Applicants’ opinions in the first round of the EEA/Norway NGO Fund – Questionnaire survey

Right from the start, the Hungarian NGO sector had huge expectations towards the NGO Fund – as could be seen from the great interest in the launch event in February 2013 and after. 
However, the priorities and conditions of the new program are very different from those of the first NGO Fund active between 2008-2011. In order to understand better what the civil sector knows and thinks about the Fund, the Operators conducted an online survey among the 1838 registrated users (individuals and organizations) of during the spring. The questionnaire was open from the 8th of May to the 15th of June, after the submission deadline but before the evaluation of the first call applications and the publication of the supported projects’ lists. The survey was scheduled like this on purpose: by this time people could learn the details the NGO Fund and the call for proposals but their opinion wasn’t influenced by the results, i.e. whether they were supported or not. (Only the first round results of the macro-projects were available at the time.)

30% of the registrated users answered as we received 550 completed questionnaires until the answers were saved (17th of June 2013). (We consider this a good response rate considering the rather long questionnaire.) The 55 groups of questions covered 4 main issues:

  1. General information of the organizations
  2. Knowledge about the program
  3. Priory expectations and earlier experiences with the program
  4. Evaluation of the program

After the earlier published intermediary findings now we present the final results and the lessons learned.

1. General data of the applicant organizations

A great majority of the respondents are associations (59%) a smaller part are foundation (38%), 2% are alliancse and 0,5 % are social cooperatives, which are also eligible for funding in the NGO Fund.

Regarding the year of establishing the organisations, answers were evenly distributed between 1989 and 2012 (apart from a few ones that were established earlier). The ratio of the younger oraganizations was somewhat higher, with 6.9% established in 2007 and 7.3% in 2011.

Almost half (49.1%) of the respondents have no paid staff at all and 20.9% work with one or two employees.

Volunteering: fifth (20.1%) of the organizations works with 6-10, almost one fifth (19.4%) with 11-15 volunteers and only 4.2 % has no volunteers at all. 

Almost one fourth of the organizations are seated in the capital, 31.6% is registrated in a city with county rights and another fourth in towns (24.7%) while one fifth (18.2%) are seated in villages. However among those who submitted an application the ratio of metropolitans was somewhat higher (30%) at the expense of the smaller cities. 

Regarding the counties Baranya (8.5%), Pest (8.5%) and Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén (7.5%) had the highest ratio while we received the lowest answering rate from Vas (0.9%) and Bács-Kiskun (1.6%). Consistent with the higher number of metropolitan organizations, more than one third of those who submitted a questionnaire say that they have national scope of work while 31.5 % have regional and 25.8 % local scope. 7.1% set other categories: they marked international, sub-regional or county wide scope.

The three leading profiles (main focus of activities) were: culture (197 answers, 35.8%), social provision (154 answers, 28%) and environment protection (125 answers, 22.7%) (muiltiple options could be marked here). While the last two are consistent with the number of proposals submitted to the related thematic areas of the Fund the high number of cultural organizations is interesting as this topic wasn’t specifically included in the thematic areas, priorities of the NGO Fund.  significant part of the responders (343 organizations, 62.4%) marked other options: they are mostly active on the fields of education, training, skills development, awareness raising, equal opportunities, protection of interest and minorities, legal protection.

2. Knowledge of the program

Only a small part (4.7%) of the responders didn’t apply for any of the first calls of the NGO Fund in 2013 while the vast majority, 83.6% applied for micro projects and 10.7 % for macro. It somewhat differs from the real data: we received 1339 applications in total and 23.2% of them were macro projects (first phase) while 76.8% were micro projects. (It must have influenced the willingness to answer as the results of the macro projects’ first phase were public already at the time the survey was made. Those who didn’t qualify for the second phase must have been less motivated to answer.)

At the same time, the majority (84.7%) of the respondents’ said that they were not included as partners in other applications – this is in line with the fact that only a small part of the  applicants wanted to implement their projects in partnerships: only 16.7 % of the micro projects had partners in contrast with the macros where almost half of them had partners. 

For most of the respondents (81.6%) this wasn’t their first application, they have appplied to other funds earlier. Only fourth of them participated in the first NGO Fund between 2008-2011 and 9.6% of them were supported while 13,8% were not.

This was somewhat surprising, even if about one fourth of the respondents couldn’t have applied due to the age of their organization. Also a vast majority (89.5%) said that they wrote their proposals themselves and didn’t hire “professionals”. 88.7 percent stated that the conditions of the call were clear and unequivocal. The next part of the questionnaire aimed exproring this question more in depth. 

Most of the respondents answered the questions correctly about how many application could be submitted by one organization as a lead applicant (one – 94.5%), what is the maximum length of a micro project (12 month – 90.8%), the minimum of the own-contribution (10% - 89.8% answered correctly) and the maximum grant amount (10000 € - app. 75%). The respondents were more uncertain about the number of thematic areas in the micro project call (7 – 59.5% answered correctly, though the answers might have been influenced by the fact that one organization could apply only for one thematic area: 11% marked this option).

To the question about the donors of the program, Norway was marked by almost all responders (96.4%), but only two-third (65.1%) was able to list all three donors – Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. 

As to the overall objective of the Hungarian NGO Fund they quoted mainly the call’s statement: “the goal of the Fund is to strengthen civil society development and enhance contribution to social justice, democracy and sustainable development”. Besides this, a variety of other goals appeared among the answers; some of them are listed among the goals of the Fund some are not explicitly: examples for the former are to help disadvantaged regions and classes, to promote equal opportunities, community life, activity, volunteering, grass root movements; new cooperations and partnerships. Examples for the latter are: to promote European values and strengthen care for each other.

3. Preliminary expectations and earlier experiences about the program

We wished to learn about the motivation of the applicants as well: respondents answered that mainly they applied - besides other reasons – as they were seeking support to implement an idea (412 organization, 74.9% of all answers), and they were searching a good format to achieve a social goal (341 organization, 62% – multiple answers were possible here).

Those respondents who did not submit an application didn’t really tell the reason for that (30 organizations, 5.5%). Those who justified their withdrawal (67 organizations, 12.2%) said that the main reason were the lack of time (18 organizations, 3.3%) and the complexity of the application (9 organizations, 1.6%). In some cases the reason was that the applicant didn’t find Norwegian partner, it was difficult to write the English summary or they missed the deadline for technical reasons.

The expectations toward the Fund were rather great. The majority of the respondents (53.8%) expect that they can maintain their organization safely in the following year if they win. However only 11% said that they plan to start business, income-generating activities during the implementation of the application to achieve long-term sustainability. 86% thought that the professional activities of the organization will expand as a result of the project and 79.3% thinks that they would introduce some innovation. 81.8% of the respondents plans to introduce some kind of good practice in the country and 79.3%t thinks that the implementation of the project means a learning opportunity for the organization. 34.6% thought that they would need to hire new colleagues in case they win while 43.4% doesn’t expect any changes that would create new jobs. 88.7% expects that the activities will improve the situation of their target group.

4. Evaluation of the programme

One third of the respondents (33,3%) needed 16 to 35 hours to write the application, almost one-third (31,6%) had to spend 36 to 72 hours on the job but one fifth said that less than 15 hours was enough to finish.

The operators supported the applicants by distributing information via several channels and offered diverse ways to communicate.

The main information source was the website of the program, almost 80% of the applicants used it. The most visited part was of course the “Application documents”, more than half of the applicants visited it several times a week during proposal writing. Popular contents were the news and the Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) too, 58.9% of the respondents read the news once a week and 37.8% read the FAQ. The video about project planning was popular as well, one third of the applicants watched it to the end one or two times during the call. The blog and the partner serach were the least successful among the tools, as three-quarters of the respondents didn’t use these menus at all. In general the website was suitable for the purposes, as 78% of the respondents found every information there and only 17.5% missed something from the site.

The majority of the respondents didn’t use the opportunity to ask questions via e-mail, or to use the on-line forum or the Facebook page. Somewhat more of them, 41.8% has called the operators over the phone asking questions mainly about the budget and only 6 person reported that they didn’t receive calleback. The majority of those who called received answers to all questions. Most respondents didn’t go to the information events, but the ones who did were mostly very satisfied. It was an opportunity to hear general information about the Fund, to clarify professional or procedural questions but the participants appreciated even more the encouragement they received here. Even less people used the opportunity of personal consultation, but those who did were very satisfied/satisfied with the support: it was easy to contact the operators and they gave adequate answers to all questions. 

Based on the answers, the efforts of the operators to write a clear and easily understandable call was succesful as well: 90.2% answered yes to the relevant question. This is supported by the fact that 80.7% of the respondents could decide easily if their project plan fitted the call and with what topics they should apply (84%). 69.9% said that it was easy to fill in the application form, a similar number (67.2%) thought that it was easy to plan the budget and only a little less (64.6%) said that it was easy to understand the compulsory indicators.

The picture is a bit different if we compare the (relative) confidence of the applicants with the opinion of the assessors, especially with the average scores for each criteria. The average scores of micro project proposals deviated around the half of the maximum scores (including both rejected and supported applications), we see upwards or downwards outliers in few cases only. 
Based on the scores the strongest asset of the organizations are their capacity and experience, while the projects cost-effectiveness received the lowest scores. This means that the assessors found the budgets inflated, too big compared to the planned activities and expected results.
Project sustainability and innovativeness seems to be another typical weakness, although these aspects were emphasized strongly during the application period, at forums and consultations. First phase macro projects proposal received lower than half of the available maximum for their development concepts, expected results and experience – most rejected applicants were dropped out on these criteria.

The application writing period was enough for most of the respondents (83.4%) and 66% agrees that the available grant is enough to implement their project. 87.5% found the professional and financial conditions appropriate. We received mostly positive answers about the application process: the vast majority (68.9%) found the operators punctual regarding the deadlines and only 12.9% detected problems during the submission (about half of them indicated this to the operators). 

The respondents found the application system convenient. They have pointed out a few things that shall be further developed as follows: the wording of the guide is not clear, not detailed enough, too general; it would be good to see concrete samples, examplary projects on the website; some items (e.g.: FAQ) are not displayed appropriately or they were ambiguous; the availability of e-mail and phone consultations, the info days; the organizations listed in partner search didn’t react.

The respondents had the chance to propose changes for the upcoming rounds, here we list a few from their ideas: simplify the call, formulate the expectations, thematic areas, eligible activities more concretely, clearly; give more more detailed description about the eligible costs and the budget; highlight the most important information and some new ideas to include in the call: (eg. winning chances, necessary time for proposal writing). Besides they proposed to extend type of the eligible organizations, include new topics and aspects; and provide more contact with Norwegian organizations to foster partnerships.

Regrading the application form we received suggesstions to clarify, simplify and formulate it more concretly (e.g. reduce the number of text boxes and the subqestions; eliminate overlaps; reduce maximum character numbers; text editing options). However, in other questions some proposed to include the number of characters and include new questions (e.g. introduction of the professional employees of the project). In some respoects the respondents would have needed more detailed explanation (e.g. compulsory indicators, existing co-funding, horizontal aspects, own-contribution, budget). The possibility of attachments came up as well (e.g. budget sheet, the application in downloadable form, etc.).

Regarding the financial conditions (budget lines, own-contribution, grant size) the respondents would change the following: increase the maximum size of the grant, reduce own-contribution, reduce the ratio of the own-contribution in cash, the eligibility of other types of in kind (besides volunteering). Some proposed to simplify the budget, by using only the main budget lines and not requiring itemized lists of small expenditures. Some questions need to be clarified, e.g. the indirect costs and the opportunity to support certain costs more (eg. major infrastrucutral investments, basic operational costs) came up as well. Some proposed full pre-financing, others would attach a detailed guide, or somehow highlight that the excel has a guide on it’s second sheet. 

We received suggestions to change the dates of the information days (keep them earlier), organize them for smaller audience with longer intorduction phase, give space for more personal questions and disseminate the .ppt presentation. 
Regarding the consultations some missed the clear judgement of the operator’s colleagues (does it worth to apply?), the presentation of earlier successful projects and the intensive technical support, education for applicants. In some cases the transparency of the operators, needs assessment, amendment of the deadline to midnight was raised too. The need for more frequent calls, faster assessment and more concrete information about upcoming calls appeared as well. The procedure received some comments as well (e.g. deadlines, communication with the operators, etc.). About communication the following comments arrived: faster reply for e-mails, continous phone access (e.g. clear “opening hours”), stronger social media communication, wider public awareness raising about the preferred topics and aspects. E-mails about the stages of assessment (e.g. automatic e-mail after the submission of the application) and detailed information about the strength/weaknesses of the supported/rejected applications and clearer justification of rejection were suggested, too.

After closing of the first round and the contracting the Operators reviewed the feedbacks and suggestions from the survey and other sources. Based on these the call and the application form will be modified in the second round (e.g. more specific information, less overlaps, explanation for budget lines). The list of concrete projects, models - missed by several respondents - are already available in the “Supported projects” menu on the website (now that there is something to show). We haven’t accepted all suggestions as some were contradicting each other (eg. to reduce or increase the number of characters in the application form). Besides these, several suggestions fall within the competence of the donors and concern the basic conditions of the program. Above all these are the basic objectives of the NGO Fund and the scope of thematic areas. We can’t and don’t want to change these noting that the thematic areas – within the main objective of the Fund – can be interpreted in a broad sense. We believe that a wide variety of project ideas and activities can fit within these areas. However, it is not and can’t be the goal of the NGO Fund to support the whole NGO sector in general and solve all of its problems. Instead it wishes to achieve progress on those areas where the largest deficiencies are.

Another similar question is the financial conditions of the NGO Fund, more precisely the size and eligibility of the own-contribution – the rules of these are unified in all beneficiary countries, as it was written in the call, it is not possible to modify these.

And last but not least we would like to point out that the staff of the Operator Foundations will not tell anyone during the application period what they “can or should apply for” or what are the winning chances of a given idea. On the one, hand the applicants should decide about this as they know what want to achieve and do, on the other it is the task of the assessors to evaluate - based on the whole application - if the plans of the applicants are in harmony with the objectives of the NGO Fund.

The overall objective of the Hungarian NGO Fund is to “strengthen civil society development and enhance contribution to social justice, democracy and sustainable development” (in Hungary) – we were curious about how close the responders feel to this. The following questions reffered to that. The majority (80.7%) of the responders agrees with the statements that based on the mutual understanding of the NGOs and the (local)government(s) better common solutions can be found for the social, environmental and economic problems of the society. At the same time, 90.6% believes that watchdog and advocacy roles of the NGOs have to be strengthened, especially to improve the transparency and accountability of the governmental institutions. 

Nearly the same number (88.4%) thinks that it is important to improve the conditions and empower the socially vulnerable, disadvantaged groups in Hungary. Most responders (91.3%) agree with the statement that local communities have many unutilized opportunities, that could be built on. A similar number (92.3%) thought that the societal values of the projects must be communicated better to enhance the efficiency of the projects. 88% agree with the view of the Fund that the efficiency of the NGO society could be enhanced by applying good governance, 86,8% agree with that as well that the development of transparency contributes to the development of the Hungarian NGO sector.

Altogether the majority (86.9%) is satisfied with the Fund in general and 94.9% would recommend the programs of the Fundto others as well.  

As Operators we only hope that these reviews and the level of agreement shows true and honest picture about the respondents and they didn’t only wish to achieve “better scores” during the future calls of the Fund (eventhough the questionnaire was anonymous). Also we would like to thank for everyone who contributed to keep the operation of the EEA/Norway NGO Fund as effective as possible.