Reflections and Lessons Learned (So Far) from a Global Exchange

15 October 2014
SERIES Articles and Opinions

As in many NGOs, my job in Centre for European and North Atlantic Affairs has two components. As a research fellow in think tank focused on foreign policy, security and defence issues, the first one is related to my professional interest in internal security and emerging threats, while the second one consists of management and responsibility for rather technical components of the projects, their administration, communication of research results and capacity building. Unfortunately, based on my own observation, almost exclusive attention in think tanks in our neighbourhood is delivered to the first described part, i.e. improving of professional and expert capacities, while the institutional questions are, although not always intentionally, relegated to a secondary role.

Yet it is also the question of communication practice of the organisation, its ability to communicate its research results to the right audience in the most effective way, the success in their targeting or even ability to ensure diversity in funding for the performance of the think tank, that are core questions for the survival of think tank. In the practice of NGO sector, these two things cannot exist without each other. Despite of that, the education and training in institutional aspects or even ability of NGOs to critically assess their own performance and willingness to invest more time and resources to the training of their staff in institutional, not only professional questions, are substantially lower.

The moment when I started to realize these serious weaknesses in the practice of think tanks that I know was the moment I started working on On Think Tanks Exchange activities. I guess that one does not always see own mistakes and imperfections unless forced to confront them with others and their practice or experiences. The opportunity, that the Exchange Program brought us, as well as environment and conditions, that were created for participants to cooperate and explore their own possibilities and capabilities, are really unique and it is not usual to observe them in the “real life”. Although they should definitely be there.

There are three main things which, based on my exchange experience, I consider as important, but underestimated in practice. Firstly, it is the time and space dedicated to the in-depth discussions on the project proposals into the detail, especially in the case of proposed collaboration among two or more institutions. For time and capacity limitations, there is rarely time to ensure such a discussion, including considering its aims and goals from all points of view, before the projects is awarded and funding is ensured; especially when institutions from different countries are involved in the collaboration. This in fact involves a great danger to reduce the collaboration to the limited, or even formal level. During the preparation phase within the Exchange program, we had enough time and space and we were motivated to undertake these discussions, which resulted in improvement of the quality and strengthening of the cooperation in one crucial aspect – the engagement, involvement and sense of the ownership of the project. I consider this as a basic assumption for the success of the collaboration project in general.

During the hours of talking via Skype or even better during the in-person meetings of our CSCS team, we managed to strengthen mutual contacts and to know each other better. The emphasis on personal contacts is crucial not only for the level of engagement in the project, but also for the feeling of dedication to the proposal and its aims. Again, only because of the regular communication of the four of us, members of CSCS team, we can be one hundred percent sure that we are on the same level and we know what we are going to do. This reduces the risk of losing of the project partner, because of lack of dedication and interest. How can one care about the project and its outcomes, if not involved in the process of creation or communicating of project’s aims and outcomes to the donor?

Last but not least, it is also ability to take a critical look at own practice in the organization and to be able to identify insufficiencies in the organizational performance, as well as willingness to invest time and resources to their elimination, that is very valuable knowledge for me. Without regular engagement with other organizations, not on the formal, but also informal level, and without constant discussions and constant confronting of own performance with the practice of others, it is impossible to learn and to improve. However, this is not possible without in-depth collaboration not only on the level of research, but also on the level of institutional and strategic issues.

From my point of view, the Exchange program helped me to realize the true difference between formal collaboration and real, devoted collaboration. I truly realized how important it is to communicate with collaborating organizations in terms of institutional and strategic questions within our joint projects, not only in terms of technicalities and research topics. I consider this as a major lesson learned, resulting from the meetings so far, and I do not doubt that the rest of my engagement with our CSCS team will provide me with even more valuable and beneficial experiences that will inspire me in different possible ways how to help my organization to improve its performance and practice.