Rebuilding SVCF’s Culture

In the wake of a leadership crisis in spring 2018, SVCF is working to redefine itself

The way an organization responds to a crisis can tell you a lot about its values. After allegations of workplace misconduct surfaced earlier this year, Silicon Valley Community Foundation staff soon began examining existing problems and finding ways to fix them. An ambitious team of staff volunteers is embracing the opportunity to rebuild SVCF’s organizational culture with a focus on communication, transparency and trust.

“I believe this process will lead to an even more engaged and committed staff who, in the long run, are in a better position to serve our donors and community,” says Greg Avis, who was named interim president earlier this year. “Culture is just as important as strategy if not more so — particularly in a nonprofit that is at the core of philanthropic activity in Silicon Valley. It’s the most long-lasting advantage that an organization can have.”

Listening First

The first phase of the project involved listening. To help inform the new cultural direction of the organization, employees from all departments across the organization were asked, “What was good, what was challenging and what was the culture they want to get to, ultimately,” says Lee Caraher, a business leadership and culture consultant who was hired to lead the SVCF initiative. “It’s important that you make sure you understand the situation from all sides before you try to start changing things. We listen hard first, and then move with urgency and deliberation in a logical fashion.”

And there’s a strong sense of urgency among SVCF staff to get things done the right way, Caraher says. “The people in this organization believe in each other and in their mission — I’ve never seen such cohesion of purpose. Everyone is very invested.”

Committees and Communication

More than 35 employees volunteered for a task force that will make recommendations to leadership about culture change — a tremendous response for an organization of SVCF’s size, Caraher says. Fifteen people were selected to serve on that group, which set up subcommittees that will focus on specific priorities, engaging even more employees in the overall process.

“Everyone who joined the committee was excited about the opportunity for change,” says task force member Brian Perlmutter, who joined SVCF as a development associate in February. “It’s a very forward-looking group of people who want to hit the ground running.” A prime example: The Jump Start subcommittee specifically identifies opportunities that can make relatively immediate impacts on SVCF’s culture.

“Certain other tasks, such as formalizing our values, might take longer but they’re still top of mind,” Perlmutter says. “For those, we’re determining the groundwork we can take care of now to move these processes along.”

Another subcommittee is examining how employees may have been affected by past toxic behaviors. “We don’t want to just list back negative things that have happened,” says task force member Mei Wu, a six-year SVCF employee who works as operations manager for the Center for Early Learning. “It’s about recognizing and unlearning behaviors — and, more importantly, finding the best way to move forward.”

SVCF also offered on-site counseling services to employees for three months, and launched an effort to “let some air out of the tires,” Avis says. “I’m a cyclist, and in that world if you let air out of the tires, you might not go as fast, but you adapt to bumps better. Our goal was to take the stress off, help build culture and become a more resilient organization.”

Change Begins Now

“It doesn’t take a lot of time for a culture to improve,” Caraher says. “You don’t always need grand actions — small ones, layered over and over, can really move the needle. Now, we’re building muscle memory and trying to start with things that seem small but really do change the dynamic in the room. There is a lot of good stuff already happening, and we can celebrate achievements as we move forward.”

Some larger-scale recommendations may be placed in a holding pattern until a permanent new CEO has been named, to avoid making moves that could be walked back by a new boss or board.

“The process of culture-building is as important as the outcomes,” Avis says. “It builds not only culture, but trust and communication as well.”


This article originally appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of SVCF magazine.