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Using Your 21st-Century Skills in a 19th-Century World

Leaders in developed nations can use their skills and expertise to help make life better for those who need it.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Earlier this month, I traveled to Nepal as a volunteer with K.I. Nepal, a humanitarian NGO dedicated to ending human trafficking in that country.

On one of my last days in the country, toward the end of the rainy season, my hosts and I drove along a narrow dirt road, studded with water-filled potholes. Bicycles passed us, making the car we were riding in seem more like a disadvantage than an asset. But we finally reached our destination: a remote village that had just received a new well. K.I. Nepal had partnered with the village homeowners to build it, splitting the cost of US$5,000, because this resource would save 86 families from making a five-hour daily trek for water during the dry season.

Given the lack of basic healthcare and sanitation, educational resources, and employment opportunities, the Nepalese government has designated this village, and many others, “high-risk.” There’s a lot more to do to improve the lives of the people who live here, but the well was an important first step.

My visit to the well wrapped up 10 days of touring operations and training leaders. We went to border surveillance stations, safe houses, and community development centers in the first week, then spent the last few days facilitating a strategic planning and team development workshop for the leaders of K.I. Nepal. We delivered 21st-century content in an anachronistic 19th-century world, complete with a thatched roof training center and a power inverter to keep the LCD projector operational during frequent power outages. 

Upon receiving an invitation to facilitate this workshop, my first response was a relatively emphatic “no.” After all, I reasoned, I don’t speak the language or understand the culture, I don’t have much experience working with NGOs, I don’t know much about human trafficking, and I harbor no desire to climb Everest. I thought there must be someone else more qualified and more motivated, all the while wondering why anybody would voluntarily trade their holidays for workdays in one of the poorest countries in the world, 8,000 miles from home.

Yet I changed my mind when some of the best people in my life said going to Nepal was a good opportunity. They offered no great insights, but kept countering my “no” with “why not?” until finally I forgot my initial reservations and booked a flight. On the day I boarded the plane, fortified with all the necessary vaccinations and a suitcase full of medicines and food, I was committed, but still clueless.

By the end of my trip, however, I understood why so many people thought I should go. I remain humbled by the courage of 20-year-old women standing in the sticky, hot weather 12 hours a day to help 16-year-old girls return to the safety of their homes (or, if their homes are not safe, find refuge in safe houses) rather than be sold as slaves. I am inspired by groups of women in remote villages banding together to start sewing businesses and fight the injustices they face in their community. I am in awe of the courage of the rescued girls—living, loving, and learning together, dreaming of a better future. And I feel honored that I was able to spend three days with the leaders of K.I. Nepal, helping them think through how to rescue more “sisters” and transform the communities in which they live.

I came. I saw. I listened, sweated, laughed, and cried. And I encourage you to do the same.

Through a friend of a friend, I was connected to K.I. Nepal via “Leader Mundial,” a program run by Extreme Response International. Leader Mundial’s mission is to “position leaders, partners, and organizations for greater global impact.” They do so, in part, by connecting the skills and passions of volunteer-leaders with the needs of their partner-leaders.

With Leader Mundial, volunteer-leaders serve in the ways they know best, with the relationship growing organically over time. Case in point, a hotel executive chaperoned his son’s outreach trip, organized by Extreme Response. Interested in serving more, but uncertain how to do so, he contacted Leader Mundial, who asked, “What do you do?” They ultimately matched him up with a Moscow-based NGO building and subleasing apartments in order to raise cash to support their humanitarian operations. After a few Skype sessions, the volunteer-leader flew to Moscow and immediately added value by offering up contacts, marketing strategies, and plenty of encouragement and coaching. Subsequently, the volunteer-leader sponsored and joined the partner-leader at Leader Mundial’s week-long Global Leadership Summit. Leader Mundial embraces the philosophy that “money changes circumstances but relationships change lives” and emphasizes building relationships over raising funds.

Leader Mundial is by no means the only organization helping leaders contribute their time and talents (just the one with which I have personal experience). But it is a great example of a growing trend that benefits corporations and individuals.

In Nepal, I learned that “there is always room for one more,” and I will be forever grateful to the people who made room for me. Our 21st-century leadership skills can have a powerful and positive impact on those living in extreme circumstances throughout the world. Make room for them in your heart and, surely, they will make room for you, too.

Susan Cramm

Susan Cramm, leadership coach, author, and former CFO and CIO, is committed to the principle that the best leaders take care of business by taking care of the people entrusted to their care.


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