From Michigan to Marrakesh: Learning how nonprofits work abroad
Written by Susan Hutton
In the U.S., nonprofit organizations are primarily defined by what they are not: They are not part of the government; they do not return profits to their directors. They do, as a rule, exist to benefit their communities—however those communities are defined. Last spring, students taking a class about international nonprofits at the University of Michigan studied how organizations operate at home and around the world, learning what similarities—and what differences—they have with American groups.
For class, each student focused on a specific country, researched how nonprofit organizations are structured and organized there, and shared what they learned with the rest of their class. Halfway through the semester, all of the students trained their attention on Morocco—not because they were going to write a paper or give a presentation, but because they were going to Morocco in May.
“Because Morocco is a place where so many cultures intersect, the nongovernmental organization presence there is exceptionally rich and varied,” said Victoria Johnson, who teaches the class, part of the Organizational Studies Program in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts. “It’s a good place to find different examples of the way such organizations can work internationally.”
In Morocco, the 11 students in the class worked at one of three locations: the special-needs ward of an orphanage, a hospital and an English school for adults. The students didn’t just observe workers or push paper: They were there to serve.
LSA senior Heather Kendrick worked at the orphanage. She and the other students began each day by bathing more than 40 different people from the ages of six to 40, all with severe physical and mental disabilities. None of the students was fluent in French or Moroccan Arabic. They had to improvise communication with full-time nurses while helping to lift, bathe, and dress disabled patients together in a very small space.
Next, students fed the patients breakfast before enjoying more leisurely activities such as playing with children outside and strolling with wheelchair-bound residents on sunny days.
“I loved that we focused on learning about a topic throughout the semester,” Kendrick said, “and that we got to continue our educational experience in a very hands-on and involved way.”
And because this part of their education was practical, the trip gave students a glimpse of what nonprofit work is often like.
“It was an extreme example of embracing a ‘just do it’ mentality,” recalls Kendrick. “If you saw that help was needed, you just jumped right in no matter what the circumstance. As someone who wants to be a teacher, I am particularly thankful for the opportunity to work with groups of children with such diverse ages, abilities, nationalities, backgrounds, and languages. Now I’m able to take those teacher-student possibilities back to my classroom and recreate them.
In the afternoons, the students returned to what they called home base: a house in a residential neighborhood of Rabat where they ate communal Moroccan lunches—vegetable tagine eaten with round flatbread and couscous steamed over vegetables—before visiting Moroccan tourist sites and preparing for the next day’s work.
The community meals gave students a chance to discuss what they were seeing in the three Moroccan nonprofits where they were stationed. For LSA senior Jenna Fiore, who worked in the Children’s Hospital, that process continued into her summer internship as a New Sector Alliance Summer Fellow. “I still notice things that remind me of our time in Morocco,” she said, “and I have continued to learn from the trip by comparing the nonprofit systems I see now at my internship with those I saw in Morocco.”
She added, “I chose an international nonprofit class to learn about practices other countries use to address issues U.S. nonprofits also face because I hoped to find new ideas and perspectives I could bring back to the United States.”
There are all kinds of benefits to an experience like the Morocco trip, including an ability to compare problem-solving methods in American nonprofits with other approaches while building leadership skills, Kendrick said,. But another important takeaway from the trip wasn’t professional, she said. It was personal.
“Part of what made our trip so memorable was that we emphasized the importance of being a team when we traveled overseas,” Kendrick said. “It was a community-building experience, and there was always a component of our course that cultivated that. We worked together. We shared and supported one another academically and personally. And we evolved into better people throughout this experience.”
This is an article from the Fall 2014 issue of LSA Magazine. To read more stories like this, click here.