As I reflect on the past five years of working for SVG, one of the most satisfying aspects has been knowing that thousands of people have benefited from the projects facilitated by SVG. I am genuinely so happy that their quality of life has improved. With years of meeting the individuals involved in our programs, I have often wondered what it would be like to participate in a program that changed my life.
My opportunity came this summer and my life has been changed.
Last year I applied for the 2015 Ford Motor Company International Fellowship of 92nd Street Y, a three-week capacity building program that has been supporting NGO leaders from around the world for the past 15 years. The acceptance letter arrived in January and in May, I arrived in New York City, home to thousands of NGOs and new social innovations. Flying in from Shanghai, I joined 23 NGO leaders from 9 countries including Brazil, China, Ghana, India, Israel, Kenya, Malaysia, Poland and the US. The three-weeks were fully packed with site visits, classes, workshops, and group discussions. The time was also well balanced with city sightseeing, team building and personal time. Now that I’ve had time to reflect on the experience as a whole, two words stand out: commitment and community.
I still remember Ms. Alison Gardy’s answer of my question at the end of my final round interview. “Have you ever thought of moving on?” Alison is the Director of International Relations at 92nd Street Y (the Y), a Jewish community center and one of the sponsors of the fellowship. I asked this question because Alison told me she has been the Director of the fellowship for the past 15 years. She never once thought of changing jobs because of her passion for this fellowship and NGO development.
At the end of the fellowship, I understood what has continuously driven Alison’s unwavering passion and dedication. After 140 years of development work in the Big Apple, the Y is now a cultural and community center providing a wide spectrum of events and activities for its local community. Ford Motor, a supporter of the Y for nearly 30 years is a co-investor in the fellowship. The fellows have previously asked Henry Timms, the Executive Director of the Y, what makes sponsors motivated to continuously donate to such a costly program? (The participating NGO leaders all feel strongly that the administrative costs of the program should be lowered as the program covers all costs for the participants.) He said many people asked the same question and his response is always the same. We believe in you and value the huge impact you make through your organization. We need to invest in you first so that the impact can be greater.
In addition to the financial investors, Columbia University, Yale University and many other individuals and organizations have contributed their time and resources by delivering priceless lectures and seminars. The commitment of this fellowship’s supporters has great influence on the fellows and the social sector.
Communication leads to community, that is, to understanding, intimacy and mutual valuing - Rollo May
This was my first time attending an international NGO fellowship. Before arriving, I listed 10 goals for my time during the fellowship and the first was to try to better understand my new friends and fellows - them as individuals and the culture they come from. It turned out that I did not need to try. The friendships formed very naturally, which was even more evidence to me that those working in the social sector do have the innate gift of compassion. Early in the program, the Y staff and the fellows formed what felt like a real family. Alison admitted that there was no need to encourage the fellows to ask questions or propose new ideas. The fact was that we almost talked too much! Conversations and discussions started from breakfast and continued well after dinner and I felt energized from them.
One of my favorite times was when we discussed case studies. In a small group and with a professor from Columbia University as a facilitator, we shared barriers we experienced at work and discussed actions we could take to resolving these issues. Surprisingly, I found that even though the members of my group were from around the world, there was no difficulty in understanding each other’s context and situations. This was beyond my expectation. There are many similarities among these countries’ social sector. Though we were from different cultures, communication was clear and we became advisors to each other. The intensive three-week program was just the start to friendships built with genuine trust. I know the conversation will continue and that I have a new family at the Y.
Overall, I believe the social sector is not a closed industry. Those involved understand that inclusivity is key and drawing from different industries is an important powerful dynamic to shaping the sector. During the fellowship, I met with NGO leaders, university professors, investors, religious leaders, corporate executives, social entrepreneurs, and artists. The second day of the fellowship, Henry Timmes gave a speech on ‘Understanding New Powers.” Many new business and social models present a vibrant “Co-” element: co-funding, co-sourcing, co-create, co-owning. These powers form a strong community that supports NGOs as they grow.
After I returned from what almost seemed like a boot camp, I am still reflecting and processing the large volume of information I received during the fellowship. I keep asking myself how can I apply this both in the future and now? Working in China’s social sector can be lonely because the sector is still in its infancy and not well understood by the public. My hope remains in the growing number of individuals who are showing a strong commitment to strengthening their community here. Like how many springs and streams seem weak, as they merge even the smallest stream can become a deep and strong river.
Contributed by Zoey Liu