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A Facilitator’s Reflection: Leadership Training in Cuenca, Ecuador

Nonprofit leaders gather together at 5-day Leadership Training hosted by the Hearts of Gold Foundation and Facilitated by the Libre Foundation, May 2017.

The following post is written by Francesco Melita after his facilitation of a Leadership & Communication Training on behalf of the Libre Foundation. The training took place at the Universidad de Cuenca May 2-6, 2017, and will take place again in April 2018 with a new 5-day training with new nonprofit leaders, as well as a 2-day follow up with previous 2017 participants. This article was originally published on the Libre Foundation website.

Ecuador is literally a paradise on earth. It has everything you could wish for: beautiful beaches, fantastic mountains (the Andes) with impressive volcanoes and the Amazon. But especially: the people are very friendly and helpful. You feel welcome every moment.

On the other hand, unemployment is very high and 50% of the population live below the poverty line. It is not uncommon for people in Ecuador to have two jobs at the same time. For example, a taxi driver or shop owner works 7 days a week and 12 hours a day. The minimum wage is $ 8.39 per day, while the prices of many commodities since the dollarisation a few years ago are at western level.

Janneke Bruil, a Dutch employee from an NGO in Ecuador and experienced facilitator, had to my great joy offered to give me the training. She had found someone from a local organization (Hearts of Gold Foundation), which had a very extensive network among local NGOs, to act as Local Project Cordinator (LPC). The Hearts od Gold Foundation seemed to have arranged everything in detail: Janneke and I were housed in the center of Cuenca (city in the south of the country where the training was held), in a clean hotel with excellent food, and 15 minutes walking distance from the University, where we could have a classroom free of charge. The classroom was equipped with 3 large writing boards, a beamer and wifi. On the first day someone from the technical department of the university came to arrange access to the wifi on our laptops. I had never experienced it before!

Janneke had warned me that people from the Sierra (the high mountains) could be quiet and closed. In the preparation we had therefore given extensive attention to coming up with a personal, fun and humorous acquaintance to break the ice. We also let the participants make a list of agreements about how we would work together, not only coming up with things like “showing respect” and “coming on time”, but also with “making a lot of jokes”.

Our participants, mostly women from an urban environment between 25-45 years of age, were soon prepared to talk openly about themselves and the difficulties they experienced in both their work and in Ecuadorian culture. Soon personal conversations arose and fascinating exchanges of views.

Creative forms

To stimulate the creativity of the participants as much as possible and to introduce them to different forms of presentation, we chose the following innovations in the process of the Appreciative Inquiry:

– Instead of a complete presentation of step 1 of the Appreciative Inquiry, the participants gave a “pitch” of 1 minute about the essence of their organization on the basis of a drawing.

– Instead of talking about ‘lessons learned’ at the start of the day, we opted for the term ‘harvest from the previous day’ whereby participants had to state: ‘what was known and what was new.’ The latter also helped us to be able to better assess what their knowledge level and knowledge needs were.

– At step 2 of the Appreciative Inquiry, we had the participants interview each other, and then let them present the dreams of the other to the group. To hear someone else expressing their dreams had a reinforcing effect on the participants and also ensured that not too much was expended.

– At step 3 of the Appreciative Inquiry, we asked the participants to show how they saw their future by making a collage for which we had provided old magazines and colored paper.

– At step 4 of the Appreciative Inquiry, we asked them to explain as clearly as possible what their next concrete step would be, based on the collage (again with the invitation to limit itself to the essence).

We also took every morning during the ‘harvest of the day’ extensive time to practice both presenting and giving and receiving feedback. This led to an intimate atmosphere in which subjects such as culture, habits and obstacles in their work emerged as a matter of course. Practicing feedback was very valuable. However, it took a lot of time to hold so many rounds: presentation, feedback and then feedback on both. We did this less extensive on days 3 and 4.

First take care of yourself, and then for the other person

In a group that mainly consisted of seasoned aid workers (especially special education, work with street children, children with cancer and autistic children and victims of the earthquake in April 2016), the ‘Florence Nightingale’ syndrome was very present. The theme: ‘How do I take care of myself while I am saving the world?’ was therefore of great importance for this group. In addition to the more usual topics such as time management, motivating / inspiring, giving feedback and dealing with conflicts. That is why we added a ‘Self-care’ component to the training in Cuenca, where we first had the participants in small groups make an inventory of what knowledge was already present among the participants and then had them present it in a plenary meeting.

How do I take good care of myself in an organizational culture in which I am expected every morning to greet everyone extensively and in which the social aspects seem more important than the content of the work? How do I deal with executive managers who do not take into account everything else that is already on my plate? How do I deal with a conflict, without ever adjusting and inserting myself again? How do I motivate employees who experience any form of feedback as criticism? What can I do to get lazy volunteers to work without taking on the work themselves?

Especially indicating ‘what can be better’ in a feedback process turned out to be ‘not done’ in Ecuadorian culture. The participants turned out to have a special Ecuadorian gift, namely ‘decorar’, literally decorating, but in practice this meant packing your message in all kinds of formulations to ‘mask and soften’ any negative tone. This led to hilarious situations in the training, in which a participant was overwhelmed with compliments after the other, started with: “And if there could be a little something I could mention, then maybe you would be more specific in some cases. You can name what you want, although this is not important and of course it was, as I said, really a very clear and compelling presentation ‘. There was also a very dynamic conversation about cultural differences between Ecuador, the Netherlands and Italy in dealing with criticism, in which participants mainly wondered how and when Dutch children learn this.

Successes achieved on the spot

Learning about giving feedback turned out to have a lot of impact on the participants. Two organizations indicated that they intend to take regular moments to look back with the team and give each other feedback and thus create a culture in which this is considered valuable. Another person suggested that she wanted to make working arrangements with her team in a participative manner, as we had done at the beginning of the week. All participants intend to become better listeners and take better care of themselves. One indicated that delegation would become her new spearhead. Finally, it was repeatedly said that the value of visual means and the use of metaphors, for example in drawings, was underestimated until now, and many participants want to make more use of it in their work. The participants started an active whatsapp group with the main goal of ‘reminding each other to take care of themselves‘. For the time being we are also in this group.


This was my third foreign training for Libre. After South Africa and Kenya, where participants usually did not meet the admission criteria of Libre, this was a relief for me. Participants of high education and experience level who learned a lot and especially from each other. Sometimes the training seemed more like a networking event, which aimed to share experiences and knowledge, and to strengthen the bond between local organizations. To be honest, I must add that the success of this training is also due to my co-trainer Janneke. Not only did she come up with new creative ideas and original work forms, she was also able to feel the atmosphere in the group and to express this in her excellent Spanish. My informal Spanish, supplemented with Italian and French terms, worked very well for the hilarity in the group, but it was Janneke who saved me every time by putting the dots on the ‘i’. Telling stories to introduce a topic worked particularly well with this group. And because that is my strength, we complemented each other very well as trainers. The various dynamic exercises and games from Libre once again proved their worth in providing insight into the main themes that leaders have to deal with. We complemented each other very well as trainers. The various dynamic exercises and games from Libre once again proved their worth in providing insight into the main themes that leaders have to deal with. We complemented each other very well as trainers. The various dynamic exercises and games from Libre once again proved their worth in providing insight into the main themes that leaders have to deal with.

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