Cultural Exchange at the Office

One thing that I love with the American Red Cross is that people go to meetings without their laptops. Most colleagues also refrain from checking their email on mobile phones while in a meeting. The only tools used are a notepad and a pen. This increases tremendously the likelihood that people in fact actively listen to each other and contribute to the discussion.

At my previous workplace, Nokia, it was very common that even if people were physically in the meeting room, mentally they were not. The official explanation was that they had to multitask, and I must admit having been guilty to this one, too. The year here will be an excellent training camp for being more focused and present.

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Then again, what I miss most from Nokia is the lunch culture. At the Red Cross (and apparently in most other DC offices), most people only eat a very quick lunch at their desk, either something that they have brought with them from home or that they quickly grab nearby. Even when going out for lunch, at least coffee is drunk “efficiently” while walking back to the office. 

During my 21 quarters at Nokia, the occasions when I did not make it to a proper lunch at the beloved cafeteria can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The meals were tasty, healthy and reasonably priced, in other words perfect for refilling the energy reserves to stay calm, balanced and productive also during the afternoon hours, and to be able to exercise right after work.

Even more importantly, the lunch breaks were a nearly sacred ritual in the middle of hectic days: time to take some distance to the glowing laptop screen, sit back, relax, reset the brain, and chat with friends and colleagues. These discussions were a great way to learn what is really is going on in the lives of bosses, peers and subordinates, and what matters to them most. Even if the work topics were often not discussed at all, magically many problems seemed much smaller when returning to the desk.

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The Fulbright program was established to “increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries”. As much as it is an educational exchange program, also cultural exchange is in the heart of it. I hope my contribution can be bringing laptop-free meetings back to Finland, and taking the lunch culture here to a next level.

Why the Red Cross?

Recently I have been asked frequently why I chose the American Red Cross as my host organization. During the application process I was indeed in touch with many nonprofits around the United States. The common denominators were that the goals of the host organization must be close to my heart, and the organization must be non-partisan and non-sectarian. I might have happily ended up to San Francisco or Chicago, but from early on it was clear that the Red Cross would be an excellent match.

I have been involved with the Finnish Red Cross since a school kid, into a large extent thanks to my primary school teacher who was active in the organization. She made sure that we learned first aid among other useful skills. Also my first memories about fundraising are from those days in the late 80s. I remember particularly well a dark December evening when I was walking around our neighborhood with a friend of mine. It was snowing heavily, and we were persistently selling Red Cross Christmas cards and candles door-to-door.

The connection with the Red Cross dates even further back in history, as volunteering with the Red Cross runs in my family. My grandmother was among the charter members of the local Finnish Red Cross chapter that was founded in 1947. She was a Member of the Board from 1947 to 1969, and served as Treasurer from 1947 to 1962. After this, she continued to support the Red Cross until she passed away in 2002. She was awarded the Finnish Red Cross Silver Medal of Merit to honor her work in the organization.

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After leaving management consulting in 2007, I decided to restart devoting some of my time for volunteering. To get started, I did a Finnish Red Cross volunteer course. There I learned about the work that Red Cross volunteers do at the Helsinki Mother and Child Home – a place for families who are in crisis or need extensive support in parenthood and managing everyday life. Some of the parents are very young, and some suffer from postpartum depression or other mental issues. Every three weeks Red Cross volunteers give the parent(s) a free evening by taking care of their infants. Being able to help “hands on” has been extremely rewarding.

Finally, there was one more important aspect that sealed my decision to choose the Red Cross as the case for my Fulbright application: brain candy. When I had my first conversations with the folks at the American Red Cross National Headquarters over phone and Skype last December, we were very quickly able to identify a fundraising project that was a perfect fit both with my professional development goals as well as the experience of data analysis, process improvement and performance management that I had accumulated over the years in business. So here I am in Washington, DC, and now you know why.

Fancy Surroundings and Famous Neighbors

When I filled in the address of the American Red Cross National Headquarters to my Fulbright application, I had no clue that there would be a beautiful historical landmark waiting for me at 430 17th Street NW, Washington 20006. This I found out only on my first day when I saw my new fancy surroundings.

American Red Cross National Headquarters

While waiting for my boss in the main lobby, a lady came to ask me if I was there for a guided tour. I told her that my “tour” will be a year-long, but I got curious. I learnt the American Red Cross offers free guided tours at the soon hundred-year-old headquarters.  On Friday I had a chance to join one of those tours, and I loved it. In addition to showing us around in the main building, the guide shared exciting and entertaining anecdotes about the history of the American Red Cross.

Detail of the Tiffany Windows

The headquarters houses an impressive art and artifact collection. The member recruitment posters from different decades were my favorites, and of course the incredible Tiffany windows in the Board of Governors Hall. These three-paneled stained glass windows from 1923 are reputed to be the largest suite of Tiffany windows created for a secular environment and have remained in place where they can be appreciated in the environment for which they were created.

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Another highlight of the tour were two fundraising quilts that are on display in the lobby. The quilts were received from a school in southern California, one in the early 1900s, and the other a few years ago. The parents of the school kids seemed to have excelled in networking. In addition to numerous presidents of the United States, for example Charlie Chaplin and Thomas Edison were among the donors.

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To see this all and much more, I can highly recommend joining a tour at the headquarters if you have a chance. The guided tours are free and open to the public, but reservations are required. Tours are offered Wednesdays and Fridays 10 AM and 2 PM, so as a bonus we can have lunch together before or after the tour.

PS. There is one more element that makes the office days feel somewhat surreal: our famous neighbors. Being located right next to the White House has some practical implications to everyday life. You never know which streets and parks the police has decided to close off for safety reasons. Hence, to make it in time to the morning meetings, one has to buffer some time for walking around at least a few extra blocks. Luckily, I bought an awesome bike for commuting today, so these detours just became much faster.

The White House

Highlights of the First 10 Days

Got a local phone number, a bank account, an ATM card, checks, and a public transportation card sorted out within 48 hours after immigration.

Found a cozy ashtanga yoga studio and went for the first run in the Rock Creek Park with brand new blue running shoes.

Borrowed a toolbox from an IMF economist and dismantled an IKEA shelf while helping a new friend from the World Bank mafia move to NYC.

Got an update of the Syria situation from the Assistant Professor in Arab Politics at Georgetown University.

Went to my first happy hours, ate empanadas (twice!), and found two cool hipster joints where drinks are served in jars.

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Realized that my new office is a fancy historical building right next to the White House, and got off to a flying start with my project.

Was attacked by nasty mosquitoes and learnt that DC is built on a swamp (which may actually be a myth).

Test-drove city bikes and Pelago bikes on the streets of DC, and attended a dangerously inspiring event hosted by the DC Triathlon Club.

Spent endless hours scanning through Craigslist housing ads, responded to 37 or so, got invited to see a handful of apartments, and learnt what pet peeves are.

Felt grateful for friends for linking me with their DC friends, and for these friends of friends for making DC feel like home from the very beginning.

Objectives for the Mission

How does it feel to work full time on a hobby? What are the main differences between companies and not-for-profit organizations? Which are more efficient and effective: traditional massive organizations, or small agile nonprofits? And how much can one single person really contribute to changing the world? These and many more questions are to be answered during the next 12 months.

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When applying for the Fulbright scholarship, I defined three main objectives for my mission at the American Red Cross:

  • Support the American Red Cross in its important work through my pro-bono project. My project will provide the organization with documentation on its current fundraising processes, quantitative analyses on effectiveness of different fundraising methods and new ideas how to further develop the processes and enhance fundraising performance.
  • Gain valuable knowledge of the dynamics of the not-for-profit sector in the US and specifically about fundraising. This is of great importance for my professional and personal development, as my plan is to work full time in the not-for-profit sector in my future career.
  • Provide a useful case study on fundraising best practices for Finnish not-for-profits. Learning about the benchmark processes and ways of working in the US through my project could provide the Finnish Red Cross, Zonta clubs in Finland as well as other Finnish not-for-profit organizations with completely new tools and inspiration.

In addition to achieving these three official objectives during my year in the US, I plan to learn as much as possible about US history and politics, visit legendary places, like Hawaii, Florida and Alaska, and make my debut in the American running and triathlon scene.