What Could Go Wrong? Common Cultural Challenges on Donor Trips: Visitor Edition

Few organizations anticipate cross-cultural challenges on their donor trips, but almost all are likely to encounter them. Here I explain the most common cross-cultural challenges involved in donor trips and what to do to avoid them.

Even the smoothest of donor and volunteer trips are not without their share of challenges. There are a number of things that can go amiss—from bad weather to political upheaval—but in this article, I focus on the challenges we can actively avoid or mitigate. I’m talking about cross-cultural differences. When I mention “cultural differences,” some people think I mean food, clothing, music, or other customs that readily appear “different” from casual observations. What I’m talking about is much more nuanced. Culture is about what people value, so when I talk about cultural challenges, I’m talking about the way people communicate and interact with others who value different things. Culture is not merely about national boundaries that create distinctions like “Canadian” or “Chinese.” Within nations there is a vast amount of ethnic, religious, socioeconomic, and political diversity that influences what people value. Keep this in mind as you read about how these human differences play out on donor trips in sometimes surprising and uncomfortable ways.

Understanding some of the most common cultural challenges that organizations face can help your organization mitigate these issues with more thoughtful planning and preparing not just your visitors – but also your staff.

Part 1 of this articles focuses on our visitors (donors, board members, volunteers) and the cultural challenges they experience on these trips.

Emotional Meltdown

Sometimes a rugged and uncomfortable trip can lead visitors to have an emotional meltdown. This occurs when a visitor is ill-prepared for the reality of the environment they enter and is overwhelmed by the experience. This could be the overstimulation of navigating crushing crowds in sweltering Mumbai, the exhaustion of a bumpy, sickeningly long jeep ride on the unpaved roads in Nepal’s Tsum Valley, or the discontent at a lack of hot water or frequent power outages in rural Guatemala. But it’s not only natural elements or lack of infrastructure that cause meltdowns. Seeing our fellow humans in some of their most vulnerable moments (sickness, poverty, war) certainly warrants an emotional response.

All these feelings are entirely justified and should certainly be expected. The challenge comes when feelings overwhelm our visitors to the point where they cannot engage with the mission in an effective way. Having the Jeep pull over to allow a bout of motion sickness to pass is different from refusing to get back in that Jeep and continue the journey. Complaining about the heat, humidity, or crowds is different from refusing to leave the hotel room on the third day. Shedding tears over preventable human tragedy is different from being unable to regain composure after the experience.

On these trips, we do want participants to experience a level of discomfort—pushing the boundaries of their comfort zones is profoundly transformative—but we don’t want to cause anxiety. This is why it’s so important to be very thoughtful and strategic about who you select for these trips and help them adjust their expectations by giving them a thorough guidebook and meaningful pre-departure training.

Faux Pas and Bias

A challenge happens when our visitors offend someone in the local community. Almost always this offense is unwitting and the result of ignorance or naïveté. It could be using an inappropriate word, asking a question about a taboo topic, taking photographs without permission, or forgetting to remove shoes when entering a building. These are small offenses that are often quickly remedied and easily forgiven. The challenges I’m concerned with here are usually much deeper and more nuanced: displays of wealth in the presence of people experiencing poverty, words or actions that reveal latent bias, or subtle behaviors that exhibit a superiority complex, often all wrapped up in the guise of propriety and politeness.

A perfect example of this can actually be found in the interactions between different cultural groups domestically within the United States. In this excerpt from Robert Lupton’s book Toxic Charity (2011), Lupton’s neighbor Virgil, a black man living in inner-city Atlanta, describes why he doesn’t like wealthy white volunteers visiting his neighborhood:

“I know they’re trying to be nice but, damn, they insult you and don’t even know it! Like one lady mentioned to me and Tamara how clean our house was. I guess she thought it was a compliment. What she was really saying was ‘I’m surprised to see your house isn’t infested with roaches and filled with trash like most black families.’ A couple people told me how smart and well-behaved my kids were, surprised they weren’t dumb and rowdy like most inner-city black kids. I see through their words. I hear what they really think” (p. 148).

This is a harder problem to tackle than mere faux pas. While many groups will readily correct an innocent faux pas with humor and friendliness, these displays of bias are often so hurtful that few people will speak about them openly. Lupton lived beside Virgil for years before Virgil said this to him. This is why we need to be deliberate about getting honest feedback from local community members post-travel. It may be difficult for them to reveal feelings like this, but with some adjustments to the way we procure feedback, we have a shot at getting to the truth.

We also must have open and deliberate conversations with our visitors about assumptions and bias, and these conversations must begin long before departure. The longer we shy away from these candid talks or think they aren’t relevant, the more instances like this will occur without our awareness.

Help That Isn’t Helping

Sometimes visitors come with the good intention of putting their skills, expertise, and resources to use during the trip. While we certainly want to engage them with the mission and create opportunities that reflect their interests, the actions some visitors take could have negative consequences.

In one instance, a donor with prestigious credentials in the U.S. thought to put her expertise to use by telling the staff of an NGO in Asia how to do their jobs better. She pointed out all the inefficiencies she perceived and freely gave critical feedback to everyone in sight. The thing is…that didn’t go over so well with the local staff. They were not receptive to being told they weren’t doing their jobs right by this stranger they had just met. The local staff made known their displeasure at receiving her “advice.” The interaction that ensued was so disastrous that the donor ended her relationship with the organization and ceased giving.

In another scenario, one donor thought he was doing good by bringing stacks of hundred-dollar bills to the site and handing them out to any villager who approached him. This action was not only an ineffective way to alleviate local poverty but doomed future travel opportunities to the site. Local staff were humiliated by the donor’s actions, which seemed to suggest that only foreigners can provide resources. The bond of trust between villagers and that NGO was put in a perilous state that took much time to repair.

People want to help. They want to make a difference. It is the job of our organizations to provide them with effective opportunities to do so. If we are not careful and deliberate about providing them with empathy-building activities and explaining why other actions may cause harm, instances like this will continue to occur.

It’s not only our visitors who struggle with cultural issues. In Part 2 of this article, I explore common cultural challenges our local staff and partners face in the field.

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