The recent years: BEARR looks to the future from a firmer footing (2011 – 2021)
The last of the articles on BEARR’s history takes us through the expansion of its Small Grants Scheme, digital revamp and the start of its regional conferences, right up to the present day, as well as looking forward to what lies in store for the organisation in the future, particularly in the light of the challenges and opportunities that have arisen in adapting to the Covid-19 pandemic.
BEARR’s Chairman for much of this period was Robert Brinkley. Formerly a diplomat for 34 years, Robert took over in 2013 after a year as a trustee and would remain in this post until BEARR’s current Chairman, Nicola Ramsden, took the helm in 2018. Mary Brinkley, Robert’s wife, had already been volunteering with BEARR for over a year when he joined as a trustee, and it was this connection that brought Robert and BEARR together.
The first thing Robert did upon assuming his post was to conduct a ‘strategic review’ of the organisation. As he notes, his joining offered the opportunity for a fresh look at BEARR’s activities, for BEARR’s trustees to stand back and ask themselves, “Are we clear on what we’re trying to do? Could we do better?” To this end, Robert sat down with each of BEARR’s trustees and asked for their opinion on the organisation – its strengths, weaknesses and so on. One of the trustees, Robert recalls, felt that “BEARR had rather lost its way”.
The review concluded that it was right to cover Russia, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the South Caucasus, with a focus on health and social welfare. The organisation’s broad geographical remit was soon to prove useful when Russia (hitherto the most important target for BEARR’s activities) imposed its ‘foreign agents’ law in 2012 and Russia-based organisations, wary of working with foreign NGOs, gradually began to represent a noticeably smaller proportion of grant applicants.
One of BEARR’s patrons, Bridget Kendall MBE, who is at present the Master of Peterhouse College, Cambridge, was BBC diplomatic correspondent at the time, having been Moscow correspondent 1989 – 1995. She recalls how national security concerns and feelings of hostility from the Kremlin towards western involvement in Russian affairs had been simmering under Putin in the years leading up to the implementation of the ‘foreign agents’ law. For instance, the Rose Revolution in Georgia (2003) and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine (2004-5) had provoked early waves of worry about foreign influence. Additionally, following the Beslan school siege in Chechnya in 2004 and a series of other attacks by Chechen separatists, Putin had implemented wide-sweeping counterterrorism measures and sought to re-centralise control over Russia’s far-flung regions. Russia’s president remained opposed to Western interference on humanitarian grounds in Chechnya. Bridget notes how national security concerns grew in this period, as did Putin’s authoritarianism. He remained sensitive to the notion that Russia needed any outside help, as reflected, for instance, by Russia hesitating to join the World Trade Organisation for over a decade.
As growing authoritarianism and anti-Western feeling from the Kremlin made it harder for Russian organisations to seek foreign aid, BEARR was able to compensate to some extent by consolidating its wider reach through work in other parts of the former Soviet Union.
Internally, Robert also ensured that BEARR’s board of trustees was refreshed, with the organisation advertising externally for the first time in its history and undergoing several rounds of recruitment over the next three years. The result was a much more diverse, balanced board in terms of age, background, and experience. Many of the trustees recruited in this round are still with BEARR today, including BEARR’s digital trustee Ali Lantukh and finance officer Ross Gill.
The last aspect of this strategic review concerned making BEARR’s work as efficient as possible given its primary reliance on volunteers to carry out the work. Process notes to make matters easier to hand over, yearly action plans, and longer-term five-year plans were introduced. But systematising BEARR’s operations was not going to be sufficient to allow it to keep up its work, and part of these long term plans included looking for other sources of funding. As mentioned in the previous article, BEARR went through a testing patch financially at the turn of the millennium and was forced to reduce its overheads as a result. Robert notes, “it quickly became clear when I joined that BEARR was fairly precarious financially. We were awfully dependent on the goodwill of various donors”.
In 2016, BEARR was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to bid for a five-year grant from a charitable foundation. BEARR’s current Chairman, Nicola Ramsden, who was a trustee at the time, describes finding out that they had secured the funding as a “tremendous moment”. This money has been vital to help put the organisation on a secure financial footing and allow it to think strategically about the longer term. “It was real lifeline”, reflects Robert. “It gave us a financial anchor and meant that we could then plan ahead and do more fundraising around that”.
When Nicola took over as Chairman in 2018, she notes that BEARR was in good shape. On top of its financial security, the organisational review meant that BEARR had “a varied but collegiate trustee body and that planning strategically was now embedded in our DNA”. Having undergone a thorough analysis of what it stood for and what its goals should be, BEARR was in a strong position when it came to designing its new website shortly into Nicola’s Chairmanship. With the help of recently recruited trustee Ali Lantukh, BEARR underpinned its move to digital communication with further reflection on its identity and purpose in order to communicate this clearly to donors, grantees and the general public. As part of the digital streamlining, the organisation’s monthly bulletin and biannual newsletter consolidated into a single bimonthly newsletter, with all items linking to the website.
The last ten years have also witnessed the expansion of BEARR’s hallmark Small Grants Scheme, both in terms of the number of grants awarded and the geographical coverage. 2009 saw the first grants to projects beyond Russia, to CSOs in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the South Caucasus. By 2021, the fifteenth year of the scheme, grants totalling £325,462.70 had been awarded to 121 projects across the region. The scheme has covered a wide range of themes around health and social welfare, including projects for the homeless, disabled people, refugees and internally displaced persons, unemployed young people, and women who have suffered from sexual or other types of violence. The five-year funding secured in 2016 was a real turning point in terms of the scheme’s development, allowing BEARR to donate more to grantees and to hone its approach. Last year, BEARR was invited to apply for a further five years’ funding from the same foundation, and despite Covid-19 striking and forcing BEARR to reframe its strategy in response to the pandemic, it was another pivotal moment for BEARR when it was successful in securing five more years of funding, from 2021 to 2025. “It felt like a real vote of confidence in us”, acknowledges Nicola. It also offered another valuable opportunity for reflecting on BEARR’s role and future.
BEARR has gradually adjusted the Small Grants Scheme over the past decade. For instance, about seven years ago, as trustee Marcia Levy recalls, they decided to start researching what happened to recipient organisations after the completion of their BEARR-funded projects, partly in order to show donors the longevity of projects and their long-term impact. Robert Brinkley notes, ‘There was always the underlying question, “How do we know if this money is being used properly?”’ In recognition of the need to ensure that money is being spent as stated, but also as a means of building enduring relationships with CSOs in the region, monitoring and evaluation is now an integral part of the scheme. BEARR strives to keep in touch with organisations to maintain its network in the region and identify ongoing needs.
As the scheme has expanded, so has the capacity of the organisations BEARR sought to help, and today there is more concern about personal and organisational matters, such as how to develop a long-term strategy, raise funds and prevent staff burnout. “A lot of the organisations are quite well-developed now”, Robert says. “Things have moved on, and many of them can teach us what it means to be a good charity”. Partly in response to this, but also in reaction to reports from grantees of the additional emotional and administrative pressure they were under because of the pandemic, last year BEARR added extra funding to its offering to help CSOs build their resilience and organisational capacity. These additional grants have helped to strengthen the organisations in the longer term and to solidify BEARR’s relationship with them.
Alongside the core Small Grants Scheme, BEARR has continued to hold a variety of events, including conferences, lectures, and – most recently – webinars. BEARR’s annual conference in London, a calendar fixture since 1992, invites speakers from health and social welfare CSOs and other experts from across the region to discuss themes ranging from homelessness, the demographic challenge, changing attitudes to disability, and young people in trouble, to volunteering and social media. A significant innovation of the past ten years has been the introduction of regional conferences. The first was held in Lviv, Ukraine, in 2016 and the second in Chisinau, Moldova, in 2019.
The Lviv conference was held in partnership with the Ukrainian Catholic University’s Institute of Leadership and Management, with financial support from UNDP in Ukraine. It brought together 57 Ukrainian CSOs as well as international experts, social scientists, and donors to discuss the question of the ‘Integration or Differentiation of Internally Displaced Persons’. Set in the wake of the annexation of Crimea and war in the Donbas in 2014, two years earlier, the conference aimed to help those displaced by the conflict in Ukraine. The conference, alongside the changing landscape in the region, led indirectly to many more Ukrainian organisations finding out about BEARR’s work. Over the years, BEARR has developed strong links with many Ukrainian CSOs, helped also by Ukraine’s flourishing civil society. Three years after Lviv, the regional conference in Moldova, also supported by the UN, considered ‘Migration and Social Change in Eastern Europe’. Over 100 participants joined from Moldova, the UK, France, Italy, USA, Ukraine, and Spain. The conference sought to examine the impact of migration on the health and social well-being of children, adolescents, and older people. Like the Lviv conference, the event combined keynote speakers with workshops for the participants. It gave some CSO participants their first experience of putting questions directly to a government minister.
In response to the pandemic, BEARR was forced to cancel physical conferences and replace them with webinars exploring the impact of Covid-19 on CSOs and on the people they are trying to help. Successive surveys of CSOs have informed these events and our Small Grants Scheme, allowing us to identify the areas where CSOs in the region most require assistance.
Alongside its annual conferences, throughout the past decade BEARR has continued to organise annual lectures on developments in Russia and the region, always given by a renowned speaker. Before the pandemic, lectures were often hosted and sponsored by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), and featured speakers such as Bridget Kendall, Shaun Walker, and Arkady Ostrovsky. Since the onset of the pandemic, we have been able to host online lectures with brilliant speakers including Nigel-Gould Davies and Oliver Bullough.
BEARR, along with the rest of the world, has adapted its activities to remote working to continue its operations as much as possible during the pandemic. Developments in BEARR’s digital approach, coupled with CSOs across the region having an increased online presence, have helped with this, allowing us to be more regularly in contact with the organisations with which we are working.
Whilst a steep learning curve, and despite losing the enjoyment of face-to-face interaction, the process has proved rewarding and eye-opening for BEARR. The ability of participants to join from anywhere in the world, for free, has expanded the scope for BEARR to interact with CSOs in the region, to connect UK experts with those CSOs, and for those CSOs to build networks with and learn from one another. The pandemic has shown that we cannot take for granted that people will always be able to fly to or from the region for events. In view of this, and the world’s adaptation to online modes of interaction, we hope to carry forward the best of what we have learnt from the pandemic into the future, including through organising a combination of online, in-person, and hybrid events.