NMCRS: Transformation in a Fluid Organization

The Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society (NMCRS) is a non-profit organization that provides financial, educational, and other need-based assistance to active duty and retired members of the US Navy and Marine Corps, their eligible family members, widows and survivors. NMCRS has 220 employees and a continually rotating staff of volunteers around the world. Approximately 2,700 volunteers are serving at a given point in time and a total of 4,000 over a year. This 112-year-old organization went from having only a static website five years ago to having a modern digital workplace today. This case study was first published in “The Organization in the Digital Age” in December 2016.

The stated mission of NMCRS is to use both financial and non-financial resources to identify solutions to meet emerging needs, to help clients improve personal financial skills and to encourage individual financial responsibility. There is also a broader focus on well-being, with guidance on budgeting for babies, health education, emergency travel, disaster relief and post-combat support too.

Building Community

The effectiveness of the NMCRS way was recognized in 2014 when it was named as one of the best non-profits to work for, with employees and volunteers lauding it for job satisfaction, esprit de corps and camaraderie. Many in the workforce have close affiliation with the clients they serve, with a significant proportion of volunteers drawn from family members of active or retired military personnel. They bring with them a core understanding, therefore, of customer needs rooted in empathy and lived experience.

Training is key to NMCRS’s operations, including leadership training.

Barb Sheffer, Director of Volunteer Support, explains, “We have volunteers that serve in the hundreds even thousands of hours, others that serve around fifty hours. In reality, we like the balance between the two. We like the inflow of new people staying for short time periods to share what is happening in the rest of world, their gifts and talents. Then, we have the stability side of the longer-term folks.”

“Our intranet site, Seabag, launched three years ago. It has had a huge impact on how our organization communicates internally,” said Thelisha Woods, Director of Publications and Internal Communications. “Because of the military culture, a lot of our volunteers have frequent moves, but they often come back to support NMCRS. Seabag allows them to connect with other volunteers at that new location where they may eventually decide to volunteer again. Our intranet helps to build the NMCRS community, no matter where someone may be stationed. Internal news, policies, forms and discussion forums are all available on Seabag. It is a culture shift that has enabled people to complete their work more effectively.”

Responsiveness Through Processes 

Clear processes establish a framework for all to operate within. But this does not preclude a level of responsiveness and adaptation necessary for an evolving environment. Permanent members of staff are constantly refining methods to train new volunteers. They are increasingly reliant on technological means to do so.

Training is key to NMCRS’s operations, including leadership training. Ann Creeden, Director of Training explains: “People are trained in team building, dealing with conflict, and recruitment. We still consider it recruitment even when you are dealing with volunteers. You are still making decisions based on skills and placement.”

The NMCRS Learning Management System (LMS), developed in-house, was user-tested intensely before launch. A major impact is that it accelerates the integration of volunteers. Ann says, “They come in every day, charged up to help, and they don’t want to spend time waiting for training or feeling frustrated about not being productive when they’re in the office. When volunteers stay fewer than 100 hours, it’s not efficient for them to spend a lot of time on training and they never get a chance to serve the clients. With online training, we can get them up-to-speed to do the basic front-line services pretty quickly. It makes sense for us as well because we haven’t invested in hundreds of hours of training, but they were still able to do valuable work quickly.”

Capturing and codifying knowledge as policy and process, makes it portable and applicable in different contexts.

Digital brings culture change, which has its own problems, especially in such a well-established institution. Shelley Marshall, Chief Development and Communications Officer, says going digital was a culture change that became very personal. “Not only did we have to change the culture, but we had to deal with fear. It was really important for us to get to the root of that, to understand everybody’s different perspective, especially the fear of ‘I won’t be able to learn this’.”

Data-Based Change

NMCRS has also moved forward on using data to identify improvement areas in their global operations. Cheri Nylen, Director of Casework, explains: “Organizationally, we have what we call a strategic cycle. Every three years, we put out questions to our leadership team and empower a focus group who addresses a particular set of topics. They in turn create working groups and dig deep into topics. To do that, it takes a lot of detail, such as which offices are busier, what types of services are being sought in certain offices based on the population, is the population more retired or more active duty and so on.”

“We use statistical analysis to define if we have an office that is slightly skewed on their interpretation of policy based on what we see in the execution of policy in individual casework. The data provides a unique perspective on each individual office. It helps training and field assistance know if they need to ramp up services in a particular area. It helps our HR division determine if an office is adequately manned. I track denial rates, liaising with colleagues to help them interpret policy and address their training needs. We also look at various different volumes trending because certain types of cases take more time. It lets us see how much financial education we’re doing versus actual financial assistance.”

The Connective Effects of Digital

Overall, digital has brought positive results. Shelley notes, “Digital has helped NMCRS improve our professional standing because of the consistency of communication to volunteers, donors and clients—sailors or marines.

When they look at us in Naples, Italy, we’re still the same organization that they knew when they were in San Diego, California.”

Cendra Cramp, Director of Marketing and External Communications, says, “Digital has made a huge change for us. In the past, there tended to be regional groups doing things the way they thought was the right way to do it. When it’s all digital, everybody’s talking together and everybody’s getting the same message, learning from each other and getting the best processes in place for everybody. I don’t think that could be possible without digital.”

NMCRS’s digital story is one of accommodating and adapting to a fluid workforce, and of capturing and codifying knowledge as policy and process, ensuring its portability and application in different contexts. A deep transformation where things are the same but different.