win had been achieved – The Psychiatric Care Act. This is a coalition of mental health organizations, which allows people under the age of eighteen to seek the services of a psychiatrist without requiring consent from their parents.

An important step forward in promoting transparency in decision making is approving good practices for dealing with lobbyists, which also apply to CSOs and advocacy experts. Such steps as developing the Coherent Estonian Development Plan 2021-2030, holding The Citizen Initiative Portal, creating Estonian Center for International Development under the Ministry of Interior and organising several campaigns and projects during the period leading up to the local elections are kind of actions, that develop effective cooperation between parties and are inherently challenging.

Service provision

Service provision by CSOs did not change significantly in 2021. While it was difficult to provide some types of services during the pandemic, CSOs adapted by creating new services and sources of income. In most cases, the goods and services that CSOs provide continue to reflect the needs and priorities of their communities. 

Some organisations acting in such fields like sports, culture, catering and tourism were affected by the pandemic related restrictions. They had to re-organise their work and quickly adapt and focus on local people.

The government at both the national and local levels recognizes the value of CSOs’ services through its public statements, policies, and practices. Local municipalities, ministries, and other public bodies outsource services from CSOs and also delegate service provision to CSOs.

Sectoral infastructure

The infrastructure supporting CSOs in Estonia continues to be well established, with no significant changes in 2021. Umbrella organizations, networks, and regional development centers all continue to be important sources of support for CSOs, offering information, training, technical assistance, advice, and opportunities to cooperate. For example, NENO coordinates several networks, including the network of organizations collecting donations (156 members), organizations focusing on advocacy work (36 members), organizations focused on involving volunteers (50 members), and organizations promoting open government (30 members). Developing leadership capacity continues to be a need among CSOs. Through ACF, NENO implements a development program for future civil society leaders. Training on topics like communication and networking are often asked for.

Public image

CSOs’ public image was stable in 2021. CSOs engaged in advocacy and service provision continue to benefit from media coverage in local and national, public and private, and traditional and online media. CSOs also continue to use social media to reach their audiences and raise awareness. Also a growing number of associations have become well-known in the eyes of the public, both the business sector and government officials (local and national) have a positive perception of CSOs—both those providing services and engaging in advocacy. However, some environmental organizations find it challenging to cooperate with ministries and businesses in the area of forestry. To conclude, CSOs regularly strive to publicize their activities and promote their public image and are fairly transparent, they sign onto several good practices and codes of conduct.