Our Path Forward
The National Geographic Society’s Strategic Plan, NG Next, celebrates our legendary legacy and takes the next step forward by charting a dynamic, five-year plan that strengthens our foundation, builds on our momentum, embeds diversity, equity, and inclusion into every aspect of our work, and sets a clear vision for the future to drive significant impact.
Our Bold Plan for the Future
Our Heritage of Exploration
Deep within the National Geographic Society’s archives, beyond the books and magazines shelved in the library, is the Rare Book Room. The temperature and humidity are carefully controlled to preserve the room’s collection of assorted treasures, among which sits a humble, leather-bound diary. It is one of the oldest artifacts from the Society’s early years. Inside the front cover, this inscription is penned in black ink: “With the I.C. Russell Mt. St. Elias Exploring Party. June 17th 1890.”
When expedition leader and geologist Israel Cook Russell—flanked by nine men and two dogs, Bud and Tweed—set out to survey the Alaskan wilderness, he and his team were on their way to making National Geographic history. In June 1890, they embarked on a grueling journey to map the St. Elias Mountains region, which spans hundreds of miles across Canada and the United States. The area was a maze of mountains and glaciers. The environment was harsh and hostile. Their most daunting charge was to climb Mount St. Elias, one of the highest peaks in North America at more than 18,000 feet.
This ambitious undertaking was the National Geographic Society's first scientific expedition.
Barely two years after the Society’s inception, during a time when large areas of the globe were still uncharted, National Geographic’s members were eager to increase and diffuse geographic knowledge. Twenty-seven donors contributed to the Mount St. Elias expedition, including a handful of figures crucial to our founding: the Society’s first president Gardiner Greene Hubbard, explorer John Wesley Powell, financier Charles Bell, inventor Alexander Graham Bell, and Russell himself. The trek was co-sponsored by the U.S. Geological Survey, and the U.S. Navy pledged a ship to transport them during the last leg of their ocean journey.
Despite several attempts, the team never reached the summit of the mighty mountain; snowstorms and avalanches thwarted their pursuit. But during the three-month expedition, they amassed and advanced scientific knowledge on a tremendous scale—extensively mapping the region’s geography, topography, geology, and glaciers, and providing an incredible lens on one of the continent’s most isolated terrains. The following year, National Geographic magazine published a first-person narrative of the journey, authored by Russell. His account comprised nearly the entire May 29, 1891, issue, which was circulated to roughly 400 members.
And so began our legacy of dauntless exploration—the first of thousands of intrepid Explorers funded by the National Geographic Society (NGS) who were driven by a determination to advance new knowledge about the world. In the century that followed Russell’s expedition, quests that once focused on geography, mapping, and geology gave way to Alexander Graham Bell’s expansive view that the Society would cover “the world and all that’s in it.”
Exploration in the 21st Century
Today, the Society invests in a diverse, global community of National Geographic Explorers who are leading a new age of exploration in support of our mission: to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world through science, exploration, education, and storytelling. These bold individuals represent more than 140 countries and their vast array of backgrounds, perspectives, and fields bring us to the far reaches of the globe.
In the depths of the ocean, Explorers reveal underwater worlds that sustain life on Earth. In subterranean caves, they investigate our ancient past and the very roots of humanity. At the edge of extinction, they courageously work to end wildlife trafficking and protect species at risk. On the frontlines of conservation, they help safeguard fragile ecosystems for future generations. Through their words and images, they document the great mysteries, triumphs, despair, and complexities of our time. With breakthrough technology, they open up unimaginable possibilities. And in classrooms and communities all over the world, educators immerse young people in the work of our Explorers, equipping them with the same critical-thinking skills to analyze and investigate real-world challenges. These learning experiences empower the next generation of Explorers, leaders, and solution seekers.
Well over a century after our founding, National Geographic continues to reach and resonate with millions of people worldwide. How has our organization stood the test of time? We’ve stayed true to our original mission to pursue and celebrate exploration, scientific excellence, education, and unforgettable storytelling while simultaneously evolving with nimbleness and fortitude in a rapidly changing world. We embraced innovation and intentionally adapted, thoughtfully expanding our business model, global reach, and DEI efforts. In doing so, we have remained a vibrant, relevant, world-class brand at the forefront of exploration and knowledge
Our Organizational Evolution
National Geographic has long told the story of our human journey, and that must include shining a light on our own past. This means facing up to our history of colonialism, racism, and sexism—including who was allowed to be an Explorer, who was able to tell stories, and whose stories were told. For much of our past, we primarily funded white American men who set out to “discover” the world. These parts of our own history are incredibly painful, but it’s critical that we reckon with our past to more effectively and equitably launch into the future.
We took it upon ourselves to look inwardly and intentionally improve how we live our core values to ensure diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is woven into everything we do. Today, nearly half of our Explorers are women and 65 percent have conducted fieldwork in their home countries and across all seven continents. We’ve also accelerated our efforts to identify, support, and elevate the work and voices of Explorers who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPoC).
To give two examples, we launched the Second Assistant Program in 2017 to increase access and learning opportunities for promising photographers from underrepresented groups. In 2020, we announced the selection of four Black storytelling fellows, whose projects elevate stories of resilience, power, and injustice among Black Americans. We enlisted the help of C. Daniel Dawson, an adjunct professor at Columbia University, to curate and elevate these important—and necessary—stories so that we can advance meaningful change within our organization and among the communities we support.
As a global organization, we not only have the opportunity to drive systemic change at National Geographic, we have a responsibility to do it. When I joined the Society in 2020, I made a commitment to advance the organization’s work around DEI. This commitment was grounded in our core values: We believe we can only achieve our mission to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world when people of every race, identity, experience, and ability have a role in our work.
My appointment as the first woman to serve as CEO in the Society’s 133-year history signals where we’re headed—and that’s toward a more inclusive and accountable workplace and community. Although we have much more work to do, the Society has made strides to achieve and maintain equity. Society staff is currently 63 percent women and 31 percent BIPoC. Today, our executive team is 64 percent women and 36 percent BIPoC, including a Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer to ensure we have the organizational expertise to drive our DEI work forward. We will continue to learn from our past, examine our present, and build a better, more inclusive future in support of our mission.
Our planning process included three strategic throughlines that were thoughtfully considered and will be woven throughout all of our work: the Society’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion; our reimagined Base Camp; and alignment and collaboration with Disney and National Geographic Partners (NGP). A cross-functional team of staff and leadership developed these throughlines with guidance from trustees.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
We can only achieve our mission when people of every race, identity, experience, and ability have a role in our work. We believe it is our differences that make the National Geographic Society a better place. It is why we take great care to foster a culture where everyone feels welcome, safe, included, and respected. Throughout the strategic planning process, the DEI Throughline team assessed the Society’s organizational framework and created guiding principles to ensure that our values informed every aspect of the implementation of NG Next—from our funding strategy to our mission programs, hiring practices, partners, and everything in between. An innovative, exciting, and dynamic workplace must be diverse, inclusive, equitable, and accessible.
Our Base Camp
Our global headquarters encompasses three buildings totaling nearly 900,000 square feet in the heart of Washington, D.C. The Base Camp Throughline team was charged with fully exploring the potential of our reimagined physical campus, as well as our virtual spaces, to bring people together with transformative and uniquely National Geographic experiences that showcase our mission. The team built on the Society’s commitments to ramp up our convening power, explore new partnerships and collaborations, and strengthen our business model through new revenue and fundraising opportunities. The Base Camp Throughline group delivered on this commitment by informing the work of other cross-divisional teams engaged in the strategic planning process.
Alignment and collaboration with Disney
The National Geographic Society has a joint-venture partnership, NGP, with The Walt Disney Company. The Alignment and Collaboration Throughline team ensured that our partnership with Disney and our work through NGP were thoughtfully integrated into the development and execution of NG Next. In doing so, we leveraged our unique business model and amplification opportunities in support of our vision. The team delivered on this commitment by bringing the right expertise, including our NGP colleagues, to the table to evaluate the plan.
Our community resoundingly expressed that they wanted fewer programs, which meant giving up some initiatives in the interest of achieving far greater impact. In order to make our work bigger and better, we had to start with fewer. To focus our mission-driven efforts, identify and build long-lasting relationships with our Explorers, and drive impact globally, we are …
- Strategically narrowing the Society’s focus to five key areas that best align with our mission: Ocean, Land, Wildlife, Human History and Cultures, and Human Ingenuity.
- Reducing the number of grants we award each year, but increasing our investment in each Explorer—not only through funding, but also through expanded professional development, training, leadership and speaking opportunities, community building, and connections.
- Identifying and scaling a small number of signature, Explorer-led programs that can have outsize impact by combining the core elements of our vision.
To leverage National Geographic’s world-class reputation, unlock the wealth of expertise in our ecosystem, ensure our work remains relevant and cutting edge, and expand our global impact, we are looking to …
- Leverage our convening power and National Geographic “mission moments.”
- Strategically partner and collaborate to strengthen our organization.
- Share our in-house expertise globally.
- Reimagine our Base Camp to truly reflect the magic of our mission.
Our constituents see immense value in embracing innovation and thoughtful change to strengthen our global community, campus, and organization. To build an internal culture and workplace that’s as innovative and dynamic as our mission, we must embrace the ingenuity that we’re known for—at all levels of our organization. Collectively, we are focusing on how to …
- Foster a culture of risk-taking.
- Encourage flexibility.
- Expand pathways for professional growth and empowerment.
- Increase our operational transparency and cross functionality.
Our business model changed dramatically in 2015 with our joint-venture partnership that created NGP. It is critical to think about how we want it to evolve in the next 5 to 10 years and beyond. As industry landscapes continue to evolve—in media, science, and education—what creative, innovative adjustments can we make to set ourselves up for the strongest possible financial future? We are focusing our efforts in four key areas to …
- Strengthen our partnership with Disney.
- Build the Society’s endowment.
- Create a culture of philanthropy.
- Identify new revenue-producing programs that advance our mission.
Photo credits (from top of page): Mauro Sergio, Jonathan Irish, Kostadin Luchansky, Pablo Albarenga, Ghaamid Abdulbasat, Jens Stefan Benöhr, Marc Bierkens, Thalefang Charles, Safa Fanaian, Garvita Gulhati, Dalal Emily Lucia Hanna, Enrique Lomnitz, Shreya Ramachandran, Karabo Moilwa, Kostadin Luchansky, Xavier Lorenzo/AdobeStock, Mark Thiessen, Esther Ruth Mbabazi