Unlearning Perfection: Reflections on Failure and Trust

To conclude Kataly’s series of reflections on failures, we are asking team members to offer their thoughts on what they are unlearning, how philanthropy can uphold inequities, and how they have failed.

In this Q&A, our Director of Knowledge and Grants, Ray Holgado, offers insights on fighting the urge to strive for perfection, how information can be used for both helpful and harmful purposes, and learning how to embrace trust after surviving toxic work cultures.

Ray Holgado, Director of Knowledge and Grants. Credit: Bethanie Hines

What have you needed to unlearn in your role at Kataly? What was standard practice at places you’ve worked before that you do differently now?

Much of the work I’ve done in philanthropy before Kataly has been from the standpoint of compliance and protecting the foundation and its interests, as well as defaulting to ingrained, often corporatized practices. In designing our grant making processes, the team at Kataly has challenged me to unpack these practices and ask: Is this necessary? Does this serve our grantees? Are we moving with trust?

One of the areas that I really focused on when I joined Kataly was how we process and deploy grant funding. Like a growing number of foundations, Kataly’s grantmaking is facilitated through a donor-advised fund (DAF), which allows us to get funding out quickly and with relative ease for our grantees. Despite the benefits that can come with utilizing a DAF, many funders simply adopt the same problematic practices of a traditionally structured foundation. For instance, there are no exhaustive reporting requirements associated with grants awarded from a DAF — however, many foundations choose to continue to collect cumbersome and time intensive reports from their grantees. When we interrogate many of the deeply held practices within philanthropy, we find that we’ve become more beholden to tradition and the status quo than what is necessary or legally required.

Another area that I’m trying to unlearn is the need to strive for perfection. In the past, I’ve typically over-prepared before moving forward on a project. Now I’m trying to lean into a more iterative, action-oriented approach. For example, with our rapid response process, we had the space to both iterate based on our past rapid response efforts, while responding to the needs of the moment in real time. When the SCOTUS decision was made to overturn the constitutional right to abortion, it was really important for us to be nimble and responsive to the moment and not let our internal process slow us from taking swift action on funding reproductive justice.

Can you give an example of how you’ve seen grants management uphold inequities in the workplace?

One big area that comes to mind is data collection and evaluation. Organizationally, we’re in an interesting place right now as we begin to consider what data points we want to collect and track across Kataly’s grantees. Of course, we approach this work cautiously with a recognition that data collection has historically been a method of gatekeeping and a barrier for funding nascent and emerging organizations. Once you begin asking for specific information, you’ve created a potential metric for approving or denying funding.

For instance, information about organizational budgets would be useful for us as we look at rising inflation and think about how that is affecting smaller organizations and how we can best support them. But that same information could be used as a way to argue that some organizations are too small and too dependent on our funding, leading one to conclude that they are a ‘risky investment’. Ultimately, I’m coming to find that intention matters. The danger doesn’t lie in the tools or the information you collect, it’s all about how you utilize those tools and information.

There was a period when all of these tools — data collection, evaluation, impact measurement — were seen as being in opposition to the interests of affected communities. Now, I recognized that I need some of this data to best serve these communities.

Evaluation and impact measurement are polarizing spaces — we still have mainstream philanthropic practices that approach evaluation in a very paternalistic, top-down way. Then there are institutions at the other end of the spectrum who don’t require anything in the way of evaluation. I’m hoping that Kataly can strive for balance as we approach this work, while holding a commitment to only request data from grantees that we need to best serve their interests and the interests of the communities we collectively serve.

Some of us in philanthropy, particularly those of us who come out of social movements and direct service work, recognize that funders are in no position to evaluate the work and activities of frontline organizations. However, I do think there is value in funders working to evaluate ourselves. As a foundation that funds explicitly through a liberatory and racial justice lens, I want to be certain that our actions are aligned with our rhetoric. I see evaluation as a means of holding funders accountable to their publicly stated missions and aims.

What’s a way you feel you’ve failed?

I came into Kataly with work trauma, and at a time when I was harboring a deep distrust of philanthropy, and more broadly, the folks who work in this industry. I come from a very low-income background and I entered the field with justified skepticism and contention. I recognize that this is an industry that only exists when there is an inexcusable gap between those who have and those who don’t — and my family and loved ones are among the folks who still don’t have.

When I find myself at funder tables, I’m compelled to ask: whose voices and perspectives are missing from this space? Who are we working in service of? Who am I here to represent? These questions weigh on me.

What I think I failed to do was to extend trust. What I have found in Kataly are folks coming to this with the right heart. It’s not just a performance, or altruistic theater. There is care, passion and love for community here. That lets me take a breath. I’m learning to take myself out of my previous experiences and come at this with an openness to folks having good intentions.

Being able to trust the team is a product of being trusted. Folks have given me a lot of trust and space to operate, especially Nwamaka and our leadership team. Rather than being in a defensive posture and focusing on limiting the harm the institution may cause, I’m able to imagine what’s possible. I get to return to what brought me to social work and social movement.

I definitely came into Kataly prioritizing efficiency. As a spend-out, it sometimes feels like there is an invisible clock running in the background. This year passed by so fast! I look at the things we want to accomplish, the projects I want to support through grants management, and I think about the timeline, and I feel a sense of urgency that makes it hard to move at the speed of trust or building consensus. I can become very heavy-handed in service of what I think the work requires. Folks have helped me soften that. It helps to know that I am not the only one pushing towards these lofty goals. My thinking expands by talking to team members. I’m just one set of eyes and experiences and this work gains so much richness when we move in concert.

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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.