Working with International Organizations Part 1

Hearing what International Organizations Have to Say

Are You Ready to “Hear” what International Organizations have to “Say”? – Part 1

Working with international organizations effectively, leads to learning the culture of an organization, the culture of the people in an organization, the culture (or cultures) of the country (or a minority within a country), and how culture, language, and situation impact our work as development professionals. We have to go beyond “active listening” and learn how to “hear” in a different environment.

My Personal (Learning) Experience

I have consulted with and worked in nonprofit organizations in the United States, Southeast Asia, Middle East, Central America, South America and Africa. A significant part of my work has been with refugees, immigrants and survivors of torture, genocide, human trafficking and ethnic cleansing. My work has included organizations providing services including case management, foster care and adoption, direct social services, mental health, health and wellness, housing, legal assistance, and environmental education and advocacy. Each of these organizations and my experiences within those organizations has helped to mold my approach to working with international organizations. 

What is an International Organization?

For the purposes of this post, for discussion, and focused on the nonprofit/NGO world, I identify international organizations as:

  • An organization in another country that is serving that country and who is seeking funding within and outside the country. Toledo Institute for Development (Belize) is an example
  • An organization headquartered in one country and serving more than one country outside of the home country and whose fundraising is equally international). AFRICARE is an example – headquartered in the US working in Africa in a number of different countries  NOTE: organizations formed in another country will have different laws and regulations.
  • Ethnic Community Based Organization (also referred to as a Mutual Assistance Association). Generally, an organization in the US or other parts of the western world whose founders, members, and clients are from a specific ethnic group.  Somali Family Care Network (Virginia) is an example.

Challenges of Cultural Difference

You will find that many of your skills in listening, learning and understanding an organization and their culture, and the tools you use need no adaptation. You will have to watch for and try to understand the cultural nuances to be successful

Take into consideration the following examples of how people approach, perceive and contribute to meetings:

  • Approach to time: not all cultures live by the clock; start time may be approximate, finish time is not fixed and all the stages between are flexible.  ASK, because there are cultures (and sometimes just the person) that will work to the clock.
  • Hierarchy: For those from a strongly hierarchical organization/culture an open and frank exchange with managers and staff of different levels is problematic. Flexible, customized approaches that inspire all team members and the use of intentional transparency help to establish cultural norms.
  • Meeting etiquette: Cultural etiquette, gestures, mannerisms, and ways of expression – shouting throwing hands around and even storming out of meetings are all possibilities. In my experience, this happens more often when you are meeting with 5 people from 5 different cultures and countries.  In that case, an inter-cultural awareness training might be helpful. In the group made up of one culture, be prepared to minimize issues. When you are working with a diverse group, do not take the easy way out and assign same culture or country to the same group. Learning happens in a diverse setting.
  • Communication in meetings:
    • Do you have participants reluctant to speak? You can reach out prior to the meeting regarding the topics to be address, use open-ended questions. Replies can be used to instigate their contributions.
    • Do you have participants who have an “agenda” and a litany of complaints? Get that part of the meeting out of the way first, give them a maximum of 30 minutes to get it out of their systems paraphrasing that you heard what was said so they know you are listening.
    • Example: a small fishing village in Belize had many staff and consultants, Masters and Ph.D. students conduct research but no feedback was provided. The village was unhappy that people/organization were “making money on them” with the information they provided. In addition, the very divided about pursuing fishing or tourism. After 30 minutes of “get it all out” the angry members of the group felt they had been respected and heard, and we had a meeting that stayed (mostly on track).

Tips

Take notes visually – use a flip chart

Take notes visually – a computer and projector

A summary poster (when individuals do not have strong literacy skills) Pictures are nice too.

Handouts to each stakeholder and/or post where people meet

ALWAYS confirm meanings of a word, phrase, symbol, picture, or agreement

Check in frequently to ensure you heard what was said

You may find yourself working with an organization formed by an ethnic minority (here or abroad).  You need to understand the culture of the organization and the dominant culture. In the US, there a number of organizations founded by refugees (or other members of a diaspora). Once called Mutual Assistance Associations (MAA), these organization are more often referred to Ethnic Community Based Organizations (ECBO). They come in all sizes and levels of sophistication and success.

Resources for Working with International Organizations

Here are a few (hopefully) helpful resources. There are many more. If you have some favorites, please share them in the comments section and we will add them to our lists.

The Resource Alliance: The Global Network for Fundraising, Resource Mobilisation and Philanthropy  www.resource-alliance.org
The Guardian: Global Development Professionals Network
http://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network
InterAction: A United Voice for Global Change www.interaction.org
Centre for Intercultural Learning, Country Reports
http://www.intercultures.ca/cil-cai/countryinsights-apercuspays-eng.asp

In Part 2 of Working with International Organizations, we will take a look at Cultural Considerations When Working with Internation Organizations. I will provide you with additional tips and resources to identify and incorporate cultural considerations.

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Ruth McLean Dawson has consulted with and worked in nonprofit organizations in the United States, Southeast Asia, Middle East, Central America, South America and Africa. A significant part of her work has been with refugees, immigrants and survivors of torture, genocide, human trafficking and ethnic cleansing. She has also worked with organizations providing services including case management, foster care and adoption, direct social services, mental health, health and wellness, housing, legal assistance, and environmental education and advocacy. Ruth has extensive experience working with nonprofits at local, regional, national, and international levels – direct service, management, and development – and spent several years at the Foundation Center. She has a MSc. Degree in Risk, Crisis, and Disaster Management and is currently working as a Nonprofit Coach and Consultant focused on organizational sustainability – planning, quality, and fundraising.

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