Last month I had the honor of addressing a group of visitors from Eastern Europe, all of whom were struggling to establish nonprofit organizations in their respective countries. The visitors were here as part of a training program coordinated by the Institute for Policy Studies at the Johns Hopkins University.
After decades of Communist rule, the nonprofit sector was nonexistent in Eastern Europe. With the revolutionary changes to democratic reform came the awareness that, if these fledgling democracies are to work, there needs to be a vibrant nonprofit sector.
In fact, worldwide, there is increasing attention paid to our country's nonprofit sector. It is viewed by many as a vital link in the chain which keeps a democracy healthy.
Development organizations such as the World Bank, along with foreign governments, send emissaries to this country to study our nonprofit industry.
My discussion with my Eastern European colleagues was focused on the issue of marketing nonprofit organizations. As difficult as that is in the United States, think of how daunting the concept of marketing is in Eastern Europe. Even today, Russians wait in long lines for basic foods, a notion that is alien to Americans.
Marketing is a strange, awkward concept for people who have grownup in a state-regulated economy. Of course, every cloud has a silver lining. Most of the participants in the workshop have never received a direct-mail advertisement.
Given the disparities between our two cultures, the temptation is great to bring our "advanced" level of marketing sophistication to whatever country will have it. Or, substitute whatever expertise we have, in any area, from technology to teaching.
What we, as Americans, tend to do is charge in, torpedoes be damned, and lay on our solutions no matter whether they fit or not. Sometimes this has unforeseen consequences.
I remember many years back, when I consulted to the Egyptian government, seeing the effects of our arrogance on scores of farms along the Nile River between Cairo and Alexandria. When the West was finally invited into Egypt by Anwar Sadat, we had brought along lots of technological fixes.
In the case of agriculture, we used millions of dollars in agricultural credits to make sure that Egyptian farms were well stocked with U.S. tractors.
The problem is, what has worked on U.S. farms does not readily translate into the agriculture of developing nations. A lack of spare parts, few trained technicians, much smaller family farms in comparison to ours, and a mismatch between technology and available resources resulted in the common sight of tractor after tractor sitting idle in the middle of a field.
After Egypt and Israel made peace, Israeli agricultural experts were invited in. The first thing they did was listen and observe. What they found was that the Egyptian farms along the Nile were actually quite efficient.
The main source of power used to run each farm's irrigation system was the common water buffalo, which was typically hitched to a primitive, yet elegantly simple, water wheel.
In addition, the typical farmer used the versatile water buffalo to pull a wagon and to power a grain grinding operation. They also milked the buffalo cows, and used the meat and hide when the animal passed its prime. The only problem was keeping the animals fed and healthy.
What the Egyptian farmers told the Israeli scientists was, "Make us a better water buffalo." And they did. Using genetic engineering, Egyptian farmers are now increasing their productivity by switching to these new breeds. They fatten up faster and require less grain per calorie of work.
When experienced American nonprofit executives are called in to work with other cultures, it pays for them to stop and listen.
Rather than rush in with preconceived solutions, which are only effective within a narrow context, we should all actively listen and first spend time carefully observing the host system.
Nor am I speaking only about those rare instances where a nonprofit executive is called in for a consulting engagement in a foreign land.
More likely the situation involves a white male, or predominantly white organization, being asked to counsel on a social problem in a minority community here in the United States. The cross-cultural analogy can be as apt here as "over there."
Too often, and with the best of intentions, we rush in to apply prepackaged solutions. With our sophisticated marketing savvy, we build up lots of hype in the media. We talk about our comprehensive solutions. Then, when the programs fail, the implication is that it is the victim's fault.
Next week, I'll examine some characteristics of successful programs working with other cultures, both within and outside our country.
(Lester A Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at 71 Bathon Circle, Elkton, Md., 21921;  392-3160.)