Is it time for your organization to go international?

By Bonnie Koenig

Have you ever felt that your organization could benefit from a more

global perspective? Perhaps you'd like to exchange experiences with

colleagues from other countries. Or maybe you'd like to attract some

overseas participants to your annual meeting - or even hold your meeting

overseas. Or you may just want to explore a more global focus for your

programs. Where do you begin? Here are suggestions to help you move your

organization into today's global environment.

What would you like to accomplish?

First, clarify your options. You don't need to plunge right in and form

a full-scale international program. There are many other ways to add an

international dimension to your organization.

From the simple, to the more complex, here are a few of a spectrum of


Exchange of information with colleagues in other countries. This option

is helpful if you want to increase your organization's knowledge base.

It's also useful for keeping up to date on technology in your field.

This increase in information, in addition to helping your organization,

may also be a member benefit, helping members in their professional


Invite colleagues in other countries to attend your organization's

conference or seminar. If you believe you have expertise worth sharing,

if your work has brought you in contact with the work of colleagues in

other countries, or if you'd like to expand or add a "new twist" to your

organization's conference, this may be an option to consider. You can

target potential attendees in different ways - through professional

networks, personal contacts, sister organizations in other countries,

and so on. (Be aware that if your meeting does attract attendees from

other countries, you'll need to some extra planning to be sure your

overseas guests have a positive experience).

Develop a joint project with a sister organization. If you're interested

in holding a seminar or meeting in another country, a local partner can

help to insure its success. Or you may know an organization in another

country with which you want to share information and a joint seminar

would be the best way to do so. Other joint projects might include

developing a professional exchange program or exchanging publications.

Affiliate with a sister organization in another country. This option is

worth considering if you feel that there may be benefits to a sustained

relationship with a sister organization in another country for joint

meetings, cooperative publication exchanges, joint lobbying on

international issues of concern to your organization and so on.

If you're a membership organization, offer overseas membership. This is

one of the most difficult stages of an international program. While your

international activity may lead you in this direction, you would be well

advised to think through the implications. Overseas members need

"servicing" just as local members do, but their needs will most likely

be different. You may quickly lose your overseas members if you don't

put some effort into understanding their expectations.

Hire an international staff member, or create an international

department. This obviously takes additional resources to accomplish. But

if you know you're ready to add a sustained international component,

dedicating the resources to see that it happens may provide the best

chance of success.

Integrate a commitment to global perspectives into your organization's

goals. This stage can be the most difficult to reach, but in the long

run it may be the most effective. Hiring a staff member or creating a

department may appear to be a more significant commitment, but if

"international" is just tacked on as an unrelated program, its life may

be short and ineffective. You may find it more productive to integrate a

global perspective into your daily operations. Begin by assessing your

existing resources. For instance, do you have board or staff members who

have traveled or lived overseas or have international connections? Tap

these resources to build global thinking into your plans.

Where to begin?

Choose geographic locations strategically. Don't connect with a country

simply because someone in your organization has a tie to it. Instead,

set criteria at the very start of your globalization process. Then

search out regions that match your goals. Do some preliminary research

before settling on specific countries. There are many good sources of

information, including:

*colleagues who travel in other countries *foreign embassies (in

Washington, D.C.) and consulates located throughout the country. *the

Internet, where many foreign governments now have home pages with

valuable introductory information. *international association

directories and Web sites.

Intensify your research. Once you've decided on a region, find out as

much as possible about it. With so much information readily available in

today's technology age, international partners have higher expectations

that you know about their country, culture and concerns.

Choose potential partners. Ask yourself not only what these overseas

partners can offer you but what you can offer them. If you see

opportunities for joint benefit, there is a good chance that the

collaboration will work.

Make your initial connection with a potential partner. If possible, make

it a contact between two people who know each other. As your board,

staff, and other stakeholders if they belong to international societies

or have attended international conferences. If so, they may be able to

make the first contact.

Remember that first impressions are important. Many countries have

formal cultures. It's best, therefore, to make your contacts

formally. It's always easy to become less formal, but it's had to

reverse a negative impression if your start too informally.

How to increase the chance of success

Set specific, tangible goals. You won't know if you're successful if you

don't know what you're trying to accomplish. Conversely, pointing to

targets effectively met will help persuade skeptical board members and

justify additional resources if needed.

Don't try to do too much at once. Starting slowly will let you show

achievements along the way. It will also lessen setbacks that may sour

the organization on continued international activity.

Build in successes. Set some "easy" targets along with tougher ones.

Success with the easy ones will help you achieve the greater challenges.

For example, if your goal is to hold your annual meeting overseas, start

with a board or committee meeting to test your "systems" for organizing

such an event.

Assess your organization's strong and weak points. Then choose your

goals to match your strengths. If you're struggling for members in the

U.S., think twice about expanding membership overseas. However, if you

have successful conferences and strong programs, a joint conference may

be a good option for you.

Set a budget. It needn't be large (there are ways to economize, even

when dealing with global expenses) but it does need to be realistic.

Itemize all costs. International activity is an area ripe for charges of

"boondoggles" and "waste of money" from critics, so you want to be


Identify "champions" and skeptic. Who supports the move to

internationalism, and who is skeptical? As in initiating any new

program, you will need your allies to help persuade the skeptics.

Keep key players vested. Since internationalism can seem to some as an

"exotic exercise" waste of money, it's vital that your leaders, members,

and staff feel they have a stake in the idea of going global.

Orient your staff and members to an international environment. You can

do so in many simple ways. Include the country as part of your address on

all outgoing correspondence. Publish internationally oriented articles

in your organization's newsletters or other forms of communication.

Identify foreign language speakers on your staff who can be utilized as

the need arises.

Develop a strategic plan before going international. Ask yourself: What

resources can the organization allocate to an international program? Can

current staff be reassigned or is new staff needed? How can we best

achieve our global goals?

Periodically assess and reevaluate your goals. Is this still the

direction the organization wants to go? Have you learned lessons that

should be applied to the process or your goals? Surveys are a good tool

to keep in touch with members or partners. Don't be complacent!

Understand the difference between multiculturalism and multinationalism.

Multiculturalism exists within one country. Although people have

different cultural perspectives, these views are modified by receiving

the same political messages, reading the same newspapers, and watching

the same television programs. The context in which decisions are made

thus has similarities. In multinationalism, this common context does not

exist. Hence, cultural differences are more pronounced.

Anticipate the consequences of meeting your goals. For example, overseas

attendees at your meetings will call for a different type of meeting

planning. Overseas members may look for different membership benefits

than your domestic members. To keep the benefits you gain from reaching

your international goals, you must adapt to new expectations.

Recognize when not to go international. Not all organizations will

benefit from starting an international program. Or the timing may not be

right. If an international orientation does not flow logically from your

organization's mission statement, or strategic plan, it may be a mistake

to force it. Part of your initial analysis should include the option of

not developing an international program.

Bonnie Koenig is president of the consulting practice Going

International which works with organizations in developing or expanding

their international programs. She can be reached by

e-mail at

This article was published in NONPROFIT WORLD in the May/June 1998 issue

and is reprinted by permission. NONPROFIT WORLD is published by the

Society for Nonprofit Organizations, 6314 Odana Road, Suite #1, Madison,

Wisconsin, 53719 (608) 274-9777.

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