D.C. to Madrid

During the first half of my time at Dara, Madrid’s office got a visit from Dara’s executive director from the Washington, D.C. office. The purpose of his visit – he’s one of two men in management positions in an organization otherwise made up of and run by women – was to do an internal review of the way Dara does things, for reasons of quality and productivity assurance. I got to sit in on two full-day sessions in which all Dara employees discussed those questions of management and effectiveness.

The sessions were exemplary of two quite different approaches to a work environment. Dara’s director in the U.S. is an American-educated American, while the rest of Dara’s employees in Spain are from various Latin American and European countries, including Ecuador, Bolivia, Spain, and France. The environment at Dara has always been calm and the importance of employees wellbeing is institutionally and individually recognized. That is not to say our work environment is unproductive or that employees are not dedicated to the work we do. On the contrary, tight proposal and evaluation deadlines can leave my coworkers working weekends and I’ve been happy to join them for those café weekends on several occasions. (Of course, I’ve also had the pleasure of spending time with them outside work recreationally and hope to be able to do that again during a weekend trip to Madrid from Toulouse, where I’ll be studying abroad next semester, and which is a 15-euro Ryanair flight away from Madrid.)

These interactions showed me (or maybe confirmed my preconceptions) that people and their humanity are often far more prioritized in European working environments, while efficiency at the expense of, well, people is the priority in American working environments (the exclusionary European-US binary used only because of my limited professional experience). For NGOs tight on funding, working efficiently is obviously important. Dara used to be a 30+ employee organization with strong philanthropic support. Unfortunately, this is not a permanent and sustainable source of funding and some years ago it ended. Now, Dara is in a smaller office and with a smaller staff. It has to look for innovative ways to fund its operations and keep them sustainable. We have to take on an ever-larger amount of evaluations and present projects we are working on at conferences, academic, governmental, and nongovernmental gatherings. We don’t have much prominence in civil society, although our partner organization Dahlia, founded by the same Silvia Hidalgo that is in charge of Dara, specializes in communication in humanitarian aid – ensuring local populations are in conversation and in understanding with the agencies that work to provide support and aid to their communities.

I was lucky to be present to witness these internal restructuring and evaluation efforts. Prior to these two days, the Dara environment comprised a very communicative office where everyone works on everything and decisions are made collectively. Because of the small size of Dara’s workforce, this was not as disruptive as it might sound, and discussion was a good mechanism for ensuring confidence, quality, and meticulousness. Nevertheless, the involvement of everyone in everything did take away from the specialization of employees in the complex process of proposal and evaluation writing. The changes that were proposed during those two days encouraged my coworkers to divide work in a more defined manner. The efficiency our US director strives for would require less discussion between coworkers, more focus on one’s individual screen, and less interaction overall.  Although I’d wish to comment more on these two days and the conversations that ensued in the meeting rooms and behind the scenes, for the sake of confidentiality, I’ll  have stop at this.

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