The following is a conversation between Alesha Washington, President & CEO of the Seattle Foundation, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: Seattle Foundation is a community foundation serving the Greater Seattle area. Established in 1946, it is the oldest community foundation serving the Pacific Northwest, with a mission to ignite powerful, rewarding philanthropy to make Greater Seattle a stronger, more vibrant community for all.
Alesha: Thank you, Denver. I really appreciate being here.
Denver: So, the foundation was founded some 77 years ago. Share with us some of its history and the journey it’s been on to date.
Alesha: Yeah. So, Seattle Foundation, I think, started like a number of community foundations have– which is with a group of really dedicated individuals from the community who wanted to be charitable, wanted to do good, so they pooled their resources into a nonprofit to do just that. And then, over time, the resources grew, especially with the explosion of donor-advised funds really in the ‘90s into the 2000s time period.
So, what started as a charitable way in terms for a small number of people to do good has now become a vehicle for more than 1,100 individuals and families to drive their philanthropy. Today, we hold over a billion dollars in assets from those individuals and organizations that choose to invest through us and alongside us.
And we’re also at an interesting point in this timeframe where the beginning phases of this community foundation and being a philanthropic bank: How do we do the best in terms of good for a community based on a donor’s desire and will? And today, we are an institution that has a point of view about: How do we drive and share prosperity and equity and justice in a place like Seattle in the Puget Sound region?
So, now, how do we lean into being community-centered and community-led with a point of view, and influence donors to come with us on that journey and not just serve kind of their broad philanthropic interest? So, the future is being written now…It’ll be interesting to see where we go.
Denver: Well, that is a very interesting and important evolution. You’re from the Cleveland area.
Alesha: I am. Born and raised.
Denver: So, you came to Seattle with a set of fresh eyes.
Denver: What has most surprised you or impressed you since you’ve arrived about Seattle that you didn’t know?
Alesha: You know, what has most impressed me, and I don’t think will ever get old, is the natural beauty of this landscape. It really is something to wake up and see mountains, to see the water the way that it’s so accessible here. I mean, I had Lake Erie in Cleveland and was grateful for that experience of being near water there.
But this is something totally different when I think about the natural beauty of this place, of this area of the country. So, impressed by that, grateful for that, and experiencing as much of it as I can. I think the thing that most surprised me is it’s a much more passive culture than what I’m used to like in the Midwest, East Coast.
And by that, I mean, you know, folks are very direct. I grew up in a very direct culture, very candid culture. Things are a little more passive-aggressive, and I don’t think I’m speaking out of school on that, and a lot of Seattleites that give me the same kind of guidance about the place and how to navigate people.
But, I think, it’s just an interesting dynamic when you’re trying to drive for good. How do you do that in a place where it’s a little more process-oriented, a little more time to come to what we directly mean, you know? It just takes a little more patience and a little more thoughtfulness.
Denver: Yeah. Yeah. Well, it’s a little more laid back, I guess.
Alesha: Little more laid back.
Denver: But people do have their agendas, so they’re going to get them somehow or another to the fore. Well, you were appointed CEO last year, and one of the challenges you assumed was a structural deficit where your expenses are outpacing your expected income. What have you been doing to try to address that?
Alesha: Yeah, so, you know, I did come into the organization eyes wide open with that understanding, also recognizing Seattle Foundation was not unique, unfortunately, in that dynamic. I think, as this foundation has moved to do more in terms of civic leadership and more strategic priorities that are not just tied to the giving priorities of our donor-advised funds, you have to raise the resources to cover what that is.
And 2019 is the first time the foundation realized that its expenses were outpacing its predictable revenue, which means something around the business model needs to start to evolve in order to reach a place of sustainability. And so, the first step that I needed to take, coming into the start of 2023, was restructuring the organization to put us on the path to sustainability, but then thriving long term.
And so, for us, what that meant is we had to, unfortunately, do a bit of a reduction in force in terms of eliminating vacant roles, and then a handful of staff that we did have to let go from the organization. But it also was an opportunity to think about the ways in which we need to invest in our future. So, it wasn’t a full reduction.
It really is a right-sizing or restructuring to where we pull things back that didn’t feel as relevant to how we were going to move forward, and we made critical investments that would help us move forward. So, we have a big IT modernization effort going on right now because if we’re going to engage new generations of philanthropists, we have to have the kind of technology tools that engage them well.
We have to have strong tools for our grantees to interact with our systems. Same things for our donors through our donor portal– have a strong focus around civic leadership, so making sure we’re investing for the talent to lead that work, as well as deepening our grant-making and our learning practices to help donors and other folks in community come alongside us on this racial equity journey.
So, we’ve defined a clear set of priorities that will guide our work this year and beyond, but we had to make some structural changes to make sure that we could manage through the deficit that we have for the next several years, but be retooling to raise the resources that would help us operate in the black, and then grow beyond that for the future.
“But I think the breaking down of the silos and the hierarchy comes from the ways in which people engage in an intersectional way.”
Denver: You know, in making those structural changes, I mean, you’re coming up with a new organizational design, and I’d be curious, you know: Is it more classically hierarchical, or are you thinking about it in a completely different way? Maybe networks of teams?
I mean, the only good part of this is that we’re all within the nonprofit sector, beginning to say: Are these organizational charts with the rectangles still the way to go? So, this was kind of foisted on you by necessity with the deficit. I was just wondering what your thinking has been about the organizational design as you reboot.
Alesha: Yeah. So, a lot of it for me, and I appreciate the question, is around thinking about practices that break down silos within the organization. Because you’re right, we can get so big over a period of time or so focused in bodies of work that at some point in time, teams stop talking to each other the way that they need to. And in this time of COVID and so much remote work, I think that’s even been exacerbated in terms of the ways in which people can get disconnected from each other.
And moving forward with a new focus, and it’s really in kind of five core areas for us, around civic leadership, around impact and learning– which is really our grant-making and learning side of the work; philanthropic impact, which is: How do we really engage a broad community of support to draw the resources in for what we do? Growth and innovation, which is about the business model and new technology tools and ways that advances into the future.And then, under-bedded in all of that is people and culture.
So, what I’ve been clear with my board and the staff and our community is that all those areas are intersectional, which means that we have to work in an intersectional way, which means that I have high expectations that teams that will be on different sides from each other… kind of collaborating on their own strategies, they now need to come together and think about what that means, right?
And so, if we’re driving a revenue plan for the year, I need my grant-making team talking with my donor engagement team and also talking with finance. So, we’re planning that together, versus in silos, right? That’s one example.
But I think the breaking down of the silos and the hierarchy comes from the ways in which people engage in an intersectional way. And that’s the practice that I’m really looking for within the organization.
Denver: Yeah. Yeah. No, that’s great. And as somebody was saying to me the other day, Zoom is a wonderful tool for vertical communication and pretty sucky when it comes to horizontal communication.
“And I think a big part of it for me is there’s no easy way or even right way to get into having to do something to restructure an organization. But a big lesson that I learned in this community, and I’m grateful for it, is that depending on your local context, it matters how you bring the community along in that change.”
Denver: Because we’re not being influenced by the adjacent teams, What do you wish you knew a year ago before you started these cutbacks and this restructuring? Because you know, there are a lot of people, Alesha, who are going to be going through the same thing that you have just gone through and are still in the midst of. I was just wondering, any lessons a year out?
Alesha: Yeah. Such a great question. I mean, I’d say there are probably two things that are top of mind for me in terms of what I wish I would’ve known. So, one, what I give this board a lot of credit for is they made sure that I had as much information as I could possibly get before I accepted the offer. So, it did allow me to walk into the role with an understanding that there was a structural issue that needed to be fixed, but there was some financial runway through our reserves that it wasn’t a dire thing.
There will be several years to think through it. What I thought that would translate into is that I would have a couple years before I would have to make hard decisions, but the reality is: only had about a half a year before it was clear: If I really wanted to get ahead of the challenge, I was going to have to go into the 2023 budget year with a lot of changes structurally baked into that budget.
And so, I don’t know, sitting here today would’ve made me do differently, but I think the reality of that sooner than when it clicked for me would’ve been helpful. I think the other thing that is a lesson and, you know, it’s funny, I had a conversation this morning over breakfast with a nonprofit CEO that is at the point of being about two years out before they’re realizing they’re going to have to make some hard choices as well around their operational structure.
And I think a big part of it for me is there’s no easy way or even right way to get into having to do something to restructure an organization. But a big lesson that I learned in this community, and I’m grateful for it, is that depending on your local context, it matters how you bring the community along in that change.
I had one leader explain it to me in the best way, in the sense of “ because so many of us didn’t know Seattle Foundation was facing the kind of challenge that it was, we see a billion dollars, we think you’re strong, you’re doing well. We were shocked by the fact that you had to make hard choices.”
“And the more we could have known about the reality, the more it could have been a community rallying around saying, ‘How do we support our community foundation?’ Unless, you’ve made big decisions and now, we don’t know how to digest all of that because it felt like such a shock, right?”
Denver: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Alesha: Now, it’s all on me as a leader as it relates to that, but what I appreciate and what I definitely would advise others is that if you see that path coming and that evolution is happening for your institution– how do you engage your community support along on that journey so they can be helpful to you and not shocked and kind of reactionary to what comes out of it.
Denver: Take them along with you. Absolutely.
Alesha: Take them along with you.
Denver: Those are two great pieces of advice. And I’ll tell you, you know, the thing about having to do some very difficult decisions, like laying people off, or restructuring, or doing things of that sort, there is something to be said that the sooner you do it, the better, because it is eating you up until you do.
Alesha: Oh, yeah.
Denver: And the amount of psychic RAM it takes, you’re almost paralyzed by it.
Denver: And as difficult as it is, once it’s done, you can begin to start thinking clearly, you know?
Alesha: That’s right.
Denver: And I’ve never heard anyone ever say, “I wish I had waited a little longer.”
Alesha: Yeah. That’s right.
Denver: Sort of like my hip replacement, you know, I mean, could have done it five years sooner.
Alesha: The sooner the better for you.
Denver: Talk about COVID and racial reckoning and what these last three years have been and how that has changed the approach, the priorities, and the way you’re going about doing your work. You’ve already touched on it, but dig in a little bit on that.
Alesha: Yeah, absolutely. You know, a lot of the momentum here at Seattle Foundation was underway before I got here. But what I can speak to is: I spent the bulk of my career as a lobbyist in the political policy world.
In 2020 was when I formally kind of got back into philanthropy in an executive level role with the Private Family Foundation in Cleveland. I started that role in January. By March, the world had shut down, right? And we were all working from home.
Alesha: And so, broadly, in philanthropy, I was doing the work at a time that we were trying to adjust to a global health crisis that in those early days, we had no idea what it would really mean. And by that summer, George Floyd was murdered, and we were all kind of wrestling with: what does this mean? Is our country, our world is now wrestling, in a new way, in a heightened way?
Alesha: With your very point– racial injustice and what this means. And so, what was happening quickly in the field, and I was a part of that even though I wasn’t in Seattle yet, was around: How do we move resources much more quickly with much less bureaucracy tied around it to groups that need it the most?
One key example, in Cleveland, but I think it mirrored some things that were happening across the country, is that for years, philanthropy wasn’t seeing the value in investing in groups like the NAACP or the Urban League.
But the second that summer of 2020 kicked off, these were the groups everyone was calling for solutions and answers to the problem, but they were under-resourced and didn’t have the ability to respond the way that they needed to. So, shame on us in philanthropy for not seeing their value much sooner! But resources started to flow almost immediately into that space.
I think parallel, in Seattle with Seattle Foundation, the foundation was one of the first in the country to launch a COVID-19 response fund to quickly move resources to small businesses and individuals and nonprofits that needed it in that time. And then, that work expanded to the statewide level with the governor’s office here to do the same thing across the state of Washington.
And so, I think, from a community standpoint, thankfully, this foundation had already been on a journey around thinking about: What does racial equity and justice mean in context of our work? 2020 became the year that a lot of it got very real, and resources had to move in a quick and significant way to live into the values and the conversation that had been playing out internally and with the board around why this commitment was important.
So, that’s the external piece of it. I think the internal side of it was when an organization, starting the year before COVID hit, was already dealing with a structural challenge, and then you go into a time period where more is required of this institution than ever before, there’s almost a bit of a structural breaking that continues in the midst of that.
Because you have the systems and the people and the capacity to move at that heightened level. And thankfully, this team is so passionate that they did, they made it work. And come hell or high water, they made it work.
But the result of that and kind of what I kind of came into was a team that was exhausted, that had been through a whole lot and was still trying to manage through a lot of change personally and mentally as they were still trying to show up and do good work for this community.
Denver: You know, let me pick up on what you said about March of 2020. Money is beginning to flow to under-resourced organizations and groups. Things are moving fast. You just said bureaucracy, with a small “b”, that it was disappearing, unrestricted giving, multi-year grants. We’re out three years now. From your perspective, is that a lesson learned, or are we snapping back a little bit to pre-pandemic ways?
Alesha: You know, I don’t think there’s been a full snap back in terms of philanthropy as a whole. I can tell you with Seattle Foundation, there has not been any sort of snap back.
Denver: That I do.
Alesha: I came into the state of like: we’re going, we’re going to keep going and so we’re all good with that.
Denver: That’s right. I’m sure of that.
Alesha: But when I think about the field as a whole, I think this is kind of that moment in time where philanthropy as a sector is kind of wrestling with itself around that, to where there is a lot that the gift of general-operating, multi-year support to BIPOC-led organizations that have traditionally been under-resourced, that is still a conversation, thankfully. It’s a conversation that has to continue to be pushed.
And I think it is a wrestling particularly between management, CEOs of foundations, and their boards saying, “We didn’t solve anything in the last three years. If anything; we just learned what we should have been doing a long time ago.” And so, we’re in an environment where native-led organizations are still less than 1% of philanthropic giving, right?
And while there’s been some movement on Black-led groups, we’re still not at the level that we need to be from an equity standpoint. None of the challenges that we got into happened overnight. Some of this stuff is 400 years in the making.
Alesha: So, our ability to stay patient, to commit long term, and to commit in a way that we are not putting a lot of restrictions on the dollars will continue to be important for probably my entire lifetime, like there is no backing away from this anytime soon.
Denver: Yeah. Why would you give unrestricted and multi-year support in a time of a crisis when we’re always in a time of crisis?
Alesha: We’re always in a time of crisis. Yeah.
Denver: You know what I mean? The organizations we’re serving, there’s a crisis going on with the people we serve.
Alesha: That’s right. That’s right.
“…we are trying to solve very complex challenges, but there’s also a lot of opportunity and beauty that we also need to be invested in at the end of the day.”
Denver: And who’s going to know better than the organization as to what to do with the money. Well, the guiding framework for the work you’re doing right now is a Blueprint for Impact. Tell us a little bit about it.
Alesha: Yes. The Blueprint for Impact is our strategic framework for how we think about the ways that we advance racial equity, belonging, and share prosperity in this region. For me, what that boils down to is: How do we create a joyful and equitable future for the people that call this place home? Because joy is something regardless of our lived experience or our walk in life.
We know how that feels. There’s something that comes to mind for us when we think about joy and what that is. And the point in centering joy in this work is, one, is that it’s not all bad, right? Like, yes, we are trying to solve very complex challenges, but there’s also a lot of opportunity and beauty that we also need to be invested in at the end of the day.
And then, in some places where you talk about joy, particularly Black joy, that unlocks imagination and creativity that sometimes people don’t unfortunately have the space to move in that way. But when they are given that freedom to do so, it unlocks so much. And so, joy being centered in this work is critical.
And the way in which we approach it is through a vibrant democracy because we want to see people engaged in their communities and in this country as a whole in terms of how we move forward together. Climate justice– there’s a natural beauty in this place that should be protected; when we think about land, that should be sacred.
And also, economic opportunity because: What does generational wealth look like for people in this day and time? And it’s such a subjective thing, but how do we ensure that every person has an opportunity to experience what that means for themselves in our systems and our programs, and the things that we invest in are done in such a way that allows that opportunity for way more people than those that benefit from it now.
And so, that’s how we approach our work. We invest primarily in BIPOC-led organizations that are working on systems change and policy and advocacy work to do that, because we believe investing in people that are close to the challenges and the opportunities because they have the solutions.
And organizing and policy work is critically important. I had a wonderful mentor in philanthropy tell me we can make a $10,000 grant and do really good for that organization and the people they serve. We can change the law that’s causing the need for that program in the first place and help way more people. So that’s my personal philosophy.
Alesha: And that’s the work for which we lead at the foundation.
Denver: Go upstream. No question about it.
Denver: You know, you’re talking about systems change. That’s hard work, that’s long term, that’s generational; has to be done, no question about it. You know, on the other hand there are people, Seattleites, I think is what you would call yourselves, who basically have some really urgent, immediate needs, that place-based work. How would you try to get the right balance between the two?
Alesha: Yeah. So, I think a lot of that comes through partnerships because Seattle Foundation in and of itself is not the single answer for the challenges that are in this community. We can’t go it alone in this kind of work. And so, I think, a couple things allow us to find balance and leverage in our discretionary grant-making.
One is that, while we focus primarily on systems change work, we have a set of donors that invest alongside us in complementary ways. So, we may fund food policy work; they’ll fund the food bank. So, there’s a natural balance of dollars still flowing in that way. The other is through other partnerships with entities like United Way. That is still very much a direct service-focused organization.
Yes. They’re trying to grow more into the policy space, but their kind of center of being is around supporting, helping human services organizations that are doing direct service activities. So, how we partner with them, other funders that focus still more on the direct service space is a way to ensure that resources are flowing where they’re needed, but not all of us have to do the same thing.
Denver: Yeah, yeah. Oh, you’re in the center of so many different things, so collaboration has got to be in your DNA. What makes for good collaboration? What causes it to really sing? And what are some of the telltale signs that this thing isn’t going to work?
Alesha: Yeah, yeah. Well, I mean, it starts with trust and relationship-building, right? Like who sits in the seats of leadership really does matter at the end of the day. When I think about some of the stories that I’ve heard about past leaders in Seattle, like the Four Amigos, right? Like four activists that came together across different racial communities to kind of build collaboration, a multi-racial kind of organizing effort that still sustains in a lot of ways; the relationships of those leaders mattered for their ability to move.
Same thing in the business sector here where some of the height of activity in the ‘90s for Seattle in terms of big bond initiatives and investments that were made happened because you had business leaders that locked arms and said: This is the vision we hold for this place and the way in which we’re going to move together to make sure that it happens.
And so, even in this day and age, for us, it is: Who are the leaders? What are the relationships? What is the trust that we’re building with each other, so we’re able to have open dialogue and seize those moments for us to move together? And when we disagree, there’s enough of a foundation of trust and relationship that we can work through it and keep going.
Denver: Yeah. Yeah.
Alesha: I think what breaks that down is when folks are unable to see beyond themselves and their own personal agendas to connect with others. We don’t all get what we want in collaboration, but we can move together on a common good. If you’re not willing to do that, then you’re just not a collaborator. I mean, you’re not going to be able to move in the top way.
Denver: It ain’t going to work.
Alesha: Ain’t going to work.
Denver: Find a new table, not ours, that’s for sure. Well, let’s go a little bit over to the philanthropic side of the ball. You know, we’re talking about deficits… we’re talking about fundraising… we’re talking about donors. Alesha, what’s the case that you would make that this is a great investment– to give through the Seattle Foundation?
Alesha: Yeah. So, the benefit of the Seattle Foundation is that we are so ingrained in the local community here and understand the landscape of organizations and issues and things that are moving in positive ways, so that when people think about wanting to be philanthropic but have no idea where to start, we’re a fantastic resource to help people understand how to get started and where they can invest based on their interest and their priorities.
But, again, we also want them to see and understand the way in which we’re moving as an institution and encourage them to invest alongside us in this work around fostering a joyful and equitable future.
The other dynamic is that we can make it easy. I mean, that’s the beauty, again, of a community foundation. And examples of work that we’ve done, again, COVID is one story of that in terms of pooling dollars collectively to resource needs in a moment of crisis.
But we also have incredible funds like our Evergreen Impact Housing Fund, which is focused on: How do we increase Black home ownership across the state of Washington? And being able to be a place for larger institutional funders and people with wealth and others that want to be a part of that cause, but need a place to put their dollars to then move strategically in that way.
We have that capability to do that well, and it’s a part of our DNA. So, we can make giving easy; we can make sure you’re well informed, and we can do collective impact work together.
Denver: Fantastic. You know, Alesha, there’s been a bit of a changing of the guard, if you will, in community foundations across the country. I mean, you’re pretty new, less than a year, but then we have Oregon and we have New York, and we have Rochester, and we have Atlanta, and we have Fairfield and a whole bunch of others.
I’m just wondering what you thought in terms of this cohort all coming in pretty much at the same time as to how it could change the way community foundations operate, and the way that others look and view community foundations.
Alesha: Yeah. You know, I had the pleasure of meeting so many of the new leaders that you named, not too long ago in San Antonio, Texas, where we all gathered for a community foundation convening, and meeting folks like Frank in Atlanta, the new CEO at Oregon, who is probably five minutes into her role compared to where I am, right?
Denver: That’s about right.
Alesha: You know, it was incredible just to see such a change to where there are more folks of color that are stepping into these positions, younger folks coming into the role as we’re also celebrating a lot of our peers who have been around for 20 plus years that are now at this point starting to step down from their careers.
And so, I think, what this moment offers is that there are folks that mirror the communities that we are hoping to serve more equitably, stepping into positions of leadership. And so, there’s a frame and a lived experience now that I think will be interesting to see how it shapes the strategies and the approaches that community foundations take going into the future.
I think there’s a set of challenges that a number of us recognize as new leaders of color, in particular, in this space in terms of: I know the way that I’m going to be received, or even how I push to be in certain conversations will look different than the white, male CEO that was here before me, right?
And so, the ways in which we can be supported to be able to navigate a lot of different circles, especially when you’re talking about wealth and the power dynamics that come with that, I think is going to be an important lesson for all of us to continue to learn in the spaces where we’re quite frankly going to need support.
And then, I think, there’s always kind of the natural concern that, you know, particularly for myself, I think the glass cliff as they call it for Black women, is Black women is a real thing, right? Like being mindful of when you’re seen in a positive light when you’re new, but then how that changes over time, the longer that you’ve been in the role, especially if you rubbed a couple people the wrong way or pushed for change that people weren’t comfortable with.
And so, the ability to navigate those dynamics, hold true to values and mission, and have the right kind of allies and supporters to move this work… well. I think there’s incredible opportunity for this new field of leaders coming in, but I hope that our white counterparts in particular that are still in seats of influence recognize the support that we’re going to need and the protection that we’re going to need, quite frankly, to ensure that we can be successful as they were 20-something years ago.
Denver: Absolutely. Very well said. What do you do to develop and continue your growth as a leader?
Alesha: Yeah. So, I’m very grateful that I have a wonderful executive coach that I’ve been working with since I stepped into this role. Just to have someone to listen, to help me get out of my own way, because that can happen from time to time for sure, and to strategize about how I move through all the different dynamics that, you know, is not textbook, and it’s not something someone could teach you stepping into an executive leadership role like this; so that is something that I’m really grateful for.
I’m also grateful for a few past members of my board that have stepped up into mentorship roles. And it’s been really important for me, being new to this community, to have folks that have been here for a while that can help me learn the landscape, avoid the landmines, you know, understand the passive tones and what they really mean. And so, I think, my ability to continue to learn and surround myself with people that have some level of sage wisdom, and advice have been helpful for my own journey.
Denver: Yeah. Yeah. And an executive coach can be so vital, because I don’t think many people realize what a lonely job this is, you know?
Alesha: It is lonely. Yeah.
Denver: It really, really is, you know, and I won’t speak for you, but I’ve been in this role before. I can speak for myself.
Denver: You know, you want to tell your board a lot, but you don’t necessarily want to tell your board everything.
Alesha: That’s right.
Denver: You’re going to form a committee around it, and you’re like, yeah, yeah, yeah. And with your staff, it’s the same thing. You know, you tell them 98%, but you don’t want to overly concern them with something that you can’t do anything about.
Alesha: That’s right.
Denver: So, there is this, “Who do I talk to?”
Denver: And sometimes a coach really fills that role. And as much as anything, you’re listening to yourself.
Denver: And you’re figuring things out as a coach is helping you. What’s your superpower?
Alesha: My superpower is that I am deeply relational and strategic. So, I have learned, and maybe it’s the lobbyist that’s still ingrained in me, but I can build a connection with people, and then convince them to join me on a journey that I think that we should go on.
Alesha: So, I think that serves me well now being the CEO of a community foundation for sure.
“…there are a lot of people following and looking at me, and I have to be able to move them through change at a rate that they could absorb. So, learning to slow down, learning to pause, learning to just really read how people are really taking in all the things that are happening is important…”
Denver: Then, what’s your Kryptonite?
Alesha: My kryptonite is that I think it’s still a part of the lobbyist ingrained in me. I can move fast. I can move very fast, right? And that comes from the urgency of legislation movement and committees and needing to respond quickly in the moment and think quickly in the moment.
But what I’m learning in this role is that there are a lot of people following and looking at me, and I have to be able to move them through change at a rate that they could absorb. So, learning to slow down, learning to pause, learning to just really read how people are really taking in all the things that are happening is important, because I don’t want to exhaust them because I’m speeding all the time.
Denver: You know, I remember, Oh my gosh, it must have been about 20 years ago, I was working with America Online, and if you remember those disks that came out… we got America Online 2.0 and 3.0 and, you know, you pay a hundred dollars for about five minutes, I remember speaking to one of those senior executives there, and they were just coming out with 3.0.
And he was telling me about it, and I was asking him, and he said, “Well, you know, actually, we’re really at about 8.0, our engineers, but we know that if we go from two to what eight can do, we’ll lose all our consumers because the change will be too dramatic. And they’ll say, “What is this?” So, you have to tap those brakes because if they won’t come along with you, it ain’t going to do any good. You know what I mean?
Alesha: That’s right. That’s right.
Denver: You bring them along. What’s your thought on corporate culture? You know, this is a tough one for you because I know you’re remaking it. It’s probably my favorite topic because I think it just impacts everything. But as you begin to think about your role and the impact that you can have on this corporate culture, this workplace culture, which is really sort of formulating with all the changes you have, what’s your sense of that?
Alesha: Yeah. You know, there’s a lot that I kind of hold in this space, and it’s why people and culture is such a big priority for me. It’s one of the first things that I talked about coming into this role, to where we have to break down, I think, unfortunately, what sometimes has been built because of corporate culture, that creates so much fear in a workplace environment, to where it’s almost like a dog-eat-dog world.
If you don’t have the best idea, if you’re not the brightest, if you’re not pushing to be ahead, you’re a failure in an environment that rewards overworking versus work-life balance. To shift that and evolve that in meaningful ways, I mean, there are a couple things that I try to demonstrate as a leader to my team.
Denver: What would those be?
Alesha: But then, it’s also a big part of our focus going forward. So, one thing that I do not do is that I don’t email staff in the evening or on the weekend because I don’t want to create this dynamic that I’m online all the time especially, again, in an environment, in a remote world, we’ve gotten used to working non-stop. Because if I do that, they will feel the urgency to respond and then nobody’s resting. Nobody’s catching a break from any of this.
And so, even if I have to work on…
Denver: Especially, if you say at the end of it: no need to respond until Monday.
Alesha: Exactly. Then they really are going too respond. And so, I schedule my emails just to go out on Monday, even if I have to work on a Saturday or a Sunday or in the evening because I want to respect the lives of the people that put so much into working here, and I want to demonstrate that through my actions.
The other is, I think, as a whole, whether it’s corporations or non-profits, we’ve all kind of gotten good at this point around using the language of equity and talking about values that center that and what we mean. But we’re not all that great at operationalizing that in terms of our workplace cultures and how we move.
And so, I’m excited to be bringing in a new head of people and culture for us hopefully soon because the goal is that if we say that we’re committed to this in a meaningful way, how does it show up in our performance management system? How does it show up in our supplier diversity program? How does it show up in our staff training and our onboarding and the ways in which people build career pathways here?
I need to ensure that we are building a culture and support for the talent that work here that mirror those values. And that’s an evolution from at least the workplace environments I grew up in to where it just wasn’t treated the same; people weren’t valued in that way.
Denver: Yeah. And those initiatives were in the corner office.
Denver: Instead of being embedded in everything that you do.
Alesha: In everything that you do.
Denver: Because unless it’s centered in everything, it’s just never going to take root.
Alesha: That’s right.
Denver: Let me close with this, Alesha. What’s your vision for Seattle Foundation, and what do you think it is capable of becoming?
Alesha: Yeah. So, my vision for Seattle Foundation is that it will continue to move away from the philanthropic bank model into something that is a highly effective, social impact organization. And what that means for me is that we recognize we are more than a grant-maker, that there are many more roles that we have to play: advocate, thought partner, convener, civic leader, if we’re going to achieve the kind of change in impact that we’re hoping for for this region.
And so, to do that, we have to have a strong, operational infrastructure. We have to build towards our legacy, which is: What does an endowment look like for this foundation to have resources to move well into the future?
But there’s also a path in all of this that if we are thinking radically different about philanthropy, we should be working in a way that almost tries to put ourselves out of business because you wouldn’t need philanthropy in the way that we see it now structured; the community is free to have the resources that they needed.
And so, maybe we don’t achieve that in my lifetime, but I want us to be working in a way that we are working towards that kind of radical future, but that means evolving to be a strong, well-resourced social impact organization that can do that work well for as long as you need it.
Denver: Well, if you continue to work as fast as you are, maybe you will see it in your lifetime. Alesha, tell listeners about your website and the information they’ll find on it.
Alesha: Yeah. So, you can find us at seattlefoundation.org. There, you will find all kinds of information about our Blueprint for Impact, the team that works with us, as well as a lot of our community investment and impact reports, so you can see the types of organizations and the work that we’re doing.
You should follow us on social media to stay up to date with all the activities and organizations that we lift up and fund. And then, of course, if anybody wants to see us as a partner they can invest in and through, you can find that information on our website as well.
Denver: Well, wonderful. Thanks, Alesha, for being here today. It was a real delight to have you on the show.
Alesha: Thank you so much.
Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Trusted Advisor and Executive Coach to Nonprofit Leaders. His Book, The Business of Giving: New Best Practices for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leaders in an Uncertain World, is available now on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.