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The International Kultuurikompass Forum Through the Eyes of a Volunteer from Hungary

by Eszter Sági, Tartu 2024 volunteer

28. Nov Kalle Paas

A couple of days ago I got the opportunity to volunteer at the first event of Kultuurikompass since Tartu was named the European Capital of Culture of 2024. Previously I had already popped into the team’s office and got some first-hand insight about the project as a whole and what it will bring to Tartu and Europe. I have always been interested in culture and cultural management so I was very happy to help out and be an active part of this event.

On this chilly Thursday, it felt good to find shelter in the impressive building of the Estonian National Museum that hosted the event. I arrived early so that I could see the venue beforehand and meet the other team members who explained the timetable to me. My task was to assist at the registration desk: to welcome people, give them their badge, and answer their questions. As the beginning of the official registration time passed, more and more people arrived so we had a very busy time at the welcome table. I have to say that I very much enjoyed the buzz and the lively atmosphere. People came from completely different institutions but they all wanted to find out how they could effectively engage volunteers for different cultural projects. It was an extra challenge to familiarise myself with all the different (and exotic!) Estonian names so I already learned a lot before the actual discussions of the forum. 

After the registration, I took a seat and waited for the event to begin. I admired the gigantic hall we were sitting in; I remember that I felt calm and relaxed thanks to the space, the cool blue lights and tasteful decoration. I also noted that although everyone was dressed up nicely, no one was overdressed. It was rather as if you were having a nice cup of coffee with neighbours or friends, which I really liked.

Teele Vaalma from Tartu Marathon on stage. Photo: Kiur Kaasik

At the event, there were several topics discussed. During the first panel, speakers talked about volunteer management practices, how to recruit and keep people afterwards. Among others, I learned from Eha Paas, who works for the Estonian Village Movement Kodukant, that on average every second Estonian is engaged in some kind of volunteering (this is a huge number!) and that there is such a thing as e-volunteering. A fellow Hungarian, Renata Kiss, spoke about the Veszprém 2023 initiative and that Hungary has a special law concerning volunteer work. I think it is great that Veszprém and Tartu are sister cities and both received the ECoC title because this further helps spreading good practices between them. Renata also told us that we must invest time and money in volunteers, provide them training and learning opportunities and recognize them, in order to keep them. Teele Vaalma from Tartu Marathon identified different volunteer types, who all need to be addressed differently (for example more and less active people). She talked about Tartu Marathon’s special motivational package, including food, thank you events, and lottery, for example, and that personal contact matters a lot to each volunteer. We also could get an insight into working for PÖFF, the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, thanks to Jaan Ulst, their volunteer coordinator. The film festival is an important event, so they interview every volunteer. These people often have clear expectations about what they could offer PÖFF, and usually the team let them do it, which is a win-win situation in my opinion. He also emphasised the importance of giving exact information to volunteers: people need to know what is happening and when. In the question round, the audience was curious about lessons learned; here we heard that it is easy to unintentionally mislead the group so the information has to be very exact. In addition, bridges need to be built between the team and the volunteers and using team leaders is the best way to do it. E-volunteering and upsides/downsides of volunteer legislation was also discussed.

Panel discussion between Jaan Ulst, Teele Vaalma, Renata Kiss and Eha Paas. Photo: Kiur Kaasik

After a brief coffee break, we continued with the second session, this time about engaging people from different cultural backgrounds. It started with a short video where volunteers talked about what they want from the experience of volunteering abroad: to leave an impact on the country, have meaningful tasks and the feeling of belonging. I can completely relate to this, thinking about my own experiences. Michaela Snopková, who herself came from the Czech Republic, told us what motivated her when she was a young volunteer (believe it or not, it all started with a well-designed t-shirt) and how dedication and passion helped her along the way. Thanks to being a volunteer in Tartu, she found friends, learned the language and settled in successfully. In her later work in Work in Estonia, she could give back what she once got. I enjoyed her personal story very much. Dan Prits from International House Tartu highlighted the benefit of employing new immigrants as volunteers. Since they don’t have many options at first, it is easy to engage them and they will soon feel the connection to the organisation and the country. They have the chance to build up their network and when they return to their homeland, they will be ambassadors of Estonia in a way. Of course, one has to know their fears and expectations, and language related challenges need to be tackled as well. Lemmit Kaplinski, who came from TYPA, formerly known as the Estonian Printing and Paper Museum, shared the same thought. He added that the organisational culture and networking is very important and that one volunteer is indeed not enough. In order for them to feel good, they need to be able to share their experiences, which at least requires three but rather even more people. In the question round, we talked about the common language, which everyone must speak in order for the volunteers to feel good and the speakers recalled what they personally got back from their volunteers.

The comfy section listening to Dan Prits. Photo: Kiur Kaasik

Finally, the third and perhaps the most exciting panel for me was the one about young and elderly volunteers and their different expectations. I found this topic unique because somehow I never thought of volunteers as young and old, only people in general, although clearly this is a crucial factor in volunteering when it comes to engagement and management. We learned from Salla Ponkala, project coordinator of Tampere 2026, that the percentage of elderly volunteers is very high in Finland. It is worth to employ them because they have a bright know-how and a clear vision about what they want. The first and most important motivational factor for them is belonging to a community and having social contacts. Also, they need to feel that they carry out meaningful and useful tasks but do this in a flexible way – after all, they would like to enjoy life. If they are also offered to learn and have access to new things and their work is valued, we will have happy elderly volunteers. Anti Lillak, teacher at the Estonian National Museum, talked a bit more about what elderly volunteers can do – for example, helping visitors and taking care of graves with cultural significance – and that appreciating them is a key element. He also mentioned that young and elderly people love working together and learning from each other. Another future ECoC was present at the forum, as Marija Pulokaitė introduced the Kaunas Challenge, a cutting-edge and fresh initiative of the European Capital of Culture Kaunas 2022. They work with 15-18-year-old youngsters to solve cultural challenges in Kaunas, which also brings these young people together and helps them build a community. Marija emphasized that it is important to always be accessible and offer guidance without telling young volunteers what to do. Again, the audience asked some pretty forward-looking questions, like where can different generations meet (in volunteering) or what kind of work do elderly people enjoy the most (the kind they can do together).

Salla Ponkala on stage. Photo: Kiur Kaasik

The event ended with small informal group discussions and networking in four “nests” with different topics. The participants could learn more about the Tartu 2024 project, how to create a good system of volunteers and where to find them, as well as engagement of people from different countries.

I really enjoyed being part of this event. It was constructive, forward thinking, a great platform for networking. We learned a lot about different aspects, came to know many ECoC cities and the magician between each panel proved also to be a nice touch. I am already looking forward to the next event!

Eszter, Angela, Kaisa, Kalle, Toomas, Kaspar, Marleen, Mihkel, Kristiina, Liis and Erni – organisers of the forum. Photo: Kiur Kaasik