The path to redefining SVCF’s values

Committee Values
SVCF Values Committee members Gina Dalma, Cynthia Pilch, Michelle Sioson Hyman, Casey Kellogg, Sawako Sonoyama Clarin and Bert Feuss

In spring 2018, Silicon Valley Community Foundation faced a challenge like never before. Our organization had been though a very public scandal related to our leadership, and staff felt sadness, anger, confusion and more. But we remained committed to doing our core work – we had grants and contributions to process, scholarships to award, policies to advocate for and relationships with donors and nonprofits to steward. We even had a televised debate for the 2018 California gubernatorial election to finalize.

But it was essential that we also look inward, to remind ourselves why we are here and why we do our work, and so I volunteered to join the new Culture Task Force and lead the committee responsible for reviewing and redefining our organization’s values.

The Culture Task Force (CTF) – formed in summer 2018 under the leadership of interim president Greg Avis – is a diverse, cross-departmental team committed to improving the culture at SVCF and making us a stronger organization. The members range from entry level to vice presidents, with tenures from 6 months to 15 years. They represent different backgrounds, nationalities and gender, and come from various departments, including community programs, accounting and donor services. After the public crisis, our staff and leadership felt that redefining our values was a priority, as at their best, values form the basis of organizational culture, express collective beliefs and guide daily actions. I remember fellow task force member Cynthia Pilch, a staff member on our gifts processing team, asking, “How can we implement culture without addressing our values? How we can rebuild without a shared purpose?”

The Values Committee began its work by learning where our original values came from. We returned to the guiding principles that led to SVCF’s formation and interviewed past and present leaders. The committee also studied best practices and examples from other organizations and reviewed the original values from 2007, when SVCF was born from the merger of Peninsula Community Foundation and Community Foundation Silicon Valley. From this, the committee developed a list of recurring themes and identified underlying core beliefs, including unspoken but widely shared values.

Throughout this process, the Values Committee had its own set of guiding principles:

  • Appreciate, not diminish nor replicate, the contributions of those who came before us;
  • Understand SVCF's history and challenges, not cast judgement;
  • Emphasize the best traits of all those who have been a part of SVCF’s history, both pre- and post-merger.

“We wanted to capture the founding principles, the vision moving forward and the heart of the organization” said committee member Bert Feuss, senior vice president of investments. “Keeping that in mind helped guide us on our journey.”

Over many meetings and lively debates, eight themes emerged (with examples in parenthesis): Impact (making the world a better place), Partnership (internally and externally), Diversity & Inclusion, Respect (appreciation, empowerment), Entrepreneurial (innovation, risk taking), Compassion (caring, kindness), Integrity (honest, accountable) and Learning (data driven, long-view).

Narrowing and selecting the final values was a difficult but rewarding process. Committee members disagreed often. We questioned our own assumptions and beliefs and shared our thoughts honestly. Conversations were emotional – and oftentimes therapeutic. We refined numerous iterations until the values and their definitions felt authentic and specific to SVCF.

In developing the values and definitions, we used the following criteria:

  • They are authentic and specific to SVCF. They help define who we are as a community foundation.
  • They are not easy to fulfill. They provide the basis for discussion. They become alive as we strive to achieve them.
  • They are meaningful to our staff and board, and they provide a guide to what we believe in and how we do our work in every department.
  • They should guide our daily practices, decision-making and problem-solving.
  • They reflect the aspirations of our past, present and future, and are not focused on a certain moment of history.

With the strong endorsement of SVCF leadership, we landed on five core values: Courage, Collaboration, Inclusion, Respect and Accountability.

The next step was to invite all staff and board members to participate in a series of workshops on how to live these five values authentically, as individuals, teams, organization and board. These workshops collected feedback that helped us finalize the definitions, re-imagine our operating norms and craft relevant training plans. Importantly, the workshops allowed staff – and board participants -- to share their thoughts, learn from each other and join in ownership of our new values.

From the feedback collected at the workshops and the strategic and thoughtful guidance from organizational culture consultant, Lee Caraher, the Values Committee presented the final values and definitions to our staff and board in December 2018:

SVCF Values
Our values guide us as we make important decisions that drive us toward improving our community and our world.

We tackle the toughest challenges. We speak up and take risks to fight for justice, equity and lasting systemic change.

We partner with people everywhere. We learn from and work with each other, our community and nonprofit partners and donors to achieve positive impact.

We elevate diverse voices. We are most impactful when our organization and our work include people from varied backgrounds, opinions and perspectives.

We listen deeply and treat each other with kindness. We ask for and seek to understand the ideas of those we serve.

We take responsibility. We expect transparency and accountability from ourselves and the social systems we seek to improve.

We are proud of our new values and of the process we undertook, but we know that the hard work has just begun. The true test of these values is to live them every day and make tough decisions based on them.

Nicole Taylor, our new CEO, had this to say about the new values: “The work that this committee, the staff and the board did to arrive at SVCF’s values in 2018 was inspiring to me. When I joined SVCF in December 2018, hearing about this work made me certain that SVCF has an incredibly bright future ahead – one that will benefit SVCF staff, the philanthropists we work with, and most importantly the residents of Silicon Valley for years to come.”