Geneva Global recently held its annual week-long summit, a tradition we started in 2006 where we have our entire team—now about 50 people, including our international colleagues—to our headquarter office in Paoli, Pennsylvania.
The summit is a large—but we feel worthwhile—investment in Geneva Global’s future. It generates important conversations that help us be the best advisors possible for our clients.
It’s an opportunity for our teams to discuss their projects at length, bounce ideas off one another, and share the things that went well, as well as the things that could have been done better.
Most simply put, it’s an opportunity for our widespread group of team members to come together and remember why we do the work that we do. It’s a time for learning, inspiration, and reflection.
And for me, it’s a reminder of the impact, and effective change, that we have facilitated over the last 16 years.
With one week of presentations, updates, and deeper conversations, we explored opportunities for improvement and new ideas that help us think about the future of philanthropy, and the future of Geneva Global.
We had several key objectives:
Recognizing and understanding cultural differences
Our summit this year included team members from China, Malawi, India, Nepal, Uganda, Ethiopia, Thailand, and California.
So it came as no surprise that there were varying cultural mindsets. Which is exactly what makes our summit so significant—we’re able to learn about various approaches, share similar experiences, and most importantly, brainstorm unique and innovative ideas that drew upon our varying viewpoints.
The work that we do requires a lot of collaboration across cultures and countries. Sometimes communicating with others internationally can be challenging—and not just because of the obvious lagging internet or Skype connections, but from cultural barriers and varying communication styles.
Recognizing this, we decided to have an interactive session around cross-cultural communication techniques. Broken up into teams based on similar cultures and backgrounds, we were asked to reflect on our communication styles.
For example, how a culture views power and hierarchy affects how decisions are debated and made. A country like the United States is on one end of that spectrum, while a country like Ethiopia is on the other end. That has implications for us as a global and diverse team working together to create and manage client initiatives.
Similarly, the culture we are raised in also affects how direct or indirect we are in our communication with others.
It was bemusing to hear a colleague share that “people visiting my country need to recognize that we are among the least confrontational people on earth. If you make a proposal to them and they respond with ‘That’s interesting,’ they may mean exactly that, but it may also mean ‘That’s the most unnecessary thing I’ve ever heard.’”
Another member of the team shared that often in African cultures, it’s not uncommon for someone to tell you a story as an indirect way of telling you they disagree.
Cultural nuances like this are important to recognize and adapt to because the success of our client programs depends on asking the right (and sometimes delicate) questions in order to understand the local context. And working with partners in those communities requires a deep level of trust that can only be built by solid communication.
Recognizing various perspectives
When we create programs on the ground for clients, we act as a bridge.
On one side we work with the donor to understand the change they want to bring about in the world. On the other side, we identify nonprofits that are working on that issue. Operating in the middle requires us to understand the perspectives of each and, most importantly, have everyone work together in a way that benefits the greatest number of people.
To that end, one session at the summit was focused on better understanding how we can be more empathetic to the perspectives of each party.
For example, when it comes to metrics and measurement, donors rightfully want to understand what will be achieved if they fund a project, and what’s the track record of an organization’s success.
But on the other hand, it’s important to take into account the implementing partner’s concerns, like the fact that the more measurement they are required to do, the less time they have to carry out the program work. And if changing a life is profound and complex, can it really be adequately summed up in a nice and neat number?
There’s often no black or white answer to many of the aspects of international development. Our role is to take into account the diverse perspectives and apply our expertise to find the right shade of gray that will ultimately deliver the best possible outcome for clients, as well as the end beneficiaries.
Strengthening our values and work culture
As we grow, it’s important to preserve our culture, and instill the values that have made us successful.
Using the Wizard of Oz as my inspiration, I (literally) illustrated our company history, explaining pivotal moments, and explaining how the values we have were forged from those important experiences.
Our four core values have a big impact on the way our company works. They transpired from our origins, and continue to be the backbone of our organization.
- Big Impact
These values played a prominent role in the day-to-day activities at the summit as we blended collaborative exercises, creative presentations, big ideas, and some food trucks and dancing for fun.
These values are also why clients can expect to get top-quality work, innovative ideas, and an experience that brings them joy and enrichment.
Thinking in a new way
Going forward, we want to continue our growth and expand our services in order to provide the most efficient and transformative change possible.
We decided to learn the techniques of design thinking as a way to spark new ideas and think differently about our business, and hired a company called Board of Innovation to help us through that process.
To prepare for our design thinking workshop, our entire staff read a Harvard Business Review article explaining the concept of design thinking.
One of the key principles is to deeply understand your potential customers and gain empathy of what it’s like to be in their shoes.
It’s quite similar to our philosophy of working through organizations rooted in their communities. If you want to understand the root causes of a social issue and how best to fix it, you need to work with people who are seeing and feeling it each and every day.
This exercise had a dual purpose—not only did it provide some very enlightening discoveries and potential new services that we could provide to clients, but we can now use this new approach with our clients as they go through their own innovation or brainstorming initiatives.
After years of growth, it’s very rewarding to see our team challenge one another and push themselves harder to be the best advisors they can be.
I’m honored to be part of such fantastic and diverse group of people, and believe this summit encouraged us all to continue to fulfill our company’s promise, which is to help our clients go beyond the limits of traditional philanthropy to achieve something truly remarkable.