Joanna Reed was walking home through fallen tree blossoms in Guatemala City. Today, however, her mind was more on her work than the natural beauty surrounding her. She unlocked the gate to her colonial home and sat down on the porch, surrounded by riotous toddlers, pets, and plants, to ponder the recommendations she would make to Sam Wilson. The key decisions she needed to make about his donor services department concerned who should run the department and how the work should be structured.
Joanna had worked for a sponsorship agency engaged in international development work with poor people for six years. She and her husband moved from country to country setting up new agencies. In each country, they had to design how the work should be done, given the local labor market and work conditions.
After a year in Guatemala, Joanna, happily pregnant with her third child, had finished setting up the donor services department for the agency and was working only part-time on a research project. A friend who ran a “competing” development agency approached her to do a consulting project for him. Sam Wilson, an American, was the national representative of a U.S.-based agency that had offices all over the world. Wilson wanted Joanna to analyze his donor services department because he had received complaints from headquarters about its efficiency. Since he had been told that his office needed to double in size in the coming year, he wanted to get all the bugs worked out beforehand. Joanna agreed to spend a month gathering information and compiling a report on this department.
WHAT IS A DONOR SERVICES DEPARTMENT IN A SPONSORSHIP AGENCY ANYWAY?
Sponsorship agencies, with multimillion dollar budgets, are funded by individuals and groups in developed countries who contribute to development programs in less developed countries (LDCs). Donors contribute approximately $20.00 per month plus optional special gifts. The agencies use this money to fund education, health, community development, and income-producing projects for poor people affiliated with their agency in various communities. In the eyes of most donors, the specific benefit provided by sponsorship agencies is the personal relationship between a donor and a child and his or her family in the LDC. The donors and children write back and forth, and the agency sends photos of the child and family to the donors. Some donors never write the family they sponsor; others write weekly and visit the family on their vacations. The efficiency of a donor services department and the quality of their translations are key ingredients to keeping donors and attracting new ones. Good departments also never lose sight of the fact that sponsorship agencies serve a dual constituency-the local people they are trying to help develop and the sponsors who make that help possible through their donations.
The work of a donor services department consists of more than translating letters, preparing annual progress reports on the families, and answering donor questions directed to the agency; it also handles the extensive, seemingly endless paperwork associated with enrolling new families and assigning them to donors, reassignments when either the donor or the family stops participating, and the special gifts of money sent (and thank you notes for them). Having accurate enrollment figures is crucial because the money the agency receives from headquarters is based on these figures and affects planning.
The Department Head
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Joanna tackled the challenge of analyzing the department by speaking first with the department head (see the organizational chart in Exhibit 1). Jose Barriga, a charismatic, dynamic man in his forties, was head of both donor services and community services. In reality, he spent virtually no time in the donor services department and was not bilingual. “My biggest pleasure is working with the community leaders and coming up with programs that will be successful. I much prefer being in the field, driving from village to village talking with people, to supervising paperwork. I’m not sure exactly what goes on in donor services, but Elena, the supervisor, is very responsible. I make it a point to walk through the department once a week and say hello to everyone, and I check their daily production figures.”
Like Jose, Sam was also more interested in working with the communities on projects than in immersing himself in the details of the more administrative departments. In part, Sam had contracted Joanna because he rightfully worried that donor services did not receive the attention it deserved from Jose, who was very articulate and personable but seldom had time to look at anything beyond case histories. Jose never involved himself in the internal affairs of the department. Even though he was not considered much of a resource to them, he was well liked and respected by the staff of donor services, and they never complained about him.
This was not the case with the supervisor Jose had promoted from within. Elena had the title of departmental supervisor, but she exercised very little authority. A slight, single woman in her thirties, Elena had worked for the organization since its establishment 10 years earlier. She was organized, meticulous, dependable, and hardworking. But she was a quiet, non assertive, nervous woman who was anything but proactive. When asked what changes she would make if she were the head of the department, she sidestepped the question by responding, “It is difficult to have an opinion on this subject. I think that the boss can see the necessary changes with greater clarity.”
Elena did not enjoy her role as supervisor, which was partly due to the opposition she encountered from a small clique of longtime translators. In the opinion of this subgroup, Elena had three strikes against her. One, unlike her subordinates, she was not bilingual. “How can she be the supervisor when she doesn’t even know English well? One of us would make a better supervisor.” Bilingual secretaries in status-conscious Guatemala see themselves as a cut above ordinary secretaries. This group looked down on Elena as being less skilled and less educated than they were, even though she was an excellent employee.
Second, Elena belonged to a different religion than the organization itself and almost all the other employees. This made no difference to Sam and Jose but seemed important to the clique who could be heard making occasional derogatory comments about Elena’s religion.
The third strike against Elena was her lack of authority. No one had ever clarified how much authority she really possessed, and she herself made no effort to assume control of the department. “My instructions are to inform Don Jose Barriga of infractions in my daily production memo. I’m not supposed to confront people directly when infractions occur, although it might be easier to correct things if I did.” (“Don” is a Latin American honorific used before the first name to denote respect.)
This subgroup showed their disdain and lack of respect for Elena by treating her with varying degrees of rudeness and ignoring her requests. They saw her as a watchdog, an attitude furthered by Jose who sometimes announced, “We (senior management) are not going to be here tomorrow, so be good because Elena will be watching you.” When Sam and Jose left the office, the clique often stopped working to socialize. They’d watch Elena smolder out of the comer of their eyes, knowing she would not reprimand them. “I liked my job better before I became supervisor,” said Elena. “Ever since, some of the girls have resented me, and I’m not comfortable trying to keep them in line. Why don’t they just do their work without needing me to be the policeman? The only thing that keeps me from quitting is the loyalty I feel for the agency and Don Jose.”
In addition to the clique already mentioned, there were three other female translators in the department. All the translators but one had the same profile: in their twenties, of working class backgrounds, and graduates of bilingual secretarial schools, possessing average English skills. (As stated earlier, in Latin America, being a bilingual secretary is a fairly prestigious occupation for a woman.) The exception in this group was the best translator, Magdalena, a college-educated recent hire in her late thirties who came from an upper-class family. She worked, not because she needed the money, but because she believed in the mission of the agency. “This job lets me live out my religious beliefs and help people who have less advantages than I do.” Magdalena was more professional and mature than the other translators. Although all the employees were proud of the agency and its religious mission, the clique members spent too much time socializing and skirmishing with other employees inside and outside the department.
The three translators who were not working at full capacity were very close friends. The leader of this group, Juana, was a spunky, bright woman with good oral English skills and a hearty sense of humor. A long-time friend of Jose’s, Juana translated for English-speaking visitors who came to visit the program sites throughout the country. The other translators, tied to their desks, saw this as a huge perk. Juana was the ringleader in the occasional mutinies against Elena and in feuds with people from other departments. Elena was reluctant to complain about Juana to Jose, given their friendship. Perhaps she feared Juana would make her life even more miserable.
Juana’s two buddies (compafieras) in the department also had many years with the agency. They’d gotten into the habit of helping each other on the infrequent occasions when they had excessive amounts of work. When they were idle or simply wanted to relieve the boredom of their jobs, they socialized and gossiped. Juana in particular was noted for cutting sarcasm and pointed jokes about people she didn’t like. This clique was not very welcoming to the newer members of the department. Magdalena simply smiled at them but kept her distance, and the two younger translators kept a low profile to avoid incurring their disfavor. As one of them remarked, “It doesn’t pay to get on Juana’s bad side.”
The Organization of the Department
Like many small offices in Latin America, the agency was located in a spacious former private home. The donor services department was housed in the 40 by 30 foot living room area. The women’s desks were set up in two rows, with Elena’s desk in the back comer. Since Sam and Jose’s offices were in former back bedrooms, everyone who visited them walked through the department. Inevitably they stopped to greet and chat with the longtime employees (Elena, Juana, and her two friends). Elena’s numerous visitors also spent a good deal of time working their way through the department to reach her desk, further contributing to the amount of socializing going on in the department.
Elena was the only department member who had “official” visitors since she was the liaison person who dealt with program representatives and kept track of enrollments. The translators each were assigned one work process. For example, Marisol prepared case histories on new children and their families for prospective donors while Juana processed gifts. One of the newer translators prepared files for newly enrolled children and did all the filing for the entire department (a daunting task). Most of the jobs were primarily clerical and required little or no English. The letter translations were outsourced to external translators on a piece-work basis and supervised by Magdalena. Hers was the only job that involved extensive translation; for the most part, however, she translated simple messages (such as greeting cards) that were far below her level of language proficiency. The trickier translations, such as queries from donors in other countries, were still handled by Sam’s executive secretary.
Several translators complained that: “We don’t have enough opportunity to use our English skills on the job. Not only are we not getting any better in English, we are probably losing fluency because most of our jobs are just clerical work. We do the same simple, boring tasks over and over, day in and day out. Why did they hire bilingual secretaries for these jobs anyway?”
Another obvious problem was the uneven distribution of work in the office. The desks of Magdalena and the new translators were literally overflowing with several months’ backlog of work while Juana and her two friends had time to kill. Nobody, including Elena, made any efforts to even out the work assignments or help out those who were buried. The subject had never been broached.
The agency was growing at a rapid pace, and there were piles of paperwork sitting around waiting to be processed. Joanna spent three weeks having each department member explain her job (in mind-numbing detail), drawing up flow charts of how each type of paperwork was handled, and poking around in their files. She found many unnecessary steps that resulted in slow turnaround times for various processes. There were daily output reports submitted to Jose but no statistics kept on the length of time it took to respond to requests for information or to process paperwork. No data were shared with the translators, so they had no idea how the department was faring and had little sense of urgency about their work. The only goal was to meet the monthly quota of case histories, which only affected Marisol. Trying to keep up with what came across their desks summed up the entire focus of the employees.
Joanna found many instances of errors and poor quality, not so much from carelessness as from lack of training and supervision. Both Jose and Sam reviewed the case histories, but Joanna was amazed to discover that no one ever looked at any other work done by the department. The employees were very accommodating when asked to explain their jobs and very conscientious about their work (if not the hours devoted to it by the clique). However, they were seldom able to explain why things were done in a certain way because they had received little training for their jobs and only understood their small part of the department. Morale was obviously low, and all the employees seemed frustrated with the situation in the department. Nevertheless, with the exception of Magdalena who had experience in other offices, none of them could offer Joanna any ideas about how the department could be improved.
See the instructions in your syllabus for analyzing the case. The following questions are hints to some of the issues in the case. Do not just answer these questions for case analysis.
- What was Joanna Reed’s diagnosis of the situation in the donor services department?
- What should she recommend to Sam Wilson?
- Describe the managerial or leadership styles of Sam, Jose, and Elena. What is the impact of their styles?
- What are the personality characteristics of the main people in the case?
- How can motivation be improved in the department?
- What types of conflict are present in the case and what are the causes of the conflicts.
- How should Juana be handled?
- What are the cultural factors that influence this case?