Founded in 1996, MitOst has never described itself as an arts organisation, but art and culture are central to its activities as an organisation supporting active citizenship. Based in Berlin, its strategic focus is central, eastern and south-eastern Europe, but in the past eight years it has expanded its programmes to include all EU member states, as well as countries in North Africa, Middle East, Caucasus, central and south-east Asia, and China. Its two managing directors, Jotham Sietsma and Annegret Wulff, lead a team of 43 (roughly 30 of whom are full-time) and manage a budget of approximately €6.3m, which has been steadily rising in the past five years. Between half and two-thirds of its funding comes from three major foundations (the Robert Bosch, the Mercator, and the European Cultural Foundation), with whom it collaborates and for whom it implements social change programmes. MitOst also receives support from the European Commission, German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and a pool of roughly 20 foundations.
Mission: creating resilient, transparent civil society through active citizenship and cultural exchange
MitOst has its beginnings in a lectureship programme run by the Robert Bosch Foundation, which in the mid-1990s would send recent university graduates to Eastern Europe for a year to teach but also lead a small cultural project. A group of that programme’s alumni set up MitOst in 1996 to expand upon that work, still with “culture and education as the pillars of the organisation”. (The programme itself still exists, and since 2016 has been run by MitOst.) As Jotham Sietsma, who joined MitOst in 2013 as a project officer and is now co-managing director, puts it: “Arts, culture, creativity are all about having that space where you can find different solutions, where you can hear different voices, where you can – either within a relatively safe space or actually a very loud space – make yourself heard. And that supports civil society actors to become a bit more strong, more resilient.”
Strong civil society is MitOst’s key mission: supporting collaboration and dialogue between people, cultural organisations, businesses and municipalities, in ways that “work towards open and transparent societies”, with an emphasis on “learning by doing”. It has a variety of programmes, within which MitOst plays two fundamental roles: as incubator, and as mediator. Incubation involves, on the one hand, helping “new active citizenship initiatives to get started, and then grow bigger within the possibilities of their context”, and on the other “forging partnerships for existing organisations, to find new ways of working cross-sectorally”. While as mediator, MitOst works closely with funding bodies “in order to figure out the strategies, the missions, and the identities that they have, to see if we can find synergies between what those big players want and what is happening on the ground. We try to have an in-between role, supporting funders to know what’s happening, and helping more small players to access the funding, knowledge and experience that they, with their smaller capacity, would not be able to get their hands on.” MitOst’s impulse in both roles is “to move from working on the periphery and become influencers in the system, trying to overhaul the system from within, rather than standing on the outside and protesting”.
Alumni of MitOst’s interventions and activities are also invited to join its membership network. Currently it has in the region of 1,400 members, from more than 40 countries, many of whom continue collaborating with MitOst after their initial engagement. Of those, roughly 100 members play a more active role in influencing MitOst’s own structure: as decision-makers within the general assembly, they vote for “the board, the vision, strategy”.
Split between two strands – Active Citizenship and Cultural Exchange – all MitOst’s programmes are effectively variations on a single theme: that of providing “a framework for exchange, networking and training”. Some are dedicated to specific geographic areas: for instance, Dialogue for Change focuses on Ukraine, training young professionals to be “community developers” with a view to building greater connection between the east and west of the country, and between urban and rural. Others are deliberately expansive, such as CitizensLab: a Europe-wide network of activists brought together by MitOst in a space that encourages skill-sharing and innovative experimental approaches to addressing social challenges. The Theodor-Heuss-Kolleg programme is specifically designed for young people in the 18-25 age bracket: “We support them through training and a small start-up capital to become more active either in their neighbourhood or their city. Often what happens is these young people go on to found their own small organisation, which then becomes quite strong in civic design in their region – and also becomes our local implementing partner or strategic partner for running our other programmes.”
“We support [young people] through training and a small start-up capital to become more active either in their neighbourhood or their city. Often what happens is these young people go on to found their own small organisation, which then becomes quite strong in civic design in their region – and also becomes our local implementing partner or strategic partner for running our other programmes.”
Collaboration is essential: for MitOst to do its work, and as the goal of that work. Actors of Urban Change – itself a collaboration between MitOst and the Robert Bosch Foundation – requires all participators to apply as teams with representatives from “a cultural organisation, small business and the public sector, to create a three-way partnership in their city. We support them to work cross-sector on a pilot project, and hope that from this something new can emerge that makes the city better.” Similarly, the Tandem programme – a collaboration between MitOst and the European Cultural Foundation – facilitates new partnerships between people drawn from “a mixed group coming from different countries, different types of organisations, different disciplines, different sectors, different ages, different backgrounds”; these partnerships then work together for 18 months, “learning by doing in a safe space where they can reinvent their practice through what we call inter-cultural irritation. Working with a partner means you get irritated quite a bit: from this irritation you might find different perspectives and become more innovative.”
A story in layers
Although there are clear similarities in the shaping of all MitOst’s programmes, what emerges from them – the local projects – is “so diverse, there are so many different things happening, that MitOst has no way to tell one story” of its impact. Instead, “we take the approach of being strong in diversity: each of the programmes and projects has its own logic of how to talk about the work that they do, how to be accountable for the activities they organise – and gives a platform to participants to tell the story that is useful for them”.
For Tandem in particular, MitOst employs the “most significant change methodology”: a layered approach to storytelling that starts with the reporting of participants in projects, and travels on through the implementing team, stakeholders and decision-makers. “Through conversation and filtering, you end up with one story that is the most significant change story: this can be an actual story that everyone agrees is the most typical or, what happens more in Tandem, we try to label all the different stories into categories – stories to do with personal or professional development, stories to do with innovation of practice – and include within each of these containers one or two stories that are exemplary of what’s happened.”
In addition to the issue of storytelling, Sietsma identifies two major challenges that MitOst faces:
1: Institutionalisation vs activism
In the five years since Sietsma has been with MitOst it has expanded from a staff of fewer than 20 to a staff of more than 40. “We saw that growth as a measurable success – but success should be more about the value that you bring or the impact that you make.” His anxiety is that MitOst will itself become “one of the bureaucratic monsters” and lose the benefits of a lean organisation with an emphasis on activism: “the ability to respond fast and flexibly to signals from the field”.
2: Activism in a civil society under pressure
Although MitOst’s activities are expanding across a wider geographic region, Sietsma feels that: “The space for doing our work is becoming smaller and smaller, as civil society is becoming more and more under pressure.” He points to the recent arrest in Turkey of one of its partners, and the difficulty of collaborating with partners in Russia or Belarus, who live with the risk that “security police could be at your doorstep any moment”, especially if an organisation is found to be receiving foreign funding. It means that MitOst is always seeking a balance “between putting partners at risk through working with us (although they would probably put themselves at risk anyway, because they believe in this cause), and how we can use our network and capacity to support them best and most responsibly”.
“The space for doing our work is becoming smaller and smaller, as civil society is becoming more and more under pressure.”
That sense of civil society under pressure has had a beneficial effect: it has accelerated a sense of “solidarity” between MitOst and its many partners. When Sietsma looks to the future, what he wants is to “find smarter ways of working with partners, so that we still have these roles as incubator and mediator, but have found ways of making bigger changes, leading through principles and values rather than through types of programmes or activities”.
Sietsma also points to the growth of the Tandem programme, which began in 2011 with a focus on building connections between east and west Europe (a continuation of the culture managers exchange programme MitOst had been running for the Bosch foundation for a decade), but has now expanded to five strands, one of which, Shaml, seeks to forge links between Europe and the Middle East, and will soon also operate in an Arab context independently of Europe. Tandem began with a feeling that “there was a more interesting way of supporting local culture organisations while training culture managers – a new way that would be more peer-to-peer. We spent the first five years making the programme, fine-tuning it, and we feel now we are ready for other people to start playing with it, to see how they can build on it and use it for their own needs.” The hope is not only that the Tandem programme itself will improve further, but that “by growing through partners, we can achieve bigger change”.
(Tandem EUROPE KickOff,Leipzig. Constanze Flamme)