What Could Go Wrong? Common Cultural Challenges on Donor Trips: Staff 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.

In Part 1 of this article, I focused on the cultural challenges our visitors (donors, board members, volunteers) experience on trips. But our visitors are not the only ones who struggle with cultural issues. Our local staff and partners in the field also face difficult situations and interactions due to their own lack of preparation and training. Part 2 provides some of the most common examples that involve staff and local partners.

Saying Yes

By far one of the most common issues is a lack of honesty about the reality of the site and what is truly possible. A visitor will inquire if the guesthouse has hot water. “Yes, of course!” will be the answer. Only when that visitor arrives, they will find there is not—and never was—hot water in the guesthouse. A visitor will make a special request, say, for food preferences or air-conditioned cars, and local staff will quickly assure the visitor that all their requests are possible and will be provided. When they arrive, there are no meals offering their preferences and the car has no AC.

Why does this happen? In many cultures, when someone says the word “yes,” it does not mean they agree with you or understand you or that what you are asking for is possible or that it will get done. “Yes” simply means they heard you and that they are sincere in their desire to please you. “Yes” reflects their attitude and interest in not disappointing you. It does not reflect their capabilities or what they can deliver. Also, because of power dynamics and inequities between donors and local staff, there is significant pressure to tell a donor what that donor seems to want to hear.

This is why I advocate for visitors to maintain direct contact with the fundraising staff or the person your organization has selected to project-manage the trip. It will be easier for the nonprofit staff to get honest answers from their colleagues, and it will be easier for the development director to be honest with donors about what is and isn’t possible. Disappointing people is not a fun experience in any cultural context, but it is easier to navigate when the relationships are more balanced and when the people communicating better understand each other’s values.

Unwitting Exploitation

Along the same theme of not disappointing visitors, local staff and partners are often so eager to show off the good work they are doing in the community that they put on a grand show for visitors when they arrive. They want to make a good impression on these visitors—their guests—because of cultural and professional pride and because they know that the opinion of these visitors plays an important role in funding these programs. Often, these visitors have the means to continue or scale the project.

Problems surface when this desire to please goes too far—far enough to unwittingly exploit local people. Local staff may bring children out to perform a song and dance for visitors, who don’t realize that the performance and prior rehearsals meant taking the kids out of school for a time. People stop their important work for days in order to act as hosts to the guests, who don’t realize that important projects are being suspended while they are in-country. Local cultural performances and rituals may be reenacted for guests, which can sometimes encroach on the sacred—experiences that should not be viewed by outsiders (imagine a tour group invading your wedding ceremony) become a revenue stream for the community and are therefore permitted.

This is a difficult problem to diagnose and solve. Which interactions are detrimental to the community (like taking children out of school to perform a dance), and which uplift the community (like sharing their local culture with visitors and growing their economy)? When money becomes tied to cultural interactions, it taints them—reducing every interaction to a transaction. But shouldn’t people be paid for their art, for their expertise, for their time? We can’t expect to be hosted and entertained for free, at the expense of people who may barely have enough for themselves.

Clashing of Classes

I’ve written a bit about how exploitation is a two-way street. It not only happens to vulnerable people but also to those with power and resources. I have documented incidents of local staff asking donors for money, sponsorships, and other inappropriate things, though those requests are rare.

While I don’t attribute this behavior to any national or ethnic culture, I include it in my list of cultural challenges because it has to do with socioeconomic culture. Just like people who experience poverty could find it offensive to hear comments about their homes or the behavior of their kids (as with the example from Toxic Charity), people with wealth do not like to be reduced to being treated like ATMs. Abigail Disney described this in an article for The Cut by saying,

“People do say to me, straight up, ‘Oh my God, you must be really rich.’ In every interaction, you don’t get to make a first impression because they’re [sic] already thought about what they want to think about you before you even shake their hand.”

As fundraisers, we get training about working with wealthy people early on in our careers, whether formally or in the field, and we know not to treat wealthy people this way. However, we have to understand that people who are not accustomed to being around the wealthy may flounder in their interactions with them, just as anyone might flounder communicating in a foreign culture. This is one reason it is imperative to train and prepare those people on the ground.

Armed with Assumptions

When we have our staff on the ground plan the trip without ever meeting our donors, we set them up to make a lot of assumptions. Are these visitors the type to want to rough it in a guesthouse, do manual labor alongside locals, or have adventurous experiences like kayaking? Or are these the type to need a five-star hotel, to view the work from an air-conditioned vehicle, and to spend their off-hours on a luxurious safari?

We can’t assume one or the other, and when I get the question from nonprofits about which type of accommodation a donor would prefer, I say, “Well, why don’t you ask them?” This disparity in accommodations and logistics is yet another example of why our trips should have one main objective so as to attract people with a similar purpose and why we should be recruiting people we already know for these trips, so that we can build an itinerary that suits their needs and interests.

The point is, we don’t want to make assumptions about people based on their ages, occupations, perceived wealth, or lack thereof. This is a cultural issue because all these identities come attached to certain assumptions.

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