The Big Blurry Picture

I’m not afraid to admit when I’m wrong.  I do however like to believe that almost any problem can be solved with enough creativity, especially when it’s a problem that you’ve caused yourself.  So I will always wait until the absolute last minute to admit failure when I see absolutely no other options.  I bring this up because I know that I am very critical of the methods of others working in similar positions as me on this blog and through that, or other reasons, I have been accused of being a little arrogant (gasp!).  But I want to be clear to anyone who reads this blog that I by no means claim to be perfect or an expert on anything, that’s the essence of being a green mango.  Many of the things I write about on this blog are born out of my own mistakes that I’ve made in trying to forge through this savage wilderness known as international nonprofit work.  I may seem to be very good at pointing out the speck in my brother’s eye but it’s with the acknowledgement that no organization is perfect, including my own.  When deciding to do this work we enter into an imperfect system where we are stuck working against cultural, societal, and historical issues that make it very difficult to maintain our own principles sometimes and anything organized for the greater good can start to seem unattainable.

At the same time, I can’t deny that my confidence comes across as arrogant sometimes because I am aware that I have accomplished a lot of pretty incredible things that very few other 28-year-old artists from small town Iowa can claim to have accomplished.  I’ve done a lot of things that most human beings can never claim to have done.  And I have to remain confident in the value of those things in order to maintain the strength that I need to lead my organization through the frustrating times when we do make mistakes and have to bear the scars of those lessons learned.  I bring this up because I just returned back to the states after spending a little more than a month back in Haiti and much of my time was spent re-centering with my staff there.  Re-centering because last fall it was decided that I would move back to the US to focus on fundraising and promotion for the organization and after I returned and spent some time with them analyzing everything it seems that maybe that was the wrong decision.  Maybe I wasn’t ready and maybe the organization wasn’t ready for that.  It might have been a little premature or not done in the right way.   It was something that we tried, but turned out to be a mistake and that mistake led to some other problems in our programs.  It goes back to something that I wrote about a few weeks ago with my NGO Doodles that the sun just seems to shine a bit brighter and the path a bit clearer when cooperative leadership occurs through the desired presence of all involved.

These decisions come under a lot of scrutiny from those who support and are involved in the organization in different ways.  And as the Executive Director of such an organization, I should be scrutinized.  Those of us entrusted to carry such a large responsibility need to be held to the highest standard possible because so many other people’s well-being depend on the decisions we make.  In my case, many children’s educations, university students’ futures, and artists’ and musicians’ creative work, depend on my and my staff’s decisions.  At the same time, the integrity of volunteers’ heart felt service and effectiveness of donor’s dollars also depend on those decisions.  Sometimes the decisions seem trivial like whether to buy the grey tile or the green tile for the floor and sometimes they are huge like moving to a different country.  But all of these decisions have a lot of factors weighing on them to make them usually very difficult to make.  My job as a nonprofit manager is to always see the big picture in making those decisions, the big picture that the children, the students, the artists, the musicians, the volunteers, and the donors don’t ever see.  This is one of the things that I’m constantly telling my staff to do, try to look at the big picture.

So, although one of my goals with what I write on here is to keep organizations, aid workers, and missionaries accountable for their actions in other cultures, the truth is that no one is perfect.  As a donor or volunteer the trick is to find those groups whose imperfections might result in some unfortunate logistical annoyances, but don’t actually have a negative impact on the ones they are created to serve.  If you followed all of my advice on this blog you would never donate to anyone and you would never sign up to help out and you would never travel.  And if everyone did that it would be a sad world to live in.

The writer of the Green Mango Blog really is not the same person as the Executive Director of Living Media International.  Although each role that I take on certainly influence the other, this blog represents my individual opinions on a variety of issues whereas my work with Living Media is always dependent on a whole community of other people and decisions have to be made cooperatively based on all sorts of factors beyond my own personal views.

I experienced a great inner conflict between these two “people” that I am the other day while traveling back from Haiti.  I was in the Passport Control line in Miami and it was the longest line I’ve ever had to wait in in the airport.  The line was so long that I felt I got to know the people in front of me intimately while we waited for over an hour and a half to get our passports stamped.  There were three people in front of me from the state of Washington, real hippie types – t-shirts about saving the whales and no bras.  They had just returned from Haiti as well having spent a week working with an organization that had an orphanage and some feeding programs.  One of them was a journalist who was there to actually write a story on the organization for NPR and she was sharing how she was supposed to do a human interest story about all the good things the group was doing but while doing her interviews and research she really uncovered some things that made her question the organization’s integrity and mistrust the leaders of the group.  The word “corrupt” was used a few times, not as an accusation, but more as a hesitant question of whether it was possible that she was the only person to see it.

While listening and thinking about how I would respond to her story she was telling me, I felt the Green Mango in me want to encourage her to write the story exposing all of the injustices that were being carried out especially towards the children in the orphanage and other children in the community.  I wanted her to keep them accountable for their actions because some of the things she was describing certainly were inexcusable although not too uncommon for orphanages in Haiti.   “Hell ya!  Go get em!”  I wanted to say.  Yet the other part of me, the Executive Director part of found myself feeling a little sympathetic towards the orphanage director in question.  “It’s not always that easy.”  I wanted to say.  Maybe she has a perfectly good reason for some of those decisions that are easy to label corrupt if you don’t see the whole picture.  She probably has 15 different people whose opinions she’s supposed to respect because they’ve all given money or given time or been hired to do their jobs and they’re all probably telling her different things and none of them are telling her what she really feels is truly best for the kids.  Ultimately I couldn’t make either judgement without actually seeing the operation myself and talking to the manager of the orphanage and others in the organization, which is the conclusion that I came to with my fellow waiter-in-line.  I told her that if she had a gut feeling that something wasn’t right, then she was probably right, but to be careful about blaming the manager or calling her corrupt because there were so many factors contributing to the way things are operated that maybe she herself hasn’t even had time to step back and get a good look at what things have become.  She probably never even set out to be an orphanage manager from the start and got stuck in that position because of some foreign donor’s idea that that’s what was needed and now she’s trying to fight to maintain that vision which was wrong from the start.

The big picture is never easy to see in these situations because there are always stories and perspectives that never get told.  For the fear of offending someone, for the fear of exposing something unnecessarily fragile,  for the fear of being called arrogant, for the fear of providing unrealistic hope, words get kept from being said.  So even if the whole picture can never truly be clarified, the big picture must be attempted.  I think if we keep that in mind, then even bad decisions and costly mistakes can be remedied because the realization of goals lies in the big picture even if day to day actions must be carried out in detail.  Anyone who doesn’t agree with me can just give up when they make a mistake next time, but the rest of us are going to keep looking towards a future that’s more beautiful.

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One comment

  1. Well said. It is always good to be humble about yourself in regard to your readers. But even more important is being humbled by the fact that when in charge of a mission all of your decisions have consequences on a larger group of people than we can know. I often sit in fearful awe as a contemplate that. I love you blog and agree with almost everything you say and wish I were articulate enough to say it all myself.

    Short term volunteers are often arrogant themselves and have a hard time listening and respecting what those of us you have actually relocated here have to say so I wouldn’t be too worried about them, but it is always good to take a moment to reflect on their thoughts from time to time, as you just did, to make sure you are on track.

    Lastly, I am not a fan of orphanages in Haiti for many many reasons. I must admit I am relieved someone else has been insightful enough to begin seeing some of the inherent problems of them, but probably shouldn’t be written by a short-term visitor until she has done way more research than just one orphanage.

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