Pat Armstrong details the experience herself and other third sector chief executives had on a recent exchange to Russia
The idea for our leadership exchange programme came from an exchange I took part in with a Serbia leader though the Euclid Network, the European network of civil society leaders.
So how could I refuse when around 10 years later I hear about the opportunity to do an exchange with Russian NGO leaders – and could also offer the opportunity out to ACOSVO members?
The main focus of the exchange was on financial sustainability and considering ideas for future collaboration. It involved matching 10 peers from the UK and 10 from Russia. In December last year we hosted the Russian peers with four of the 10 coming to Scotland and myself and three ACOSVO members being the matches. We had Anna, Kira and Olesya coming to Edinburgh and matched with myself, Petra Biberbach from PAS and Jacqueline Cassidy from Children in Scotland. Anastasia was matched with Meg Wright and headed north to Ross-shire Women’s Aid.
We put a programme together to learn about each other’s business models, the services we offer, and the way that we lead. We managed to include a visit to our organisations, the parliament, a few charity shops in Stockbridge (purely for research purposes of course) and the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (to try some local dishes). Then we all headed to London where the last couple of days brought all 20 of us together to consider how we could learn from each other more widely and jointly consider the above topics.
A few short months later we were heading to Petersburg and Moscow for the return leg of the exchanges. We had been told it might be cold and thought as hardy Scots we were well prepared – but didn’t expect everywhere inside to be incredibly warm (seemingly fuel is very inexpensive and rooms don’t have separate temperature controls). Our cases full of warm jumpers quickly became redundant – as long as we had serious hats and down jackets for outside.
Understanding the context and environment that our peers worked in was our first culture shock. So different to what we are used to (the sector is much younger as well as the policies and political structure being very different). We very quickly realised our peers were incredibly inspiring leaders working in difficult circumstances but determined to make a difference in people’s lives.
We visited our peers who led infrastructure organisations, helping to share learning and encourage collaborative working, we found out about a network of “kind cities” across Russia (take note Carnegie’s work on Kindness in Scotland) who held a kindness festival every year, saw a homeless shelter with offices in the loft, counsellors and lawyers helping people in very small meeting rooms, compact dorms and shared laundries (full of folk in dressing gowns while their clothes were getting washed). It was very humbling to see the numbers of people helped, the compassion shown and the creativity brought to finding ways round problems and working solutions. We also found that a bed for the night is free to homeless people so they don’t have to beg.
We later visited a circus project (“circus for rebels”) working with children and young people who are living in considerable disadvantage, including experience of institutionalisation in ‘orphanages’ and poverty, alongside children with learning disabilities. It was amazing to see how involved they became, what a difference it made to have that focus in their lives – and how moving the show was when we were lucky enough to go to a performance later in the week. A few of us couldn’t resist trying the odd cartwheel and spinning some plates. We also had to compare the charity shops. The concept has only been imported to Russia in the last few years, so is still being developed and we all had lots of ideas to share.
We also managed to fit in a few cultural experiences, from the ballet to the banya, to the Gorky Park parkrun and a huge selection of local foods to be tried (including red caviar and mixed meat dumplings – think they were getting us back for the haggis!).
The last couple of days we were all back together – exploring a shared space for the community and NGO sector to come together and another host of ideas to be shared.
I came back with a list of connections to be made across our countries. Many new friends, a humbling reminder of how important it is to be able to find innovative ways round obstacles when you have a mission and passion for what you want to achieve. Also a reminder that when we come together as peers with a shared objective to learn from each other, trust and relationships build incredibly quickly. I am hugely grateful for the opportunity to take part in the project, want to offer a huge thanks to our peers for sharing their lives, their ideas and their leadership journeys.
I’m back refreshed, exhausted, inspired, grateful, humbled and determined. I feel strongly that we need to make the most of these experiences and opportunities. We need to make connections where we can to look for possible collaborations going forward, and more importantly value and nurture the relationships we have been fortunate enough to develop through the peer exchange experience.
Pat Armstrong is the chief executive of Association of Chief Officers of Scottish Voluntary Organisations (ACOSVO)