ORGANIZATIONAL CAPACITY DEVELOPMENT. Conclusions of the CHOICE project coordinators
a program manager of “EuroBelarus” International Consortium
a consultant, trainer, expert in the field of organizational development and management in the non-profit sector
Photo credits: Ihar Rakhanski; CHOICE project participants
While the work with cultural heritage is important, the main objective of the CHOICE project is to develop civil society organizations that deal with this topic.
These organizations are aimed at solving step by step, project by project a whole complex of problems described in the “Heritage” chapter, which requires serious intellectual, human capital and adequate organizational forms.
Here, it is necessary to mark that the environment specificity in the project’s countries is characterized by a number of negative factors that affect to some extent the efficiency of civil society organizations’ activity. The organizations that work with questions of culture and historical-cultural heritage have a rather weak level of social acknowledgment and social capital – in many respects because of a high risk of conflicts in this field of activity. The available resources to develop the project activity of such organizations inside the countries are very limited. Target groups are most often insolvent (in general, the majority of such organizations work with different and changing social groups, depending on specificities of projects or public campaigns); there are difficulties with the finding of partners and the forming of cooperation with them; budgetary funds, as a rule, are inaccessible. As a result, projects depend to a considerable degree on international donors’ external support. At the same time, international support to projects aimed at preserving and developing objects of heritage is very seldom allotted through channels of civil society.
The cultural heritage sphere demands sooner or later from organizations to reach the level of communication with those who make decisions, as well as to influence local or national policies. At the beginning of the CHOICE project, we observed a quite low or technical (more often – without attempts to come to the level of influencing policies) level of interaction with other stakeholders – authorities, business community, mass media, and other similar organizations.
However, there have been some positive factors of the environment for the development of the organizations in this sphere, too. It is especially important that in all four countries the public have paid much attention to the topic and problems of national identity, particularly in the light of the recent acute regional conflicts, and that various public institutions have got interested in projects and events/actions in the field of historical and cultural heritage, i.e. the organizations now have more possibilities to cover wider audiences and to receive public support.
Preliminary evaluation of organizations
At the initial stage of the project, the most of organizations selected to participate in the CHOICE project had their Organizational Capacity Assessment (OCA) carried out by an external expert. For the CHOICE team, the OCA served as additional research of needs of the sector, while the participants had a chance to evaluate critically their own organizational structure and efficiency.
In Belarus, assessors used a special methodology and an evaluation tool of IMACON projects developed earlier for civil society organizations of our region and proposed them to assessors from other countries of the CHOICE project.
Assessors visited each local organization and had talks with its management, volunteers, and potential basic team of a future project.
During the evaluation, the following questions were discussed: the organizational structure of an initiative or an organization, the practice of managing projects and strategic planning, the condition of financial management and fundraising; PR and communication; existing partner relations, participation in professional networks, attraction of volunteers.
Materials of these meetings made it possible to understand the current state of affairs in these organizations, to find out their human potential, and to understand the problems faced by these organizations of the cultural sphere.
What was this state of affairs prior to the beginning of the project? The following basic problems in management and organizational development were noticed:
- Many organizations – CHOICE participants were actual or potential representatives of creative industries. They had rather an amorphous organizational structure, being communities or temporary creative teams that gather for this or that creative project.
Another special form of the organizations-participants was professional associations that unite people aimed at, first of all, preserving heritage.
Many organizations were small local initiatives, without any previous experience of implementing projects and receiving any international financing.
- For the organizations, the basic motivation of their participation in the CHOICE program was a possibility to implement projects in the sphere of their interest; the prospect of their own development was not considered by them as a possible effect. Thus, in their projects, they were more interested in a creative process, instead of results of their efforts.
In other cases, the organizations wanted to make some concrete product of activity that depended directly on them (e.g. to prepare information materials concerning this or that object of heritages), but paid not enough attention to the process itself and especially to the involving of other stakeholders and local communities, without which essential changes in the field of revitalizing cultural heritage in the long run are impossible. It attests want of a holistic and system approach to questions of heritage and its place in the life of local communities, the absence of tradition/culture of peer-to-peer partnership, excessive competition (frequently not constructive) between non-governmental organizations and local authorities.
- Questions of management and activity planning in such organizations are traditionally in the zone of minor attention. In such organizations, as a rule, there are no staff able to rather professionally carry out project activity, to manage finances, other people, to build external contacts systematically, etc.
- There are no developed organizational procedures and systems of decision-making; the organizations are often ruled by one leader. A change of the leader\head often leads to the stagnation or even collapse (temporary or constant) of their activity. There is usually a club form of organization, a bit anarchical management style, as well as a high degree of influence of personal relations between the involved people on the organization’s activity.
- The organizations of this sphere often have an objective internal contradiction between “creative” and “management” approaches. The atmosphere in an organizations and its efficiency depend on the way this contradiction is solved.
- It was possible to note a rather weak vision of representatives of the organizations and initiatives of the future of their activity further than outside of their current tasks. They were not willing to enter any activity at the policy level, did not want to interact with other organizations and to build any joint agenda with them.
- Conformism is quite widespread: they look very technically at donor structures (as if at an investor or sponsor), not especially caring of their purposes and interests.
- Unlike quite tangible “products” of an organization, effects and changes thanks to its activity sometimes have an unpredictable and uncontrollable character; sustainability and repeatability of results is problematic.
On the basis of the first diagnostics, we planned our following actions, namely – consultations on organizational development, actions/events on organizational changes (strategic sessions, solutions of problem situations, partners’ visits, etc.), support to creative projects of CHOICE participants, as well as developed the contents of international workshops, monitoring and club meetings, public discussions, and an international forum.
What has changed thanks to participation in the CHOICE program
Here, it is possible to speak about the general for all the countries effects and about the specificity of growth, characteristic for each separate country. The specificity of Belarus, for example, has revealed such a result as the organization registration (in various legal forms, in Belarus, within the framework of CHOICE, three initiatives did receive their official registration, and it required really serious efforts).
As for the general for all the countries effects – according to evaluations of the participants themselves and the objective data, we can say that almost all organizations have become stronger in a considerable or very considerable degree.
To substantiate this statement, we can say the following:
1) The organizations have improved their skills in project management as they were compelled to reform one way or another their management system in order to implement projects. As a result, their work has become more effective: more things began to be done by a smaller number of people. In some organizations, there appeared an accurate structure, purposes became clear, and values were determined. It is necessary to specially mark the effect of projects for the development of volunteering in organizations and communities.
A sign that the organizations are developing is conflicts accompanying this process. Within the framework of the program, we have observed conflicts of growth inside the organizations, including the fact that some people have left the organizations (because of their different targets and values) and new collectives have appeared. There were also cases of conflicts with stakeholders of local projects – local authorities, church organizations, as well as a part of a community – basically due to political or axiological bases. If they were solved, these conflicts allowed the organizations to find a new vector of development, to grow, to gain experience, and to implement projects in a more viable and sometimes innovative kind. In some cases, conflicts were left without being solved. In this case, there was no visible growth of an organization, although creative projects were carried out.
Almost all the organizations have used the project within the framework of CHOICE to begin more systematic activities and continued their work on the chosen topic after the termination of their local projects.
2) The organizations – CHOICE participants have strengthened their resource base; some of them have bought the necessary office equipment they will keep using. Many organizations have had successful additional fundraising or transferred to more sustainable models of work, having found out solvent demand for their products. Many participants of the project from Ukraine and Moldova have learned to involve in projects local financing, local business, and in some cases – means from the local budget. In a number of projects, we observed the start of new practices (crowdfunding/crowdsourcing, volunteering, pro-active practices of work).
3) In spite of the fact that the most desirable result of the project was to receive the knowledge and skills of organizing situations of political dialogue and to carry out functions of civil control in the heritage sphere, only several organizations have marked it as their full-fledged achievement. Prior to the beginning of the project, the majority of organizations – CHOICE participants did not basically consider their influence on public politics as their field of activity and in the course of the project implementation they improved their positions in this direction only to a certain degree. In order to reach some serious political level, local organizations need more time and efforts. Still, the project, obviously, was a very good base to continue this work in the future and to create corresponding networks and coalitions. Many organizations have received their first serious experience of participating in the policy concerning heritage in the form of negotiations and consultations with representatives of local authorities. They began to understand better how to use cultural heritage for the development of their towns and that the correct use can help them to preserve it better. It is especially necessary to mention the received practical experience and skills to overcome and to solve local conflicts that are inevitable and integral part of the work with cultural-historical heritage.
4) The organizations’ potential of participating in policy has grown thanks to the building of contacts and partner connections. The spectrum of organizations, which are mentioned as recently gained partners, is very wide and far beyond the actually four countries of the Eastern Partnership that were the basic partners in this project. These are partnerships with other organizations within the framework of CHOICE, with other civil society organizations, cooperation with business structures, interaction with state structures and local authorities. The overwhelming majority of CHOICE participants have marked the development of their international contacts both inside the CHOICE network and with organizations and professionals from the EU countries.
The CHOICE participants have formed an informal network, through which they have continued to share experiences and ideas, to discuss joint initiatives.
5) Regular contacts and acquisition of experience of teamwork with other professionals from the sphere of culture or other fields of activity can be considered successful. The overwhelming majority of the organizations have noticed in their reports and polls that they managed to achieve it thanks to CHOICE. The assistance of experts, including those from other countries, has helped the organizations to make projects at a much higher professional level. Interdisciplinary and cross-sector projects (for example, on digitalization) would not be possible without such cooperation.
We can mention at least three types of new partners: other organizations-participants of the CHOICE project (both inside the country and the region), a new circle of stakeholders and partners of the organization itself, which appeared as a reaction to better project activities and innovative products, and consultants, trainers, technologists, designers, IT experts, even philosophers whose competences were claimed by the organizations.
6) One more obvious result is the improvement of the external positioning of the majority of the organizations, the improvement of their image, and the strengthening of relations with target groups. The organizations connect this success in a greater degree with their projects rather than with educational and consulting actions/events. Almost all organizations-participants if have not created, then have considerably improved their web-sites. The attendance of these sites has grown; partnerships with TV and radio stations, the press have been established. The organizations became more recognized in their cities thanks to campaigns in the mass media and active work with local residents. There is a growth of a number of publications, mentions in the mass media, including the national level, as well as proposals of local administrations to cooperate or to provide expertise; high interest in social networks, recognition in local areas.
7) Practically all organizations now comprehend the importance of their work. In many respects, it happened thanks to the visible and vivid product of the project activity and the appearance of preconditions for bigger sustainability of project results. Many organizations have said that they have made within the framework of the CHOICE one of their best projects.
8) It is necessary to mark people’s considerable personal development as a result of their participation in the CHOICE project. Participants of the project say how strongly the project has influenced them personally and mark that they have received big competences in the field of heritage and culture, have received a better understanding of the device of the organization and ways of its development, have expanded their own circle of contacts and connections, have raised their self-concept and become more self-confident, and some people have become or improved as leaders/heads. They received an opportunity to implement an important for them creative idea and as a result – motivation to new actions and creative projects, being inspired by the idea of preserving historical and cultural heritage. Some participants managed to use the projects to increase their competences in fields of activity that were new to them (IT technology, PR and communication, financial management, etc.).
9) At last, already now we can see some effects the CHOICE project has caused at the level of the community of civil society organizations in the four countries and in the region as a whole.
First of all, CHOICE has given a chance to include in the actual work aimed at preserving cultural heritage small organizations from regions which mission is to support the development of culture, but which had no possibility before to implement such projects. The help of highly skilled international experts and participation in project actions gave these organizations a new understanding of the contents of cultural heritage, as well as tools and concepts that are necessary for the work in this sphere.
Having received a powerful impulse in their development thanks to the project, a number of the organizations have joined the communication with other actors, with professionals from the sphere of cultural heritage. Intensive communication at international thematic seminars, other regular meetings, and mutual aid have helped to consolidate the community of the organizations in this sector of activity and have brought them to the necessity of working out a general program of actions. CHOICE participants, as well as the program as a whole, began to be positioned more actively on platforms for cultural actors in their countries and showed their readiness to advance their achievements and interests at the international (first of all – regional) level.
What further possible steps and recommendations for the future do we see for the development of the potential of the organizations in the sphere of heritage?
On the basis of reflections on the received experiences and stories of changes received during the two-year existence of the CHOICE program, it is necessary to develop a new set of educational services and communicative practices. The organizations need long-term and systematic consultations on how to advance their activity and to build relations with the public.
A challenge for everybody and, probably, a uniting task is systematized and coordinated work with the available potential resources for projects in the field of culture and cultural heritage.
Pro-active international cooperation and new international projects in the region (involving Georgia and Azerbaijan as well) and with the neighboring countries from the European Union (especially such as Poland, Lithuania, Sweden, Romania, Bulgaria, and Italy) can give the organizations new resources, new practices, new ideas, as well as possibilities to share their achievements.
It is obvious that it is necessary to keep strengthening network relations by developing and discussing the joint agenda of organizations – CHOICE participants, as well as to keep involving a wider range of partners. Probably, we should create and develop a general coordinating platform for the organizations from the sector of historical and cultural heritage of the Eastern Partnership region.
 С. В. Готин, В. В. Величко. Модель IMACON: оценка замысла проектов, мониторинг, организационное развитие. – Вильнюс: UAB “Petro Ofsetas”, 2013