New rules define NGOs

[26.07.2004, Marta Ïurianová, NEWS]

Since the Velvet Revolution in 1989, the Slovak state has created relatively modern legislation for the private and state sectors, while laws concerning non-governmental organisations and the third sector were left almost untouched. A chaotic situation in pertinent laws and the number and types of Slovak NGOs has been the result.

The new code on the non-profit sector is supposed to improve the current out-of-date and opaque law system. It also establishes new institutions in Slovak law, although already well known abroad, like voluntarism or public collection.

Experts preparing the code believe it will strengthen the public and commercial spheres' trust in the third sector, support its development, and foster a feeling of social responsibility. However, some nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) think the need to adopt the code has been artificially created and is not required by the sector. The First Slovak Non-profit Service Centre NGO initiated the code.

"It is needed to make things such that organisations can act as full members of this [societal] system. This means they can apply and compete for financial sources and act in public tenders. All this is needed so they will have a status equal to a commercial or state entity from the legal point of view," Peter Handiak, a member of a team of legal experts authorised by the centre to prepare the code, told The Slovak Spectator.

The new law should cut the number of NGOs and simplify their legal status. Currently, there are eight legal statuses for the third sector, each with quite similar activities - foundations, non-profit organisations, civic associations, socially aimed funds, professional associations of legal entities, organisations with an international element, community associations, and church and religious associations.

Apart from church and religious associations, which will stay unchanged, the new code will recognise only four legal statuses: foundations, guilds, public beneficiary organisations, and chambers. The fields of their activities will stay the same - the development and protection of intellectual values, health, environmental education, sport, and cultural and natural values.

"Currently, for example, we lack a register of civic associations, though we have around 22,000 entities. This means you cannot get basic information similar to the extract of a commercial register. You cannot find out, for example, who is an executive officer," added Handiak.

According to the code, all new legal statuses of the third sector will be registered in the central register. The highest authority of the non-profit sector will be the Office of Associations. It will administer all duties pertaining to the establishment and control of civic associations.

Clear conditions for NGO financing should also be set. Experts suggest that the system of fundraising be based on several pillars - gifts and grants, subsidies, sponsorship, and the possible commercial activities of NGOs. The last pillar is already in place - the 2 percent campaign, which allows every legal entity or individual to determine a beneficiary of 2 percent of its paid income taxes.

The Slovak public already knows and uses most of these forms of financing, but some of them have not yet been set in legislation.

"For example, everyone is talking about sponsorship. However, a sponsorship contract and the term of sponsorship itself have not been defined yet in Slovak law. I would like to make clear that a contract is absolutely inevitable; it is the main form by which the business community can support this sector," said Handiak.

According to Handiak, the code will anchor alternatives of multiple-source financing so that everyone who would like to be active in the third sector will have clear fundraising mechanisms.

The new code also establishes the institution of voluntarism. "Until now, Slovak law has not known this term. We remember recent earthquakes abroad where our rescuers took part in rescue works. And there was a large problem with transportation, leave from work, etc," he said.

Experts believe that the code will strengthen the position of voluntarism and help it gain the kind of respect it has in the rest of the developed world. "In many countries, voluntarism is an important part of one's curriculum vitae," Handiak added.

The code is now waiting for approval by the Government Council for NGOs, after which the government will debate the proposal.

The idea of creating a law on the third sector appeared about two years ago and it raised strong discussions. Some NGOs were not happy with its intentions.

Ondrej Dostál from the Conservative Institute of M. R. ©tefánik NGO told the daily SME recently that the need to create such a law was not justified and that the law would only weaken the position of NGOs. Some NGOs said the fact that the number of types of organisations will be reduced is not good and would harm the plurality of the whole sector.

"Well, of course, it is a legitimate question whether we need legislation on NGOs or not. We think that a system needs to be created. We do not think that this [our proposal] is the best system but there is no other [system] in Slovakia to compare it with so far," added Handiak.

Handiak believes that, if the code is approved, it will be one of the most progressive laws on NGOs in Europe. "We began working on the legislation after the 1990s, when the law concerning NGOs in the EU was already long established. There are even signals from the European Commission that it would like to bring the NGO law onto its agenda," he said.

Article was published in the Slovakia`s English-language weekly The Slovak Spectator.