RVC is not a perfect organization. We’ve struggled our way through so many weird and unexpected challenges. Building something so different from the mainstream nonprofit has resulted in both wild successes and big mistakes. And it has meant doing all kinds of things differently: our relationships, our policies, our practices, and how we share our learnings.
Part of the reason I chose to join RVC was because I was inspired by this courage to walk a different path, with its yet-undiscovered ways we could fail.
When I joined, we had four staff and were still in the first year of running our flagship fellowship program. We had big dreams and a long way to go. One month after my hire we transitioned to our own independent 501(c)(3), and I was asked to build out the operations in parallel with rapid program growth. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. As I look back, I realize that there are certain key decisions that helped lay the foundation for our current successes.
We hope that by sharing these foundational decisions with our sector, we can help other folks navigate similar challenges a bit more smoothly. So what key pieces made all the difference?
- Fundraise for large, multi-year unrestricted grants. From its founding, RVC had the privilege of advocating for and receiving multi-year, general operating funding from the Gates Foundation that covered our core costs. This gave us incredible flexibility and spaciousness to build a healthy organizational culture. Had we not had this funding cushion, I doubt we would have made it very far, despite how impactful our programming was. Our success is inextricably tied to this privilege, which continues to this day, as the Satterberg Foundation, among other funders, provides us with significant ongoing, unrestricted funding. This allows us to deepen our programming while paying folks well, centering wellness, and continuing to take healthy risks and innovate. It is why we advocate – loudly and often – for multi-year, unrestricted funding, community-centric fundraising, and trust-based philanthropy for all BIPOC led and serving organizations, joining the BIPOC ED Coalition’s call for funders to change their ways.
- Invest in our people. With that steady funding in hand, one of my first tasks when I joined RVC was setting up equitable healthcare coverage and expanding our benefits. We succeeded in setting up a zero-deductible healthcare plan, starting folks at a living wage, and providing added benefits for dependents, like covering half of dependent healthcare costs. Without a proactive focus on building a healthy workplace, your staff can and will burn out, and their energy will be oriented towards fighting for better compensation and benefits, instead of being able to pour their passions into the community you serve. Given our broken social safety net and its disproportionate impact on BIPOC communities, we knew we had a responsibility for proactively supporting our staff to thrive, because that has a ripple effect on the families and extended communities they support. We’ve written about this before, and we’ll continue to invite our sector into an abundance mindset when it comes to providing holistic support for our most important resource: the amazing folks who serve our communities every day.
- Keep choosing to center relationships. Every time you have a meeting, you make an often-unconscious choice: do you slow down and genuinely check in, or do you jump straight into the agenda at hand? RVC has always made the decision to prioritize building deep, trusting relationships. And, when the pandemic hit, RVC doubled down on relationships. We knew we had to slow down, and we chose to prioritize relationship-building over other realms. We consciously choose to build those connections, by requiring us all to attend regular “Funtimes” and making sure that retreats include space to hang out in a completely non-work context. That ongoing choice has nourished our healthy organizational culture, which survived the transition to a virtual workplace and continues to thrive. Dr. Bayo Akomofale reminds us, “The times are urgent; let us slow down.” All too often, I chose efficiency and underestimated the inefficiency of that choice. When we have built strong relationships, we can have incredibly hard conversations quickly and with ease, but if we don’t invest the time up front, it’s far more challenging. Deciding to center relationships is a conscious habit we must keep returning to every day.
- Build a leaderful organization. Out of the many organizational structures out there, RVC chose self-management. Our brilliant BIPOC staff were all leaders, so a structure that supported everyone to step into their leadership and have meaningful decision-making power was the right choice for us. Our values meshed well too. Our value of integrity invited us into building a deep feedback culture. Our value of action encouraged us to build decision-making structures that were both collaborative and timely. Our value of community meant that we were committed to holding ourselves accountable to each other and the community we served. Our structure doesn’t work for everyone, but with our particular lived values, we knew we could flourish in it. And we continue to hire and train people who would thrive in this environment, because we know it’s not the right fit for everyone. We have developed an ongoing organizational development plan that ensures staff are engaged in a continuous learning arc, and we thread that into our staff meetings and retreats. This leaderful orientation has been crucial to the success of our work.
- Take action. We grew incredibly quickly. In the space of a few years we went from four staff to over twenty! RVC was in constant transition, which meant that there were always new problems to be solved and decisions to be made. Over and over, we needed to make hard decisions, face the consequences, understand the impact, and try again. The alternative was deliberating endlessly, stuck because we couldn’t predict the outcome of trying something new. I personally have had to make many hard decisions for RVC, and many were far from perfect. But I am glad I chose to try something out rather than allowing things to languish. For example, had we not decided early on to expand our programming into fiscal sponsorship, we would not have, a mere five years later, expanded that work into having two hundred people on payroll while fiscally sponsoring eighteen organizations, many of whom have been able to grow rapidly, secure in the knowledge that they had a partner in managing their finances and HR.
These are just a handful of the decisions that made RVC who we are today. We learned so much from every choice we made, and no matter how much I cringe in recalling some of them, I am glad we kept on trying new things. We chose to center our values and keep moving forward. Which has resulted in a pretty dang awesome organization that is committed to supporting the wellness, liberation, and power of BIPOC leaders, organizations, and the communities they serve, while challenging white supremacy and the nonprofit industrial complex. We have succeeded in carving out more liberatory pathways through systems that want us to fail. And our messy successes lead us to believe that you, too, can succeed in moving in a more liberatory direction.
Ananda Valenzuela, formerly the Interim Executive Director of RVC, is an independent consultant engaged in professional interim executive director work and organizational development facilitation, with a particular focus on equitable self-management and liberatory practices. Learn more at their website.
RVC’s Changemakers blog is a place where RVC staff, present and past, have a chance to learn in public, share in our collective wisdom, and advocate for wide-spread change in our organizations and our sector, sometimes in collaboration with our community of thought partners!