Team Interviews João Saavedra
Meet the team!
João Saavedra is a project manager at the Armenian Communities Department where he is responsible for both the Department’s evaluations and its third programming pillar of improving Armenian-Turkish relations. He joined the Department in 2015 from the Foundation’s Development Aid Programme, where he had been working since 2012. Prior to joining the Foundation, João was a board member of an international non-governmental organization operating in Mozambique in the education and poverty areas. He holds a master’s degree from the University of Oxford and, on this occasion, he is our interviewee.
How did you get the opportunity to join the Armenian Communities Department?
I started working at the Foundation in 2012 at its international development aid unit, the area where I had been before. When the Armenian Communities Department advertised the position within the Foundation I applied and was fortunate to join it that same year.
Prior to joining the Department, had you ever been to Armenia?
Before starting I travelled to the Republic of Armenia with my wife on a holiday to learn more about Armenians. There is much more to being Armenian than the Republic, and I haven’t yet had the chance of visiting the regions of East of Turkey. Still, back then we didn’t have children, and so we managed to see many sites that wouldn’t be possible for us today, like Khor Virap.
How would you describe an average working day?
My days are normally split between the projects I follow, related to the improvement of Armenian-Turkish relations, and evaluation-related work. Today, for instance, I reviewed a project requesting financial support, and also worked on some areas the Department will seek to improve based on a survey we sent to our partners. Due to the delicate situation in Turkey, I also spoke to one of our partners in the country to check on the project’s progress. Of course this serves the purpose of monitoring the project we are funding. But we also can’t adequately choose what to fund in the future if we are not up-to-date on the context in which the projects are implemented. We’ve had excellent proposals that, unfortunately, are not feasible to implement in the current environment. Fortunately, there are also outstanding projects that can.
That actually brings me to my next question: how has the Department been supporting the improvement of Armenian-Turkish relations?
Armenians and Turks have a long shared history and our support has been focused on underlining this in three different ways: by increasing the dialogue between Armenians and Turks, by promoting research on issues of mutual concern, and by increasing the capability of the Armenian community and institutions in Turkey. We also support schools and Western Armenian language courses in Turkey, but those are part of a different Departmental – and complimentary – programming pillar.
The reasoning behind this is that societies come closer and mend fences if they interact in a constructive environment. Political rapprochement – where the Foundation is not involved – is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the normalization of relations. Take the recent events in Colombia, in Latin America. Politicians agreed on a solution, but then the people rejected it in the referendum. This process has now evolved to something else, but the point remains: at the end of the day communities have to get along, and safe spaces where constructive interactions can take place is where we’ve been working.
Can you give some examples of projects that have been supported?
Sure. For example, art exhibitions in Istanbul developed by Armenians and Turks, or joint research led by Armenians and Turks on shared history. One of them had a recent Cambridge University mid-term evaluation mentioning that its quality was impressive. Sometimes safe spaces are literally physical spaces so we have supported libraries, universities, newspapers, publishing houses and NGO’s that have been building trust and encouraging a respectful dialogue.
It’s inevitable to sound partial and mention some specific projects without mentioning them all, so I’ve tried to stay vague. Is that ok?
Of course. You’ve been to Turkey for work, how did it go?
I had been to Turkey before, just not for work. The first time I was there for work was to meet our partners personally. There are many things that are better explained in person and, not surprisingly, work interactions after that are even more enjoyable, and remarkably more efficient too. Events in Turkey have been developing quickly and they have to be taken into account when monitoring our existing projects and when choosing future ones. Having been there recently again was also useful in this regard.
The first time I was there I remember leaving and thinking “will it now be more difficult for me to independently review a new request for funding of a partner because I met them personally?”
There is no way around it, you just have to be immune to their charms.
You also work on evaluation. Isn’t this a very different topic from the improvement of Armenian-Turkish relations?
Yes. But they sometimes overlap. For example, once the quality of a project has been established I engage with the grantseeker to agree on “how will we know that the project has reached its goal? Or how do we know if our support made a difference?” These are not easy questions to answer, and so an iterative process – which is related to evaluation – begins.
Take the translation and publication of an Armenian author in Turkey. Here, the grantseeker believes that the fruitful contact with Armenian culture decreases the feeling that there is a difference between “us” and “them”, the “them” being the Armenians. Now, if the Foundation is giving support to a publisher, it expects that that support will lead to an increase in the dissemination of Armenian culture in Turkey. So, in partnership with the grantseeker, the Foundation tracked past sales of the same type of publication and agreed to a target of selling more than the average past sales: if without our support the average expected sales was X, then with our support to increase readership the target is X+Y.
Having evaluation concepts in mind while engaging with the partners has been very helpful for both our partners’ understanding of what is expected of them and for our role as funders seeking impact. This is boring to most, but fortunately it interests me.
What kind of evaluations have been conducted thus far?
I’ve been conducting evaluations at the project and at the departmental level. In other words, I look both at projects we fund or implement, and at the Department’s general performance.
At the project level, for example, I conducted an in-depth evaluation of a 200.000 Euro education-related project that a partner had been implementing in Armenia. I chose a quasi-experimental (with a non-randomized control group) study design, where several treatment groups were statistically compared against a control group to look at the short-term, long-term and cumulative impact of some of the project’s dimensions.
What do these evaluations lead to?
For this project, for example, the Department had – initially – a planned exit strategy that entailed contacting several other funders to support it instead of us, backed by the evaluation, and perhaps even scaling the project further. The recommendations in the evaluation, however, ultimately led to an alternative approach.
A different and simpler example was one other project we looked at, but only from a cost-efficiency perspective. In essence, it answered the question “How cost efficient is the project in comparison to what other organizations have also implemented?” For this project it’s too early to know if the evaluation and its recommendations led to improvements in its cost-efficiency. But the preliminary signs are very good.
I think I’m boring you to death. Let me stop here.
No, I’m also interested in the evaluations at the Department level you mentioned. What efforts have been developed here? And what are the next steps to improve the Department’s performance?
An example of an evaluation at the Department level is the survey we conducted among our partners to know the areas where they would like us to improve. We will soon share some of its conclusions and how the department will change accordingly.
In a nutshell, the challenges we face are the ones all foundations face, such as what can the Department do to increase its impact? How can we improve our engagement and communication with our grantees? Are our administrative proceedings too taxing on our grantseekers and if so, what can we do? Now having data on these issues will allow us to have a future point of comparison, which is very helpful.
The department is in the process of setting internal targets on what it will seek to improve on the above-mentioned issues. We haven’t been idle on only setting targets, and have already been implementing some improvements that will be ready within the first few months of 2017. An example of this is the targeted mailing list we will develop to inform our partners about our activities, based on their areas of interest. But also more, much more.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
I sometimes look out of the window and see people walking in our gardens, and it immediately comes to my mind how very different of an environment our partners in Turkey work in. I think it’s very rewarding to see every day our partners’ diligent and inspiring efforts there. It’s especially difficult to stay resilient throughout the recent developments in the country, but Armenians have a proud history of resilience.
The Department’s team is also very supportive and funny. I never have a dull day, and sometimes I even find myself sharing witty comments from work with my family.
What distinguishes a good application from a bad application?
Ah, that is the question. Unfortunately the conditions in the country of implementation change, and so must the kind of projects we support within this Departmental priority in particular.
There are, however, a few things that make applications stand out. One of them is if it’s entirely aligned with our priorities. I can’t stress enough the importance of grantseekers reading our five-year plan before deciding to apply. Even if they know beforehand that their project is aligned, reading the section relevant to their project is helpful to make their application stronger. For example, I think it would become clearer for grantseekers that our Department, within this priority, doesn’t only fund Genocide-related projects.
Another criteria for us is the institutional capacity of the organization submitting the proposal. If it has experience in implementing that kind of project successfully then, as funders, we have an added reassurance. This doesn’t mean we only support established organizations or projects. The department also takes calculated risks on initiatives that are innovative and show great promise.
If grantseekers have already secured some relevant funding elsewhere this is a plus, because it signals that others also believe in it. There are, however, things that applicants can’t control but affect their success, so they shouldn’t get discouraged if we say “no”. One of them is the portfolio of projects we are already supporting, because we actively diversify to distribute risk. We’re not, for example, planning to support documentaries any time soon. But you never know.
What are you biggest challenges at work?
I’ve had a few challenges, but nothing continuous or unsurmountable. Some end up being fascinating. Over here at the Department – and at my previous position at the Foundation too – I’ve encountered some grantseekers that believed that it was their right to be funded. According to them, the Foundation should just transfer the money without any questions.
I remember one in particular. One of the requirements for our support is to include the Foundation’s logo on the website of the projects we fund. One grantseeker – when asked to put our logo and asked about the targets the project could reach – replied that they were not in the business of selling adverts to the Foundation for us to ask targets from them. This job will never cease to surprise me. How great is that?