Sometimes, the work done behind the scenes is the key to a project’s success.
And while movers and shakers are needed in the world, the people who work without much fanfare are often those who ensure that the work gets done, goals are reached and barriers to success removed.
Longtime Rocky Mountain Institute staffer Ginny Yang is one of those people. Yang, a senior development associate at RMI, is the behind-the-scenes “magic” that drives RMI’s online donation and data management process.
“She understands how to use the technology to achieve what we want to do,” said Patti Micklin, a development officer at RMI. “Without her, RMI would have a huge void in effectively communicating with our community of support.”
Communicating the Big Ideas
Some might think data and technology are dull and dry; to Yang, it is a way to continually improve how RMI connects and engages with supporters. “As much as I like working on the technology, I really like when it’s working well and we can think of the new big ideas and make it better,” Yang said.
Helping communicate big ideas is where Yang got her start with RMI. In 2002, she and then-boyfriend (now husband) Pete moved from San Francisco to Aspen after Yang had taken a sabbatical in the aftermath of the dot-com implosion. After volunteering for RMI for a few months, she jumped at an invitation to help the Institute teach a course at Beijing University.
“We were looking for an opportunity to volunteer abroad,” Yang said. “So I offered that Pete and I could act as on-the-ground teaching assistants and help manage the class for the semester.”
Working in the university’s environmental engineering department, they became close to the students and helped ease the transition for the RMI educators, who rotated on short, two-week assignments throughout the semester.
“We were the ones going to lunch with the students, hanging out with them,” Yang said. “They were more willing to interact with us on a personal level.”
One of those educators, RMI Senior Consultant Michael Kinsley, said that Yang’s empathetic approach toward others is key to her ability to build communication between different, and, at times, disparate groups of people.
Empathy Goes a Long Way
Having empathy, he said, is “is one of the two or three critical components of any type of communication,” Kinsley said. “Ginny can put herself into other people’s moccasins.”
China’s approach to education, where rote memorization is the norm and questioning a teacher is considered rude, was a challenge for the RMI team—even for experts like Kinsley who had previously worked with different cultures.
“Since we sort of dropped in, we didn’t have enough time with the students to figure how to deal with the cultural differences and how to act on that,” Kinsley said. “Ginny and Pete helped us frame what we were saying in terms the students would better understand.”
Many of the ideas and principles RMI was trying to teach the students centered on whole-system thinking and brainstorming new ways of tackling problems, Yang said. "We needed the students to question our ideas and explore whether they would work in China. The challenge was that it took a long time for them to be comfortable enough to do that with us."
Reaching the Tipping Point
When Yang returned from her stint in China, RMI had an opening in its development department, where she “really got into the technical aspects” of engaging with supporters online. In 2006, Yang helped integrate RMI.org and its database of supporters, automating a process that was largely manual until then—and almost instantly saw the tremendous potential.
Since the integration, Yang said, the amount of money raised online has doubled every year and the online base has grown from approximately 4,000 users to more than 50,000 today. But what gets Yang really excited is being so near to reaching a critical mass that will help push RMI’s online fundraising past a tipping point.
“A few years ago we never thought we’d get to 100,000 people in our base because we just had this incremental growth,” Yang said. “Now it is very much within our reach.”
Yang said RMI is very fortunate to have a handful of very generous supporters, but that it is essential to have a wide base of smaller donors.
“It’s really important to have more and more people supporting us at the $25 level. It shows how well we’re known and that we have a broad base of support,” she said. “I see that as a key metric of the success of our online efforts. It’s how we take our pulse.”
Rebecca Cole is RMI’s Online Editor.
--Published February 2010