I spoke with Ann Maier, who is the VP of Operations at the National Geographic Society. In her role, she provides strategic leadership for their development program for individual and institutional giving in support of the society’s mission to inspire others to care about the planet.
She leads a team in diverse areas of business operations such as budget management, prospect research, gift processing and database administration, analytical reporting, and print and digital communications. Previously, Maier was a Business Systems Manager at the American Red Cross and the Director of Advancement Systems at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. In the following interview, she talks about the importance of process improvement, the biggest challenges she faces when it comes to improving processes and more.
Dan Schawbel: How would you define process improvement, and its importance to your business?
Ann Maier: A nonprofit organization, like any other business environment today, is a changing landscape. Processes must be both clearly defined and adaptable to manage through transitions. At my 127-year-old organization, we are in the midst of rapid change, as we adapt our business model to a changing media landscape while embracing our philanthropic core through strategic planning for the future. Our leader insists that we work collaboratively to elevate the entire institution, rather than attempt quick fixes in silos.
Schawbel: How do you approach process improvement within your organization?
Maier: I have had much success with building out a small piece of the puzzle with a fixed scope, often deadline-driven timeline. Enthusiastically and appreciatively communicating the success of that pilot project to all of its stakeholder-partners that leads the way to larger programmatic and even organizational changes in ways of doing things. Sometimes, especially in large, complex organizations, process improvement happens as a result of external forces.
For example, think of how disaster fundraising has changed the way people give in response to emergency needs. Mobile giving, online donations, peer-to-peer and other immediate means of funding have opened up new methods for directing funds where they are needed quickly, and, due to urgency, can make the case for process changes like internal data-sharing much more compelling. Successful - or unexpected - opportunities, (like a certain ice-bucket-challenge), force organizations to think about how they will manage from a place of abundance rather than scarcity, something purpose-driven organizations may be less familiar with. That level of success means contemplating a new normal - across budgets, across systems and staffing, and especially customer service - all of which are connected through process development and improvement.
Schawbel: What are the biggest challenges you have from a tools / systems perspective to support process improvement?
Maier: For me, the number one challenge is scheduling what is usually an add-on to everyone’s job description, and keeping the project on task – typical project management stuff. A close second is getting all of the stakeholders into one secure environment for sharing knowledge, especially when the information-holders range from analysts and digital natives to longer-term staffers with valuable institutional knowledge but less comfort with tech. Finally, helping team members understand that for the silo walls to come down, information sharing needs to happen across the whole group, not just in one-off communications.
Schawbel: How do you allocate resources / personnel to support process improvement?
Maier: When process improvements are part of quarterly/annual goals, or even institutional goals, there is a higher likelihood of success. This provides incentive for cross-functional teams to implement the change and include in their own measures of success. Process improvement projects can even provide a way for junior staffers to learn the business and then grow and contribute beyond their job descriptions. In our own organization, leadership has allocated specific program staffing at a high organizational level to ensure success of key initiatives that will impact outcomes for years to come - exemplifying true buy-in at the top.
Schawbel: What strategies have you found most valuable to overcome those challenges?
Maier: Having an organizational culture of learning and innovation is important, but having before and after data on hand to prove effectiveness can help foster trust and willingness to change. And always share credit for success!