Practical Lessons, Powerful Connections: Workshops Aid Ukrainian Refugees

Wednesday, January 18, 2023


Photo: Participants at the NGO Leadership Workshop Warsaw during a session on Networking.

WDI’s most recent NGO Leadership Workshop welcomed nonprofits serving Ukrainian refugees—and shared life-changing tips on making a difference.

For decades, the William Davidson Institute (WDI) at the University of Michigan has held Ukraine close to its mission. When the Institute was founded more than 30 years ago, Eastern Europe was its very first geographical focus area — and for good reason. At the time, there was no guarantee that countries on the other side of the fallen Berlin Wall would embrace and deliver market-driven economies. Rather, there was concern that they would revert to government-planned economies. Those early WDI educational projects in Eastern Europe reflected the Institute’s core purpose: sharing the tools of commercial success with students, partners and other stakeholders to build both lasting economic and social prosperity.  

While the conditions in Ukraine and Eastern Europe have certainly changed over the course of three decades, WDI’s commitment to the region has remained strong — even stronger after Russia invaded Ukraine nearly one year ago.

WDI’s NGO Leadership Workshops are one example of this dedication. Run in partnership with the Weiser Center for Europe and Eurasia (WCEE) at the University of Michigan, the workshops engage and guide nonprofit groups providing a variety of social services during times of struggle. The most recent workshop, which took place in October in Poland, showed just how crucial these sessions can be for participants.

With the destabilizing impact of war in the region, it is more important than ever to invest in civil society, explained Geneviève Zubrzycki, Director of the WCEE. And NGOs are key in that process.

“For NGOs working with Ukrainian refugees, there’s a level of urgency and human tragedy that we can’t ignore,” said Zubrzycki.

These biannual four-day workshops have been held in Slovakia and Poland since 2015. They bring together nonprofit leaders to network with one another, learn about topics close to their work, and connect with global experts. The sessions regularly cover planning and sustainability, NGO management, marketing strategies, advocacy and fundraising.

It’s powerful work that many of these managers would be unable to tackle on their own, but through the support of WCEE, they can come together without being saddled with the cost of tuition, room, or travel. Leaders can focus entirely on boosting their impact at home, and the coursework is built to do exactly that. “Each session raised important points that I will consider in my work with my team at our NGO,” said a Romanian participant, one of the 24 leaders who joined the workshop in Warsaw.

For NGOs working with Ukrainian refugees, there’s a level of urgency and human tragedy that we can’t ignore.

For NGOs working with Ukrainian refugees, there’s a level of urgency and human tragedy that we can’t ignore.

Shifting the Curriculum for the Times

The 2022 workshop in Warsaw was scheduled prior to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. War had fallen on communities across the country, and Ukrainians fled the violence with whatever they could carry, clinging to family members and ditching cars when they ran out of gas. According to the UN Refugee Agency, 6.3 million people from Ukraine have been recorded crossing international borders into neighboring countries including Poland and Moldova since the invasion. The effects have sent a wave of challenges through the continent.

As WDI planned the workshop in 2022, it was impossible to ignore the growing pressure placed on regional nonprofits. WDI and WCEE worked to adapt the program to meet the realities on the ground. 

“Dedicating the workshop to NGOs working with Ukrainian refugees made it possible for us to tailor sessions to their specific needs. It also created a safe space for them to discuss difficult topics,” said Zubrzycki.

WDI similarly shifted its curriculum to meet the needs of the many NGOs in the area serving Ukrainian refugees. Experts joined to share advice on maintaining digital security, planning strategically during crises, avoiding staff burnout, and working with people with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The entire workshop was driven by on-the-ground needs,” explains Amy Gillett, Vice President of Education at WDI. “It was developed with a design-thinking approach. We considered what the organizations’ immediate needs were and what they were grappling with, and then we created the curriculum around that, focusing on the most pressing needs.”

A Focus on Mental Health

Working for an NGO operating in a warzone carries “all of the stresses and drama of a normal workplace raised to 11, then add in the fact that everyone you’re working with has left everything they own, is stressed through the roof, and perhaps has lived through various war-related traumas,” explained Eric Fretz, a professional educator and coach focused on personal development, emotional intelligence, and resilience who teaches at the University of Michigan. Fretz led conversations at the workshop about post-traumatic stress disorder, trauma, emotional intelligence and mental strength.

He dug into the basics of trauma with participants and shared advice on managing their own stress, which he hopes will create a ripple effect. “Leaders can share this with their team, and then everyone on their team is much more able to take care of those that they encounter. It’s an upward lift.”

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Powerful Connections with Powerful Partners

Relationships are everything — in serving people, in building businesses, and in running nonprofits. “These groups need to know each other to be more effective,” Gillett said. “The connections that take place outside of the formal instruction are just as important as the skills that they’re learning in the classroom sessions. It’s during these informal conversations where resources and ideas are shared that are critical to their success.”

Participants at the NGO Leadership Workshop spent time together talking about their struggles, joys and plans. They shared tips over morning coffee for better reaching refugees and advice on soliciting global support for long-term aid while walking through Warsaw’s Old Town on a guided tour offered as part of the workshop. “We were left with so many brilliant acquaintances and friendships, and we have gathered priceless information,” said one participant from Georgia.

WDI has seen the bonds built during past workshops flourish after participants returned home — and the Institute is just as dedicated to continuing to support long-standing connections in Ukraine. Though it was forced to suspend a project that would have sent four University of Michigan MBA students to the Lviv Business School of Ukrainian Catholic University (LvBS), WDI President Paul Clyde recently spoke to the university’s Vice Rector Sophia Opatska about the role universities and students will play in country’s resistance and rebuilding.

Workshop participants, particularly ones from Ukraine, were grateful to learn alongside leaders from other countries who were working on the ground with them. David Estrada, Program Coordinator at WDI, said “They were thankful that we were able to provide a space for them and be around other people doing this same type of work.”

Two NGO Leadership Workshops are planned for 2023, in Bratislava, Slovakia and Warsaw, Poland. 

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