How did your career journey lead you to Geneva Global?
It wasn’t a straight path at all, which I think greatly benefitted me in the long run. I started college majoring in Neuroscience and switched to International Relations. I loved to understand people and what drives them and so for me, International Relations was looking at how individual interactions play out on a global scale. For my undergraduate thesis I looked at how differing cultural approaches and local politics played out in the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade where the U.S. and China stood at loggerheads over differing cultural interpretations of what was needed to resolve the situation.
I was really interested in learning more about China after that and started studying Mandarin and then did my first semester abroad. This was one of many periods I spent in China, including my time during my Masters at the University of Sheffield in Chinese Business and International Relations, and the longest period, living in Nanjing for six years. Running a multicultural exchange website and handling the marketing for the expat and Chinese community there was an opportunity to explore how business is conducted around the world. We also ran seminars on business culture to help each side better understand the expectations and cultural assumptions of their colleagues.
One of the things that became obvious to me was the invasive nature of corruption in business dealings from many countries at the time. I had planned to move to Shanghai and advise American companies on doing business in China, but I saw a problem that I wanted to help address. Whether nepotism, subtle bribery, or conflicts of interest, I was interested in better understanding what drove these behaviors and in how to change the discourse around what many accepted as necessary evils in business.
This brought me to an international anti-corruption NGO based in Berlin where I was a Regional Coordinator for Asia for eight years. I worked to support National Chapters in up to twenty countries in areas such as advocacy, internal governance and capacity development, strategic development and proposal writing, and monitoring and evaluation. I also managed several large grant portfolios and played a key role in creating international coalitions between governmental and non-governmental actors, such as NGOs and key donors. Deciding to head back to the U.S., I was very excited to find Geneva Global, where my jack-of-all trades background could be used by the wide variety of clients looking for support in implementation or in-country work.
How has your role at Geneva Global evolved?
My role at Geneva Global is quite versatile and changes depending on the needs of the clients I am working with. My role is constantly evolving, which I love, but I have also been able to find ways to help other teams in between projects. This gives me a chance to understand and interact with an even broader range of clients and helps me keep my finger on the pulse of the larger philanthropic world.
What fulfills you most about your role?
I love helping clients make a real impact with communities. If I can understand the client and help them get to the root of what is needed most in a community, I feel I have done my job well. For me, the focus is understanding what drives a client so I can help them achieve an outcome they may not have even been able to articulate alone. When this outcome is also based on direct engagement and is received enthusiastically by the intended communities, it’s a win-win. Spending the time to talk, listen, and build relationships with all parties involved is something I really enjoy.
How has the philanthropy landscape changed over the last few years?
The pandemic has sent significant ripples throughout the philanthropic world, and indeed for the world at large. We are seeing shifting agendas, rapidly responding with a range of actions to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and better equip communities for future health crises. It has also been a period of reflection with many projects stopped or delayed due to the pandemic.
It was as if someone pulled the emergency break and we all had a moment where we had to pause, and in stopping we had time to reflect on where we had come from and where we were going. I have seen many people also personally take a step back and examine their lives, and ask themselves what is really important and make some significant changes for the better and I think that philanthropy has done this as well.
What are you most excited about for the future of philanthropy?
I think the focus on ideas like trust-based philanthropy represents a move towards more efficient, locally driven impact. The “COVID pause” gave a real boost to asking questions like: do we need to travel as much as we have in the past? Should donors be taking more holistic and community-led approaches?
We have known for a long time that air-dropping supplies or solutions to local problems often misses its target – that the restrictive walls of cumbersome reporting and complex requirements that defined philanthropy in the past are being collaboratively taken down to make room for participatory grant-making. Engaging local communities and looking at – or even better, asking them – how climate change, political crises, and the supply chain crisis can lead to solutions that respond to the full picture of need.
How are we going to get vaccines that need to be refrigerated to remote villages in the middle of a heavier than usual monsoon season? I think the way we are starting to approach these questions with a more authentic focus on the local community and recognition that they are going to have better answers than we are thousands of miles away is a really refreshing approach – and there is so much to learn.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to work in philanthropy?
My career has focused on international development and for that I think the key is to travel if you can and experience the wonderful diversity that exists in the world. You don’t even need to leave your own backyard. Looking closer to home, there are many diverse communities to engage in, whether exploring international cinema, music or food, or volunteering in underserved communities and spending time listening to real people. Opening yourself to the world helps gives you a multi-cultural arsenal from which to draw on. I think it is also humbling to see how many ways there might be to do something, which helps us better understand our own biases and the assumptions we unconsciously make all the time.
What are you reading right now?
I love gardening and plants in general, so I am reading The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate by Peter Wohlleben. This is about interconnectedness, but this time about how plants communicate and are interconnected through their root systems and through various chemicals they produce.
It’s interesting because so many things we do are related and react in ways that we as a species are only starting to learn about. I love it because now I know why very little will grow under my black walnut tree – because they are secreting a toxin to stop other plants, but there are some things that are immune to its ill effects. Just another example of how we can make better decisions and create a more harmonious ecosystem when we understand the whole picture.
Where do you get your news?
I grew up on NPR and even found ways to listen to it while living abroad. It’s my go-to not just for news, but because I love the stories I hear and the things I learn about that I might not find on my own. I tend to check the New York Times and BBC apps daily as well. I also like to check out various international news sources like the Guardian, Der Spiegel, and Al Jazeera.
I often look to see how certain stories are being portrayed in international media, because you’d be surprised what the focus can be on, or a different perspective or local consequences included. It goes back to my interest that started in college of seeing not just how the story is reported, but then looking at what contributes to this perspective. It also helps to better understand the biases you may not even realize you are reading.
How has your work-from-home journey been? Any tips or tricks?
I have very much enjoyed working from home, mostly because I have been able to spend more time with Toby, who is an English Mastiff I rescued a few months ago. I think the key thing has been creating a pleasant but separate space that Toby and I can leave when work is done and put work aside physically and mentally. I think I have also been focused on being more grounded, taking advantage of being in my own space to take small meditation breaks or taking the dog for a walk to help keep me stay focused and productive even throughout what has been a stressful time.
It has also been strange for me to not travel so much, but I’m not minding the break for now. There have been times in my career where I was traveling two weeks out of the month, and in having not traveled, I have gotten to see firsthand alternative ways to make things work without the necessity of travel. It also reduces my own carbon footprint and creates more space to engage partners, consultants, and experts that are part of the community I am working with.
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Samantha Grant is is involved in the development, management, and evaluation of programmatic work for clients, which includes a blend of longer-term program management assignments and shorter-term program consultancies. Prior to joining Geneva Global, Samantha worked for Transparency International where she was a Regional Coordinator for the Asia and the Pacific Department.