Interview

Designed to operate in crisis: the journey of one of Europe’s key media donors

The European Endowment for Democracy (EED) was established 8 years ago to support independent media and civil societies of the struggling democracies when nobody else could.

Imagine, it is a revolution and the civil society wants to start building something beyond protest. They come to the EU delegation for support and the EU delegation says that the next call for proposals will be in 1,5 years, so they need to just hang in there.

This does sound ridiculous, but also very clearly identifies the gap existing in European donor support back in 2013, according to Jerzy Pomianowski, Executive Director of The European Endowment for Democracy (EED). EED was constructed to close this gap and it did. The EED’s main goal is to support independent media and the civil societies of struggling democracies. 

A new Brussels-based institution developed under the Polish European presidency started with a small team of 12 people and a programmatic budget of around 7 million Euros. The institution was created to cover just two regions – the Eastern Partnership and MENA. Since then, EED both doubled its size and its influence. The endowment now also covers the Balkans, Russia, Central Asia and Turkey, has 20 million euros in the project budget, and over 50 people on staff. The initial idea behind it is still strong – the endowment only provides funding to kick-start new initiatives or help organizations in crisis, whether organizational or political. 

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Jerzy Pomianowski was not appointed as a head of EED, as it usually goes in democracy support initiatives. Rather, he was selected in an open professional competition among 80 candidates. “I was lucky to win,” says Pomianowski and laughs: “The fact that I was coming from the country that launched the idea was definitely an asset and gave me some extra points in this competition.”

Unlike many other donor organizations, EED’s democracy support operations are efficient. They have been causing trouble for authoritarian governments around the world for a few years now. In Russia, EED was added to the list of “foreign agents”, singled out in Belarus and Azerbaijan. “We were noticed like a small fly. That is small but still annoying,” says Jerzy Pomianowski. 

The Fix talked to Pomianowski about EED’s mission and challenges, his take on the donor influence on the media markets, and his favorite support projects.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jerzy Pomianowski - Warsaw Security Forum
Jerzy Pomianowski, Executive Director, European Endowment for Democracy. Source: warsawsecurityforum.org

The Fix: What was your strategy when you launched EED? How did it change in time?

Jerzy Pomianowski: EED considered itself as a special arrangement because on one hand, we are independent. On the other hand, we are heavily funded by the EU and member states. But, we also have funding that is coming from outside of the EU – from the UK, Canada, Switzerland, and Norway. It’s not a purely EU setup but obviously, the EU provides us with a strong financial backup and institutional stability. That allows us to build capacity and operate in a moment of crisis.

TF: Being able to operate in crisis and fast is something that distinguishes EED from other donors. Was that strategy introduced from the very beginning? 

J.P.: Yes. You also have to understand that the EED was set up as a top-down institution. It’s not like many classical bottom-up civil society organizations that would build their brand, assistance, whether environmental or humanitarian and then would slowly grow up to the big organizations. Instead, EED was a concept-based organization that was set through a certain political claim and initiative. It became a flagship project by the Polish presidency (in the European Union – The Fix). The initial premise was that not everything works perfectly within the EU democracy support system. The EU’s traditional support machinery is very heavy and does not allow flexibility. Speed is one of the biggest sacrifices of this system. 

The second premise, of course, was procedures. Just to have a call, is already a limitation. 

I must say it was not that difficult at the beginning because my personal definition of the EED’s operational model and mission was to do everything differently than the big guys are doing.

More from The Fix: Op-ed: Time to rethink the media funding model

TF: You must have had to test it pretty fast, right? Because in 2014, there was a Ukrainian revolution, and you probably had to jump on it.

J.P.: We were ready because that was the most fascinating moment you may have ever seen. We had money, we had procedures and the revolution started.. The people came from Maidan to the EU delegation, and they sent them to us. The first grant for RPR (Ukrainian revolutionary anti-corruption NGO – The Fix) was from EED. After that, RPR built a huge portfolio of donors, but this first grant was something that they really admired because we gave it within two weeks of request.

TF: I also remember that you were one of the first founders of Hromadske, both Radio and TV?

J.P.: Mostly Radio. Hromadske TV was already a little bit out of our scope when they started. They had already attracted interest from other donors, and we always come in when speed is needed, or the risk is high. In other words, when there is no assurance that this initiative will fly.

TF: That’s a very interesting strategy, I actually want to explore further. You’ve been helping a lot of organizations that are either on the edge of death or just being born. I would assume that also comes with some limitations. How do you track their progress or estimate your influence on their overall progress? As you were the ones helping rent the space, but then other funding came in to help do the actual work.

J.P.: I was always in favor of a very simplistic approach and simplified approach. I’m not a big fan of the long frames and methodologies. If we took a risk and later the initiative was able to build capacity and attract a bigger group of donors, for us, it’s a good enough success. That means they institutionally grew, they now are capable of requesting support in a more traditional way to win a call with those donors who go to the normal code system. Basically, we say, this business is now up and running, and they’re good at it. That is enough proof of success.

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TF: Do you make any exceptions and provide growth support instead of survival support for the partners that you particularly like? 

J.P.: Yeah, it happens. But we always explain to our partners that long-term core support is not what we do. Because the flexibility and speed we offer to you are at the expense of long-term core support, where you should find other places to look for. We also initially had a very strong directive from our board, that we should avoid the second round of financing. We have to argue carefully and deeply to explain why we do this. 

What are those exceptions? First of all, an exception is when the situation dramatically deteriorates in the country, when normal growth is not easy or not possible. The second exception is when for one or another reason, many donors disappear, and the market dries up. It happens from time to time in different countries. For example, in Egypt, after a crackdown on civil society. Many donors then stopped their programs. We stayed and we were almost the only supporting organization left in the market. At that moment, it felt like we were the only chance for local civil society to survive. It was a good reason to give to our board to justify the exception.


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TF: So basically, what for other donors is a risk, for you is an opportunity? 

J.P.: Yes, exactly. That’s what we call a complementary approach. Then that is also part of the  EED success. You can imagine that not everyone was equally supportive of the establishment of the EED at the beginning. There were a few governments within the EU, experts in the European Commission, who were saying that we don’t need an extra mechanism. Maybe, we need to improve the existing one, but we don’t need an extra agency or institution. Our answer was, let’s try first and see. Now, all those voices are gone. They understood that having such a complementary mechanism is not bad. But we also made a big effort not to duplicate, not to compete with those more traditional donors. Rather help them by taking an initial risk or taking a political risk.

ТF: What are your relationships with other donors? Do you coordinate the effort?

J.P.:  First of all, we are having regular consultations especially with the main donors, those running big programs of democracy support on their own, and big countries in Europe plus, of course, the Nordics. They provide a lot of democracy support. We all always get in touch with representative offices in a given country where we operate, whether it is development cooperation representative, or embassy, or some of the big implementers, like German Stiftungs or American NDI and IRI offices. All those present on the ground have a mission similar to ours. 

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TF:  Watching the efforts of other donors in different markets, what do you see? Do you see any problems building up right now? There is this big discussion about how donor support influences the market dynamics in different countries and different markets. What are your observations in that regard?

J.P.: There are many, many problems. Of course, donor-driven agenda is something that is potentially a big issue. On the one hand, we are in between, because we understand our grantees. But we also understand the donor world. We are trying to be a smart interface by explaining to both sides where their weaknesses and deficits are. 

The main donor deficit is that they set up a priority because they need to explain to the taxpayers how they want to spend their money. Obviously, if taxpayers elected the liberal Green Party, they expect that this party will do more about climate or about inclusive society, about gender issues, about the LGBT community, and so on, and so forth. Suddenly, you have a call for the media, that if you produce 50 articles on LGBT in your country, you can win. 

Then you have a media outlet that normally talks about hospitals and schools, or how badly the local government runs the city, that needs some extra money. As a result, they suddenly start writing about the LGBT community because they want a grant. Imagine their audience. Yesterday, five out of six articles were about local hospitals. Today, there are four additional articles about gay clubs in our city, or about LGBT rights. It’s important but they have never written about this before. This is what we call the danger of donor-driven agenda. If you have a media that is specialized in LGBT issues, and they get this grant, no one will notice that they are now doing the work better than before, because they have just a bigger budget, extra staff, and so on. These are, I would say traps. 

TF: But trying to avoid this trap can create another problem because if you focus only on the niche media, you are only educating a bubble. 

J.P.: If you give them more money they will not be niche. They will have bigger resources to advertise, hire professional business managers, media managers. This is a slow process and does not happen overnight. But that’s in my view, the right way to do it. 

TF: Another big discussion now is core funding V.S. programmatic. Core funding, on one hand, gives you this opportunity to grow, make decisions independent of grant deadlines and reporting deadlines. But on the other hand, it creates an illusion of financial sustainability. Where’s the balance? 

J.P.: Balance is very simple. This question we answer all the time to ourselves and to our partners. If the market is distorted then the core funding is an option that has to be available for quite a long time. 

The second point is the oppressive environment. When a media outlet functions in an oppressive environment, you can’t ask for business sustainability because they will never earn money to sustain themselves. They can only be core funded by donors.

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TF: Yes, but the time comes when the market changes and new opportunities come up – what happens then? 

J.P.: The core funding makes sense if it’s taken seriously by both donors and grantees. It has to be seen as an active investment. Let’s say you’re buying a share, then you should join a responsibility team. You can be part of the supervisory council, you should verify on an everyday basis both strategies and performance, you should be as critical as someone who invested private money and is going to lose it. You should behave like a shareholder. If you just provide funding and let it fly – you are giving away your money without any control. This responsibility, this element of coaching and being a real partner. – this is something many donors still struggle with. I think this is a weakness on the donor side.

TF: That said, besides internal crises, you also deal with various external ones. Media Freedom is going down in Belarus as we speak and many donors are challenged with finding ways to support the Belarusian community. What is the solution for that and is there one at all?

J.P.: First of all, we are designed to operate in a crisis. Therefore, the situation in Belarus is not a challenge. We have procedures and systems to help in such a situation. They were developed and tested in other regions long before Belarus. But, if you talk specifically about Belarus, all major media outlets are already outside the country, so the support they are receiving is the support for relocation, restructuring, reorganization, readapting technologically and many other issues.

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TF: Do you get to consult other funds on how to do that? I think that’s a big question for a lot of donors. 

J.P.: The case of Belarus is actually the one with the best coordination system. There is a coordination initiative called the Belarus Implementers Meeting, and they meet regularly. They talk about technicalities, strategic aspects of support, and so on. They meet in Vilnius. It is an exceptionally effective coordination effort and exchange of information.

TF: Is there something that you would do differently if you set up EED now? Are there any lessons learned?

J.P.: Yes, to an extent. For example, in the beginning, I was not permitted to set up a small analytical unit within the EED. My superiors and the board were saying, “You are a grant-making organization. Focused on grant-making. We have so many think-tanks in Brussels that you don’t need to have your own capacity in this area. I was not asking for a lot. I was asking for a maximum of two-three people extra that can focus on aggregating input and knowledge that we are getting from our partners on the ground. Very quickly, many of our partners started bringing a lot of very interesting information and input from what’s happening on the ground to the policy debate in Brussels. We then started to have more and more requests from commissions, external action services, from the European Parliament to share the insights we were gathering.

TF: What are the main challenges you observe in the media markets you work in, that are common for all of them?  

J.P.: In a democratic society, or a dictator situation that is not totally hostile, the soft methodologies to distort or control the market are the most dramatic. In those places where one side of the political scene controls cash flow to the media, they essentially control the media houses and the advertising market. This is a strong distortion that eventually leads to the weakening and disappearance of independent media and plurality of voices. 

Second, I would say, are donor-driven media that are not pushed to challenge their market position, where they have a certain degree of financial stability, but they are not making an effort to really capture the audience. They are donor-centred rather than audience-centred. 

Finally, you have a hostile environment where you have physical harassment, physical threat, economic and administrative harassment, all kinds of tax control. All of these are meant to harass the owners of independent media into submission. 


Media projects that grew out of EED support

Special mentions by Jerzy Pomianowski

DARAJ, Lebanon (https://daraj.com/en/ ) – is a Lebanese media project producing in-depth socio-political reporting. Daraj reporters and writers cover most of the Arab world.

Megaphone, Lebanon (https://megaphone.news/ ) – is a social media project, set up during the last Lebanese uprising. The activists of Megaphone used to not just share the latest news, but also coordinate civil society efforts during the revolution. Recently the group has launched the website.

TV8, Moldova (​​https://tv8.md/ ) – is a Moldovan NGO TV company, producing movies, TV shows and news. The team invested a lot into ensuring the plurality of voices during the last political crisis in Moldova. 

Jurnal TV, Moldova (​​https://www.jurnaltv.md/ ) – is a Moldovan national TV station, producing general TV campaigns and holding vital social campaigns. The company is a part of Jurnal Trust Media holding. 

Hromadske Radio, Ukraine (https://hromadske.radio/ ) – is a Ukrainian NGO digital Radio station, producing general news, in-depth reports, thematic shows in audio and text format.


Photo from Eurozine

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