The Weiser Center for Europe and Eurasia (WCEE) and its University of Michigan-based partner, the William Davidson Institute (WDI), sustained and enhanced the jointly-sponsored NGO Leadership Workshop initiative in surprising ways despite the challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an exciting development, we established the NGO Emerging Leader Fellowship, awarded to University of Michigan graduate student Omar Ilyas (Public Health, Epidemiology). His winning research project focuses on Paani, a non-profit Omar co-founded in 2017 to build over 2,500 water systems across rural Pakistan and to work with regional governments on disaster relief. His research this summer will develop methodology to measure the effectiveness of Paani’s approach to mediate the developing water crisis across Pakistan.

Before the threat of COVID-19 emerged, WCEE, WDI, and Warsaw-based partner Education for Democracy Foundation (FED) had selected 25 participants from 12 Eurasian countries (Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, North Macedonia, Russia, Tajikistan, and Ukraine) from a pool of 315 applicants to attend the May 2020 in-person workshop in Warsaw, Poland. Pivoting quickly after postponement, the partners organized two leadership webinars for selected participants led by veteran trainer Linder Gasser (Cornell University) on best practices for HR management, conflict resolution, avoiding burnout, and navigating the uncertainty caused by the global pandemic. The webinars were well received, with several participants saying they were just what they needed at that time: ideas and inspiration on how to move forward in a time of crisis. We are planning a return to the in-person workshops in Warsaw in Fall 2022.

With our NGO partner Hekima in the Slovak Republic, the aim during the pandemic was to build upon the past leadership workshop for NGO leaders from the Visegrad-4 countries (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovak Republic) by offering a newly-conceived virtual training for young NGO leaders in organizations aimed at upholding and reviving democratic values in their home countries. The week-long virtual program will take place online in October 2021 and will be supplemented by self-paced e-learning modules.  

While staying committed to training the next generation of NGO leaders, WCEE also awarded Hekima a $5,000 grant for its upcoming “Boundless” workshop aimed at empowering young women in the Slovak Republic by teaching leadership skills including branding, critical thinking, negotiation, management, and assertiveness.

To engage with the 169 NGO Leadership Workshop alumni, WCEE and WDI recently offered two unique opportunities. First, WCEE collaborated with Slovak-based think tank GLOBSEC to provide eight workshop alumni from Albania, Azerbaijan, Kosovo, North Macedonia, and Ukraine, as well as two U-M graduate students, conference passes to GLOBSEC’s Annual Bratislava Forum in May 2020. Unfortunately, the event was canceled. WCEE then seized the opportunity to assist alumni in navigating the numerous pandemic-related challenges by offering small COVID-19 relief grants totaling $50,000. Together with WDI and FED, WCEE awarded 11 alumni from eight countries relief grants to help further vital work in their communities. Funded projects included assisting at-risk pensioners in Kyrgyzstan; providing free legal, humanitarian, and social assistance to vulnerable Roma communities in Georgia; and protecting the rights of Ukraine’s LGBTQ+ community.

“The NGO Leadership Workshop initiative successfully pivoted its offerings and was able to continue serving the organizations in our network with timely support over the past 15 months,” said Amy Gillett of the William Davidson Institute. “With the support of this initiative, NGOs from Central Europe to Central Asia have continued to build their operations, even in a time of crisis. This demonstrates the power of an enduring partnership that spans four organizations across three countries.”