As a civil peace organization, our focus has always been on the relationships we have with our local partner organizations. Here, we always took pride in challenging traditional donor dynamics where local partner organizations implement, and international donors decide. It is only in recent years that we recognized that similar divisions were present in our own office. Slowly but surely, we have come to realize that building strong and sustainable partnerships among our team members requires just as much care and dedication as the connections we build with our partner organizations.
From Scattered Islands to an Office in the Hills
Five years ago, forumZFD in the Holyland was quite a scattered endeavor: a project office in the Jordan Valley, another one by the sea in Tel Aviv, and a coordination office in the hills between them. Monthly gatherings in the latter were held between the international staff. Local colleagues, on the other hand, rarely had a chance to meet and exchange. Siham Fayad joined forumZFD in 2011. She remembers the time where there was little but the shared name and logo to tie the different pieces of forumZFD together: “Working in Jericho, meant just that: knowing only the team in Jericho, working towards the aim of the project and not having a connection to other team members or a common vision for the program.”
After years of operating under this set-up, the program’s leadership realized that this model was not sustainable. After all, most international peace workers would leave the office after two-three years while local colleagues were the ones who carried on the knowledge and experience that we needed to make progress. As Siham puts it: “receiving and saying goodbye to international colleagues is not easy. You build a relation and get to understand that person and by the time you figure it out they are gone. Next comes the successor, with new ideas and new projects in mind and we start again.”
This set-up prevented forumZFD from developing an organizational memory through which it could learn from past mistakes. Mike Thanner, who became the regional director of forumZFD Jerusalem during this period, still remembers the dilemma: "For me, it was not possible to determine if a project idea was feasible or not. The common strategy was missing. There was no clear vision that we all could have shared. We were working in three different locations in three different directions and therefore could not create or easily identify synergies."
Challenging Harmful Divisions From Within
Starting from 2015 forumZFD's Jerusalem office reopened and brought everyone under a shared roof. Slowly but surely, people started to be more interested and involved in each other's project and discover opportunities to work together. A common understanding of the organization started to cement itself within the team.
However, the physical separation between our offices turned out to be not the only harmful division to overcome.
Working together more, it became apparent that our team was bound to the same power dynamics it hoped to challenge outside of our office: International staff were formally viewed expert on the civil peace service. They were "Project Managers". Local colleagues, on the other hand, were seen as a resource with particular knowledge (eg. language and regional expertise) that would complement the Project Manager's background. Their job title was "Project Officer". Working in subteams, this division left no doubt on who was in the lead, determining the way local colleagues, like Siham, felt about their place in the organization.
“I always had ideas to share, but I never thought I had the power to implement them. Surely, through international colleagues who appreciated me, there was a chance for those ideas to be integrated. But it was not the same as having a saying and being acknowledged as someone capable of turning these ideas into projects.”
It is not easy to put the finger on the exact moment when these dynamics were challenged for the first time. Why would the locally contracted colleagues not also assume the role of a Project Manager if they had similar qualifications? Both, international and local staff started to notice that these dynamics were harmful to their work. Together, they began to lobby for changing these structures. At the end of 2018, their voices were finally heard, and local employees were allowed to assume the title 'Project Manager'.
Siham was among the two project officers who had their contract adapted as part of this transformation: “Being named a Project Manager felt like the right name for the work that I was doing. It meant taking the acknowledgement and appreciation which I always had from my colleagues to a formal level. Of course, this also came with a learning process: learning how to claim the powers on the one side and dealing with the responsibility that came with it on the other side. It has been hard for me to step up and ask for this right. A sense of entitlement for me is connected to many things that have to do with the context, with self-perception and with previous (work) experiences. And if empowerment is something an organization aims for the responsibility for that is two-sided: it's the duty of the employee to develop herself, and it is the organization’s duty to develop with its employees.”
How We Work Together Today
Today we came to fully embrace a working-mode known as the matrix structure. What may sound like a complex, technical concept is actually quite a simple idea that allows us to use our resources (human and financial) most efficiently and breaks the barriers between “my project – your project” to yield a shared understanding of “our program”.
Practically, the matrix-structure introduced three crucial changes to our work:
1) Knowing What Your Colleagues Are Working On
Through weekly meetings, peer exchange and mentoring we try to stay informed about each others' work. Siham, for instance, found that some of the women she worked with would benefit from training in social media. Knowing that her colleague Iris was working with an organization that provided such training, she was able to get them into their program. Thereby, both projects benefited from the connections and synergies that we found within our team.
2) Making Decisions Together
Working under the matrix structure we decide commonly on the allocation of our limited annual budget. Everyone gets a say in what project ideas we invest in. Country director, Mike Thanner explains this process as follows: “four times per year we have a meeting in which we decide, using the consent method, about the ideas that project managers bring to the table. To make informed decisions and give useful feedback, we established a rule to circulate the concept notes a week before the meeting. After the meeting, we only need to adapt the financial planning. The benefits I see in taking decisions on projects commonly is that everyone knows what is happening and can think of how to include the other colleague or be included by other colleagues into their processes. That increases synergies, sometimes creates spin-over effects and helps to grow the awareness that we are working with limited funds that, if claimed by one team member are not available for the other colleagues. This is maybe stating the obvious, but it also helps with sharing responsibility for the most economic allocation of the money we receive.”
3) Being More Flexible
Project teams can be fluid in the matrix set-up. Forming sub-teams also means that we share, spread and disseminate knowledge that each of us is holding. That knowledge becomes part of our organizational memory. Training each other is often more sustainable than using external experts, says Siham: “This year I had my first experience with I mentoring one of the new project managers coming into the team. Sounds just about right: A senior project manager, with the contextual and organizational experience, is mentoring a new member of the team, doesn’t it? Well, this was not always the case. So far it would always be the current international colleague giving orientation to his or her successor. Never was it the case that a local is mentoring an international.”
“We always try to influence our partner's behaviour through new methods. One is to break the stereotype of an international having all the power and knowledge while the local is following and supporting. Working in a donor-driven community, we want to challenge people by showing them that a local can lead a process and make the decisions”, says Siham.
We at forumZFD Jerusalem still believe that our relations with our partners are integral to our work. However, over the last years, we learned that our relationships with each other are just as important - to lead by example, we first had to uncover harmful and divisive practices that we applied ourselves. This required a readiness to swallow the red pill, to understand power dynamics, prejudice and hierarchies - even when it's uncomfortable. We still have a long way to go and more divisions to challenge, but we are proud of what our organization has achieved within the last five years.