By Jennifer Brookland
Political stories tend to dominate the daily papers and television headlines in Kazakhstan, leaving news about youth movements or civil society to take a backseat at best.
In this challenging media environment, a civil society organization called Youth Information Service of Kazakhstan (MISK) had a doubly hard time getting attention as it worked to raise public awareness of the problems—and possibilities—facing young people.
Though unemployment, social problems and low-quality education weigh on the nation’s young people, MISK envisions a world where they are empowered to address these challenges through civic engagement and volunteerism.
Its main projects include a “Civic education school” where accomplished experts deliver classes that educate youth on democracy, human rights, social responsibility and the rule of law, and an annual conference called “ZhasCamp” that convenes 300 youth activists to discuss and plan social initiatives and learn to manage them.
Young people are seeing the benefits from these camps.
“Being a volunteer gives me a confidence in myself and those invaluable starting opportunities which lead to conscious activity,” says Dmitriy Shubin, who participated in civic education school. “MISK is not just a non-governmental organization, it is our life.”
But limited media attention was holding the organization back from becoming more influential, attracting more sponsors and partners and gaining higher-level support from Kazakh authorities.
Setting up for success
A public outreach grant won under Counterpart International’s Kazakhstan Civil Society Strengthening Program allowed the organization to change that.
The program, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, competitively awarded $2,000 grants to MISK and either other partner civil society organizations for use in public outreach.
Institutional strengthening grants support the formal development of partner organizations, helping them acquire skills in strategic planning, financial sustainability, new media and volunteer management, says Counterpart’s Country Director Marat Aitmagambetov.
“We believe this would eventually result in the overall management progress of the partnering organizations, help them to become more effective and better advocate their mission to both beneficiaries and the Government,” he says.
Making MISK “exist”
MISK used its grant money to publish flyers and brochures about the organization’s work, as well as producing a short video about its mission. It shared the 90-second video entitled “Youth” on social media, and widely disseminated it via listserve to youth-focused NGOs, students and mass media.
Getting both traditional and new media interested in the organization’s work was crucial for MISK.
“It is a time when you realize that if you or your organization is not present in media, and social media, it may be seen as if the organization does not exist at all,” says Irina Mednikova, Director of MISK.
This time, the media paid attention.
Reporters from Kazakhstan’s only 24-hour television news channel, 24.kz, saw “Youth” on YouTube a few weeks after its release, and took a closer look at the organization.
Impressed with the video, and with MISK’s dynamic online content and social media presence, 24.kz produced a 25-minute news report about the organization in both Kazakh and Russian.
In turn, leading national TV agency “Khabar” used a clip from that broadcast in their news program as well.
More visibility, more results
The increased national media coverage generated measurable interest in civil education school and ZhasCamp.
The number of volunteers working with MISK soared—from 15 to 41 in its main office in Almaty. The organization was able to hire three additional staff members and coordinators.
New staff members are currently being recruited for branches in other places, after young people posted online inquiring about opportunities to work with MISK in their hometowns.
Focus groups are reporting a positive image of the organization, and invitations to events and meetings are mounting, especially as MISK strengthens its relations with youth organizations in Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, and Poland.
Its social media following has swelled from 250 to 1,000 followers on the Russian equivalent of Facebook.
The combination of grant money and media coverage is allowing MISK to interact with its most important audience—the young people it is making more visible in Kazakhstan’s public life.
Additional reporting contributed by Fariza Mukanova, Kazakhstan Civil Society Strengthening Program Coordinator.