How a Leader Drove Process Improvement in a Not-for-Profit
I recently had the opportunity to speak with a colleague, Robert Giddens. Rob is Director of Information Technology at The Benida Group of Buffalo Grove, Illinois. He also serves on the board of the not-for-profit Maot Chitim (pronounce, “my oat ha team”). Maot Chitim provides an honorable holiday meal twice a year to Jews that cannot afford this expense. It is headquartered in Northbrook, IL, and serves the broader metropolitan Chicago area.
The board of directors of Maot Chitim essentially ran the organization the same way for nearly 80 years. They had used and perfected a manual way of doing things. This traditional plan was successful and there was a history of “Why mess with success?” However, times were changing. The charity no longer served a population that was concentrated in one city area. With the move of recipients across Chicagoland, needs changed quickly. They were fortunate to gain more volunteers – again from all over the metropolitan area. This meant that the plan HAD to change. In addition, since it was changing so quickly, they saw the automation of logistics as a necessity.
Steve: Tell me about your role on the board and your goals for transformational change.
Rob: The board is made up of about 40 retired and active executives who are dedicated to the purpose of Maot Chitim. As I come from the information technology field, I quickly saw the opportunity to improve processes. Process improvements would clearly improve our efficiency in delivering meals. I saw the opportunity to improve both the cycle time in meal delivery, as well as backend processes to identify and use volunteer attributes to better optimize delivery routing.
Historically, they used spreadsheets and many dedicated people were doing manual work. We introduced database technology which allowed us to work faster, smarter and more accurately – reducing a great deal of the former labor-intensive approach.
Steve: In what ways were you a transformational leader?
Rob: Being transformational means that you can look at an opportunity through a different lens. You bring a level of excitement to the opportunity. You recognize that you are a catalyst for change.
Steve: How did you clarify the purpose of your transformation?
Rob: This was an iterative process. As we implemented small process improvements, we began to show people that there was indeed a better way to perform our work. Over time, we demonstrated that we were better able to respect our volunteers’ time and show how we can fill our mission faster and more effectively. The Chicago community is quite generous with their time, and they are wonderful in volunteering for worthwhile causes. We found our 1,000+ volunteers very appreciative of the process improvements as it made their experience of volunteer registration and volunteer engagement a smooth process.
Steve: Tell me about any resistance you might have faced.
Rob: Volunteers are an interesting breed of people. Most want to volunteer on their own terms. We had to carefully introduce new ways of working so they saw it as a benefit, and not a way to put more control on their hours.
Steve: In what ways did you experience cross-functional dysfunction, and how did you address this?
Rob: The board was accustomed to the old way. They did not see the change as a good thing – it was just different. Proving success beforehand is challenging and I needed them to make a leap of faith. We started seeing small wins – efficiency enhancements to demonstrate success and demonstrate we could do more value-added work.
We have one paid staff member – an executive director. The previous director did not appreciate the benefits of automation as she perceived it to it mean she would lose control. She did not see the benefit of giving her more time to perform community outreach and other more productive work
Steve: Were there cultural attributes that made the transformation easier or more difficult?
Rob: The challenge with this group, candidly, is that this board was made up of more senior folks who were comfortable with the why it had been done for the past 80+ years and they did not want to mess with success. The upside was that there were a few people who saw the opportunity for significant efficiency gains and improved volunteer retention.
I was able to build a coalition of a few board members who saw the potential. This allowed me to bring the rest of the board along. To this day their remains some resistance, but now this resistance is more positive. They challenge our work to bring more clarity.
Steve: Please share the results you experienced.
Rob: We replaced the former Executive Director with someone who was more progressive and willing to consider alternative approaches. This enabled the organization to aggressively transform and demonstrate stronger financials while providing additional services to the recipients. We are able to feed more people better meals, less expensive, improving cost per volunteer hour, and did all this faster.
At the volunteer level – it used to take us eight+ hours to organize volunteers to deliver food to over 15,000 recipients. Now it takes us about four hours. This is one way we demonstrate that we care about our volunteers.
Steve: In the process of all of this, how did you become more of a coach?
Rob: Since this is a volunteer organization, power and respect had to grow slowly and organically. Other than the Executive Director, there are no named leaders. On the board, authority is given, and respect is earned. It takes a great deal of influence, and it takes many small wins.
Steve: What advice to you have for aspiring transformational leaders?
Rob: Two things. First, do not take feedback personally. Especially with a volunteer organization, understand that everyone has talents to share, and their feedback may simply suggest a different way to approach the opportunity. The other advice is to go for small wins early. Do not feel like you must have some huge process improvement. Call out the small wins and articulate the advantages gained.
Steve: Rob, thank you for sharing your perspectives today regarding transformational leadership. I wish you great success as you continue this journey and good luck with your extremely worthwhile mission.
Dedicated to your profitable transformation,
If you would like to learn more about Maot Chitim, or make a donation, please see their website: www.maotchitim.org.
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