Kongress des Fonds Soziokultur, April 2023, Berlin (L-R — Emmanuel Witzthum, Wana Udobang, Silvia Bonadiman, Abhay Adhikari, Mechthild Eickhoff)

The importance of doing things that don’t make sense. How we developed a support programme for the €32m Sonderprogramm NEUSTART KULTUR fund

Through the €32m NEUSTART programme, the German federal fund — Fonds Soziokultur offered process-based for the first time. Abhay Adhikari directed the support programme for successful applicants. In this keynote, he shares insights gained from this Re:Vision — how we started with big ideas and implemented them in a series of small steps. He will offer practical insights to explain what concepts, such as interdisciplinarity, internationalization, diversity, and inclusion, look like in actual practice. He will also address an important question that is on all of our minds — Why does change feel so uncomfortable? (Except from the conference programme)

Abhay Adhikari
12 min readApr 27, 2023


I have recently begun to describe myself as the following — I am two and a half nationalities, I speak 3.25 languages. I’ve lived in four and worked in 13 countries.

In the past I’ve also introduced myself as a consultant, a director, a facilitator, but I’ve found this creates confusion.

‘If you’re an innovation consultant,’ people ask me, ‘why did you work with a circus in Spain?’ ‘If you develop projects with museums, what the hell were you doing spending a year with a bank in England?’ And the most common misconception people have about me is that they think I work in digital.

So as you can see, when it comes to things that don’t make sense, which is what I’m going to talk about today, that’s my everyday reality.

I don’t seem to fit into any box.

I begin my talk today on this somewhat self-indulgent note because I want to present the Re:VisionX programme as a series of personal experiences. These are my experiences. Experiences of my team and colleagues at Fonds Soziokultur.

Of course, there is another way to describe Re:VisionX by using buzzwords. Sexy, exciting, glamorous, dramatic buzzwords like ‘disruptive gamechanger.’

But they won’t tell an honest story of how we developed this programme.

What is Re:VisionX?

Here’s the factual definition: It is a programme that was developed to support the applicants who received the Profil:Soziokultur funding. We appointed 18 mentors to advise 654 successful applicants that were spread across cities, towns and villages in Germany. The mentors came from USA, Canada, England, Belgium, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Nigeria, India.

But I would also like to add — we were not sure what we were doing.

We knew exactly how to design this programme and what it had to achieve. But we weren’t sure what the outcome was going to be.

For many people, this approach doesn’t make sense.

This is because most of us are used to working on projects where the outcomes have to be defined before any work has started. And isn’t it ironic that these projects are then described as radical and innovative.

We had to run Re:VisionX without knowing the outcome because we were trying to mirror the journey of these 654 applicants.They had received funding not to run a project, but to change or develop their process. As was mentioned yesterday, paid time to change process in a considered and thoughtful manner. Ours role therefore, was to accompany them as critical friends on this journey, not to force them to go down a path that we thought was good for them.

The beginning

So the next question is — how do you design such a vague-sounding programme?

The short answer is — by listening.

Prior to developing the Re:VisionX programme, we spent a year talking to socio-cultural projects across Germany. In fact, I can tell you exactly how much time we spent doing this — 70 hours. I’ll explain how I know this, in a second.

But first, let’s go back in time, to the beginning of 2021. The world was upside down. We were coming in and out of lockdowns. People were exhausted. Tired. Confused. Upset. Angry.

But our community of socio-cultural practitioners was determined — to play. To laugh. To create. To bring human connection back to people at a time when we were all facing a huge amount of uncertainty.

But no one was sure how to do this.

That’s when we started our conversations. To collectively figure out a way forward.

We did so, through a series of workshops: 35, 2-hour inspirational workshops.

On paper this plan sounds — terrible.

If you had asked me to join a workshop in 2021 that promised to inspire me, I would have refused to take part. And we were sure that many socio-cultural practitioners would have also found this incredibly patronizing.

Therefore, we took two important steps to increase participation:

The first was to re-define inspiration as ‘new-ness’.

Here, we did something that doesn’t make sense.

I went back and looked at our guest speakers for these 35 workshops. This list includes — a politician from Greece, a writer from The Netherlands, a musician from India, an app developer from The United States.

Your first reaction might be — what does any of this have to do with socio-culture? Or — what does any of this have to do with German socio-culture?

But then I ask you, why does it make sense to listen to people and ideas that we are already familiar with, when we are desperately looking for change.

The second step we took whilst developing these 35 workshops was to re-imagine evaluation.

Evaluation is something that all of us, who work in the cultural sector, love to hate.

It takes a lot of time and energy. But we never consider it to be a vital part of the creative process. It is just something that we have to do to convince the people who gave us the money, that the money was well spent.

Thanks to guidance from a colleague who has a background in neuroscience, we used evaluation as an exercise to listen to our workshop participants.

In this approach, Listening is more than asking people to rate our workshop from 1 to 10. It was more than taking their thoughtful answers to our questions, and turning them into word clouds to check for trends.

We wanted to know what the socio-cultural practitioners thought about the workshops AND how it made them feel. This combination of intellectual and emotional feedback produced some exciting contradictions — people weren’t sure why they had to listen to, say, a poet from Nigeria — who was one of our speakers — talking about her efforts to build a pan-African network of artists.

But at the same time, they felt empowered by listening to this speaker. This person that I’m talking about is Wana Udobang. When Wana talked about her approach of building an inclusive platform — our participants saw shared values in action. And a new way of doing things.

As a result, some of them started to see their own work in a different light. And in that moment, in 2021, that’s the clarity that a lot of people said they needed.

The framework

By the time we concluded these 35, 2-hour workshops we had the right framework to develop the Re:VisionX programme.

Number 1: It is not necessary for people to learn something in a workshop. It is just as important for them to be able to confirm their tacit knowledge. This clarity builds confidence.

Number 2: It is fine if an encounter between people has friction — this could be different languages, accents, ways of expressing ourselves. Trust people to fill in the gaps.

Number 3: Nobody has time to spare. You cannot demand people to turn up to a workshop, even if you are the funder. Your offering has to create value.

One more thing:

In addition to the above three guiding principles, my team and I also gained valuable experience to add some unique qualities to the Re:VisionX programme.

What are they?

At the beginning of my talk, I had promised I won’t use buzzwords, but here I have no choice. By learning how to introduce our sociocultural practitioners to speakers from across the world, who come from different cultural and professional backgrounds, we now knew how to make a programme that was international, diverse, and interdisciplinary.

Changing the plan

So now we are at the beginning of 2022. We are very excited. We have the foundations of what we think is going to be an excellent support programme that will definitely benefit the 654 successful applicants of Profil:Soziokultur. After all, our evaluation tells us that we can be sure of this outcome.

But once again, we did something that doesn’t make sense.

We changed the plan.

Give me a moment to explain why we stopped doing the thing we knew would work, and went on a different path.

We knew the 35 workshops were impactful. But if we designed the Re:VisionX programme along the same lines, we wouldn’t have the same impact. This is because the profile of these 654 applicants was super-diverse. Therefore, in this case, running workshops was a one-size-fits-all approach.

There’s another reason why we had to change the plan.

And this is something, which in my experience, organizations don’t like to say out loud. If we were going to run workshops, we would have to organize 700 sessions in one year.

But everyone was tired. Me. My team. And my colleagues at Fonds Soziokultur.

The question was — What can we deliver that would create value for our applicants and at the same time, we won’t burn out.

Based on these criteria, the Re:VisionX programme had the following elements:

  • Each of the 654 applicants would be offered one 90-minute mentoring call

They could choose to have this call at the beginning, middle or end of their process.

  • There would also be 18 peer-to-peer networking sessions organized through the year.
  • In addition, we would organize 4 public events

This sounds like a lot more work than running 700 workshops. But there is one difference. This structure allowed us to expand our team. Because, as I’d mentioned earlier, we were exhausted.

Our three guiding principles helped us find outstanding mentors.

People who are at the top of their game.

But, they are still curious.

In fact, we also hard-wired curiosity into the programme because I refused to give my mentors too much information about the applicants they were going to speak to. We wanted each session to start with the mentor asking the applicant the following question — tell me a bit about yourself. It’s a simple question, but it’s also terrifying because you don’t know what the answer is going to be. You have to improvise.

Our mentors also work in very different sectors across the world. They are extremely experienced and used to uncertainty. So we were confident they would be able to manage any friction — from technology not working, awkward encounters and different expectations.

Everything can go wrong

We had a good operational framework.

We had a team of talented mentors.

We had communicated the details of this programme to all applicants many times.

But, we hadn’t done this before.

Anything could go wrong.

To manage our anxiety we created two scenarios:

Scenario 1: Some applicants will be confused. But they will reach out for help. In this case, we will do everything we can to resolve any issues.

Scenario 2: Some applicants will react negatively to the programme. They will refuse our offer of help. We won’t take their criticism personally.

Re:VisionX in action

And so, the Re:VisionX programme was launched in the first quarter of 2022.

In addition to designing the programme, I was also one of the 18 mentors.

I was part of the thing that I was asking other people to do. This meant there was no hiding if the programme failed.

My first mentoring conversation was nothing like I had imagined. Both me and the people I was speaking to were initially confused. What are we going to talk about? Am I supposed to offer help? Or are they supposed to ask for help? But then, all the preparation we had done kicked in. We had an honest, friendly conversation.

Every session was different.

I offered advice on political strategy to a team in North Rhine-Westphalia. I talked about mobility for older people with an organization in a border town close to Poland. In the north, a mid-sized venue wanted to learn how to form cross-sector partnerships. Topics like sustainability and behavior change also came up quite often.

Let me share a few highlights from the other mentors:

Heike Roegler, a museum-professional from Hamburg had prepared a detailed plan for the 34 conversations she was going to have across the year. But she immediately abandoned it minutes into the first chat. She reported it made much better sense to go with the flow.

Shubha Mudgal, a world-renowned classical musician from Delhi had an interesting start. In her words — ‘This nice man joined the video call. He saw a large Indian woman dressed in a sari on screen. A minute later he vanished and never came back.’ We laughed about that and moved on.

Many mentors reported that the conversation left them feeling inspired and they had learned something new. Hearing this made me happy — there was an absence of hierarchy or power-dynamics in these chats.

Did the programme work?

It’s quite likely that some of you are thinking — Abhay, stop talking about your feelings! Tell us, did this programme work?

Here are some numbers.

Around 60% of the applicants took up the offer of 1–2–1 mentoring and 90% of them joined the networking events.

Keep in mind that the Fund did not exercise its institutional power. Participation in the Re:VisionX programme was not mandatory.

Everyone who received a mentoring session was asked to respond to a questionnaire. We wanted to know if the programme was creating multiple values for the applicants. This includes — helping them gain confidence, finding clarity and discovering new ways of doing things. And secondly, does it make sense to create an international, diverse and multidisciplinary programme or would these attributes be a distraction for German socio-cultural practitioners?

Here are some highlights from that survey:

Close to 80% of the respondents said that the mentors were a good match and understood their needs. Keep in mind, these were international mentors from different professional backgrounds. In fact, many sessions did not take place in German.

90% said that the mentors were able to offer advice that was relevant to them. This is interesting because we had matched mentors with the applicants based on shared interests rather than skills. This approach was based on one of our guiding principles — people don’t have to learn something all the time. It’s important if a conversation can confirm their tacit knowledge.

Lastly, and perhaps, most remarkably, over 50% of the respondents said they would do something different as a result of this single, 90-minute conversation.

Respondents also consistently reported that the mentoring session was useful as it helped them gain newer perspectives and a better understanding of their own projects.

It seems that we had reproduced the results of the 35, 2-hour workshops that we had run a year before. The methodology was working.

What next?

I want us to continually improve this methodology.

We cannot afford to be complacent.

So where are we heading next?

A lot happened last year. We still need to make sense of it.

To help us, we commissioned three wonderful artists — Azam Masoumzadeh, Benjamin Berry and Dellair Youssef. They spent a year collaborating to produce a 6-part diary with original content. The goal behind this diary was to see the journey of the recipients of the Profil:Soziokultur fund through their eyes without the usual simplistic narrative that you often see in the films describing the impact of a funding programme: applicant + money = happy.

My hope is that many people engage with this multiplatform diary that includes a comic, music and short documentary. They will learn about the diversity, determination and resilience of the sociocultural sector. I am particularly interested in an international community discovering this uniquely German approach of community-based cultural engagement.

I also want my colleagues at Fonds Soziokultur to watch the films, listen to the album and read the comic time and time again. I hope this diary will remind them of the brilliant bits of the project. As well as the parts that were stressful. And it’s with this pragmatism, I hope they will continue to be in discovery mode. Asking themselves — what next?

Our journey started by listening.

Listening with the intention of taking action. That’s when things became awkward. That’s when we realized it does not make sense to continue as we had planned because we won’t address the needs of the community we have to serve.

The cultural sector is changing fast as it responds to pressing societal issues — climate change, urban development, migration. This pace isn’t going to slow down.

We knew we had to change, but how?

We did so by starting with an idea, building evidence and then taking the next step. In doing so, I feel we have wrestled the concept of change from alienating, frightening, distracting buzzwords like disruption and made it a more human experience for everyone involved.

This is a huge win because the need to change is not going to stop.

There’s so much to be done — new business models, cross-sector partnerships, impact investment, digitisation are just a few examples.

Just as I started this talk, I want to end it on a self-indulgent note.

I’ve always thought that having worked in 13 countries means I can be the objective outsider.

That’s clearly no longer the case when it comes to Germany. Having spent a lot of time with cultural practitioners across this country I have grown very fond of them. I’ve also learned many new ways of thinking, working and problem-solving. I am grateful to my colleagues at Fonds Soziokultur for this incredible, life-changing opportunity.

Thank you.

Abhay Adhikari




Abhay Adhikari

I am interested in the context & values of our Digital Identities.