How to run an international project on social change – lessons learned from the research phase

Anna Kuliberda
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Fundacja TechSoup, which I’m working at (Fundacja is a European hub for the TechSoup Global Network), is running a project that is to be developed in 10 new Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries. The Project is funded by the Mott Foundation and serves as a great and challenging opportunity. The project’s goal is to strengthen the capacity of non-governmental organizations in the CEE region to access modern information and communication technologies and facilitate their use to increase the impact of their work. This project, designed to kick off TechSoup’s work in these countries, is complex and based on three pilars of TechSoup Global: product donation, community-driven innovation and data. 

No matter from which TechSoup perspective (products, community or data) we look at the countries of focus, we need to learn more about each of them to run the project effectively. As a community builder, my specific role in this project is to work with communities of technology oriented social activists and non-profits to offer them support and expertise. That is why I wanted to learn more about those countries.

Here I would like to share my experience of working remotely with people whom I’ve mostly never met to create the foundation for a strong social project in 10 different countries. This post covers my assessment after the research in 5 countries – Russia, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Serbia and Belarus .

The Beginning

So we started by asking what information we needed and how much detail was really necessary. It took a lot of time to find the right balance, and we ended up with about 90 questions from which we would describe the situation in these countries. We called our assessments “landscapes,” and to build them, we defined six broad categories:

  • IT/new media market
  • tech initiatives for social change
  • intersection of non-profits and technology
  • situation of civil society
  • social problems
  • basic information about the countries

Lessons learned

We started to look for researchers in each country, which led to our first lesson: the human factor is always the most challenging. (I’m sure your experience, dear blog readers, is similar).  For the same question we got 5 different styles of answers. Even though I like diversity, it showed us to what extent we need to be specific about what kind of information we want to get. And it turned out that this must be articulated in great detail while highlighting the goal to which we aspire.

We also learned that taxonomy matters. It really does. What do you call a “non-profit” or a civil society organization in every country? What is a foundation? What is an association, and can we call them non-governmental? Take Russia as an example where they have public organizations, foundations, institutions, non-profit partnerships, and autonomous non-governmental organizations. At the same time, Russia’s neighboring country, Belarus, identifies several other types of public associations: public and religious organizations (associations); unions of legal entities (associations); funds and institutions; and consumers’ cooperatives.  And although it is obvious from the legal or political point of view that every country is independent, undertaking any project activities in these conditions poses a whole lot of difficulties that we have to deal with.

No matter how silly it sounds, we had big problems with finding reliable, up-to-date data on many questions, particularly about technology for social change. For readers of the NetSquared blog, it’s neither difficult nor exceptional to say something on the blogosphere about citizenship 2.0 or even to name some successes of virtual civil society. However, outside our community this expertise is rather rare. Our researchers had to be quite omniscient to know a lot about so many topics, especially when some phenomena are not yet well examined and most are not at all described.

This problem was also visible when we asked the researchers about new trends. Sometimes while creating a question, we didn’t even think about clarifying what we meant by terms like “open data.” Sitting in our nice nptech bubble, we forgot to explain what open data is.

What does it mean for community work?

Those lessons were important because of the diversity of answers we got as well as personal feedback from our researchers. From the community point of view it leaves us no doubts that we need to be respectful of the conditions in each country as well as the culture when proposing any activities. Historic disputes, cultural differences, variety of languages – the region is built on very rich foundations. It all matters when creating sustainable actions even in one country, but it grows to be major issue when working in a region consisting of 10 countries (and some of them being very large).

It was also interesting get so much information from non-English countries. The atmosphere is vivid and a lot is going on, but because of the lack of translation, usually we underestimate the power of non-English societies and their development. We could see it during the Arab Spring, but I can assure you, the CEE region is as strong as the Arab world in terms of citizenship 2.0. One source is especially worth mentioning – Global Voices platform is the unique source of this information that is otherwise difficult to find. I recommend it to anybody who wants to learn more about what one won’t find in the mainstream traditional or internet media.

Finally, we learned how important it is to ask questions and actively listen to the answers. We need to take taxonomy and language differences into account. To avoid cultural misunderstanding and because we’re just starting to work with different CEE partners, we need to meet more face-to-face and then start partnerships in online mode. Most of the countries rely on offline relations rather than on building trust via the internet.

Next steps…

It would be premature for this post to include formal conclusions because the project will last for a year more. There will only be a promise to all our CEE countries – Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Kosovo that we won’t give up, and we will use all the information we receive to empower civil society there.

However, the lessons we learned will have a big impact on planning our undertakings when it comes to community building and are our points of reference when shaping these activities. Values of respect and trust can’t be artificially rushed, so first we’re going to focus on building our credibility in the partnerships, hoping that the effort put there will enable common endeavors to empower CEE civil society organizations.

If you have any tips on what to look closely for when doing a project on social change in these countries, please leave a comment, or just drop me a line @adrebiluka or