In this episode of SocialEx, the podcast from Humentum, George Miller sits down with Ritsa Christoforidis, Associate Vice President for Grants, Contracts Policy, and Compliance for Save the Children. Ritsa shares her journey into global development and discusses her organization’s approach to compliance.
Below is an abridged excerpt from the episode—listen on SoundCloud to hear the full interview!
George Miller: Before we began the interview properly, I was delighted to discover that in my first job in 1990, I had visited Ritsa’s hometown in Northern Greece, near where I was based. So, I asked her a bit about her beginnings, and what had set her on her career path.
Ritsa Christoforidis: I always knew I wanted to do something within the international NGO sector from when I was young. I just didn’t know exactly what that was. I knew I liked languages, and I was good at learning new languages. So, I decided okay, when I go to university, I’ll study languages. I I majored in Spanish. I also took Italian, I took French, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with it, other than be a teacher, which was usually what you would do if you studied languages. And so I actually did teach—I taught high school Spanish, I realized pretty quickly that it wasn’t for me, because I was very interested in the culture and the literature and all of that and, you know, obviously high school Spanish students are really not interested in that for the most part. So, I thought, well, I’d like to do something different. I had a friend that was working in international logistics; they were hiring. I took a job working with an international moving company that actually moved expats. And I remember my job was to schedule the moves. That was my initial job. And I actually remember seeing Save the Children—we were moving somebody from StC. , I don’t remember their name, but I remember we were moving them. And, you know, that kind of reminded me Oh, yeah, there’s, you know, StC is here locally. Maybe there’s something with them. I happened to be scanning job postings, and I saw that Save was hiring for a temporary position to support our Latin America operations. And I thought great, I speak Spanish, this will be a good fit, and so that’s how it started 23 years ago.
George Miller: Back in the early days, you must have had a sense of a range of possibilities, of different directions, that you could perhaps orientate yourself in within the organization. So how did you decide on the path that you followed?
Ritsa Christoforidis: Well, the more I was with StC the more I knew I wanted to get closer to our field programs. When the opportunity came up to work on our commodity operations, that really spoke to me, because it meant I would be going out to the field—and not only going to country offices, which I had done a little bit of before that, but actually going out to distribution sites, and seeing what we were doing with beneficiaries, and seeing how the food was actually coming into the country. It was a really, really interesting role. It was never boring. I got to travel to many of our programs, and that was obviously very motivating. So, what’s always driven me is to do something that I enjoy and that I feel is making a difference, and to just be able to really support our in-country operations, and our programs in-country.
George Miller: As your sort of first encounter with logistics, did you feel, Yes, this is something that my mind really responds to positively, because I guess for a lot of people—it induces fear, the very talk of rules and regulations, whereas you clearly see it as a sort of challenge and a world that you want to grapple with and get a fix on.
Ritsa Christoforidis: Yeah, it did, and I think where it was interesting for me was always to look at the different rules and regulations that we had to comply with, and then how do we tie that into what we’re doing financially and what we’re doing programmatically, and that’s the piece that I really enjoy. You know, you have what the rules say, and that makes sense on paper. But when you try to operationalize it, that’s where you really have to think of different ways of approaching it.
George Miller: That’s really interesting. So, say a little bit more about that sort of marrying up, for the rules and regulations, and how you actually operationalize it. What techniques, what sort of approaches have you learned through your own experience that makes those two things synchronize?
Ritsa Christoforidis: I think it’s really, when we are training-we are training the right people, right? Compliance, and rules and regulations, for me, just does not sit within one team who’s responsible for it. It’s something that is cross-cutting. We need to make sure that everyone who is, for example, working on a particular award, is aware of what the requirements are. I think that’s where you can really open up those conversations that need to be had when you’re facing a challenge.
So I think it’s really about disseminating that knowledge across different teams that are supporting awards—and I think it’s also showing staff how, if you follow the procedures and policies that we’ve put in place, you are complying with these regulations. A lot of times, particularly in country offices obviously, they’re dealing with regulations from different donors. And that can be very overwhelming, particularly when donors are using their own terminology. But at the end of the day, I think if you can really get to a point where you see that this EU donor may be calling it one thing, whereas the US government is calling it something else, [you realize] they’re talking about the same thing. I think it’s important to translate all that regulatory language into our day-to-day work language.
© Photo: Victoria Zegler/Save the Children