In December 2016, starting my social impact journey in the Czech Republic, I had one of my first consulting sessions with NGOs in a cafe. Amid holiday discussions, people chatted about their ‘pour féliciter’ cards. Initially, I misunderstood, thinking the phrase was somehow connected to how drinks are served. [Hint: It’s not]
‘Pour féliciter’, as a Czech and Slovak custom (derived from French), is a way to convey season’s greetings and good wishes. It involves the abbreviation “PF” followed by the number of the new year. As I delved into the term’s origins and purpose years ago, I learned to appreciate the spirit behind the gesture even more.
As an American expat who’s been living and working in Central and Eastern Europe for a number of year, I’ve celebrated numerous seasons of change here.
I’m fortunate to work with passionate social impact leaders and teams striving for change, hope, and progress against seemingly challenging odds.
I’m often working across linguistic and cultural barriers, navigating diverse landscapes of communication and understanding.
I’m frequently operating in contexts where doubt is sprinkled with cynicism, fear is seasoned with dread, and uncertainty is leavened with pessimism.
And yet I celebrate everything encountered during my journey here to date—good, bad, and in-between.
🧭 🧭 🧭
As I look back on 2023, this year holds special significance for two reasons. First, I accomplished my goal of spending quality time in each Czech region (kraj), delving into the distinct makeup of communities and local economies. Second, I concluded the year by revisiting the first places I ever explored in Czechia during November-December 1993.
Beyond Hlavní město Praha (Prague), I can now appreciate much more the uniqe vibes in Středočeský kraj (Central Bohemia), Jihočeský kraj (South Bohemia), Plzeňský kraj (Plzeň), Karlovarský kraj (Karlovy Vary), Ústecký kraj (Ústí nad Labem), Liberecký kraj (Liberec), Královéhradecký kraj (Hradec Králové), Pardubický kraj (Pardubice), Vysočina, Jihomoravský kraj (South Moravia), Olomoucký kraj (Olomouc), Zlínský kraj (Zlín), and Moravskoslezský kraj (Moravian-Silesian).
Everywhere I visited this year, people continued to express the sense that the country is small, humble, and off the radar of most people outside the region. Whenever I share with Czechs how much of the “outside world” is aware of them, they express a little shock, a bit of bemusement, and a little pride as they continue their focus on what’s in front of them.
As I retraced my steps from the 1993 autumn/winter to Nový Jičín and Frenštát pod Radhoštěm, I did so with both nostalgia and hesistancy. As much as things stay the same, I worried about my ability to appreciate how long and how strange my social impact trip has honestly been.
My time in the towns and villages in this particularly district was more than just a nostalgic return; it was a poignant reflection on the profound changes that both the people and the region have undergone since Czechia’s establishment on January 1, 1993, emerging from the former Czech and Slovak Federal Republic (commonly known as Czechoslovakia), which ceased to exist as of December 31, 1992.
Unlike many Americans who came to the area during this time, I actually did not have Prague as an introduction to all things Czech. My initial immersion in the rural landscapes shaped my understanding of the history, culture, attitudes, challenges, and hopes of people and communities attempting to make sense of a rapid series of changes and questions about their present and their future.
While I saw the area remaining mostly the same, the people I once knew grew up and followed their paths in ways that are markedly different from 30 years ago— particularly the options, the choices, and the responsibilities they face.
As I ponder so many changes since 1993— not just in Czechia but across Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary— the true gravity sinks in regarding the profound transformation in the social impact and innovation landscape here.
Unfortunately, this region still remains a low priority for philanthropic funding and impact investment from outside the region. Though the legacy of movements towards freedom and democracy persists, too often the international assumption holds that everything is fine here, leaving this pocket of the world in relative obscurity.
Everything is not always fine here. Post-pandemic and amid ongoing conflicts, civil society, though resilient, faces critical questions from the public and political institutions.
More individuals express a desire to participate in democracy, finding value in local volunteering and charity. Yet, a concerning trend emerges with the weaponization of non-governmental organizations’ work and the demonization of philanthropy fueling social change.
The principles of social entrepreneurship, still somewhat rigid, limit the horizons for social enterprises. Founders and funders grapple with building impact ecosystems capable of addressing ever-increasing environmental, social, and governance challenges. Despite these challenges, there are reasons to dream, hope, and persist.
Cross-sector collaboration grows, and greater diversity among leaders and founders, especially among women and individuals from underserved areas, becomes evident. Advocacy on a wider range of issues gains visibility through dedicated media and online platforms. The demands on NGOs and social enterprises increase, but there’s also a growing array of options for donating time and money.
However, these organizations face added pressures due to gaps in existing services, an aging population, and younger individuals leaving the region for opportunities elsewhere. Political challenges and external forces add to the pressure, operating with little to no financial cushion.
The concepts of ESG and CSR find increasing acceptance, but language remains a barrier, hindering openness to outsiders and resistance to change. The struggle for Czechia, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary to exist and thrive as independent democracies is ongoing. Meeting local, regional, and global responsibilities while maintaining identities that reflect inclusion, remains a challenging work in progress.
Despite the doubts and uncertainties, creating, sustaining, and growing social change is a continuous effort. The region has achieved a lot to be proud of, even when it feels like the rest of the world doesn’t care. It’s an ongoing journey, and acknowledging the progress made becomes essential, even in the face of challenges.
⌛ ⌛ ⌛
As I reflect on where my social impact journey has led me, it feels like a long, strange trip indeed. My social impact path has never been a straight line nor easy. It’s been one of constant challenge, change, but an enduring belief in people, organizations, and communities to determine the course that’s best, true, and relevant for them.
My role as a consultant thus far has been to provide support, guidance, and consistency to NGOs, social enterprises, and startups in the V4/CEE region. It’s not simply about providing training and coaching in English language communication. It’s just about providing technical assistance on strategy, planning, development and proposals, or implementation on programs and services.
My work requires an fundamental understanding and acceptance of the twists and turns that come with navigating diverse cultural landscapes and complex systemic and complicated institutional concerns. It’s about empowering organizations with the adaptability, flexibility, and, yes, the confidence and grit required to weather the frustrations and hardships that come with creating new paths towards change, hope, and progress.
My work as a consultant, operating without a net, is not easy work. It is not always appreciated by others. But it is my path, my choice, and my focus.
Without a doubt, my most heartfelt professional moment of 2023 came during a series of difficult mid-year client crises. After a particularly grueling proposal writing session, I received a heartfelt comment from a client who said they finally understand why I put so much intensity and focus into my work. They said that they sometimes feel pushed into uncomfortable territory. But they also said theat my efforts were like ‘pouring hope’ into their organization at a time when they felt fatigued and defeated. Together, we did move beyond that time of crises. And that affirmation became one of the most meaningful validations I received this year and during my time here.
🌰 🌰 🌰
Instead of the usual end-of-year attempts at reviewing lessons learned, identfying areas of personal growth, or sketches of resolutions for the next year, I’m taking a more nuanced and introspective approach at making sense of 2023.
This year, I took more time to appreciate the experience that I live and work in this region. Doing so gave me the ability to embrace more ‘aha moments.’ In the service of helping others reach their social impact goals, I continue to draw upon what I’ve been able to learn, achieve, and build.
I cannot honestly point to any deep or meaningful instances of personal growth. I can admit that this year I was more blunt, more honest, and more direct with clients and colleagues about my limits and boundaries; as well as family and friends about my frustrations and aims. This did always go smoothly or result in any improvements. But it help me to understand more of what I want and need, and shift away from those things that don’t fulfill, sustain, nurture, or satisfy me.
I cannot honestly say that my perspectives have evolved, but I do feel more confident and certain about doubling down on what works for me. I recognized the power of saying “no” more judiciously. I invested more time and energy into relationships and spaces where I felt valued and welcomed. I also accepted that there are some places and spaces that are not meant for me, and areas where I sincerely can not make a meaningful difference or sustain any change that emerged. You will never know what works and what doesn’t without trying something. Yet every experience, whether challenging or uplifting, matters.
I allowed (encouraged?) myself to (re)connect with the ecosystem I’ve helped to grow and the support system around me, albeit with some pruning and adjustments this year. In doing so, I began to engage more substantively with people and organizations and networks that matter to me based upon mutual trust and respect and being my authentic self. No amount of credibility or influence lasts without a sense of purpose rooted to connection with others.
At the same time, I operate within the reality of a solo entrepreneur without institutional backing. I exist as an “othered outsider” in a region filled with many barriers and many concerns. As such, I became more accurately aware that I have often poured too much energy into too many disparate endeavours. Focus sharpens effectiveness. Dilution weakens impact.
And failure to stop and savor even the smallest victories in the pursuit of my goals will make everything taste bitter. Taking more time out of my routines to rediscover why I chose my particular impact pathway has helped immensely to ensuring that I stay grounded. I paused to appreciate the reflections others cast upon my work, and ultimately found reason for optimism and hope ahead.
🔔 🔔 🔔
As I extend my pour féliciter this year to clients (old and new), colleagues (current and former), and the ever-growing social impact community in the region and beyond, I’m reminded that it’s not just about what’s poured * but for whom it is served and how well it’s done.
Here’s to a joyous holiday season and an inspiring new year, filled with rich experiences and opportunities to make change real, meaningful, and sustainable. With gratitude, humility, and my sincerest PF to all.
* This, of course, applies to beer, juice, coffee, milk/melk, tea, wine, etc. as much as water, depending on the need/preference.