Is it time for your organization to go international?
By Bonnie Koenig
Have you ever felt that your organization could benefit from a more
global perspective? Perhaps you'd like to exchange experiences with
colleagues from other countries. Or maybe you'd like to attract some
overseas participants to your annual meeting - or even hold your meeting
overseas. Or you may just want to explore a more global focus for your
programs. Where do you begin? Here are suggestions to help you move your
organization into today's global environment.
What would you like to accomplish?
First, clarify your options. You don't need to plunge right in and form
a full-scale international program. There are many other ways to add an
international dimension to your organization.
From the simple, to the more complex, here are a few of a spectrum of
Exchange of information with colleagues in other countries. This option
is helpful if you want to increase your organization's knowledge base.
It's also useful for keeping up to date on technology in your field.
This increase in information, in addition to helping your organization,
may also be a member benefit, helping members in their professional
Invite colleagues in other countries to attend your organization's
conference or seminar. If you believe you have expertise worth sharing,
if your work has brought you in contact with the work of colleagues in
other countries, or if you'd like to expand or add a "new twist" to your
organization's conference, this may be an option to consider. You can
target potential attendees in different ways - through professional
networks, personal contacts, sister organizations in other countries,
and so on. (Be aware that if your meeting does attract attendees from
other countries, you'll need to some extra planning to be sure your
overseas guests have a positive experience).
Develop a joint project with a sister organization. If you're interested
in holding a seminar or meeting in another country, a local partner can
help to insure its success. Or you may know an organization in another
country with which you want to share information and a joint seminar
would be the best way to do so. Other joint projects might include
developing a professional exchange program or exchanging publications.
Affiliate with a sister organization in another country. This option is
worth considering if you feel that there may be benefits to a sustained
relationship with a sister organization in another country for joint
meetings, cooperative publication exchanges, joint lobbying on
international issues of concern to your organization and so on.
If you're a membership organization, offer overseas membership. This is
one of the most difficult stages of an international program. While your
international activity may lead you in this direction, you would be well
advised to think through the implications. Overseas members need
"servicing" just as local members do, but their needs will most likely
be different. You may quickly lose your overseas members if you don't
put some effort into understanding their expectations.
Hire an international staff member, or create an international
department. This obviously takes additional resources to accomplish. But
if you know you're ready to add a sustained international component,
dedicating the resources to see that it happens may provide the best
chance of success.
Integrate a commitment to global perspectives into your organization's
goals. This stage can be the most difficult to reach, but in the long
run it may be the most effective. Hiring a staff member or creating a
department may appear to be a more significant commitment, but if
"international" is just tacked on as an unrelated program, its life may
be short and ineffective. You may find it more productive to integrate a
global perspective into your daily operations. Begin by assessing your
existing resources. For instance, do you have board or staff members who
have traveled or lived overseas or have international connections? Tap
these resources to build global thinking into your plans.
Where to begin?
Choose geographic locations strategically. Don't connect with a country
simply because someone in your organization has a tie to it. Instead,
set criteria at the very start of your globalization process. Then
search out regions that match your goals. Do some preliminary research
before settling on specific countries. There are many good sources of
*colleagues who travel in other countries *foreign embassies (in
Washington, D.C.) and consulates located throughout the country. *the
Internet, where many foreign governments now have home pages with
valuable introductory information. *international association
directories and Web sites.
Intensify your research. Once you've decided on a region, find out as
much as possible about it. With so much information readily available in
today's technology age, international partners have higher expectations
that you know about their country, culture and concerns.
Choose potential partners. Ask yourself not only what these overseas
partners can offer you but what you can offer them. If you see
opportunities for joint benefit, there is a good chance that the
collaboration will work.
Make your initial connection with a potential partner. If possible, make
it a contact between two people who know each other. As your board,
staff, and other stakeholders if they belong to international societies
or have attended international conferences. If so, they may be able to
make the first contact.
Remember that first impressions are important. Many countries have
formal cultures. It's best, therefore, to make your contacts
formally. It's always easy to become less formal, but it's had to
reverse a negative impression if your start too informally.
How to increase the chance of success
Set specific, tangible goals. You won't know if you're successful if you
don't know what you're trying to accomplish. Conversely, pointing to
targets effectively met will help persuade skeptical board members and
justify additional resources if needed.
Don't try to do too much at once. Starting slowly will let you show
achievements along the way. It will also lessen setbacks that may sour
the organization on continued international activity.
Build in successes. Set some "easy" targets along with tougher ones.
Success with the easy ones will help you achieve the greater challenges.
For example, if your goal is to hold your annual meeting overseas, start
with a board or committee meeting to test your "systems" for organizing
such an event.
Assess your organization's strong and weak points. Then choose your
goals to match your strengths. If you're struggling for members in the
U.S., think twice about expanding membership overseas. However, if you
have successful conferences and strong programs, a joint conference may
be a good option for you.
Set a budget. It needn't be large (there are ways to economize, even
when dealing with global expenses) but it does need to be realistic.
Itemize all costs. International activity is an area ripe for charges of
"boondoggles" and "waste of money" from critics, so you want to be
Identify "champions" and skeptic. Who supports the move to
internationalism, and who is skeptical? As in initiating any new
program, you will need your allies to help persuade the skeptics.
Keep key players vested. Since internationalism can seem to some as an
"exotic exercise" waste of money, it's vital that your leaders, members,
and staff feel they have a stake in the idea of going global.
Orient your staff and members to an international environment. You can
do so in many simple ways. Include the country as part of your address on
all outgoing correspondence. Publish internationally oriented articles
in your organization's newsletters or other forms of communication.
Identify foreign language speakers on your staff who can be utilized as
the need arises.
Develop a strategic plan before going international. Ask yourself: What
resources can the organization allocate to an international program? Can
current staff be reassigned or is new staff needed? How can we best
achieve our global goals?
Periodically assess and reevaluate your goals. Is this still the
direction the organization wants to go? Have you learned lessons that
should be applied to the process or your goals? Surveys are a good tool
to keep in touch with members or partners. Don't be complacent!
Understand the difference between multiculturalism and multinationalism.
Multiculturalism exists within one country. Although people have
different cultural perspectives, these views are modified by receiving
the same political messages, reading the same newspapers, and watching
the same television programs. The context in which decisions are made
thus has similarities. In multinationalism, this common context does not
exist. Hence, cultural differences are more pronounced.
Anticipate the consequences of meeting your goals. For example, overseas
attendees at your meetings will call for a different type of meeting
planning. Overseas members may look for different membership benefits
than your domestic members. To keep the benefits you gain from reaching
your international goals, you must adapt to new expectations.
Recognize when not to go international. Not all organizations will
benefit from starting an international program. Or the timing may not be
right. If an international orientation does not flow logically from your
organization's mission statement, or strategic plan, it may be a mistake
to force it. Part of your initial analysis should include the option of
not developing an international program.
Bonnie Koenig is president of the consulting practice Going
International which works with organizations in developing or expanding
their international programs. She can be reached by
e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was published in NONPROFIT WORLD in the May/June 1998 issue
and is reprinted by permission. NONPROFIT WORLD is published by the
Society for Nonprofit Organizations, 6314 Odana Road, Suite #1, Madison,
Wisconsin, 53719 (608) 274-9777.
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