This week I had the great privilege to interview Cassandra Tomkin, Director of Operations for Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS). CCS is a pioneering leader in international volunteering. They have set the standard in their field and continue to find new, innovative ways to improve their projects and to give their volunteers the best possible experiences overseas. Their mission: “To operate volunteer programs around the world in partnership with sustainable community initiatives, bringing people together to work side-by-side while sharing perspectives and fostering cultural understanding.” CCS is a model organization for emerging and established volunteer projects interested in building an international presence. I learned so much from this interview, I hope you do too! Part two will appear tomorrow.
Can you tell me a little bit about how Cross-Cultural Solutions got started?
Cross-Cultural Solutions was founded in 1995 by our current Executive Director, Steve Rosenthal. Steve had traveled to Kenya as part of a trip across several countries. During his week in Kenya, he met a friend who was volunteering with the Peace Corps, and was able to volunteer in this village during this time. The memory of this experience stuck out from his adventures, and he wanted to make a short-term volunteer experience possible for more people.
Steve made a connection with a NGO expert in Delhi, Bela Singh, who he started the first CCS program with. They created the structure, which has been further enhanced as additional Country Directors have joined our team with their expertise. We started with a handful of volunteers traveling each year, and have since expanded to over 30,000 alumni of our programs – and growing!
Cross-Cultural Solutions is a leader in international volunteering. I imagine, as a pioneering organization, you’ve had to develop standards for responsible volunteering. What challenges have you faced in this regard?
CCS is absolutely a leader in our field, and we have developed standards together with the Country Directors leading each program, and through the experiences we have seen with our volunteers over the years. An important aspect that we have held in developing these standards is to rely on the experts and to defer to the needs of the local community members. This has been an important component to our success, and to the sustainability and impact of our programs – the local communities know their own needs best. We have also been lucky to be very involved in our field, through such organizations as the International Volunteer Programs Association and the Building Bridges Coalition, where we share and set best practices across the field.
One of the primary challenges early on was that having a program fee to become an international volunteer was a relatively unknown concept – today, it is much more common. Therefore, many individuals were surprised that you need to “pay” to volunteer, and this was a challenge in educating the community about the reasons behind this fee.
You have employees stationed all over the world. I’m curious about how you keep track of all of your programs, projects, and volunteers. I know you conduct yearly reviews but how do you manage it all day-to-day?
CCS has over 300 staff members worldwide throughout 15 countries, as well as over 2500 volunteers that participate in our programs each year.
In terms of volunteers, it is critical that we are extremely organized with all information about each volunteer. We have built systems and safeguards to ensure that we are capturing the information and are consistently updated on all volunteers. The most important system in this set-up is Salesforce, which tracks all volunteer forms and information, as well as start dates and reporting. This is a system that is at the center of all we do with prospective volunteers, enrolled volunteers, and alumni of our programs.
Our staff members are all managed locally, by staff members that know and understand local laws and practices. The Country Director for each CCS country (12 in all) directly manage the legal and staffing activities of all program sites within that country, while our HQ office directly manages all HR and legal activities for the 3 countries where we have administrative offices (US, UK, Canada). This decentralized model ensures that we are responding as locally appropriate to needs and best practices.
Please check back for part two of my interview with Cassandra Tomkin, Director of Operations for Cross-Cultural Solutions.