Over the last year, Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE) has made a number of significant organizational improvements. In this blog, we outline our process and share our learning in case it’s helpful to other organizations of all sizes as they strive to be as effective for animals as possible.
In July 2019, ACE commissioned a consultant to review the organizational structure, processes, and policies throughout the organization in an effort to ensure optimal effectiveness. Andreas Setzer, the founder of ziel.gerecht, was selected for this task with consideration of his extensive nonprofit and management experience as well as his alignment with ACE’s mission. Setzer began by meeting with ACE’s leadership and staff to understand key concerns and also attended some of our regular meetings as an observer. From these interactions, he developed a report outlining key areas of improvement.
In September 2019, ACE hired a Managing Director (me) to implement the recommendations from Setzer’s report and build on those ideas further. ACE’s Managing Director role oversees people operations (along with the Director of Operations); internal capacity building, internal communication, and project management; representation, equity, and inclusion; and the promotion of a safe, supportive, and happy work environment.
With support from ACE’s Executive Director, Leah Edgerton, and Director of Operations, Gina Stuessy, Setzer and I worked together from September 2019 through March 2020 to bring his suggestions to fruition. As Setzer and I share similar approaches, this was a perfect partnership, and I’m pleased to share the positive results of our collaboration, plus ACE’s additional efforts in these areas, below.
Scrum and Asana
In March 2020, ACE rolled out a new operating model based on Scrum, a framework for agile project management that encourages teamwork, communication, and efficiency. We selected and adapted lessons from Scrum best-suited for ACE’s unique programs and work style. In our version, we eliminated departments to promote collaboration and cross-training across competency areas (e.g., research and communications) and revised our top-down project management structure, which now prioritizes co-creation and mentorship. We invite staff members of all levels and areas of expertise to take on important roles, such as Project Owner and “Scramster” (our creative way of describing Scrum’s Scrum Master—a role focused on building team velocity by removing bottlenecks and improving efficiency overall).
We simultaneously adopted Asana as a uniform project management tool; previously, team members were using a combination of tools based on individual preferences. We also considered Wrike, Monday, Trello, and Basecamp but ultimately settled on Asana after surveying our staff to learn their most desired features and determining that Asana was the best fit. Asana was not only appealing because it is a top-of-the-line product but also because we were able to access it at an extremely affordable rate offered by the EA Hub by grouping several EA organizations under one plan. However, our greatest priority was implementing a tool that would effectively improve clarity around roles, responsibilities, and deadlines and increase transparency across all organizational initiatives.
To support the team’s transition to Scrum and Asana, we compiled a comprehensive set of guidelines and conventions agreed upon by staff and established a Slack channel where team members could ask questions, share tips, and post new projects for others to join. We also held weekly coworking/practice calls.
While it took a few months for the staff to fully familiarize itself with these new systems, the team has expressed appreciation for the increased social interaction that comes with working cooperatively, the dual focus on product quality and project velocity (which many have said has improved our work products and the speed at which we have been able to accomplish tasks), the chance to learn and grow skills in areas outside their specific expertise, and the opportunity to take on leadership roles—even on big projects.
Meeting and Decision-Making Structure
In addition to the implementation of Scrum and Asana, we have improved our meeting and decision-making structure. Previously in meetings, the roles of participants were sometimes unclear; in our new system, the facilitator clarifies how attendees should expect to participate on the call and how their feedback is factored into decision-making. They also set expectations around who has the final say over certain decisions; it may be via consensus of all parties on the call, lead staff, the Executive Director, the board, or any combination of team members. At the end of each meeting, the facilitator reviews and records the following in the meeting notes or Asana: deliverables, responsible parties, deadlines, and the way decisions will be communicated to the rest of the staff (which Slack channel, for example).
Whereas we previously held recurring “research team” and “communications team” meetings, we now primarily hold meetings centered around a specific project, decision, or discussion. When a staff member calls a meeting, they state the purpose in advance, such as discussion, decision-making, knowledge sharing (skills-shares), daily Scrum project meeting, sprint retrospective or project retrospective (also a part of Scrum), and team building (e.g., personal sharing or staff retreat). In addition, the person calling the meeting is now much more conscientious to only include those people who are absolutely necessary, in order to manage everyone’s time and the productivity of the conversation. We also aim to call meetings only when Slack and Asana would not be as efficient.
We reconstructed our performance evaluation process and forms hoping to better capture peer feedback; make room for upward (employee to manager) feedback; reduce implicit bias (by requiring evidence for each piece of feedback listed); and add sections on goal setting, professional development, and career advancement. Whereas previously annual evaluations would sometimes get delayed, we are now committed to completing them each March. We have also scheduled a six-month check-in every September to review the March forms and discuss changes. As part of the annual review process, job descriptions will be updated every March to keep current and better align with ACE’s annual prospective goals. We are also revising our performance improvement plan process and form to ensure clear communication with employees about our expectations regarding areas in which they need to improve.
Knowledge Sharing and Cross-Training
While all of ACE’s primary policies are housed on our intranet, we developed a centralized reference library in Asana to ensure that information for each competency area is shared across the organization. The reference library links to commonly used resources and documented processes and houses task templates, such as our annual performance evaluation process; annual anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training; and our representation, equity, and inclusion curriculum.
We have also completed cross-training of staff on all essential functions by expanding on an understudy system the organization already had in place. We asked each staff member to list specific responsibilities they do for the organization and then train at least one other person on each responsibility, also giving their trainees access to any necessary platforms or tools. Cross-training prevents the loss of institutional knowledge when turnover occurs and enables staff members to more easily take time off and rest easy knowing that someone with equivalent knowledge is covering for them.
Board Relationship to Staff
In order to clarify the board’s relationship to staff, our Board Chair (at the time, Persis Eskander; Allison Smith now holds the position) developed a comprehensive “Board Explainer” and second file outlining when and how the board should be involved in particular categories of decisions. The board has also created a series of informational meetings and discussions hosted by rotating board members, in order to provide opportunities for the staff to have more interaction with the board while discussing topics relevant to ACE. The first one, hosted by Smith, discussed the role of a board in nonprofit organizations and their duties, including legal and fiscal obligations.
Other Organizational Improvements
In addition to the aforementioned solutions we developed in response to Setzer’s reported findings, we’ve taken on a variety of other capacity building initiatives:
- Safety: As safety is the foundation of any organization’s health and culture, we rewrote our anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policy—now called our Respect in the Workplace Policy—from scratch to make it as protective of our employees as possible. We consulted with Krista Hiddema on that particular project. We also developed an accompanying Code of Conduct, which outlines ACE’s community agreements.
- Compensation and Benefits: In order to attract and retain high-performing candidates, we have increased our benefits, such as paid time-off, and made our benefits more consistent across geographical regions. We are in the process of developing a generous sabbatical policy to show appreciation for tenured talent and give them time to refresh. Moreover, we have developed a unique wage formula in order to provide fairer and more competitive compensation. To learn more about the development of our new wage formula, read our latest blog post: ACE’s Compensation Strategy.
- Recruiting and Onboarding: We are reviewing our employee recruiting process, aiming to improve our ability to identify talented applicants and minimize unconscious biases while cutting unnecessary steps from the process. In 2019, we made improvements to our onboarding process: We added a scavenger hunt to familiarize new staff with our website content, added introductions and pictures of our current (all remote) staff, and spread the tasks across four weeks, among other changes. When ACE adopted Asana we moved our onboarding process there, giving new staff an opportunity to get accustomed to the platform right from the get-go.
- Management: We have been working on building the management capacity of our managers and mentors (the latter support interns and fellows) by sharing management resources and holding peer-support calls.
- Support: In a year rife with crises, such as COVID-19 and racial unrest, ACE has made a concerted effort to adapt the organization’s programs and processes to maintain morale. We have provided resources to support staff and created space for ongoing discussions around mental health, well-being, burnout, and grief. We’ve dedicated conversations to and developed curriculum for representation, equity, and inclusion. And we established a required-reading Slack channel dedicated to our culture, which is active with raw and honest conversation.
ACE will continue to invest time and resources in capacity building initiatives in order to develop an infrastructure as sound and sustainable as possible. Our hope is to develop best practices within our organization and then signal them to other organizations, in order to build capacity movement-wide.
We are also grateful to have collaborated with Setzer, whose acuity helped ACE identify its areas of improvement and whose counsel helped us develop necessary solutions. We highly recommend Setzer for a fresh perspective on your organization’s operations.
We are also happy to be a resource and invite you to reach out with any questions. We hope we can help you optimize your own organization.