Johns Hopkins Magazine - April 1994 Issue

Building a Non-Profit Sector, From Scratch

By Dale Keiger

In Eastern Europe, non-profit organizations are a new idea, and 10 intrepid men and women have come to Hopkins to learn how to run one. While they're here, they will discover Mickey Mouse neckties, home burglar alarms, and Robert's Rules of Order.

A Slovakian named Katarina Kostalova stands in PizzAppeel, a restaurant across from Hopkins's Homewood campus, and surveys an array of food. This may not be her first encounter with an American salad bar, but it seems to be her first encounter with one of its constituent elements.

"What," she says, turning to the American beside her, "are bacon bits?"

Kostalova is in Baltimore to participate in the Third Sector Project of the Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies (IPS). The phrase "third sector" refers to non-profit organizations; government and business comprise the first two sectors. IPS finds people in the former Eastern Bloc who are trying to form a third sector in their countries, then brings them to Baltimore and Washington to serve internships with American non-profit organizations (NPOs). During the next six weeks, Kostalova and a group of fellow interns will learn much about how the non-profit sector works in the United States. But first she wants to settle this culinary question. The American tries to help by explaining that bacon bits are often more bits than bacon. She looks at him with a sideways skeptical glance, then decides this is one experience of America she can pass up.

Around a long rectangular table the other interns chew their pizza. There are three Bulgarians, two Russians, a Ukrainian, two Slovenes, and another Slovakian. All lead fledgling NPOs in their respective countries. One works to foster Christian values in his formerly atheistic society. Another provides psychological counseling for youth. There's a Bulgarian who promotes women's involvement in universities, and a Slovene who works to bring English teachers and books to her country. All these interns read, write, and speak English, though sometimes with the quirky vocabulary and syntax of someone who has had more opportunity to read the language than to speak it.

One of the Russians is Maria Slobodskaya, an affable woman with a sly grin. She is the founder in Moscow of the Robin-Bobin Club, an organization for, as she puts it, "mens, womens and childrens with many kilograms." A woman of many kilograms herself, she explains that Robin-Bobin is a character in a popular Russian children's story, a boy of whom she says, "He eat and eat and eat. You understand? Yes?" In Russian society, she says, fat people suffer from loneliness and discrimination. They have a hard time losing weight because in Russian markets they can't buy the fresh produce and other low-calorie alternatives available to Americans. They can't find clothes in big sizes; she tells of a Russian boy who couldn't go to school for two years because his mother could find nothing for him to wear.

In Moscow she writes newspaper and magazine articles about the problems of the obese. When she speaks on Russian radio, which she does often, she says she receives 300 letters a week from people seeking advice or just someone to listen to their problems. She wants the Robin-Bobin Club to become an advocate for overweight Russians, to make the public more aware of their problems, and to lobby for more social services, more large-sized clothing, a better diet, and an end to discrimination. She hopes to learn something about how to do this from her American hosts during the next six weeks. "I want to know about companies that make special food, special clothes, program to work with children, understand?"

Slobodskaya pulls out a stack of snapshots to show her new American friend. She seems to have more resources than the typical Russian: one photo is of her two cars, a red compact and a big 1955 Zim that is her favorite because she can sleep in it while her husband drives. She has a picture of this husband, named Dmitry. He works for her. "I am boss of him," she says, smiling triumphantly. "Boss! Yes! I am chief of my husband!" She also employs her daughter, mother, and mother-in-law. She has founded a Robin-Bobin museum in Moscow, full of artwork from the children's story and exhibits about the club. She has pictures from the opening, and in one of them a man has his arms about the waists of two chic young women who are very pretty and as skinny as fashion models. "Not members," Slobodskaya says.

IPS Director Lester M. Salamon began thinking about the Third Sector Project in the late 1980s. He traveled often to Eastern Europe in 1987-88, recruiting people for IPS's philanthropy fellows program. During these travels he discerned what he calls a "second society"--people in various countries who had taken it upon themselves to provide services neglected by the government, such as children's day care in Hungary. These people impressed him, but much as he admired their initiative, he could see they were unfamiliar with even the rudiments of organizing and running an NPO. They had little or no idea of how to recruit and use volunteers, how to raise funds, why their organizations needed boards of directors; many didn't even know how to conduct an orderly meeting. Their countries had no legal provisions for NPOs, no special tax laws. Some of their societies lacked any cultural tradition of volunteerism.

Then, as he puts it, "In 1989 the top blew off." Communist governments began to fall like duckpins as the Soviet Union disintegrated. Salamon saw an opportunity to foster non-profit sectors in nascent democratic societies in Hungary, Slovenia, the former Czechoslovakia, and other countries.

He had two ideas. One was for conducting seminars in various countries, teaching about the American non-profit sector. The other was to find people in these countries who were already attempting to provide the sorts of services offered by Western NPOs, and bring them to Baltimore for intensive training and exposure to American organizations such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Jewish Family Services, and Volunteers of America. Here they would learn how NPOs managed themselves, set budgets, raised funds, wrote grant proposals, and lobbied legislators. "We had to create a cadre of people who had personal experience with how this sector can work," he says. "We wanted to put in place people who understood the potential for social change and improving people's lives."

Salamon arranged for organizations in Eastern Europe with whom IPS had working relationships to screen candidates for the internships. He went to the Ford Foundation, the Charles Stuart Mott Foundation, and others for money. He wanted the internships to be for eight weeks; his European partners pointed out that two months was a long time for fledgling organizations to lose their leaders, and suggested four weeks; they compromised on six.

The first group of Third Sector interns came to Hopkins in 1991. Last November, the fourth group, including Maria Slobodskaya of the Robin-Bobins, made the trip.

On the interns' first day, program director Nicole Etchart briefs them on a few facts of life in America: "In cities in the United States, there is a lot of crime. A lot of violence here. I don't recommend walking alone after dark, even on the campus. It's not a good idea. Don't walk with a lot of cash.

"People are fast here. They might not be generous with their time. People live by their calendars.

"You'll see we have a lot of things. You'll go to our grocery stores and see abundance.

"Your role is to learn as much as possible. Your role is not to sit back and wait for information to come to you."

Some of the interns look a bit bleary and tentative. The oldest is in his early 50s; most appear to be at least in their 30s. A gaminesque Slovene named Andrejka Cufer looks sleepy and holds her warm coffee mug against her cheek. Elena Kikteva from Voronezh, Russia, seems stiff and formidable. A literature professor from Sofia, Bulgaria, Vera Dakova wears stylish white-framed eyeglasses and a quick smile. Maria Slobodskaya sets a Russian-English dictionary before her and speaks in Russian to Elena.

Andrej Drapal, a compact Slovene, approaches someone who wants to speak to him and says, "I understand we are to make interface." Drapal is director and a founder of INART Center, a cultural center in Ljubljana that promotes the work of younger artists. He says, "Huge institutions don't really perform everything what is needed. It is our task to develop the concept of independent producers as an important part of national culture."

Director Etchart and her assistant, Lee Davis, tried to place all the interns at host organizations appropriate to their interests. For Drapal the host is the Baltimore Theatre Project, which produces over 40 weeks of theater a year in Baltimore, much of it experimental, some of it by Eastern European playwrights. On the wall of the Project's conference room are posters for Eastern European theaters such as Teatr Powszechny and Teatr Wspotczesny.

Drapal has come to Baltimore hoping to learn about how Americans manage non-profit arts organizations. So the Theatre Project's executive director, Robert Mrozek, invites him to staff meetings and involves him in development and public relations projects. Drapal carries a small electronic digital organizer and soon fills it with appointments and new contacts in the American performing arts community. He meets with people from the Baltimore Museum of Art, Center Stage, the Maryland State Arts Council, and Dance on the Edge. In Philadelphia he meets Peter Benda of the Pew Charitable Trusts; he goes to New York to see Joseph Melillo of the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

"The whole structure in Slovenia is changing," he says. "Is perfect time to bring in ideas. We are not so activated a nation. We need to activate the people."

The other interns pursue similarly energetic agendas. One woman's tiny host agency in Washington appears on the verge of breaking up while she's there. No problem: she takes it upon herself to arrange an alternative internship with a neighboring organization. Various interns travel to New York, Albany, Amherst, Philadelphia, and Charlotte to interview people and make contacts. They comb Hopkins's MSE

Library for information. At one point, Etchart offers the group an afternoon off, but nobody wants it. "We do not want free time," Drapal says. Several interns laugh, but nobody disagrees.

Slobodskaya attends a meeting of an American weight-watchers group, and she can't get over it: "The people talk about how much they eat last week. Is very funny for me because they pay money to talk about how much they eat. They pay $20 a week!"

The interns must quickly adjust to daily American life. Back home, they depend on public transportation, but here, in many places, it is inadequate or even non-existent. They go into stores like Home Depot, and the choices overwhelm them. They can't believe how much paper Americans use. The structure of American cities fascinates Drapal; he says they seem to have no centers.

For many interns, the number of African-Americans on the streets of Baltimore and Washington is a shock. A Bulgarian says, "I come here and I learn that I am white." IPS staff members quietly admit that it is not uncommon for Third Sector interns to be racist, at least by U.S. standards. They come from much more homogeneous societies and find the ethnic hodgepodge of American streets disconcerting. It doesn't help that some of them grew up on Eastern Bloc propaganda that said one of America's downfalls would be its inferior black population.

While they are here, interns live with host families in the Baltimore-Washington area. Says a Ukrainian named Boris Khersonsky of his host family, "They are experienced hosts. They host to Czechoslovakian woman last year. After Czechoslovakian woman, maybe I too rude, but they not tell me."

Katarina Kostalova, the woman baffled by bacon bits, returns alone one Saturday night to her hosts' darkened house in Alexandria, Virginia, and triggers the burglar alarm: "I come home and open door and all alarms on with terrible noise." She doesn't know what to do, but discovers that if she stands still in the kitchen the alarm stops. Then the police arrive. "All the while this noise continues because they not know how to switch it off either." Everyone stays in the kitchen while they sort things out.

Drapal stays with a retired social studies teacher named Gus Lundquist, who has served as a host twice and wants to do it again. Lundquist always asks for a pair of interns. "They help each other out," he explains. He laughs, though, recalling his first pair, a Hungarian and a Slovene, who spent their entire stay at the Lundquist home bickering with each other. He had looked forward to the male of that pair, whom he thought could help him do some work on his property, but: "He was just like my son. We never got anything done."

Maria Slobodskaya stays with Dale Meyer, who is also executive director of a host agency, People Encouraging People. Meyer observes how Slobodskaya loves to buy canned corn, which had been one of her favorite childhood foods but is no longer available in Russia. Several times Meyer comes home and finds Slobodskaya happily eating corn, cold and straight from the can.

Throughout their visit, the interns attend workshops and seminars at Shriver Hall. They hear lectures on the legal and tax status of American NPOs, how to set goals and develop strategies, how to do marketing and fundraising. They learn Robert's Rules of Order and play a simulation game about teamwork.

The people who lead these seminars and workshops want to provide useful information, and they do, but it's in terms of what they know--how things work in America. To discuss volunteerism, lecturer Jean Gerding must first define it for an audience unfamiliar with the concept, then overcome the interns' skepticism that such an idea will work back home. A Bulgarian, Valentin Mitev, points out that in his country, recruiting volunteers will not be easy because everyone remembers when the government made volunteering compulsory. "For 40 years we all 'volunteer,' usually on Saturday and Sunday," he says. "We all hated it."

During a cigarette break--most of the interns smoke and they're having

a hard time with Hopkins's prohibition on smoking indoors-- Maria Slobod- skaya says, "Is problem. In America, volunteer is prestige, you understand? In Russia, you ask for volunteers you get crazy people, or people not so good. I have woman volunteer, she very religious. She come in with cross, yes? And this holy water? And she want us all to do this"--she puts her hands together in prayer--"all the time. She is fanatic. In Russia is many fanatic. I fanatic, too, but I normal fanatic. Also in Russia maybe think volunteer not doing something legal." She says perhaps in 10 years things will be different in her country, but for now who is going to volunteer for extra work when it takes hours a day just to find something in the stores to eat?

Lester Salamon recalls an intern once telling him, "You gave us the words to understand what we were doing." On their last day at Hopkins, the interns gather at Shriver Hall one more time, to express in their words what they've observed and accomplished.

Some of them have crammed a remarkable amount of work into six weeks. The appendix to Vera Dakova's report that lists the people she met runs to three pages. Andrej Drapal attended nine lectures and workshops, met with 39 individuals or organizations in the Baltimore and Washington arts communities, and plans to spend three days in New York before going home; he has at least five meetings already scheduled there. When he gets back to Slovenia, he wants to find performance space for his organization, like the theater on Preston Street owned by the Theatre Project. He plans to develop a board of directors, to submit a report with suggestions to the Slovenian ministry of culture, to write articles for newspapers and magazines describing the need for a vigorous non-profit sector, to develop a direct mail list for his cultural center:his agenda lists 15 projects.

The last sentence of his final report reads, "So far the best training experience I've ever had." Nonetheless, "Could be more demanding and exhaustive!"

The interns deliver oral final reports. Drapal begins by pointing to a new acquisition knotted around his neck: "I tried to merge with American culture, so I put on this tie with Mickey Mouse." Dobromir Batinkov, a Bulgarian working to promote Christianity in his country, notes that to be politically correct in the United States, one must never speak of religion. This troubles him. He says, "There are so many churches, and yet such a withdrawal by people from the church. You have the buildings, but no social activity that puts this aspect of life equal with the others." He adds, "I see an escape from individual responsibility that is a major problem for this society."

Vera Dakova says she has come to respect the clarity and directness of American communication: "We in Bulgaria are still very fond of this Byzantine rhetoric, this reading between the lines. We should work on this."

Her countryman Valentin Mitev jokes, "We will lose our identity."

She replies, "You can keep it."

Last to speak is Maria Slobodskaya. She has wrestled with English since she arrived, able to understand it but hesitant about speaking it. Now she delivers her report in Russian, and several interns help with translation.

She speaks movingly of the difficulties she faces in trying to accomplish anything in chaotic Russia. But after working with her for six weeks, no one in the room underestimates her determination. Partway through the program she stopped going to her host agency because she found it too dissimilar to her own organization and because she had become so frustrated trying to communicate. She became homesick and took to calling the IPS program assistant, Lee Davis, at his house just to talk. "People are so busy here," she told him. "They don't take enough time." But she arranged to work with two other agencies, and she got herself all around Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Washington gathering information and meeting people. She spent much time in libraries doing research. She spoke with Maria Simonson, director of the Hopkins Health, Weight and Stress Program, and Simonson volunteered to lecture in Moscow.

Now Slobodskaya delivers a report that is thoughtful and impressively analytic. She explains in detail the differences between the Russian and Ameri- can third sectors. She points out that in Russia, NPOs sometimes are really covers for profit-making ventures, that the success of an organization there often depends more on the personality of the leader than the social importance of its programs, and that Russian NPOs have almost no access to mass media.

Yet she expresses optimism. Russia is searching for non-traditional development strategies, she says, and its social ideals are changing. She suggests creating an educational radio program in Russia that would be based on the instruction she received at Hopkins.

At the end of her report, she says, "We have said farewell to many illusions we had about American society. For me, it was a whole new world."

Dale Keiger is the magazine's senior writer.

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