Want to start an international nonprofit? Read this first!

Q&A with Professor John Casey, Associate Professor at the Baruch College School of Public Affairs, and FLiP correspondent Marianna Tu

Marianna Tu (MT): Your course “The Management of International Nonprofit Organizations” is the first Baruch course focused specifically on the international dimensions of the nonprofit sector.  What was the impetus behind this course and why is now the right time for it?

John Casey (JC): It was a happy confluence of students’ demands and my interests. Baruch has an excellent public and nonprofit management program, but the focus was very much on New York City and the USA. Students were asking for more international content and I was one of the new professors hired to help give the college a wider perspective. I asked for the opportunity to teach about my experience with international nonprofits and the committee that decides on our curriculum quickly agreed. Many of our students currently work in international nonprofits, or hope to work in them in the future.

MT: You mentioned at a recent Baruch event that many students come to you with the goal of not only working for an international nonprofit, but actually starting their own. What is important for students to know before they consider undertaking such an effort?

JC: Not just students come to me. I get a steady trickle of people from the general public who contact me to speak about their plans for a new nonprofit. I never refuse a request to meet, as I believe it is a role of the university to reach out to the community, and I am personally interested in people’s motivation for starting new organizations.
I’ve developed some planning materials I now give to people who want to start an international nonprofit.  The materials start with five “simple” questions:

  • Why a NEW nonprofit? (What existing organizations are working in this or related area/s issues? AND, Why are they not doing a good job?)
  • Why a NONPROFIT? (Why not a for-profit enterprise or consultancy?)
  • Will you be competing for funds with existing nonprofits? (Are you going to generate new sources of funds that will add to the pool available to nonprofits? Why should you be taking funds from other organizations?)
  • What contacts do you have with the target country or region? (How can you ensure the cultural appropriateness, local buy-in, and physical safety of your nonprofit operations in another country?)
  • What are your qualifications to be a “CEO”? (What studies/experience do you have in leadership, budgeting, personnel management, strategic management… etc?)

If you don’t have compelling answers to those questions, you might want to reassess your plans.

MT: What are other ways students can channel their energy? How can they avoid redoubling efforts and join a coordinated network?

JC: My default position on the question of whether someone should start a new organization is DON’T DO IT. Unless you can demonstrate that no one else is doing or can do what you want to do, and that you have the skills and experience to assume the considerable transaction cost of creating and sustaining a new organization, you should work with existing organizations. If you have a great idea, volunteer with an organization that works in that field and then convince them to hire you to implement it.

MT: You have taught courses in Spain, Australia, and the US, and have worked around the globe. What is unique about teaching this course in America, and what is unique about the American view on international nonprofits?

JC: Let’s start with the American view on nonprofits. For better or worse, there is no other country that has a nonprofit sector that is so critical to so many aspects of modern life.  For example in the USA, I listen to National Public Radio, which is a nonprofit organization and regularly asks listeners for contributions. When I visit my family in Australia, I listen to their public radio network, the Australian Broadcasting Commission which, like the UK BBC, is a government-run corporation which is funded by taxpayers and its own revenue-generating activities. There is a nonprofit called the Friends of the ABC but its primary role is to lobby government to ensure that the ABC continues to receive a sufficient level of public funding.

The US perspective on the balance between government services and nonprofits pervades much of the international work by US nonprofits. They assume that private initiative is always better than government efforts, but in many countries it is necessary to focus on building government institutions. There is a civil society paradox: for there to be a vibrant independent nonprofit sector, you have to have a strong democratic government to support it, yet some people seem to believe that if you build nonprofit capacity, government will take care of itself.

So here in the US, I make sure I start this course with a comparative section that looks at the nonprofit sector in different countries and under different political regimes.

MT: These national policies must impact organizational operations and activities like fundraising, which is a key part of any nonprofit’s success. How does fundraising change when dealing with an international organization?

JC: First of all we often simply don’t know the rules. For example, do you know if a foreigner can claim a tax deduction for a contribution to a US 501(c)3, or if a US citizen can claim a tax deduction for contributing to a foreign charity?  The US citizen generally can’t (see here), and whether the foreigner can depends on the tax law of their home country, which probably also doesn’t allow it.

But even more importantly, there are considerable political and social implications when funds cross borders.  When a foreign government or foundation funds an organization in the USA we are apprehensive about possible outside interference. Yet, in many developing countries, probably 90% of the funds that local charities receive come from outside the country. Those governments are understandably wary about the impact.

MT: We have spoken about the relationship between the nonprofit and government sectors, but what about intersections with the private sector? For example, you have written on the complexities of nonprofit business ventures. Today, with the rise of charitable investment funds, social enterprises and “philanthrocapitalism,” how do you see the international nonprofit landscape changing? What does the future hold?

JC: I am a professor of nonprofit management. I believe nonprofit organizations need to be better managed than many currently are: or if you want, we can say they need to be more “businesslike” in the popular sense of the expression.

But I am very skeptical about many of the claims of the false prophets of market solutions to social issues. I am particularly irritated by those who claim that “social enterprise” means an exciting new business approach that will replace the staid, ineffective traditional nonprofit sector. In fact, the business plans of 90% of the social enterprises I have seen involve immediately creating a 501(c)3 nonprofit to compete for philanthropic funds and government contracts. In most cases, they are not new or more effective approaches; they are just more successful in marketing a brand to funders, particularly to private donors who may have been their classmates back at college. The best social enterprises I have seen are the initiatives of existing nonprofits with strong roots in their constituencies.

In the economic bubble years, if you expressed concern about undue market influence in nonprofits you were branded a dinosaur or a naïve do-gooder. Now that we are in a period of crisis, the balance of the debate has changed.  People are turning back to more established organizations that can demonstrate a long track record of successful outcomes.

I highly recommend that anyone interested in the philantrocapitalism debate read Michael Edward’s new book Small Change, Why Business Won’t Save the World.

MT: No matter which direction the field goes in, it seems clear from your course that more and more students will look to enter it. What are three things one should know when looking for employment in an international nonprofit?

JC: First, that it is an expanding field. For a range of reasons the nonprofit sector has grown in almost every country in the world and there is increasing connectivity between nonprofits globally. Whether we are talking about aid organizations or international professional associations, there are more of them and more opportunities.

Second, that it can be tough to break into the sector.  All employers now want candidates to demonstrate some prior experience, even if that was combined with their studies, and that can be particularly difficult when we are talking about international organizations. Most professional aid workers spent years as travelers and volunteers before they got a paid position.

Third, that it is fun and rewarding, but the personal costs can be high. By definition it usually involves a lot of travel and maybe extended stays overseas. Are you prepared to be an “expat,” living away from friends and family for years at a time?

MT: Right, the professional experience is inseparable from the impact on one’s private life. Individuals will also have to navigate unfamiliar opinions on matters such as family or gender; can you tell us how something like gender might factor into working for an international nonprofit?

JC: Women tend to be the majority of workers in all levels of nonprofits, except at the highest executive level – the reason why is a whole other discussion. The same is true in international nonprofits, so there are many opportunities. But also many challenges, as international work involves relations with some countries where women do not enjoy the same rights as they do in Western democracies – women may hold positions of power in Norway, New Zealand and Iceland, but in many other countries they can’t drive or be in the public company of a man who is not part of their family. In the majority of countries it’s simply not common to see female managers and leaders, so women working in international nonprofits must have even better skills at negotiating cultural uncertainties than their male colleagues.

MT: Before we wrap up, do you have any last advice for young people interested in international nonprofits who are looking to enter the sector? Are there any essential skills they must develop?

JC: If we are talking about working overseas, the most important competency is the willingness and courage to work in uncertain and sometimes dangerous situations. Are you prepared to work in a European country where you don’t speak the language fluently?  Are you prepared to face the discomfort and danger of working in the developing world?

You also need to demonstrate a willingness to learn about and understand other cultures. The most obvious marker of that is whether you speak another language. English is now the most commonly accepted language of international communications, but it will only get you so far. If you don’t speak a second language, working in international organizations may be out of your reach. Even if you don’t need that second language for your daily work, it shows you have the cross-cultural perspective that international nonprofits require.

To learn more about John Casey please visit http://www.baruch.edu/spa/facultystaff/facultydirectory/bio_john_casey.php

For questions or comments relating to this feature, please contact Marianna Tu at mtu@changingourworld.com

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