17:35 17.08.2021

You can just write to us: 'Listen, here's an idea…' This works – Victor Liakh, President of East Europe Foundation

11 min read
You can just write to us: 'Listen, here's an idea…' This works – Victor Liakh, President of East Europe Foundation

This is the first part of an exclusive interview with Victor Liakh, President of East Europe Foundation (EEF) to the Interfax-Ukraine news agency

Let's start with simple questions that are obvious to the people involved, but maybe mystery to most people. In the public domain, there is a lot of information about the projects and programs of the Foundation, but very little about the Foundation itself. Who are you and where did the Foundation come from? 

East Europe Foundation began its history back in 1992. Back then we were part of the Eurasia Foundation, which included national foundations in Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and other countries. At that time, the Eurasia Foundation in Ukraine helped emerging small and medium-sized businesses, civil society organizations and contributed to the formation of 'communities.'

In 2007, our American colleagues realized that the Ukrainian team is capable of defining its own strategic directions and implementing programs with an international level of quality. We were offered to create a Ukrainian organization that would continue the activities of the US-based office. And in 2008, the charitable Ukrainian non-profit organization 'East Europe Foundation' was founded. 

What is the Foundation now? How many people work for it? How is it structured, organized and managed? 

When we started (in 2008 – IF), there were 12 of us, and we worked at the local level, supporting local economic development projects and programs related to public organizations.

At present, 13 years later, the Foundation has 62 employees. Today we are working with the Verkhovna Rada and the Cabinet of Ministers. Among our partners, there are a dozen central authorities. Our products and solutions are used in more than 300 communities and cities, including in Lviv, Dnipro, and Vinnytsia. Among the small towns are Sambir, Drohobych, and smaller cities. When we celebrated the tenth anniversary of the Foundation, we calculated that we covered every second city and all regions of Ukraine with our activities.

Regarding the organization's management system, it is quite simple. In addition to administrative and program management, we have a Board of Directors, which helps to form the strategic goals of the Foundation. It includes representatives of Ukrainian business, civil society, journalists, and former diplomats. Among the people known to all are Natalia Yaresko, Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, Vitaliy Sych, Olesya Ostrovskaya-Lyuta. They have all been on the Board of Directors at one time or another. Today the Board includes William Taylor, Nadezhda Vasilyeva, Mykhailo Botsyurkiv, Timur Bondarev, Volodymyr Lavrenchuk, Larisa Denisenko, and Serhiy Husovsky.

At least twice a year, we hold face-to-face meetings to provide the Board with reports, including audit ones; present the plans and report about the progress. This allows us to look at ourselves from different angles, reconsider priorities, get advice and support from the Board.

Being a project-oriented organization, we use PMI (Project Management Institute – IF) standards in our work. Last year we passed an audit of our project management competencies. 45 of our employees passed the full-scale training on project management. We are creating a project office within the organization. This will further raise the level of our projects and programs. In general, we are trying to adopt the best management practices that exist today. Perhaps this is the main thing that distinguishes us from other foundations.

You are trying to be an example in terms of manageability and transparency?

Yes. We quite often propose this model and promote it among other civil society organizations.

You mentioned your reporting procedure ...

Yes, indeed, this is a very important element of our work. Every year we undergo a financial audit according to international standards, probably according to the most stringent requirements: an audit of the entire organization, including policies and procedures, and the entire budget and finances. In addition to this, sometimes we undergo project-specific audits for our key programs.

We would like to be full-scale accountable and publish an annual report – it contains a narrative part as well as a financial one. The Ukrainian legislation requires public reporting from civil society organizations once a year, without detailing the forms of publication of reports. The Foundation shows by its example how to do this.

Is this an internal or external audit? 

An external one. 

And who conducts it? 

We had Deloitte for a long time. For some time, we also underwent an audit with Ukrainian organizations, in particular – with Compass, which works under international standards. This year, the American company GRF is auditing EEF. 

The audit is always carried out according to the highest standards: ISA, IFRS, including the OMB A-133 Compliance Supplement, for work with American taxpayers.

You have already mentioned the staff. How many offices do you have and in which cities?

If we mean an office in the physical sense, then we have two of them in Kyiv now. We work in them. There are five more regional coordinators who cooperate with us on one of the programs: in Vinnytsia, Lutsk, Dnipro, Odesa, and Luhansk regions. There are regional partners in other cities as well.

But, probably, our task is to make sure that we have not offices in Ukraine, but partners. And we have a lot of partners. Today there are about 40 public organizations that cooperate with the Foundation and which we support. And in the entire history of our work, we have supported more than 300 public organizations and charitable foundations.

Let's talk about partners then. You have officially written on the website 'The Foundation with a network of its partners...' Who are your partners? 

Under partners, we consider the entire spectrum of organizations and institutions with which we cooperate. For example, there are beneficiary partners – these are often state or local authorities. They are the beneficiaries of this or that program that we are implementing.

By the way, it includes the national project 'DIIA.' The beneficiary here is the Ministry of Digital Transformation of Ukraine. After the development and introduction of the platform, we transfer it to the Ministry and it continues further development and maintenance.

If we talk about the renovation of the Lviv Oblast Children's Hospital ('Okhmatdyt'), our partners are the Lviv Oblast State Administration and the Lviv Oblast Council. When we carried out the thermal modernization of the hospital, we approached them for contribution and asked for additional funding from other partners. Although speaking in project language, they are not direct beneficiaries, they are our partners since they contributed to the achievement of a common goal through their efforts and resources.

Another form of interaction with partners is participation in various competitions and programs run by the Foundation. For example, grant programs or acceleration programs. We are announcing a competition – an open competition, to which all interested public organizations apply. If the expert jury selects them for participation, we also call them partners: we allocate money for their projects, provide mentoring, coaching, and other support. Over 12 years we have issued 440 grants worth more than $8.5 million.

If you have so many partners now, why do you need more? 

New ones are always good because sustainable changes can only be with a wide range of people involved. One of the strategic goals of the organization is the development of the public sector in Ukraine. Thanks to the partnership, we gain synergy, we exchange experience, best practices, and we conduct the so-called organizational capacity assessment for organizations. This is one of the tools when we help them understand which path of development they are on, set goals, and help them further stand on their own feet. This is how we make the sector stronger, so the partnership factor is very important for us.

Who can become a partner of the Foundation? 

Almost any legal entity. They can be local self-government bodies of all levels: from the community to the regional council and state authorities. As I mentioned, we have signed memoranda of cooperation with a dozen of ministries, in addition to a few hundred civil society international and Ukrainian organizations, universities, private foundations. It very much depends on the goals and objectives of the specific program that we are implementing, its geography, and other factors. In addition, we actively develop relations with the private sector trying to involve them in programs aimed at community development and innovations for the public good. 

Does the size of potential partners matter, whether they are small, average, small or large entities? 

Absolutely not. For example, both big private companies and smaller ones took part in the development of 'DIIA.' More importantly, we are increasingly involving universities in our various initiatives. They assist us with research, offer new approaches to work and help form a scientific basis for their projects. 

Do you work with many universities? 

We work mostly with public organizations, but with universities, as well. They include National University named after Shevchenko, for example. Also, the Borys Hrynchenko University – we had a project with them to develop a system of assistance to veterans. With the School of Public Administration of the Ukrainian Catholic University, we organized a curriculum on writing public policies based on open data. 

So, how does one become a partner of the Foundation? What is required? 

We publish all the possibilities of getting support from our side on the website. That is cities, innovative teams with some cool solutions, public organizations with their ideas – all of them can be submitted to us for competitions. As for universities, they can simply write to us and say, 'Listen, we have an idea…' This approach also works.

One of the competitive requirements for a public organization is the presence of its own partners. This, to some extent, guarantees that the organization is already stainable and will be able to continue working without the Foundation. Although our assistance may be long-term, it cannot last forever. And the stability of the positive changes that this organization must bring depends precisely on the network of these partnerships.

With whom does the Foundation not work? 

The Foundation has an ethical code, which says that we do not work with political parties and businesses that have a dubious reputation. We have had cases when we said 'no' to donors as we were not sure that this money was received lawfully. Also, since 2018, we have made a decision that we will no longer work with a business that produces and sells alcohol and tobacco, even though such a decision led to a reduction in our budget.

What about partner support? Is there any kind of financial repayable assistance? Does the Foundation make grants conditionally, in return for a share in the venture of the grantee or something similar? 

No, there is no conditionality for support. And here we are probably traditionalists. Moreover, we have very strict legislative restrictions. If we do that, we will simply lose the status of a non-profit organization.

On the other hand, there is the same acceleration program, when we actually finance projects, even if it is not a non-profit organization, but they have a clear social effect. We are ready to help by paying for certain services, that is, to contribute to the development of their IT product, which entails social benefits. 'OpenDataBot' project, for example. They were participants in one of our first accelerators – the EGAP Challenge competition within the Swiss-Ukrainian EGAP Program. Initially, the idea of ​​their platform was to fight against raiding, so we supported them.

Does the Foundation only provide grants? Or does the Foundation act as the grantee's first client? How does it work? 

We provide 'start-up' funds for innovative solutions laying in the areas of fighting corruption, effective governance, public participation, and social, economic, and environmental development. Participants take part in the competition, presenting their projects and ideas. The independent jury decides whether to support them, taking into account several criteria, including impact to the society, sustainability, capacity of the team, etc. 'OpenDataBot', 'Court in the Palm of Your Hands' – these widely recognized innovative platforms were supported in the early stages of their development, and now they are sustainable platforms with thousands of users and began to function independently. 

Our task within the framework of the competition is to make the right bet, so to speak, to accurately assess the capabilities of these teams, whether they will then be able to get on their feet, monetize their venture, etc., and attract additional funds for development. In this way, we have developed the field of open data in Ukraine. After all, our main goal was to formulate a request for open data and compel authorities to provide this data in good quality.