Recent events have compelled nonprofit organizations to change the way they get work done, how they deliver their services, and what they do to achieve a more just and equitable society. So, The Business of Giving has connected with those organizations that are doing this exceptionally well in a segment we call: The Paths Forward. Because there is more than just one way.
Denver: In this edition of The Paths Forward we’ll speak with team members at Social Finance, a national impact finance and advisory nonprofit. We’ll start with Tracy Palandjian, their President and CEO, who will tell us about the organization.
Tracy Palandjian: As you appreciate, Social Finance was set up as its own nonprofit in 2011 to bring the model to the United States. Our sister organization Social Finance UK innovated the first social impact bond in 2010, which is a public-private partnership focused to address social problems by aligning incentives to spend public dollars more effectively.
And I can go through an example, but like 10 years into this movement, there’s some really exciting progress to celebrate but also continuing challenges that the model is wrestling with. And our team has been really focused on how best to adapt the model to address evolving social challenges, not least the current challenges that we face in the context of COVID-19 and the lifting of racial injustices as they pertain to our social challenges.
Denver: One of the most significant pivots the organization has had to make is bringing on new employees during the pandemic. Rachel addresses hiring and Tiana and Bob discuss the Onboarding process.
Rachel: And so in this virtual environment, I do think we’re working doubly hard to share that with candidates, whether it’s by increasing the number of people that they meet and making sure that they really feel like they get a chance to ask questions. I think we really go hard on the selling end of the spectrum, making sure that people that they’ve met are reaching out and congratulating them, offering to talk with them, connecting them with other people they may not have met.
But definitely, it’s different to be trying to share what’s unique and special about social finance in this virtual environment.
Tiana: And I think the thing that makes Social Finance’s virtual onboarding process so unique to other processes that I’ve seen second hand, is just people are excited about meeting new folks and they really are intentional about how the onboarding process happens just because they know it is very difficult to start a new job in a new place without really knowing anyone.
And it’s hard when you’re just in your home the whole time, you don’t have that one-to-one interpersonal connection developed. So, I think the onboarding process was just phenomenal in that I felt very warmed and very welcomed on day one.
Bob: I think that there’s an organic piece that develops from people naturally, are going to be more compassionate and caring. So, by the time that I was hired, I already had 10 people that have reached out to me before I even started, welcoming me to the firm. I think that was something that is one part, people genuinely care, but also it’s small nudges from HR to say, “Hey, make sure people feel warm and welcomed.”
It’s a smaller reminder, but it goes a really long way. And I think something like that starts you off on the right foot. Having an onboarding buddy, like John, who I pestered with questions for the first three days nonstop. Just having an avenue to do that and having permission to do that.
Denver: The meetings at Social Finance might include everyone or just 2 people as Ayush and John explain.
Ayush: One thing that I’d like to highlight about Social Finance is the fact that every week, every Monday, we do a team meeting, which is rare for an organization of our size where everyone in the organization joins. We’re now, I can’t even remember what we’re up to, maybe close to a hundred people, but everyone joins every Monday.
And that team meeting highlights the transparency of our organization, along with the fact that everyone’s on and so we can hear about what work is going on. We have a spotlight on a project that’s going on, so everyone can learn a little bit more about that project. We hear from our senior team on that meeting. That’s the first thing we do every Monday morning. Again, just highlights the transparency. I think that’s it.
John: And I think Rachel alluded to kind of the coffee chat culture, but one-on-one meetings are huge here, both with team members, folks that you’re close with, and even just saying to a VP or a member of our senior team that I would like to catch up.
And I think that these one-on-ones partially are focused on our performance management process and giving ongoing feedback to folks in their project work. But more often than not, they go into that personal dimension as well, where you get to know each other outside of work and to know what your career goals and aspirations are even outside of the confines of Social Finance. So, while I’ve developed a lot of the professional, these conversations have allowed me to develop personally at Social Finance as well.
Denver: One of the most effective ways to retain good people is to create a culture of Learning. Social Finance has done that is a spectacular fashion as Tiana, Bob and John tell us.
Tiana: I really like our continual pursuit of intellectual curiosity, both in the diversity of the projects we work on, we work on a range of advisory projects, on impact investing projects. And because each project is so unique, there’s never a dull day and no two projects look alike.
So, we’re continually testing and pushing the limits and thinking outside of the box around how we can best solve this problem the most efficient way, but also making sure that we do right by everyone involved.
Bob: So, everyone at any point can work on two to three different projects. People come from different backgrounds. But what we start every project with is a kickoff meeting. And during this kickoff meeting and the first one I was thrown into, I had no idea what to expect. They started asking me questions like, “How do you like to work? How do you tackle problems? What’s your personality like? How do you like to structure your day?”
And before I came to Social Finance, I had no idea how to answer any of these questions. And my first one, I rambled for a little bit and then just asked them, “Does that sort of answer your question?” And everyone looked at me with the utmost respect, even though I had said probably the dumbest thing that’s ever come out of my mouth.
John: But secondly, I genuinely feel like I work with really excellent people and like want to emulate so much of what I’ve learned and observed from my team members. And then secondly, because Social Finance is such an eclectic organization, when you get here, there’s not just one learning curve, but there are many. You could be on a project in our impact investing practice, building and developing ISAs for students to get access to training, or you could be working with the state government, helping them think about how they can expand access to early childhood education.
So, if you’re a curious person, like all of us here are, this is a great place to be. And I think something that is not necessarily replicated elsewhere.
Denver: Every company and organization had to adjust to working remotely. Meg, Ayush and Bob speak about some of the ways that has happened at Social Finance
Meg: I’m based in our office. Our headquarters are in Boston and so we’ve got about 50 folks in Boston, and then another 40 folks between our other offices. And one thing that’s really special about this virtual environment is now that we’ve learned how to use all of this technology, I actually feel like in a lot of ways, being a member of one of our satellite teams, I’m more connected to my colleagues than I would be otherwise because I’m able to sit and see every single person’s face on a Zoom during that team meeting, as opposed to having really tiny, little fuzzy images of 25 people sitting in one room.
Ayush: Those norms include the things around the fact that we don’t always have to be on video if it’s not possible to. It’s wonderful to see everyone when we can, but there are situations where you’re working and you have your partner or your children around the back and it could be distracting. And so, it’s nice to just turn off your video once in a while.
Bob: I think Social Finance just intentionally tries to break down barriers at each possible moment. So, one example that I’m thinking of that comes to mind when you ask this question is during the pandemic and probably the height of it when everyone was feeling very isolated, this is when you would only see maybe one other person the whole week.
We’d put together what were called virtual pods. And this simulates something that we’re, you know, John or I, and Meg would sit at a pod of desks together in person. But instead of that, we had regular Zoom rooms where we sat together in a room. And this started off as what’s on your mind, just a space for somebody to talk to somebody else not about work for 30 minutes an hour in the day, and that was really nice. But then it evolved into this intentional practice where we introduced certain things like games. But I think my favorite one was an activity that we all did called 10 pictures. And this evolved into sharing 10 pictures or collection of collage pictures about different identities of yourself.
And that was really just, I think, a special thing for me to be able to connect with people on that next level from when I first met them to knowing them professionally. I think that there was a raw and real human element to these activities that Social Finance tries to introduce at these moments that allows you to build those next connections and translates and gives you permission to build these friendships outside of this work.
Denver: Picking up on that theme, John and Tiana talk about the importance of Connecting informally and Meg on Appreciation and Recognition.
John: We’ve been able to leverage technology in that respect and it’s almost a running joke how well used the chat feature is here on Zoom for team members, but also we use Slack. And I think there is no formal mechanism to our Slack feature, which is just a messaging platform in the background and people are allowed to just kind of be stream of consciousness.
And it can be either personal messages or each project team actually has their own discreet channel that you can constantly be sharing reflections, next steps, jokes, relevant articles, all that fun stuff. So, while we don’t have that walk to the water cooler, we’ve found ways around it.
Tiana: You have your classic corporate toolbox of happy hours, water cooler banter, those types of more typical ways to socialize. But I think in the pandemic, we’ve thought out of the box. Meg and I made mochi virtually a couple of months ago. We played Drawful so I now know everyone’s drawing capabilities. We’ve done virtual trivias.
So, I think that we’ve been forced to think out of the box in an exciting way, to just think of new ways to socialize and new ways to connect. So, I hope that’s something we continue to do in the future because the mochi we made was a challenge, but ended deliciously.
Meg: We celebrate people on their anniversary each year. And we do it in a couple of different ways. But one way that we do it is we actually follow like the anniversary, like the wedding year anniversary. So, like one year is paper and one year is steel and one year is wood. And we have an individual on our talent team who literally picks out a personalized gift for each individual based on the anniversary that they’re celebrating.
Denver: But at the end of the day what really makes Social Finance special, set apart from the others, is its people as Rachel, Meg and Tiana explain.
Rachel: I think part of it is really a deliberate attempt on our part to set transparent expectations about what it means to be an employee at Social Finance and what our culture is.
I’m not going to say that we do it perfectly, or that we’ve always done a great job at it, but it’s something that we have an ongoing conversation about, what do you need to know to be successful here and what expectations do you need to have communicated to you so that you can meet them.
Meg: Really understanding and knowing each other and where we come from, and I think we do a lot of reflecting on what brings us to this work. And everyone is at Social Finance because they believe in our mission, but sometimes you don’t know exactly why someone was driven to believe in our mission and be really excited about this work.
And I feel like many years after our team retreat, I have had a better understanding of where my colleagues are coming from and what brings them to this place. And I think that helps me connect with them as people and as co-workers.
Tiana: How can everyone just be so warm? And I think it comes down to our North Star being wanting to do right by other people. And I think our core mission of wanting to help other people, trying to tip and balance the scales, that makes sure that people that have been systemically disenfranchised have a real shot at making it.
I think that because that is the North Star and that guides all of our work, it’s a filtering process of sorts where you get people that are warm, intentional, caring, which I know our words they don’t mean much, but I think that when they’re put in the context of doing right by other people, that filtering process really makes for a warmer culture where people are truly genuinely interested in the work that we do and truly care about the numbers, the outcomes of people that are on the other end of our work.
Denver: I want to thank the Social Finance team members who participated in this piece: Tiana Menon, Meg TouVelle, Ayush Mansingh, John Pion, Rachel Levy and Bob Liu. And to learn more about Social Finance come to denver-frederick.com and hear my full interview with Tracy Palandjian, the President & CEO of Social Finance.
Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Strategic Advisor and Executive Coach to NGO and Nonprofit CEOs and Board Chairs. His Book, The Business of Giving: The Non-Profit Leaders Guide to Transform Leadership, Philanthropy, and Organizational Success in a Changed World, will be released in the spring of 2022.
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