Inventing the wheel

Sándor Köles

Created in 1994, the Carpathian Foundation’s primary mission is to promote good-neighbourliness through cross-border and inter-ethnic cooperation in the Carpathian region of Eastern Europe, covering the border areas of Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Ukraine. As a foundation, it is a pioneer in this work.

The impetus behind it is the belief that supporting democracy, economic development, and cross-border and interethnic cooperation at local and regional level is a cornerstone of a stable and democratic Europe. When it began life, the Carpathian Foundation (like every newly created organization) looked for existing and adaptable models for its activity. These were not easy to find.

The Carpathian Foundation shares many characteristics with community foundations, such as a strong attachment to communities living in a clearly defined geographical area, but the difference is that the Carpathian region is huge (161,000 square kilometers, with a population of 16 million) and these communities live in five different countries. Other international organizations’ experiences in Central and Eastern Europe, such as those of the Environmental Partnership, are valuable, but again a key difference is that they are covering entire countries or centred around one issue.

The entire short history of the Carpathian Foundation can thus be characterized as a permanent, multi-faceted and mutual learning process. Over the last ten years, this has resulted in an organization that has been able to adapt to the radically changing environment while retaining its main purpose and mission. In other words, we have invented our own wheel.

Developing organizational self-consciousness

The mainspring of this process was a strong belief in the Foundation’s mission and a consciousness that the organization, through its grantmaking and programmatic activity, plays a key institutional role in this culturally and ethnically mixed region on the margin of Europe.

Another key component of organizational self-consciousnesses is the values that guide and orient the organization. These have crystallized in the past years during a series of dialogues and interactions between key stakeholders: the local communities, and the Foundation’s board and staff and donors. These have led to the formulation of guiding principles, such as recognition that cultural, ethnic and natural values are a prime asset of the Carpathian region and a vehicle for local development; belief that communities develop best through principles of self-help; and recognition that strong civil societies are integral to economically and socially healthy communities.

These principles are supported by some practical elements and internal procedures. The Carpathian Foundation grants committee, for example, comprising the five Country Directors and the Executive Director, makes decisions on small grants, which is a good way to learn from each other and to learn from the ‘field’.

Beside its grantmaking activity, the Carpathian Foundation has developed some operational programmes, such as RomaNet and the Integrated Rural Community Development and Best Practice of Local Governments programmes, which provide opportunities for local communities to learn from each other and, at the same time, for the staff to understand better the environment in which they work.

What have we learned?

What are the main lessons and the critical issues that we have derived from this experience? First, the most important prerequisite for any intervention is to understand the environment and socio-economic context in which the intervention takes place. Otherwise, even the best-intentioned of interventions will either only scratch the surface or fail altogether. We must avoid the mistake of the boy scout who insisted on helping a blind old lady to cross the street, though she did not want to.

Secondly, understanding the socio-cultural context in which the organization works must go beyond simply knowing facts and figures. The learning process has two equally important phases: the cognitive one, which is about the perceptible elements of the reality, and the substantive one, which is about communities’ behaviour, aspirations, symbols, etc, which are usually hidden. If there is no balance between the two parts of the learning process, we will misunderstand the working environment.

Thirdly, organizations never learn. It’s the people who comprise the organization (board and staff) who learn, and the key questions are how these individuals are motivated to learn and share learning; how individuals’ knowledge is built into organizational knowledge and collective memory; what the organization does with this knowledge; and, last but not least, what the practical process is for accumulating this knowledge and learning lessons.

There is a story of a railwayman whose main task was clicking train wheels with his hammer, who retired after 40 years’ service. At the reception organized by the company in his honour, he said, ‘Thank you this wonderful event. I have only one question, please. Tell me, why did I have to click the wheels for 40 years?’ The company had no answer, but in a foundation or development organization it is crucial that each individual knows ‘who we are, what we are doing, and why’.

Finally, difficulties sometimes arise in respect of an organization’s world view (values, purpose, etc) when available resources become scantier, either because donors shift their strategies and the organization no longer fits or when other donors with different priorities and preferences appear on the financial horizon. In the case of a ‘non-learning’ organization, the survival reflexes win over values and mission, while a learning organization will find a way to strike the right balance between its mission and the change in resource provision. The first is the strategy for survival; the second is the strategy for sustainability.

As far as the guest editors’ question ‘why be a learning organization?’ is concerned, I can give a short answer: a learning organization can make a deeper impact and can generate long-term processes.

Sándor Köles was Director of the Carpathian Foundation from 1994 to 2005. Email

The Carpathian Foundation

Created in 1994, the Carpathian Foundation promotes good relations, social stability, and economic progress in the bordering regions of Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Ukraine. It does so by providing financial and technical assistance to projects which will result in tangible benefits to communities on both sides of national borders and improve the quality of life of people in the cities and small towns of the Carpathian Mountains.


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