Behind the Scenes with Operations: The Gifts of Lessons and Failures

There is a lot about the world of philanthropy that is not discussed enough with regards to programmatic decisions — but even less information is shared about how finance and operations teams carry out their work.

Part of what may be seen as silence is a measured release of information due to concerns about liability and confidentiality when it comes to the back end of foundation operations. The decisions made behind the scenes greatly impact grantees, resource redistribution, and the people who do the day-to-day work in philanthropy. Ultimately, there is much more we can share to demystify this work without added liability exposure.

We asked our Chief Financial Officer, Joleen Ruffin, and Operations and Projects Manager, Dana Mason to share what they have unlearned during their time at Kataly, and how their perspectives have changed their practices over time.

Photo credit: Bethanie Hines

What are things that were standard practice at other institutions that you have had to consciously work to do differently here?

Joleen: In Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance, Edgar Villanueva talks about “…building organizations that are not about assimilating into the dominant culture but fundamentally changing organizational culture and building a whole new table where Black, Indigenous, and People of Color truly feel like they belong.” What that means to me in my work is building an organization where dominant culture norms are not internalized. As a former nonprofit executive director, I normalized and modeled a sense of urgency in my work because that was what I believed our donors wanted. To raise more money, build more programs, and create new partnerships, we worked at a blistering pace that resulted in me and my small staff often working 50–60 hour weeks, placing work above our own mental and physical health. When I arrived at Kataly, I had to consciously challenge that sense of urgency, get away from a scarcity mindset, and create a practical work plan that set my team up for success. That includes centering relationship building and making sure we make time to care for ourselves and each other.

Dana: When I joined the Foundation, I struggled initially because of the deadlines I put on myself based on my experience in corporate America. I previously worked in environments where deadlines were set arbitrarily with an expectation that work would extend outside of business hours. Calls were expected to be answered on weekends, and failing to turn a project around quickly reflected badly on employees on a personal level. I tried to take care of everything right away so I didn’t have to deal with the criticism from failing to meet expectations. I’ve learned that high pressure and expectations without life balance can quickly lead to burnout. At Kataly, I have learned to slow down. Now, I share my process and timeline for workstreams with colleagues, and trust that they know I am putting my best foot forward to support them every day.

How do you balance the needs of the team with being stewards of the organization’s systems and protocols?

Joleen: We want our staff to feel cared for and supported. From the onset, we have created a thoughtful and compassionate set of organizational policies that take into account employees’ personal commitments and needs outside of the workplace. This includes an intentional compensation philosophy, time-off policies, and benefits packages. As a learning organization, we are responsive to the members of our team who take time to give feedback about a particular policy or process. While we cannot implement every request made by each individual staff member, we remain acutely aware that the strength of our organization lies in the diversity of experiences and perspectives our teammates bring. What we have to contend with in operations is a complex set of laws, rules, and regulations on the federal, state and municipal level that may prevent us from changing policies or processes. A request to add a new benefit or change a policy, for example, may take us down a legal and regulatory rabbit hole that is not visible to someone who hasn’t worked in operations. Decisions that seem easy to make can sometimes be quite complicated to execute resulting in a tremendous administrative burden.

Dana: We have learned that making policy decisions or changing processes may take longer than we expect. As a small team, we may not always have the capacity to make the changes our colleagues are requesting, or we may be hindered by legal requirements and regulations to implement that change. We haven’t always communicated our process to the team regarding how decisions are made in operations, which, depending on the circumstances, can be a failure on our part. What we have committed to doing is listening to feedback, conducting a regular review of our organization’s systems and protocols so they remain relevant, aligned, and attentive; and being as transparent as possible about our process even when we can’t provide specific details.

That being said, in many cases, we can actually respond to requests that have been made. What has been refreshing about working at Kataly is our distributed leadership approach. We don’t rely on traditional hierarchies and business cases to make things happen. Having the autonomy to make decisions in those instances means we can be collaborative and responsive without invoking cumbersome processes.

What are some lessons you’ve learned along the way? Systems and practices you’ve changed after reflection?

Joleen: We have learned that we have to be more assiduous in building timelines and deadlines for tasks and activities we need to complete. We often say we are building the ship as we sail it. During our first year of operations, many items were on our to-do list. We had to facilitate the hiring of 7 new staff members, create a budgeting process, develop spend-out scenarios, generate written policies, construct COVID-management protocols, update our systems, and more.

Dana: As we approached the end of the year, we realized that involving multiple stakeholders in developing our performance management program would mean we couldn’t meet our deadline of having it in place by the end of the year. Our initial intention was to build an annual evaluation process that complemented ongoing communication throughout the year, consistent with our commitment to relationship-based philanthropy: less reporting and less documentation. The process we came up with in the end involved the same level of ongoing communications but a more simple self-assessment questionnaire that each staff member filled out, followed by a conversation with their manager.

When we surveyed staff about the self-assessment process, we found that we hadn’t quite scaled it for their needs. We had underestimated the amount and type of directed feedback staff wanted to truly understand how they viewed their job performance compared to the perspective of their colleagues, peers in the field, and grantee partners.

Joleen: We believe every failure comes with the gift of a lesson. Taking the time to be more inclusive and collaborative in the building phase would have resulted in a more beneficial process that included gathering input on job performance from colleagues and questions that deepened reflection around topics that address the unique aspects of working at Kataly. Though we initially planned a collaborative building phase that included staff input, we let timelines get in the way, which changed our approach. So we failed in that respect and will be designing an updated process that takes into consideration the feedback we have since received. Ultimately, we understand the importance of sharing lessons learned and being open to hearing how we could have done things differently, which is critical to deepening relationships and building trust with the people we support.

This blog post is a part of a series from the Kataly Foundation on failure and philanthropy. Read the first post here.

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The Kataly Foundation

The Kataly Foundation moves resources to support the economic, political, and cultural power of Black and Indigenous people, and all communities of color.