Building A Foundation

10 Jul

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On Wednesday and Thursday of this week, Sarah, Boris, George and I took the quick ferry ride to Toronto Island for an exec retreat.  Toronto Island is literally a stones throw away from downtown at points, but it feels a world removed.  We stayed in an old school that has been renovated into an artists collective, which proved a perfect venue.  Apparently the island is actually a sandbar, which explains the nice beaches.  Shortly after the picture above, Boris was brave enough to take a dip in Lake Ontario in between retreat sessions.  So far I’m not aware of any immediate health effects…

The main goals of the retreat were to build the foundation of our relatively newly formed team (I have only been in the office for a month and Sarah and Boris have only been working directly with George for about a year), and to take the time to focus on the Important / Low Urgency items that are often crowded out by Interruptions.

In doing so, we turned a few models that National Office often shares with our chapter and overseas leaders towards analyzing ourselves.  The first model on the left is the 5 Dysfunctions Of A Team  by Patrick Lencioni.  Although I’m not keen on the negative framing that suggest solving problems rather than setting a team up for success in the first place, it is a good framework for reminding leaders to take the time to ensure that each of the necessary pieces for a strong team is firmly in place.

The second model (above right) is outlined in Steven Covey’s the 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People, but I believe the basic concept long predates Covey.  It is useful language that is often quoted in the EWB office.  The concept was definetely firmly in our minds at the retreat.

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We spent a solid and mentally/emotionally taxing two days learning about each other and tackling deep questions about the organization. 

I guess word had gotten around before our arrival that there were going to be some engineers at the cooperative.  The quote of the weekend was from one of the artists at the cooperative who commented “I’ve never seen meetings go so long and people work so hard at them before.”

Despite having worked long and hard, I think we all came back with a spring in our step.

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Group Wisdom

3 Jul

Last week was another busy one.  On Tuesday we moved into the new EWB office and christened it by painting the graphic of our values on the wall.  On Wednesday I moved into my sublet for the summer, and on Thursday night the majority of the office staff left for either the Western or Eastern Regional Retreats, which brought together a wide range of  leaders and new members from university chapters across the country.

I attended the Eastern Retreat in Paris, Ontario, which is a couple of hour drive west from Toronto – a drive that took us through the city of Burlington, where I was born.  I had never been to a Regional Retreat before and it was an amazing experience.  There were around 70 people there from chapters around Ontario, Quebec, the Maritimes and some people from out west who are in the area for work terms.

It was a packed two and half days, with sessions starting right after breakfast at 8am and ending around 9pm, with many people then staying up into the wee hours of the morning (I made it to around 2:30am each night).  The weather and setting were beautiful and many of the sessions were held outside under trees,  which strongly reminded me of farmer group meetings in Ghana.  In both cases I believe that many powerful changes rippled from ideas shared under the shade of the meeting trees.

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After kicking things off on Thursday night, the first day was focused very much on self reflection and awareness and I was amazed at how quickly an atmosphere of trust and sharing was created amongst a group of mostly strangers.

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During the second day (Saturday), we dove into collectively planning the future of EWB and the change that we are going to embody and catalyze in the world.  Representatives of the National Office provided background and then facilitated conversations to gain input on key topics like defining what it means to be a change leader, the wording of our updated purpose statement, shared goals for our different program areas, and the basis for a new operating contract between different parts of the organization (a ‘High 5’ agreement between Chapters, African Programs, Distributed Teams, National Office, and Dorothy).

On the final morning after a couple of last sessions, we wrapped up the weekend by sitting around in a big circle and sharing our personal reflections.  It was a powerful experience.  When Annette brought up the concept of ‘group wisdom,’  it occurred to me that I was the oldest person in the circle (I beat George by a few months) and that wisdom is not a term normally associated with a group of people who are mostly in their early 20s.  However, I think in this case it is extremely appropriate, as the atmosphere of openness and collaboration at the retreat allowed an group of young leaders to achieve an incredible depth of thought and helped enable a level of individual personal revelation that many people will never be fortunate enough to experience in their lives.

Francis from National Office summed up the regional retreat experience well when he said “people come to EWB for the cause , but they stay because of the people.”

Cracking the Nut

26 Jun

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I was in Washington, DC, for the first couple of days of last week attending the Cracking The Nut conference.  I had the opportunity to meet and learn from a wide range of players in the development finance sector, including representatives from multi-national organizations (IDB, World Bank), National Governmental Donor Orgs (USAID, GIZ), Non-Profits (One Acre, World Vision), Impact Investors (Root Capital), Specialized Financial Intermediaries (Calvert Fund), Companies (Ecom Agribusiness), Government Orgs (MoFA, Cocoa Board), etc…

Major Conference Themes:

· The FAO has estimated that $75B/year is required to ‘Feed The Future’ through 2050.  Speakers from the large institutions stressed that this money could not all come from donors, so commercial lending must be engaged. People also said that we shouldn’t be in ‘crisis mode,’ as we need long term coordinate development.

· There seems to be a shift in interest away from Micro Finance (sense amongst some that it is “played out”, perhaps stemming from a JP Morgan report on the sector) towards finance for the ‘missing middle’ of SMEs (small to medium enterprises , whose requirement of between $25k to $2MM in funding is too small for traditional banks, but too big for Micro Finance), although several people pointed out that there is still much good work to be done in Micro Finance, especially extending its success from urban to rural customers.

· It was stressed that there is a need for a comprehensive suite of financial services, including credit, insurance, savings facilities, remittance, informal, leasing, franchising, etc… There was lots of talk about bundling and different specialized players in the space becoming better coordinated.

· There was lot of great discussion about the need for capacity building on the ground and customizing approaches for different regions/cultures/situations,/etc…

My General Thoughts:

The conference left me thinking that there  may be interesting opportunities for EWB to connect our Overseas value chain work work and our In Canada Fair Trade work, which is really just working on the other end of the value chain for major export crops like cocoa, coffee, shea butter, even potentially non agricultural products  like the relatively new Fair Trade gold.

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After the conference, I wandered down to the White House to try and share some of my new incites with Barack.  However, according to the surly marines at the gate, he wasn’t home…

I also had about an hour to quickly run through a couple of the Smithsonian museums (which are totally free, by the way!) to see the Wright Brother’s Kitty Hawk, the Hope Diamond, a replica of the lunar capsule and a bunch of other amazing stuff. 

I was really impressed with Washington, DC.  It is a beautiful city and there is an embarrassment of riches with respect to historical sites to see – and most of them are located within easy walking distance of one and other.  If you haven’t been before, I highly recommend that you check it out.

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I returned on Wednesday to enjoy the last 3 days in our 366 Adelaide office.  Many people had returned from the Farnberger wedding (Dave and Robin’s, at whose place I am currently staying), which gave me the opportunity to get to know many more of my new coworkers.

After following up with new contacts from the conference, I spent the rest of the week helping the Canadian Programs team to prepare for the regional retreats next weekend.  There was lots of great talk about starting to incorporate come of our Overseas methodologies into our In Canada programs.

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After ‘Wine Down’ on Friday afternoon, which is a really cool tradition where the office staff sit around George’s favorite round conference room table and toast with Fair Trade wine the great accomplishments from across the EWB network from the past week, a group of us went over to check out the new office space (pictured above).  It is only a couple of blocks away from the current office and it looks amazing!  Can’t wait to move in next Wednesday.

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Also next Wednesday, I will be moving into the furnished sublet that I found for July and August.  It’s located in Liberty Village just off King West and a short jog from the lake shore.  It’s a one bedroom located in the middle of the top floor of the building pictured on the left above.  The view looking north through the big windows is pretty spectacular. 

So next week is shaping up to be another good one.

Settling Into The Big Smoke

19 Jun

I dove right into work on Tuesday of last week, having arrived late Monday night.  The couple of times I had visited the EWB National Office in the past, it had always been packed with people, however, this week turned out to be very quiet, as many of the staff were up in Ottawa to lobby for International Aid Transparency.

EWB’s advocacy group has been making great strides lately.  This week was another big step, as we held 50 MP meetings and a press conference that attracted quite a bit of media coverage.

EWB’s Ian Froude and Erin Flanagan being interviewed by Metro News on Parliament Hill.

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The focus of the meetings and our recent advocacy work is lobbying to convince the government to sign onto the International Aid Transparency (IAT) convention.  All of the MP’s that we interacted with seemed to be in favor of the signing on, so the next step will be to…  To learn more and sign the petition, please click on this banner:

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The Ottawa activity made for a bit of a quieter week for me in Toronto, but I still had plenty to do and it gave me an opportunity to get to know a few of the people who were left in the office much better.  This included some great chats about Fair Trade and the 2012 National Conference.

Due to a scheduling conflict with the person originally scheduled to attend, it was also decided mid week that I should represent EWB at the Cracking The Nut conference on Rural and Agricultural Finance in Washington DC this coming Monday and Tuesday (the 20th and 21st), so I spent a good part of the week getting up to speed on EWB’s Value Chain and Business Development Services overseas work.  The conference looks amazing and I’ve never been to Washington before, so I’m really looking forward to seeing the sites too.

In the evenings and on Saturday, I had a chance to explore downtown Toronto both on foot and on my bike, which I had boxed up and taken with me on the plane.  Most of my exploration was focused on finding a furnished sublet for July and August so I can get to know the city a bit before committing to somewhere more permanent. 

EWB alum Robin and Dave have graciously lent me their place while they are off getting married in Calgary (many people from the office went to their wedding, which also contributed to the quietness in the office) and this gives me a pretty firm deadline for finding a place, as I don’t really want to still be there when the newlyweds return home.  I finally found a great place in Liberty Village that I’m really excited about, so things are shaping up quiet nicely on all fronts for me so far in the Big Smoke.

New Adventures

16 Jun

After returning back from Ghana at the end of December, the first couple of months of this year were a bit rough for me.  I had promised myself that I wouldn’t make any brash life decisions until I’d been back for a while, but I couldn’t seem to settle back in.  My challenge to myself to ‘never cease exploring’ kept ringing in my ears, but I could feel my focus narrowing as I settled back into my old routines.

Although I think it would have been possible to expand my focus and continue exploring without leaving my home, after a few months I finally decided it was time to make a change.  I looked at several options and chose Engineers Without Borders because I believe in the work the organization is doing, the people in the organization I’ve worked with so far have been exceptional without exception, and the values of the organization align almost perfectly with my own.

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Despite all of this, it was not an easy decision to leave my friends and family in Vancouver behind to join EWB’s national office in Toronto.  I’m anticipating it also won’t be easy  to switch career paths after 14 years in consulting engineering and to adjust to a new city and a significantly different level of compensation.

Above all else, it is the support of my parents that has given me the strength and freedom to make this change and take on this new adventure.   Thank you Mom and Dad – you’re the best!

Never Cease Exploring

20 Dec

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I just arrived back in Vancouver last night after having spent two days in Toronto for final EWB debriefing meetings.  This will be my last post for a while and I’d like to take this opportunity to share a final personal observation and holiday wish. 

Hopefully at some point over the past few months you noticed this TS Eliot quote that I put up on the sidebar of my blog when I was preparing to leave for Ghana in the summer:

We must never cease exploring and the end of our exploration will be to return home and see it for the first time.

With the travelling I have done over the years, I have noticed that my curiosity and openness expands while I am away and contracts when I slip back into the routines of my daily life.

Whatever you are truly passionate about, whether it be international development, the environment, parenting, music, and/or anything  else, my wish for all of us in the New Year is that we each explore the opportunities that are all around us right here at home in order to make the most out of each and every day.

What I’ve Learnt – Summarized In Under 300 Words

15 Dec

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Well I’m currently in Zurich, only about halfway home, but I’ve already had a lot of time sitting on buses and planes over the last few days to reflect on my experiences over the last four months in Ghana.  Here’s my best attempt to boil down what I’ve learnt based on my personal experiences…

About Development: good development builds the intended recipient’s sense of empowerment whereas bad development decreases it.  Sounds obvious?  You’d be surprised at how many development projects inadvertently violate this basic rule by training people into a reliance on assistance from NGOs or government. 

About EWB: the strength of the organization is rooted in the passion, creativity, and talents of it’s members.  EWB volunteers do an amazing job of empowering individuals on a daily basis during their overseas work.  This is great long term sustainable development work, but there is a challenge in communicating the impact, as many people overly focus on easily measureable short term results.    

About Ghana: there are many cultural differences between people in Canada and Ghana, for example the way we view time and our perspective on family responsibilities, but what struck me far more during my stay were the many similarities.  The average Ghanaian is happier than the average Canadian, despite the fact that they have a fraction of our wealth. 

About Myself: I am happiest when I have the courage to pursue what I am passionate about.  Of course I mean this with respect to big decisions, like deciding to volunteer overseas, but I believe this is actually most important on a day to day basis with respect to all of the little opportunities that are always around us.