Generosity triggered outstanding team performance – how the concept of taking a Non-Profit Foundation to the next level emerged?

Meeting someone who has been spending his hard-earned money on setting up a Foundation then financing the operation for several years was a truly uplifting feeling. Especially, because initiatives of this kind are rare. The fact that this Foundation achieves success after success is the real cherry on the cake. No surprise that my mind was immediately triggered: “How to take the Foundation to the next level?”

Talentum Cassoviensis Foundation (TCF) was set up in 2007 with the aim of supporting talented children in Kosice (Eastern Slovakia) by awarding grants to encourage them to preserve the cultural heritage of the local communities. Later, the focus changed from the past to the future and the Talentum Programming Workshop was launched. That happened in 2011. Back then, the idea was to launch a program providing special education facility to ambitious children aged 9-16 and to introduce them to the world of task-oriented robot programming. The first results came in 2013, when the team, lead by Mrs. Angelika achieved a noticeable result in the “First Lego League Challenge 2013” (FFL). Then onwards, the results were similarly amazing: the SAP Talentum team took the 1st, 2nd or 3 prize in the FFL Cups, winning over a dozen (or more) teams in Eindhoven (Holland), João Pessoa (Brasil), Kosice (Slovakia), Debrecen (Hungary) Munich and Aachen (Germany), Missouri – St. Louis, (USA ) – and the list continues.

About FFL

FIRST LEGO LELAGUE (FLL) is an international competition organized for elementary and secondary school pupils (aged 9–16). Tomorrow’s innovators practice imaginative thinking and teamwork. Guided by adult Coaches, the “First LEGO League” teams research a real-world problem such as food safety, recycling, energy, etc., and then are challenged to develop a solution. They also must design, build, program a robot using LEGO MINDSTORMS® technology, then complete a demo on a table-top playing field.

What made me act?

Having seen the private time and money invested by others, I volunteered to craft a strategy to take TCF and its educational program to the next level. When I was honored with the assignment, I collected all the resources we could leverage. It was not much, but included the know-how, the syllabus and the operational experience of running the Programming Workshop. An interesting aspect was the phenomena of motivation to act and give back, furthermore, the trophies won, as well as the recognition of TCF in the local community.

Formulating the strategy

Using the elements of the Blue Ocean Strategy (the approach I love, because it can be applied to virtually any organization regardless of its size) it became quite clear where the Talentum Programming Workshop was already different from other similar workshops or programs. The interviews with key stakeholders and digging into the characteristics and the challenges the Central European countries (and especially the eastern parts thereof) face, led to the following key findings:

  • The organic growth (implementing the “Spaghetti strategy”, if you like) took TCF to the point where it is today. However, it will very likely not really take them further;
  • Owing to the personal qualities, the determination and the professional background of Mrs Angelika, the lead teacher, such a knowledge was passed on to the children, which resulted in winning numerous FFL Challenges;
  • the Teams achieved success in their own right; mainly owing to personal devotion and commitment of the committed supporters and stakeholders. This is a powerful booster;
  • Each child that had attended the first Programming Workshop (and by now have past the age of 18-19) got much more out of the course: due to their add-on skill-set, they were accepted by universities in Slovakia as well as in the UK. None of them remained in their home region (even though they occasionally return to the “alma mater” with pride);
  • An increasing number of generation Y and Z children wish to learn IT and robotics, especially after playing at home with their Legos and other technical toys). So there appears to be a strong local demand to gain and improve IT related knowledge;
  • There is an enormous global demand for IT training, especially for robot programming – the industry of tomorrow;
  • One trainer with outstanding personality cannot make a real impact – especially not in the eastern region of Slovakia

 Considerations and challenges

When getting even more deeply involved, the objective got clearer: build on the past, but set sail for a much larger impact with the consideration of the following (very often mindset related) considerations:

  • the independence and politics-free operation is so highly valued among the stakeholders;
  • organizations operating away from the capital(s of their respective country in Central Europe) encounter with typical, yet similar challenges;
  • managing an organization, which relies on occasional grants and financial support received from a handful of supporters (one main sponsor, occasional sponsors and the SAP Talentum Team members’ parents) is quite challenging.

Perhaps the most difficult challenge came to be the mindset I encountered with, like: “We could not do this and that in the past, so why do you think, would be capable of doing it in the future?”, or… “Who and why would believe in us? Who will sponsor and support us?” Furthermore, what I, the strategist, had to accept was that if an organization is balancing on the edge of “survival” then the following dilemma is indeed relevant: “you cannot have high-caliber sponsors, until you have an appropriately articulated vision and a strategy, even if you have international results. On the other hand, how can you develop a strategy with the limitation in mindset shared above? Furthermore, when planning implementation, issues like “Who will implement the strategy?” become also pertinent.

Despite of realizing the sparks in the eyes of the stakeholders, when I shared my initial thoughts and insights, we could not move forward, as still, there was no vision and strategy.

So, I crafted one…

The vision and the strategy

There came a point, when all vectors appeared to point into the same direction: transform the Talentum Programming Workshops (developed organically in the previous few years) into a high profile Talentum Cassoviensis Educational Center (TCEC), operating internationally in the CEE region.

The vision and the strategy developed aim at creating a cross-border education and capacity building Educational Center in consideration of the following:

  • Creating a more formalized educational center will, in itself, send the message to all stakeholders, whereby TCEC is a structured and credible educational center focusing on the future;
  • A structured organization, by virtue of being structured with a clearly articulated vision and strategy will be capable of opening doors to other – currently – non-stakeholders and will more likely be capable of initiating cooperation of different kind;
  • A portfolio of weekday, weekend and summer courses will enable children from an even a wider geographical proximity to Kosice to access new skills and knowledge;
  • Through their participation in the workshops, courses and camps, the children will develop valuable life skills (strategy, teamwork, presentation, ability to solve complex problems, etc.) in addition to acquiring the technical skills of programming. This will enable them to discover exciting career opportunities, while learning that they can make a positive contribution to society;
  • By developing a “train the trainer” concept over a period of the next few years will enable TCEC to open other TCEC locations in the neighboring cross-border Central European countries, providing access to education to a multiple number of children;
  • Once institutionalized and standardized, (building on the proven success in the past) the future TCEC will become a trustworthy partner to corporations with Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs. This applies especially for corporations using robotics in their daily operation
  • Corporate partners may look at children graduating from TCEC as prospective workforce with the appropriate skill-set;
  • Corporate partnerships may open the eyes of colleges and universities in Eastern Europe to source high-potential, pre-trained applicants, leaving TCEC.

It is needless to say that when I presented my plan to the key stakeholders, the first question applied: “How can this be turned into reality”? Private and individual sponsorship will, as examples demonstrate, never really get a training program shift to that level…

So, I went on.

I introduced my vision and the concept at a meeting with the V4 (Visegrad Fund) Project Office in Bratislava, Slovakia. (The Visegrad Found was set up by four Central European countries to support cross-border projects.) The first reaction was an absolute “yessssss”, which I took a sign of viability of the objectives and the strategy I crafted. What made me extremely happy was that I had known that if the V4 Project Office shows signs of interest in the project, it will not merely result in financial support, but will give the weight and importance to the project. Weight and importance that counts differently, when corporates are decifing on sponsorship or CSR activity.

Conclusion

Once you get started, it is worthwhile to think big and long term. Once implemented, it is going to be a project with implications on multiple and far-reaching level: the Talentum Cassoviensis Educational Center will raise the competitiveness of the eastern regions of Central and Eastern Europe through providing improved skills to citizens, especially to children. TCEC (and its future affiliated Training Centers across the Visegrad (V4) countries will improve the environment for innovation and joint R&D projects and will support advancement of regional cohesion in economic development.

Furthermore, as far as the children are concerned, TCEC will cause the children’ social environment to change by enabling the children to embrace diversity and international competitiveness. By giving them international cooperation skills (language/social/inclusion) it will empower them and will facilitate the increase of their international level of confidence. Additionally, they will get to a stage, when, already at a pre-adult age, their career selection thoughts will become much more mindful. Thoughts that address purpose and responsibility for others as well.

Isn’t it uplifting?

Photo credit: TCA