Ellie Milano from Impact by Design talks about the Morgridge Acceleration Program (MAP) Fellowship that brought her to GCC, how COVID-19 threw a wrench in the works, and how readapting the research led to bigger dreams and even bigger ideas.

Impact by Design’s Ellie Milano Leads GCC in the Morgridge Acceleration Program (MAP) Fellowship

What is your specialty?

I am a consultant; I help non-profits achieve their greatest impact. My specialty is working with organizations that are focused on conservation, environmental and animal welfare issues. I’m a facilitator, trainer, and an organizational coach. I have a degree in biology and a master’s in conservation medicine as well as first-hand experience working at non-profits, which helps me to better understand my clients’ perspectives.

How did you get involved with the Morgridge Family Foundation and the fellowship?

It was actually quite random. My sister came across the project with Global Conservation Corps (GCC) on a listserv through her university. She thought it was right up my alley so she sent the advertisement for the fellowship to me and I decided to apply.

What were your first impressions of GCC when you started working with the organization?

I was really impressed with GCC because it seemed to me that even though it was a small organization just getting off the ground, there was so much that they had achieved already. There seemed to be a really clear vision for the change they hoped to make in the world, even if it wasn’t captured on paper yet. There were big dreams and big ideas. I have to say that the model also spoke to me, how GCC aims to connect kids with wildlife through experiences in the hopes that they grow up wanting to be conservationists. I have a handful of really powerful memories from my childhood of being outside in nature and learning about wildlife for the first time. So, I can understand how life-changing those experiences can be for young kids.

What was your initial mission for GCC?

The project that we started off trying to achieve was centered around building a network of chapters for the organization, specifically within the United States, with plans to expand that globally. And so, when we started, we were gathering information from the whole team, staff, and board members about what that could look like for GCC and how that could go. The plan was to get to the point where we had a pilot chapter up and running, and a solid plan for building that network.

How did the plan change with COVID-19?

So much happened. First, there was a lot of uncertainty around COVID and how devastating the impacts would be. And as communities started going into lockdown to stop the spread of the disease, organizations doing community-based work in most cases found themselves unable to deliver their services because they couldn’t get into their communities. And of course, GCC was no exception to that. All of the sudden this first step in their process, the delivery of an in-person education curriculum, wasn’t able to happen.

We were also talking about setting up this chapter network that was based on in-person engagement with the organization and so that didn’t seem possible for a little while. And so, as it related to our challenge, we were kind of grappling with do we put a plan in place and put things on pause? So, we started talking about what all of our options were.

And at the same time, every time I would have a meeting with Matt (Lindenberg), it seemed that there were more and more really big programmatic questions popping up that the team needed help thinking through. Especially with the recent challenges that COVID brought, the team was wanting to strategize, think through some new ideas that had surfaced, get their long-term goals onto paper, and really articulate a roadmap for how they plan to achieve those goals. It seemed like we had a huge opportunity to use the time we had for the MAP Fellowship to focus on these big questions.

We took a huge step back, completely changed gears to move away from the idea of planning a chapter network, and started working on a strategic plan. This meant a series of workshops – virtually, across 17 time zones! – with the staff, board, and community members to analyze, brainstorm, prioritize, and create a roadmap for the future.

Were there any surprises along the way with your research and work?

When we made the shift from chapter network planning to a strategic planning process, I think what surprised me the most was just how totally OK everybody at GCC was with making the shift. I think that speaks volumes to the incredible flexibility of the team and their willingness to adapt. That was really surprising to me.

And then there were lots of things that surprised me as we dove into the planning process. One of the things that struck me was that GCC is focused on the fact that many students and children living near national parks in South Africa don’t have access to the wildlife within the parks. And not only that, but they can’t imagine a role for themselves in conservation or working with wildlife because there are so few people doing that in their community. In our work, we spent a really long time talking about this exclusion from wildlife and conservation and thinking about how GCC could play a role in changing that. One of the really powerful concepts that came out of that was the idea to uplift role models within the community and make them more visible.

One of the things we did as part of the strategic planning process was to write a theory of change. An explanation of why we think the things we are doing will result in a change. One of the big “a-ha” moments we had was in putting together the theory of change and realizing just how integral each tactic, each element of GCC’s work is to achieve their goal. Most organizations have lots of different things that they’re doing – education programs, awareness campaigns – but often those things aren’t tied together in a strategic way. For GCC, every single thing that they’re doing is targeting one aspect of the problem, with the ultimate aim of getting kids involved in conservation. That was the other huge moment for me, realizing how linked each aspect of the work is.

When you look back over the program, what are you most proud of?

Kate (Vannelli) said something to me when we met a couple of weeks ago. She said that the result of the process was not just the strategic plan, but that there was also this internal impact on the way that the team problem solves and has discussions. It was an unintentional impact, but there were some cultural changes for the organization in ways that seemed really powerful for the staff and I think that’s the proudest thing for me. It’s great to create a plan for an organization that they are happy with. But when you are able to impact how the organization works together to achieve that plan, that is what’s really exciting.

What are your hopes for GCC for the future?

I certainly hope they achieve everything they are setting out to do. We have laid out a really ambitious strategic plan that is also very achievable. I hope that they are using that plan as a tool to continue guiding them, rather than sticking it on a shelf. I hope they can use it in an active way, come back to it, and make updates on what has changed as things don’t always go the way we planned.

How important is the Morgridge Family Foundation in this project?

On the first level, I would say that this has been an opportunity that most organizations, and most people, don’t often get. Creating this fellowship led to some really innovative outcomes for all of the organizations involved. For each fellow, having the chance to step into that guidance and expert role can be eye-opening. It’s an opportunity to see behind the curtain in an organization and help them create something or improve. And for the non-profits, the fellow provides an external voice that can help you see things that you wouldn’t have otherwise. I think there are huge benefits to that. And I also think one of the goals of the fellowship was network-weaving and helping folks make connections by helping each other through these challenges. This was certainly powerful for me working with the other mentors and the other fellows, actually having that support network of other people engaged in similar projects to seek advice from and bounce ideas off of. I think the ultimate goal is to maintain the MAP network as a source of support for all those involved, which is an incredible opportunity.

Special thanks to Ellie Milano from Impact by Design and the Morgridge Family Foundation.

“Want to stay informed about conservation issues and what you can do to make an impact?”