Alumni Spotlight: Maria Florea, German Marshall Fund

Posted in News Story Spotlight

Maria Florea is a Program Officer at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership spoke with Maria about her work overseeing the Black Sea Trust’s grantmaking portfolio in Romania and GMF’s Leadership Programs’ Alumni Leadership Action Projects portfolio, in addition to her experience in the Certificate Program.

CPNL: The nonprofit sector is vast with so many important causes to champion, what led you to pursue a career in your particular field?

Maria Florea: I think I got into it by accident, if I’m being completely honest. I was a graduate of political science in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis. So, I don’t need to tell you how that went for a lot of young people coming out of universities back then. I was an intern for almost a year and a half, which included an internship at my current job. I think once I got into it, I sort of realized that out of everything that you could do with my political science degree that this was a really good fit for me. I think it was a natural response to the way I saw myself when I was in high school—as someone who wanted to contribute to the world by helping people.

CPNL: At German Marshall Fund you lead the GMF’s Leadership Programs’ Alumni Leadership Action Projects portfolio, which helps provide special mini-grants to alumni who are passionate about creating positive change in the transatlantic community. In what ways do you and your team implement diversity and inclusion in your grant decision making process? What changes have you seen GMF implement to foster greater diversity in the workplace since you began working with them in 2015.

Florea: This is very much part of GMF focus right now. It is a priority on many levels, not just a priority in terms of our own organization and how we are set up but also how we select our people, especially since we work across continents. Our geographic diversity is always a multicultural challenge because change happens slower in some places than others and so you have to be mindful of that, even when you have the best of intentions. One of the other things that we pursue actively through our programming is bringing the topic of diversity and inclusion to the forefront and talking about it and writing about it. We also focus on it through our leadership programs, where we have programs set up for leaders who work to advance inclusion. That means that all the leadership programs that we have, even if they’re not specifically geared towards advancing diversity and inclusivity, they always address this issue in the way we select fellows and the learning we offer them. I think this is a huge part of what we do and, moving forward, I think this will become an even bigger part of our work.

CPNL: As a program officer for GMF who oversees GMF’s Black Sea Trust’s portfolio in Romania, in what ways have you seen Covid-19 affect your team’s grantmaking process? Are there any specific projects or initiatives that you have started in response to the pandemic and are they still being implemented today?

Florea: Since the pandemic started, we pretty much haven’t slept here at The Black Sea Trust, because most of the grants we offer go to small grassroots and medium sized organizations in the Black Sea region that really depend on our funding to fulfill their mission and goals. I think one of the things that has substantially affected the civil society community in all the countries that we work in, is the fact that they had to pivot their entire work to an online format, and subsequently reinvent themselves. This highlighted the fact that there are a lot of skills that are missing in terms of technology. These skill gaps could be less obvious when programs were run in person, but once the pandemic settled in, they were difficult to overlook. Thanks to our funders, our team had the ability to support organizations through a collection of first response actions. Whether that meant providing protective gear to these groups or sustaining an NGO as they tried to reorganize themselves financially and as a team.

It’s now been almost two years since the pandemic started and we’ve tried to pivot towards looking at Covid in terms of resilience. We are considering if another moment of crisis like this happens then we must learn to be prepared to be nimble with our funding and know how to respond to and communicate about what is happening on the ground. I think we’ve managed to be very responsive by giving out grants faster than we did before and being very flexible in terms of how we implement our work. It’s important that you help your grantees always adapt to changing circumstances. I think that this crisis has made my relationship with the grantees more personal because together you are trying to figure out things like, what does a hybrid event look like and what Covid measures should we take?

CPNL: What is one significant challenge you have faced as a leader in philanthropy?

Florea: Adapting. It’s not that you don’t want to but having to adapt in a normal life cycle is one thing. Having to adapt multiple times over the span of a very short period, for me personally hasn’t been pleasant. Keeping continuity and stability, especially when you work in the Black Sea region has been equally challenging. Being able to have the appropriate response at the appropriate time in a constantly changing environment.

One way I have dealt with this is to remember that I am working with people who might be putting even more on the line. I think about the purpose of what I do every day, which helps to ground myself. Working in civil society is a marathon. Your finish line is always far away, but you need to continue taking steps towards it. You might never reach it in your lifetime, but it is important that you always show up and you put those steps in. I think in times of crisis, reverting to your values and looking at them as an anchor is important.

CPNL: How has the Certificate Program helped you in your career?

Florea: One of the things that I did discuss with Kathy and Luisa was, as opposed to some of our other colleagues in the program, I’m not necessarily in a leadership position within my organization because it’s rather large. But despite that, I did focus on creating in my capstone project a few interventions that impact the staff of the organization. And I’m happy to say that in the months that I’ve completed the project, I’ve been successful in achieving probably 50% of what I put in the capstone, which is huge! I think for me, the big takeaway is understanding that it doesn’t matter if I can’t change the entire system. My small interventions can bring more incremental change and move the needle in the areas where another person can take it and do something with it. Another thing which I think has been very useful in my work from the Certificate Program is gaining a sense of camaraderie, that all nonprofit leaders face the same exact things when it comes to the challenges of our structures, of our procedures, of how we retain staff, regardless of which country we work in. I think that was very reassuring and it made me understand that I can implement these ideas even in a place that is culturally, psychologically, and geographically different because we all speak the same language in many ways.

CPNL: What advice would you give to professionals who are considering participating in the Certificate Program?

Florea: Do it. I even encouraged more colleagues in my own organization to participate in the program. Even if the organization is a think tank, the underlining problems that non-profit organizations go through are the same.

I wanted to apply for the Certificate Program for the past three years. Once I gathered the funds to attend the program, I can say with complete sincerity that it’s probably one of the best investments I’ve ever made. I learned a lot. I think that all the resources that have been put at our disposal after the program have been incredible. What I really appreciated about the program is the fact that you get guided throughout the whole process. Even though it was conducted online, I’m very happy and super proud of receiving the certificate diploma. Not just because of Georgetown’s reputation. It’s more than that. I really, really enjoyed it and I feel that I managed to bring all the things that I’ve learned so far in this sector together.