American Friends: Whose Friends Are They?

imagesFrequently I receive questions about the purpose of “American Friends” organizations and how they function on behalf of non-profit organizations overseas. It is complicated both for the overseas non-profit and for the non-profit “friends” group in the United States. When it works well financial resources are developed and the available funds are transferred overseas to support the organizations programs. However, when it does not work there are many issues that often lead to disagreements and arguments between the professional and volunteer leadership in the United States and the leadership overseas. There are a number of administrative and political issues that can either support a strong connection or weaken the structure of the overseas organization.

Generally speaking, an “American Friends” is a 501C3 organization whose purpose is to provide leadership and financial support for overseas organization. It is a way of establishing a presence for the overseas organization in the United States that will recruit volunteers who will donate their time and financial support on behalf of the agency. Many overseas non-profit groups see this as a way of spreading the awareness of the organization’s existence and a way to encourage people to become involved in working to strengthen the activities and services of the non-profit provides.

Some overseas groups depend entirely on volunteer leadership in the United States while other organizations invest in opening an official office and hiring appropriate professional leadership that will actively recruit volunteer leadership and implement a fundraising campaign. In either case, the overseas organization has high expectations and is hoping that funds will be raised in an effective and efficient manner to support their services in the home country. The “American Friends” expects not only to be a source of the much needed income but also to become invested in the purposes of the organization. Over time the leadership will be invested in working on behalf of the organization. However, the increased involvement and commitment does have the potential to be a challenge for the both the American based friends group and the staff in the overseas office.

Since the services are provided overseas the main office of the non-profit agency sees themselves as the central address and understands the primary function of the “American Friends” as raising money and providing support for the services to be delivered in the foreign country. However, as the “Friends group” becomes more active and more committed to the purposes of the organization they also want to be more involved. It may not be enough just to provide support and, since they are raising the funds, they may want to have a voice in deciding the priorities of the agency and how the funds are going to be used.

Deciding on the role for the “American Friends” as they work on behalf of the non-profit and providing them with an appropriate level of empowerment that offers them a voice is not an easy task. A good deal of strategic planning has to be part of the development phase. The volunteer and professional leadership in both countries must have clear expectations. If the right balance is not achieved in forming the relationship between the two groups this can be a recipe for disaster.

In the best of all worlds, the “American Friends” group coordinates all of its activities with the overseas office, and in recruiting leadership and raising funds it reflects the priorities of the organization. When the office in the United States begins to raise funds for programs and services that do not reflect the overseas operations this becomes a point of conflict between the two offices. The fundraising activities cannot dictate the services and those involved in resource development have to understand they are working to sustain the present services and to develop innovative approaches.

When donors want to see a particular project developed by the organization it has to be negotiated with the professional staff overseas who work on the ground. There is a natural tendency to want to please the donor and demonstrate the organization’s flexibility in working with donors. At the same time, the organization has to be true to its purposes and consistent in the way it implements the professional services. The concern for the donor and his connection to the organization are important but it cannot necessarily dictate the agency’s priorities.

In deciding to establish an “American Friends” organization for a non-profit it is necessary to be aware of the potential problems so they can be avoided. Working to sustain the organization’s financial viability means planning cautiously when considering the establishment of an office based in North America. When it is implemented correctly it can enhance the development of the much needed support.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.