On the magic of collaboration at eye-level

The idea of AFS Switzerland’s “Strategy Engagement” meeting was to engage volunteers with the strategy for the upcoming years. What really happened was a lesson on horizontal collaboration.


When I was invited together with other key volunteers to join a workshop with the aim to give feedback and engage with the strategy developed by the Board of AFS Switzerland, I was happy to block a Saturday in my calendar. Over the more than 10 years as a volunteer, I had only seen our Board members during the General Assemblies that I attended. Thus I enjoyed the idea to co-create the future of AFS Switzerland with them.

Different key volunteers as well as former and present staff members had gathered for the day.  I was happy to see our new CEO Luc Estapé and board chair Suzanne Weigelt among the group. Dominik Scherrer, former AFS International staff member and currently head of his own organization ecloo, a consulting company helping organizations enhance their impact through collaboration, led through the day together with Board member Iris Reber. Dominik explained the reason behind the event: “Volunteers need not only formally approve the organizational strategy but actually be inspired by and engaged with it”. To him, the strategy document was just the beginning, as it opens a space that needs to be filled with volunteers ideas, projects, and concrete actions.

Despite the special occasion, we weren’t off to a smooth start into the day: “It is AFS that inspires me to be a volunteer, not this document because the document talks about the what and not the why”, said one volunteer using the lingo of a TED talk Dominik had shared with the group. Furthermore, the fact that the strategy document had already been approved also created discontent among us volunteers. Why were we even invited? Finally, lots of questions regarding the contrast of growth and quality were raised. And I agree: isn’t there an incongruence between being a volunteer-based organization and having “professionalism” as a value?  

However, in the afternoon, Dominik and Iris prepared an idea development session to get the creative juices flowing. Suddenly, the group came to life – and through us also the strategy. From ideas on how to offer support in the refugee crisis, ideas on how to better connect people within our organization and also on how to have better collaboration between chapters and the office - one amazing idea after the other.

Volunteer Andrea sharing the work of her group during the strategy engagement event.

One such idea was to offer coworking. What do I mean by that? Coworking means different people who work on different things working in the same space and cross-pollinating each other. It’s a successful concept in coworking spaces like Impact Hub but which could also offer new collaborative opportunities for staff and volunteers.

Luc Estapé smiled when he heard this idea and explained that he was already thinking about how to use space to better connect people: to increase each other understanding and to enable people to think outside their own boxes, this fall AFS SUI will start to offer a kind of "job shadowing" within the office, so that e.g. marketing people sit next to the admission officer when she is interviewing people. In Luc's view, this concept absolutely has to be expanded beyond the office. The staff is just the first step. "If AFS does grow, as stipulated both in the international strategy and the SUI board strategy, we would need new offices, where the physical integration of volunteers into the office environment will be an integral part of the concept." I’m very happy I was able to hear about this plans at the strategy event.

Many other ideas also created resonance: Lots of “oh yes, there’s actually already someone thinking about this”, lots of “you should talk to XY from AFS Z” and finally and very importantly: “I love your idea, keep me in the loop”.

The ideas which finally made it to the next stage were a “training guideline” for the Swiss Pool of trainers, a clear definition of the USPs for each stakeholder – both projects were already around but benefitted from this extra boost -, and finally: social impact measurement for the work we do with AFS. This one is worth a separate blog post ;)

Looking back I have no doubt: far from the strategy document, the participants of the engagement day were truly inspired by the meeting. It inspired through this new space for interaction. I was not surprised when in the round of take-aways at the end of the day most people said: “I really hope this becomes a repeated occasion to collaborate.” When asked about her experience of the day, Suzanne Weigelt told me later on: “I learned again that even if sometimes we start off at two different points, if we take time for such encounters, then we can really all gain something from it. That’s why I am glad we decided to do this experiment.”

Coming from Impact Hub Zurich where I currently work, the magic of collaboration is a no-brainer. Meeting people on the same eye-level, co-creating projects and ideas is what I do every day. Seeing how special this experience is to AFSers made me think about our organization and the huge potential it has.

Of course, I have also realized that AFS has a very different DNA from my working place. Dominik explains it in the following way: “AFS was founded in a hierarchical cultural setting and has since struggled to adapt its culture and structures to something more inclusive and engaging”. It’s a challenge so many companies face right now in a world which requires more flexibility and new leaderships styles. With all the amazing people in this organization and the passion we have for what we do, we should however be able to do so, right? Dominik agrees by saying: “AFS has seen great moments of transformation and innovation such as the launch of exchange programs in 1947, the introduction of multi-national exchanges or the partnership system which gave more autonomy and empowerment to individual AFS countrie”.  Somehow, I dare to dream that AFS is capable of yet another leap of such kind.

I am daring you, AFSers out there, to look for space for horizontal collaboration and to share you stories. And I would like to thank Suzanne, Luc, Iris and Dominik for creating this encounter in our small Swiss reality. And now, let’s make these ideas happen.


*Rahel (28) is part of #VolunteerVoices and the Swiss Global Education Task Force AGGL. She’s also a facilitator in Switzerland and abroad. In her non-volunteering life she works as incubation manager at Impact Hub Zurich, helping social entrepreneurs venture into the world of creating their own business.