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  • Writer's pictureSorina I. Crisan, PhD

Empowering NGOs & Fostering Organizational Development: Interview with Beatrice Schulter

What does it look like to create positive change in the non-profit sector and foster collaboration among diverse organizations? Beatrice Schulter, Founder and Director of Roots to Rise and Executive Director of the Swiss Network for Education and International Cooperation (RECI), shares her insights and experiences in this thought-provoking interview. With over 20 years of experience in international development cooperation, in over 18 countries, Beatrice Schulter’s passion for participatory methods is evident as she states, “Inclusivity and mutual learning are the key ingredients for driving positive change.” As the founder of Roots to Rise, she supports and accompanies non-profit organizations in their strategic and organizational development, and while at RECI, she works with a network of Swiss organizations and experts to improve practices and policies in education worldwide. Through her commitment to participatory methods, Beatrice promotes inclusivity and harnesses the collective knowledge and wisdom of individuals to create meaningful impact within the non-profit sector. In this interview, she discusses her journey, the power of participatory methods like Open Space Technology, and offers valuable resources for those interested in employing these methods in their own meetings. The interview concludes with the interviewee’s advice to young professionals interested in following a similar line of work and profession such as theirs, emphasizing the importance of doing what they truly love and not letting others’ doubts hinder their choices.


Interview with Beatrice Schulter. By Sorina I. Crisan, PhD. Persuasive Discourse.
Photos: Beatrice Schulter conducting the Multilingual Education Teacher Training program in Kyrgyzstan, 2002. And an official school photograph from the Harvest Festival, in Rotfront, Kyrgyzstan, 1996.

Q1. Thank you for taking part in the Persuasive Discourse interview series. You are the Founder and Director of Roots to Rise, a consulting firm for non-profit organisations. And you are also the Executive Director of the Swiss Network for Education and International Cooperation (RECI). I would like to start our conversation, by asking: What is Roots to Rise? And why and when did you choose to create it?


Answer:


Thank you, Sorina. I am happy to have the opportunity to talk with you today.


I founded Roots to Rise in 2019, after more than 20 years of working for and with non-profit organisations in Switzerland and worldwide. I founded Roots to Rise to help accompany and support NGOs in their strategic and organisational development.


Thus far, I have worked mainly in the field of international development cooperation with a focus on education and children’s rights and have managed projects, programmes, NGOs, and NGO networks. This opportunity has provided me with a deep understanding of many different organisations. I believe that NGOs play a crucial role in the development of just societies and the world. I greatly value diversity within the NGO landscape, as it is very important to have NGOs of different sizes operating with different approaches in order to help achieve: human rights for all, a healthy environment, and a just world. Furthermore, it is the role of NGOs to speak truth to power and to challenge injustices. NGOs are faced with specific challenges. Often, I notice highly committed NGO staff, motivated by the cause of their organisation, working in unsustainable working environments, scarcely financed organisations, or organisations with insufficient clarity in their governance and strategy.


As a result of the different leadership roles, I have held so far, I have been able to develop the understanding, practical knowledge, and skills needed to help further develop and grow a non-profit organisation to the next level. My experience has taught me that each organisation is different and that the best approach that can help to develop it needs to be adapted to incorporate all the factors which make that specific organisation unique.


Q2. I would like to ask my next question about RECI and the conference you helped organise for them in November 2022, in Bern, Switzerland. Can you please explain: What is RECI and what type of work do you accomplish with them?


Answer:


RECI, the Swiss Network for Education and International Cooperation, is a network of more than forty Swiss organisations and experts who are all working within the field of education in international cooperation. We all work together towards improving the practices and policies for education around the world, in order to help contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goal 4 on education. We regularly organise events for mutual learning on specific topics proposed by our members, as well as joint advocacy groups.


I am lucky to have been entrusted with the ongoing mandate to manage RECI, as its executive director. It is a very interesting part-time mandate in the field of education, which is my main thematic expertise. This permanent mandate gives me the flexibility to work on various other projects at the same time. Thanks to my contract with RECI, I was also able to hire a co-worker, Nadine Bernasconi, who is now a part of the team at both Roots to Rise and RECI.


The event that you mentioned was a “Thematic Day.” This is a public conference which we organise once per year, so that the RECI members and other interested public can come together to have in-depth discussions around a specific education-related topic. In 2022, the topic of focus was “Reframing Education for a Sustainable World: How to Support Teachers and Learners as Agents of Change to Achieve SDG 4.7.” The SDG 4.7 refers to education for sustainable development and is one of the keys to achieving quality education which is oriented towards a desirable better future.


During the Thematic Day, Nadine and I were responsible for coordinating everything linked to this conference. For example, we had to mobilise members and facilitate the development of an interesting programme, identify partners, organise all services and logistics, and ensure effective communication. This was a hybrid conference, which can be quite a challenge, but we built on our experiences from 2020 and 2021, and we were able to organise everything smoothly.


Another important factor to know is, that we work in a very participatory and involving manner within RECI. My job is to create a space and platform, where members step forward to bring in their expertise and commit their time. The organisational side of the 2022 RECI Thematic Day was managed by me and Nadine. And the content side was done by the working group on Teacher Training for Quality Education of RECI.


Q3. During the conference I noticed that the workshops made use of engaging participatory methods, which you have been promoting within RECI for the past years. When and why did you become interested in such methods?


Answer:


My passion is to create space for mutual learning because I feel that knowledge and wisdom is within all of us. In my work with Roots to Rise, when supporting NGOs to develop their strategy and their organisation, my role is focused on facilitating a process that enables everyone involved to bring in their knowledge, experience, expertise, and questions, and to jointly develop solutions based on all these different points.


I developed this attitude in my first professional activity as a teacher. Initially, I did not want to become a teacher because, from my own experience as a pupil, I believed that teachers needed to ‘know it all’ and that their job was to merely transfer this knowledge. I did not find this very interesting. In addition to that, I had seen teachers being treated meanly, burning out and leaving their jobs, because adolescents were not willing to learn and were acting in unmanageable ways. But then, I changed my path of professional education and did become a teacher after all, due to some lucky circumstances: When I was a student at the University, I was invited by my former English teacher to replace her during her maternity leave. I said yes to this opportunity, because I already knew these students, they were only a bit younger than me, and I was sure that they were going to be nice to me (laughter).


In that situation, I had to change my understanding of the role of a teacher. I did not know much more than the students did, because I was just one or two years ahead at university. So I had to go there humbly, I had to let go of the idea that a teacher knows it all, because I knew I did not know it all. And even if you study for 20 years, you still do not know it all. So I think it was a very good setting for me to say: OK, so how do I look at this group of people and how do I facilitate their learning? And I think that somehow my search for participatory methods started there. And now, I choose to create space for learners (be that children or adults) where they can try things out, where they can do projects, where they can fail, make mistakes, try again, and where they can stay motivated to learn.


Later on, I also worked in other schools, with younger children, and I think it was really this attitude that helped me to come up with approaches that go beyond the transfer of a prepared package of knowledge and towards facilitating deep learning.


The key is to set a stage where people bring in themselves their questions, their experiences, be it for children or for adults. And I think that obviously it is so important in RECI, where we have a community of experts who have been working for many years in the field. They have so much experience, so much knowledge. We need to create the space for them to bring all these different backgrounds, experiences, and ideas to the table.


Q4. During the 2022 RECI Thematic Day, you utilized Open Space Technology while you moderated some workshops. Could you please describe what that methodology is and what are some of its benefits?


Answer:


Open Space Technology is a very inspiring approach that can be used in conferences of at least one day, and ideally 3-4 days, without a pre-determined agenda. You invite people to attend the conference with an overarching goal, like for example: to develop a strategy for an organisation, to create a plan for cooperation or advocacy, or even just for mutual learning regarding an overarching topic. The agenda is then created on the first days based on topics or questions proposed by the participants, and the conference then runs fully in a self-organised manner which is based on a few very simple rules.


This approach was developed by Harrison Owen (or as he writes: co-created by thousands of people, but he put things together in a book to make it accessible to the world). He said that he had created this approach after having gone to many conferences particularly because of the coffee breaks, as he wanted to meet people and to talk to those people about what was important for him and them. So that was his motivation to say: “OK, I create a conference format, which basically consists only of coffee breaks.”


When I heard of this for the first time, I could not imagine that this idea can work. I was convinced that in order to bring together a lot of people and have a fruitful conference, you have to prepare every small detail in advance. But once I tried this approach, it worked every time!


The workshops you referred to, during the RECI conference, are called “Open Spaces”. These were not the full Open Space format, as they were not fully self-organised, and I was there to facilitate. We called them “open-space workshops” because we had reserved just two timeslots for workshops without a pre-defined topic. We invited conference participants to either go to a prepared workshop or to propose other topics they were interested in. As always, I was nervous, imagining that in the worst case, I would be all alone during these time slots. But this is not what happened. What happened was quite the opposite – and as always, a good surprise! You can find a detailed description of this and how I facilitated these spaces on my blog (link here).


Regarding the results of a workshop or meeting which is using this approach: You might not have a whole lot of written materials to share, but the participants value the mere experience and mutual learning very highly. For example, we had ten participants in each workshop, and they were absolutely happy about the time spent there. It is a kind of a miracle because we are all formed to think that if you want to teach something you have to define beforehand what people should know afterwards. But if you do not do this, if you turn it around, leave the content open and focus on the people and their questions, experience and knowledge, everybody learns much more because new knowledge is created.


Q5. What main resource(s) do you recommend for those who are interested in learning the basics of participatory methods and this Open Space Technology so that they may employ them during their meetings?


Answer:


If someone would like to do an Open Space conference or an interactive team workshop, I am happy to help facilitate. I believe it is helpful to experience these approaches first before doing it yourself. This is true especially for Open Space Technology. I believe that you have to experience this first-hand, to see that it actually works, to live this miracle, so that you will have the confidence to do it yourself.

In order to be inclusive and ensure participatory meetings, I often employ the Liberating Structures methods. These are simple methods that you can use in any setting, for workshops, conferences, team meetings or meetings with partners. There are websites in English, French and German, where these methods are collected and explained). As the name says: these methods are very structured, but they are liberating in that they give space for everyone and everything. They are guided in terms of process, they help diffuse hierarchies or group dynamics that impede some people to contribute or some topics to be addressed. In that sense, they are highly recommended methods for anyone in a leadership position, as well.


There are about 50 different methods you can choose from, depending on what you want to achieve: some of them are about collecting information, some are for developing ideas jointly. And these methods are simple: you need post-its and markers, someone who knows those methods and of course participants, that is enough. In addition to that these methods do not require more time than other kinds of meetings. On the contrary, you can really focus and very quickly come to the core of important questions that you need to pay attention to.


The second approach I recommend is the Open Space Technology that I talked about earlier. It is well described and explained in Harrison Owen (1997) “Open Space Technology A User’s Guide”.


Q6. I would like to change the focus of our conversation to the fact that your professional journey has exposed you to living in various countries. Could you please describe how and why you initially started working abroad?


Answer:


Yes, indeed I have work experience in at least 18 countries – some of which are more profound than others.


While studying towards my teacher’s diploma, I worked as a teacher in Kyrgyzstan for six months. When I was studying to become a Russian language teacher, I needed to spend at least half a year in a Russian-speaking environment. I fell in love with Kyrgyzstan and while there, I noticed two important points. First, I saw that in the school system, there was a division of children according to language and/or ethnic belonging. Meaning, parents had to choose whether their children’s education would be done in Russian or in Kyrgyz. The problem was that in the long them, students needed to have a good knowledge of both languages, Kyrgyz being the state language, and Russian being the official language with high significance for higher education. That education system, which separated children along linguistic and ethnic lines, did not prepare the children with the language skills they needed for the future and discriminated against the main ethnic group (as Kyrgyz language schools were not well equipped, had less qualified teachers, and a larger number of students in smaller classrooms).


After my studies, I worked for one more year at a school in Switzerland. Thereafter, I decided to go back to Kyrgyzstan, because I wanted to try out the idea of multilingual education: having two or more languages of instruction, mixing children in classrooms, and trying to overcome ethnic divisions. I ended up four years in Kyrgyzstan working on the project “Multilingual Education.” This project started in Kyrgyzstan and later also expanded to Tajikistan. It was more than just an educational programme. It was a programme to promote participatory child-centred teaching approaches, and it was a peace project, as well, as it focused on intercultural education. This was a crucial point in my career because I learned, first-hand, how to run a project, how to manage an organisation and a team, and how to obtain funding.


Q7. How did having a first work experience abroad help your next career steps?


Answer:


After my time in Kyrgyzstan, I was invited by the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities to go to Georgia and manage a program focused on education and journalism. In retrospect, I think this opportunity was aided by the fact that I had organised an event for the OSCE High Commissioner in Kyrgyzstan and that they had seen my work.


After two years in Georgia, I came back to Switzerland to work for the Pestalozzi Children’s Foundation. While with this foundation, I had the opportunity to work in many different countries. First, I was responsible for the South-East Europe region (i.e., programmes in Romania, Moldova, Serbia, and North Macedonia). Then, I became responsible for all the international programs. As a result, I also had the opportunity to work in Southeast Asia, East Africa, and Central America. These experiences provided me with a deep understanding of different education systems and situations in the countries I worked with. Afterwards, I worked for the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, in the Donbas region, where I was exposed to the terrible violent conflict that turned out to be the prologue to the full-fledged war that is ongoing now.


When I moved back to Switzerland, I became the director of the largest global network for children’s rights called, Child Rights Connect, based in Geneva. While there, I designed and implemented a holistic change process that advanced the organisation in many aspects linked to its functioning, membership, governance, strategy, and funding.


So, you may notice that thematically, I kept revolving around education, children’s rights, and peacebuilding. And organisationally, I have worked with and developed all kinds of different structures, for small NGOs, international organisations, and networks.


All these past career experiences provide me with a good basis for what I do now with Roots to Rise and RECI.


Q8. How do you go about finding new mandates for Roots to Rise?


Answer:


With Roots to Rise, I would love to work again in different countries. I had a few international mandates in the pipeline, just when COVID started. Then everything was cancelled because it was not possible to travel. In 2022 I had a small mandate in Ethiopia: an assessment of Accelerated Education Programmes. This mandate was a bit off the main activities I do with Roots to Rise, focusing more on organisational issues, but it was a very interesting mandate in my ‘original’ field of expertise.


Besides that, I am applying for consultancy jobs that I can find online. I regularly support organisations in the Global South for free, as a volunteer. But Roots to Rise also depends on finding organisations that are ready to invest in their strategic and organisational development. Organisations that understand the value of professional external support to help them make a step forward. And that is the big challenge for many NGOs because when they need me the most, they often do not have the funds. So, there is quite a balance in how to manage that.


In my case, I find that the key is to be recommended. Most of the mandates that I received so far, I received because someone who knows me and worked with me has recommended me.


Q9. Would you like to share any remarks and/or suggestions for young professionals interested in following a similar line of work and profession such as yours?


Answer:


When I to look at my CV now, it seems as though it is strategically designed. But my CV was not designed by my head but by my heart.


Oftentimes in the past, when I made important decisions, many people said that I was crazy to leave a secure job to start something completely new. This was certainly the case when I quit my job as a teacher in Switzerland, to go to Kyrgyzstan with nothing but an idea and my heart telling me that I should do it. And it was the same case when I left my job as the CEO of Child Rights Connect so that I may start Roots to Rise. But during my career, I have learned enough about myself to know that what I really love to do is to help facilitate change, conduct organisational development, and work towards making NGOs not only stronger but also better workplaces for their employees. And I know that for me, it is best to help accomplish these goals from the outside of an organization, as an external consultant.


To conclude, what I recommend to someone who is interested in following a similar professional path to mine, is to first ask oneself: What do I really love to do? Once you have your answer, do that and at the same time make sure to do many very different things throughout your career, as long as you love what you are doing. My suggestion sounds banal in a way, but it has always worked for me. And second, I suggest not to listen too much to those who say: “This is dangerous. What are you going to do if it does not work?” Well, if you realize that your choice does not work then at that point, you follow your heart again to choose your next step.


Thank you for reading.


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Beatrice Schulter. Interview for Persuasive Discourse, by Sorina I. Crisan PhD

Beatrice Schulter


Executive Director

Swiss Network for Education and International Cooperation (RECI)


Founder and Director

Roots to Rise | Switzerland



Are you inspired by this interview and would like to learn more about Schulter’s work?


You may follow Schulter’s work on her professional website, LinkedIn, and/or Twitter.


Illustrations by: The two photos shown at the beginning of the article have been provided by Beatrice Schulter. The profile photo of the interviewee, shown at the end of this article, may be found on the Roots to Rise website.

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