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Globetrotting is a Way of Life for Nonprofit’s Technical Officer

Published 03/14/2011 by Global Communities

Globetrotting is a Way of Life for Nonprofit’s Technical Officer
This article originally appeared on
By Alison Bryant

PHOTO: Chris Gegenheimer (left) and an Iraqi staff member demonstrate the community participation process that the Cooperative Housing Foundation International, a Silver Spring nonprofit, used while working in Iraq.
Chris Gegenheimer landed in Haiti. A few weeks later, he was off to Colombia. Then he touched down in Rwanda.
Country-hopping is business as usual for the 27-year-old. And he always wants to work himself out of a job.
As a technical officer for Cooperative Housing Foundation International, a Silver Spring nonprofit that works in post-conflict, unstable and developing countries, Gegenheimer monitors the organization’s programs to ensure they are running as effectively and efficiently as possible. The ideal situation, Gegenheimer said, is to provide staff in foreign countries with the skills they need to perform projects on their own.
“This work, you don’t usually have too many very large ‘Aha!’ moments,” said Gegenheimer, who lives in Silver Spring. “They’re a series of smiles. A series of interactions where you say, ‘This worked really nicely.’ ”
Gegenheimer has worked most recently in Iraq, Rwanda, Haiti and Colombia, said David Humphries, director of communications for the nonprofit. He analyzes programs. He streamlines functions. He ensures the organization’s mission is carried out quickly and smoothly.
Some of the work involves organization-wide systems, tools and methods used to implement projects. But in the field, the monitoring and evaluation focuses on specific programs. This ranges from analyzing data trends to teaching local staff to conduct interviews and focus groups with residents.
In Iraq, the organization assumes a community based approach to rebuilding parts of the country that have been neglected or damaged as a result of political strife and warfare. This includes meeting with the community leaders and residents, talking about their needs, and figuring out how to prioritize those needs. The list usually includes roads, clean water, clinics and schools, Humphries said.
“To really understand, ‘Does this work? Does it impact people’s lives?’ You really need to actually interview people and get experiential information by visiting and asking appropriate questions,” Gegenheimer said.
And that is something Humphries said Gegenheimer does particularly well: getting local staff out into the field to see how programs function.
Much of the organization’s staff is native to the country it works in. Thus, programs in Iraq employ a couple of hundred Iraqi staff and several expatriates, Humphries said.
“We have an ongoing relationship with our field offices, so that we both grow together and evolve over time,” Gegenheimer said. “So we’re learning from them, they’re learning from us. It’s a forward movement.”
In Rwanda, a country with limited medical facilities, the programs focus on providing locals with access to medical treatment and clinics, he said. The work involves interaction with orphans and vulnerable children.
Gegenheimer is well qualified to country-hop and analyze programs. He graduated in 2005 from the College of William and Mary in Virginia with a degree in religion and biology. He then attended graduate school at American University, earning a master’s degree in conflict resolution. Simultaneously, he worked at a software company doing data analysis and analyzing trends.
“I’ve known the development field for a while,” Gegenheimer said. “This specific job combines that life experience with the quality management I had in grad school.”
And quality management comes in handy with the organization’s Colombia programs. Colombia is home to the largest number of displaced people in the world, resulting from drug warfare and paramilitary activity, Humphries said. The foundation provides temporary shelter and helps people returning to the areas from which they were displaced.
When Gegenheimer monitored the Colombia programs, he found staff members spent four days of a six-day week in the office compiling data. He then redesigned the system, rearranging and streamlining how employees got their information. A few weeks later, the staff was spending four days in the field instead.
“That’s a lot of what my job is,” Gegenheimer said. “To essentially make sure we do what we say we’re doing, but also do it efficiently, because we want to have our staff spend time doing their jobs and not worrying about copying and pasting numbers from 16 different reports.”
The Haiti programs also involve providing and building shelters, following the devastating earthquake last year that left hundreds of thousands of people homeless. Much of the work requires energy and motivation, Humphries said. Gegenheimer exudes both qualities. He spent equal time in the Boston area and Washington, D.C., growing up, and he began his career at the nonprofit in 2007.
“He has relentless enthusiasm, relentless optimism, and an absolute willingness to do whatever,” Humphries said. “And he loves doing it as well.”