Building Sustainable Programs Abroad

The following is by Diane M. Kellogg, an associate professor of management at Bentley University.


Bentley U. students learn from a cocoa farmer in Ghana about sustainable agriculture efforts.

It started with a phone call. For a few years I had been helping my friend Carol Gray raise money to build an orphanage in Ghana, but everything changed when Carol called with news of her third diagnosis of cancer. “I want to die knowing the orphanage can support itself, without always needing donations. You’re a management consultant. You teach at a business school. Could Bentley help?”

I wanted to help, but I asked myself, “Why would Bentley want to get involved?” With time it sunk in that Carol was framing this as a management challenge, and I changed my question to: “Why wouldn’t Bentley want to get involved?”

But of course, it would take work. To make the idea a success, I needed to align its goals with the university’s goals. In the seven years since that phone call, I have learned valuable lessons in how to do this, often taking small steps that built momentum. Still, getting the project institutionalized at Bentley wasn’t without its challenges.

My first move was finding a faculty ally in the arts-and-sciences department. Bentley values the liberal arts as a key part of the education of business students, so I teamed up with Dale Kuntz, a professor of global studies. Together we took 12 students to Ghana to study the role of nongovernmental organizations in economic development—and to visit the orphanage. While there, I saw an opportunity for how Bentley could help the orphanage, and other NGOs in Ghana, by teaching them business principles that could help them generate income and become sustainable.

The trip was a success, but I wanted to make sure it wasn’t a one-off event. Some other faculty members expressed interest in taking classes to Ghana, but many still believed that the Ghana Project was “all about orphans,” which didn’t put the project in alignment with Bentley’s mission. I had to work hard to reinforce that our real purpose for going to Ghana was education for students at a business school.

I coined the term “Partners in Learning,” based on Paul Farmer’s “partners in health” concept described in the book Mountains Beyond Mountains. With the fervor of a marketing campaign, I used Partners in Learning whenever I wrote about or talked about the Ghana Project. I told people about “Bentley’s partners” (to broader the ownership of the project from me to Bentley) who were working on sanitation, water quality, the poultry industry, and solar power, and I emphasized what our students were learning from our partners in Africa.

A crucial element in gaining faculty support was tapping into people’s existing interests. For example, one faculty member who was passionate about finding an effective and affordable mosquito repellent was open to taking his global-health students to Ghana. He repeats the course every two years, alternating with the professor who got hooked on Ghana as a context for studying sustainability. Faculty members who taught a course on diversity were excited to put students in an intercultural environment.

I also wanted to be a collaborator who supported other international programs and to avoid being seen as a competitor for Bentley’s resources. I raised funds for international travel grants and made those available to other programs. That our work in Ghana wasn’t threatening to other potential overseas programs made it easier to get administrative support.

There were skeptics. Quoting an otherwise supportive administrator: “We can’t fund every passionate person’s project.” I could see his point. But I could also see the positive twist on it: If enough people are passionate about the same thing, it would be easier to get support.  I took steps to involve more people, and more academic departments. Eventually “I” became “we” as 10 other faculty members taught their courses in Ghana. We began taking professional staff to Ghana to assist. We also started a social enterprise on campus to keep students engaged with Ghana year round. We developed eight-week internships in Ghana to offer opportunities for students to get even more deeply involved.

Eventually, as the project grew, it became time-consuming to manage. I proposed that Bentley create a position to oversee the growing numbers of faculty, students, partners, and projects. The proposal was met with a “no can do—too expensive.” But thanks to the broad base of support the project enjoyed by then, that decision was reversed and the proposal was eventually approved. Now there’s a director position with released time from teaching and a modest operating budget. It’s a sustainable project.

Eventually our president, Gloria Larson, wanted to see for herself what everyone was talking about and traveled to Ghana. Hearing her tell the director of one of our partner NGOs, the Ghana Poultry Network, “We are in Ghana for the long haul,” was music to my ears.

[Photo courtesy of Diane M. Kellogg]

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