The Challenge of Communicating Across Cultures and Time Zones

by Valerie Khaytina

Most professionals in global Jewish organizations have experienced the challenge of working with counterparts living in different time zones, often on the other side of the ocean. In North American offices, we often speak about the frustrations of relying on “Israeli deadlines”, local staff’s interpretation of the donor’s needs and variances in communication styles compounded by cultural differences. As professionals, we need to strive to work seamlessly within our teams regardless of our geographical location. Our goal is to ensure that donors receive what they want, and we should aim to turn frustrations into opportunities for improvement.

Below is a discussion of some common challenges development professionals may face daily and suggestions to resolve them.

Delivering proposals and reports on time is a ‘no brainer’ for most fundraisers. But sometimes the program staff overseas is unable to gather the data by a given deadline. How can we, as development professionals, tackle this?

  • Prepare and familiarize yourself with master proposals for all funding opportunities that your organization has on the table. These documents should describe the basic case for giving, including statistics on the subject, project description, implementation plan, project impact, evaluation and a sample budget. Once you have your master proposals at your fingertips, more often than not you can pull up the data that your donor needs.
  • Be honest. In the case the master proposal doesn’t help and you still have not received the data from the field, just say it to your donor. People are more likely to give you their support if they know they can trust you. If your proposal or report does not fully respond to a donor’s question, explain why you cannot get a certain answer. If you can get the answer but at a later date, say so and then make sure you deliver.
  • Set an internal deadline. Agree with your overseas colleagues on a deadline that is sooner than when the proposal is due to the donor. Factor in the time that you need to go over the proposal or report and to get back to your program staff with any questions. And then – surprise your donor with submitting a proposal – earlier than the final deadline!

Often a donor will be interested in a project or program that is not practical or not a priority for your organization. In fact, your organization may wish you to approach the donor with a completely different project, which you hesitate to do. How do you find a solution for such situations in the future?

  • Use common language with your program staff, even if you don’t speak one. For example, in World ORT we have an internal request for proposal form. Once the development team receives a request for project from a prospect, we fill out a form that sets strict guidelines for proposal writing. We address questions about the target gift, location, population served, and guidelines for proposal writing, any limitations and budget specifications. Yes, it takes time to do this but it is worth it. It gives all parties involved written guidelines to follow and check off when writing and reviewing the proposal. It avoids unnecessary back-and-forth questions and creates a smoother writing process.
  • Educate your program staff. The people on the ground have a lot to teach us. We have to respect their realities and their demands from clients and partners. But we have something to teach them too about donors’ expectations and the giving culture in North America. Even the most talented program staff members know little about fundraising. What seems obvious to us may be bizarre to them. Regular retreats or seminars, either in person or video conferencing, where different teams educate their colleagues about what they do on a daily basis can help. For example, if program staff members understand how private foundations work and why they require reporting on a regular basis, they can be more attuned to reporting requirements when monitoring project implementation. Or, if they know the basics about federations’ overseas giving and partnership regions, they are more likely to send you geographically-appropriate proposals.

It is so easy to misinterpret messages from our overseas colleagues. The tone of an email may be abrupt, they may not respond to all the questions you ask, or you may not receive a response at all.

When we need responses quickly, how can we improve our communication with overseas colleagues?

  • I will be the first one to admit that it is easier for me to write an email than to call. But the simple truth is: if you just pick up the phone and call, you can have your answers faster and with fewer misunderstandings. Alternatively, if your email contains questions about a specific report or proposal, be proactive and follow-up with a phone call to your colleague and go over each question to make sure they understand exactly what you mean.
  • Don’t take it personally. Really, as much as we’d like to be the center of the universe, we often are not. If you don’t receive a response to an email it may be for a whole set of reasons. It’s your job to stay on top of your inquiry and make sure you receive an answer.
  • Email is just one example of broader cultural differences. Living in the “Smartphone Age” in the U.S., we strive to respond immediately even if it’s a simple “thanks”. Israelis may not respond immediately but instead read and note what you say and get back to you with a well-thought out response only a couple of days later. In other regions responding to an email may take a week in accordance with “snail mail” traditions. Keep in mind those differences, whether you communicate via email, on the phone or in-person.

Finally, remember that perseverance is everything in nonprofit world, especially in global philanthropy. Nothing happens as quickly as we want it to and not the exact way one expects it to and that’s ok. I dare to say that most fundraisers for overseas Jewish philanthropies enter the profession and intend to stay for the long-haul. If we manage to overcome daily obstacles and focus on the big picture, we’ll have something to look back at and be proud of. As one outstanding fundraiser and friend used to say: “no matter what organization you work for, at the end of the day it all goes to the same cause. We all help the Jewish People and the People of Israel.”

Valerie Khaytina often travels to large and small Jewish communities in the U.S. on behalf of World ORT and JFNA’s Speakers Bureau. She always feels inspired by the commitment of the North American Jewish community to help Jews both in Israel and overseas.