Reflections on a Two-Year Assignment: Build an NGO in Sri Lanka

Unawatuna, Sri Lanka.  As I prepare to return to the global office in New York, I have been reflecting on my two-year assignment to set up and manage Orphans International Worldwide (OIWW) Sri Lanka with local staff. It has been some of the most wonderful experience working closely with the local team members.

Even if I am away for extended time, I can rest assured that OI team members will manage the project effectively due to the strong bond we all share, on our understanding of Orphans International.

We might not be as well established as other NGO’s, nor having the flawless organizational structure that UNICEF has, but we are making full use of our talents and any available resources to make things work for the good of the children.

I am a believer of a non-hierarchy management style in running the project. I could not stress more how important teamwork is, and embrace the employees as part of the family. No staff would want to work in an environment where they feel their input is not valued.

For instance, during recent the financial difficulties we have experienced over the summer, it amazes me how the staff handled the situation, and how they never once complained, nor refused to work due to late salary payments.

To us, the staff of Orphans International, this is more than a job that pays our bills.

Rather, it is a how we embrace the organization and our children as a family.

Taking OIWW’s global model and family-care standards as an example, our management needs to achieve full a understanding before they can apply the principles in the field, and towards our child-sponsorship program.

As Jim wrote on his blog regarding the perception of most people, especially in developing countries where the international expatriate is living a luxurious life in their ivory tower — not that it is a bad thing — our global officers need to have zero expectations, and quickly adapt to any living condition and challenges coming their way.

OI certainly prepared me a lot in this. I could now easily live in a mud hut, eating 50-cent meals while feeling connected to the community. Luckily, my life in Sri Lanka is in a nice home, but a Sri Lankan home – not a typical international NGO staff residence.

Global officers needs to be well-trained, not just in how to handle finances and how to operate community centers, but also with adequate people skills. How to represent OIWW as a proud team member and ambassador; carrying our organization’s mission statement and credo in mind, and applying all the five mission statements in everything we are doing.

For instance, the essential knowledge of globalization, how technology plays such an important role in our lives, how crucial to embrace multi-cultural and religious beliefs so that we are setting an example for our children, to eliminate hatred and racial discrimination.

Those are things we simply won’t learn by reading tourist guides. One must experience this and learn to adapt with an open heart.

There is no such thing as a ‘big boss’ at OI Sri Lanka. We all work as a team, with encouragement on thinking outside the box, to be initiative, and to care for each other.

Essentially, this is the model of the Orphans International work culture which we are hoping to spread to all our projects around the world, and our global officers will not hesitate for any job posting, let it be Tanzania, Haiti, or Indonesia. It certainly takes a big group of global citizens to raise the future of the next generation of global citizens – our orphaned children!

Originally published in The Orphans International Sri Lanka Blog, October 1, 2008.

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John Lee
John Lee served as a Global Officer of Orphans International Worldwide ( in Sri Lanka for three years following the 2004 Tsunami. He is Vice President of the James Jay Dudley Luce Foundation ( and serves as Lifestyle Editor of The Stewardship Report on Connecting Goodness. He has a masters degree in gemology and is an accomplished photographer.

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