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Home / Stories from the field

Training eRiders Internationally - Tom Battin

2003-09-07 10:59:34

Most nonprofit organizations need all the help they can get, be it from consultants, volunteers, or funders. In the developing world, where NGOs often provide basic services that the government doesn't provide, supporting these organizations is often even more critical. eRiding (known as "circuit riding" in the U.S.) can play an important role in the developing world. By using eRiders, technology consultants skilled in nonprofit issues, organizations can efficiently spread technological knowledge to areas where it is most needed. This technological expertise can help organizations use resources more efficiently to better serve their missions and perform their important work. The Advocacy Project and the Open Society Institute (OSI) want to use eRiding as a model for providing technology support and training in their international projects. Technology (especially e-mail and the Internet) plays a key role in the developing world because it is a cost-effective means of communication and enables more direct communication than traditional methods.

In November, 2002, I participated in the First International eRider training in Prishtina, Kosovo, organized by Teresa Crawford of The Advocacy Project and funded by OSI, which has a long history of providing support for the innovative use of technology.

The purpose of this week-long training was to educate eRiders from the Advocacy Project and other OSI projects in four key areas: IT planning, technology skills, advocacy techniques, and consulting skills. In addition to Teresa and I, two other instructors conducted training sessions: William Lester of NinthBridge and Marek Tuszynski of the OSI Information Program.

OSI is increasingly focused on using the eRider model to provide training and support by raising the skills of in-country staff. This obviates the need (and cost) of bringing in international experts to train and support local organizations. eRiding makes good use of often vibrant local technology scenes. The Kosovo training was the first step toward "training the trainers," who will in turn educate eRiders in their home countries.

Training Participants

The 17 participants came from 13 different countries where OSI projects are active: Hungary, Poland, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Macedonia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Uganda. A subset of students were members of the Roma Information Project (RIP), which is focused on developing the IT and advocacy skills of Roma organizations. All training sessions were conducted in English and participants were required to be proficient. Because an eRider needs a variety of skills, the participants' skill sets ranged from the very technically proficient to those with little experience directly working with technology. In addition, the experience with consulting ranged from none to several years of experience.

What Was the Training About?

Over the last five years, CompassPoint developed the Institute for Nonprofit Consulting (INC), a three-day workshop that develops the skills of consultants in the nonprofit sector. While emphasizing theory and presenting a conceptual framework for providing consulting services, the teaching methodology is experiential and practice-based, and includes role-plays, discussions, and opportunities to reflect on one's own experiences. The workshop covered the nonprofit context -- the limited resources, third-party funding, the use of volunteers, and the core mission that drives many decisions (see the article by Jude Kaye and Mike Allison for more information). The workshop teaches a six stage model of consulting that includes beginning a project, creating a work agreement, collecting and presenting data, developing a plan of action, implementing the plan, and ending the project. In addition, the workshop discussed roles consultants play and how to handle client resistance, when a client doesn't want to follow through on the tasks of the project. Due to time constraints, the workshop at the Kosovo training was presented in one and a half days, so at times discussions were truncated and some components were dropped from the training program.

Would the Workshop Translate?

The genesis of my participation in the Kosovo training came out of a presentation on INC I made at the 2002 NTEN conference in Orlando, Florida. Gyula Vamosi from Hungary, a member of the Roma Information Project (RIP), participated in that workshop and surprised me by firing his consultant in the first two minutes of his role-playing. When asked why, he explained that there is no culture of consultancy in his community. One is either a skilled staff person or an external "expert" who does the work for you.

Happily, his enthusiasm for the INC materials and the belief that well trained consultants could provide much needed support to the organizations in his community led to my inclusion in the week-long OSI training.

However, the outcome of his role-play left me wondering whether INC would translate to their context. If there was no culture of consultancy, would the training then be too U.S.-centric to be meaningful? Would my experience as a consultant be irrelevant because the nonprofit environment was so different?

Dealing with Client Resistance

Many eRiders have faced enormous skepticism from the organizations they have tried to help. Consulting is a new role in the cultures of many of the eRiders, and they need to learn how to play it. In the training, they learned about ways to think about this role and overcome resistance.

Typically, consultants play different roles when working with clients: expert, "doctor," trainer, and facilitator, to name a few. The consultant tends to fall into the expert or "doctor" role, which often means the consultant makes decisions and the client follows directions.

Many of the eRiders said that they now realize they have to be aware of what role they are playing and approach the client with that role in mind.

Some of the eRiders said they learned about the need to say positive things about the client and the organization. Many of them tend to be evaluative and focus on what isn't working. This can make their assessments come across as negative. Many organizations feel that "outside" funders bring in people to tell them what is wrong with their organization and their work, and this can cause resistance.

From the training, the eRiders learned to identify the things that are working well (along with the things that aren't) so that clients don't feel judged and are more open to hearing about what can be improved. The eRiders learned how to identify resistance, report it back to the client, and wait for the client to respond to this report.

Too often, people try to overcome resistance by focusing on the tasks and outcomes rather than exploring why the client seems to be resisting in the first place. The group learned that resistance isn't a sign of failure or incompetence on the part of consultants, but a normal response from clients who feels they have lost control of a situation or lost confidence in the process.

As in the U.S., the consultant-client relationship is also one that needs to be learned in many organizations. Consultants learn to work with clients, clients learn to work with consultants, and the culture adapts to these new relationships.

What Went Well?

Despite my concerns, I was pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm of the participants and their willingness to become engaged in the material. The structure of INC, with its focus on discussion and role-play exercises, encouraged participants to join exchanges and allowed them to shape the discussion. This limited the sense that a U.S. model was being imposed on them and fostered an atmosphere of open inquiry. Rather than trying to identify the "correct" response, participants were encouraged to consider what made the most sense for their environment.

One of their key concerns was how to approach the executive directors, since they usually faced a great deal of skepticism when they tried to do this. Rather than come in with a host of ideas of what to do, the eRiders needed to spend more time getting to know the program, the director, and the staff before suggesting ideas. In other words, they had to spend far more time building trust and educating organizations than consultants in the U.S typically do. The role-playing exercises provided "real world" experience for consultants who had little or no actual time in the field.

To my surprise, while not a perfect match, the nonprofit models and culture resonated with the NGO structures of other countries. All face limited resources, a strong sense of mission, the use of volunteers, staff with mixed skill levels, and funding from third-parties.

What Were the Challenges?

There were several challenges to the adaptation of INC to the Kosovo training. Even though all participants spoke and read English well, the biggest challenge was the language. Consulting comes with its own specialized vocabulary and there is a subtle difference between American English and British English that hampered phrasing and understanding. The need to participate in discussions inhibited those who lacked confidence in their language skills.

The second challenge was dissuading participants from seeing me as the consulting "expert" who would determine the correct and incorrect responses. At times, even among themselves, participants wanted to debate the correctness of one response over another rather than consider multiple possibilities.

While the nonprofit model translated fairly well, it became clear that there were two important differences. First, in many countries, NGO leadership is often more centralized in a single director with less input from boards of directors. This meant one of the key concerns of participants was how to effectively dialogue with an executive who doesn't want to give them the time of day and has the power to ignore them. Second, many of their client agencies are resourced by single, international foundations rather than multiple funders, donors, or even fee-for-service models. This raised the question of whose interest the consultant was acting in -- the funder's or the client's.

Lessons Learned

For me, the key lesson in international work is to question one's own assumptions and remain open to learning. I learned as much as I hoped I imparted. It was important to be respectful of cultural differences and be aware that there are many levels of dynamics operating during a training such as this. For example, the backgrounds of the individuals affected their perspectives, and thus the individual values they brought to the work. Their identities could be Muslim or Christian, European or Asian, Roma or non-Roma, male or female.

I was reminded that technology often has a greater impact in other countries than our own and it can be inspiring to hear how something as simple as e-mail can become something of a lifeline.

Lastly, the U.S. has a lot of offer to other cultures about how technology can be integrated into their daily work. Much as we in the U.S. can gain from the experience of the corporate sector with technology, we nonprofit technology providers can offer our experience as ways to speed NGO development. However, at the same time, it is important to keep in mind that we have much to learn about how to apply technology in environments less resourced than ours, with challenges that we don't typically have to face.

Tom Battin is the Director of IT Consulting for CompassPoint Nonprofit Services. He is experienced in all phases of information systems development and implementation. A specialist in information technology planning and database development, he is also an experienced trainer, technical writer, and network planner. He is also a trainer for the Institute for Nonprofit Consulting (INC), a three-day intensive workshop on consulting skills. You can reach him at .


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