The Ethical Rainmaker

Raises in a Pandemic with Ananda Valenzuela

Episode Summary

During a double pandemic and a recession, hear a powerful story about how and why one organization decided to make the somewhat radical decision to retain all staff and give raises. This inspirational story comes from Ananda Valenzuela, Interim ED of RVC, who talks with Michelle about how these decisions were made and how their family and personal history have shaped their work and worldview.

Episode Notes

A beautiful decision made in a time of double pandemic and recession - here are links for content mentioned in the show (and sign up for our mailing list?):

Ananda refers to: 


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Episode Transcription


So if nonprofits slow down or cut down on other work, cut down on their budgets, that has a rolling impact on the very communities that we care about. So deeply what we need in this moment is to be doing far more, not doing less. That's Ananda Valenzuela and they're my guest today on The Ethical Rainmaker.

Michelle Shireen Muri (00:24):

Hey, how are you holding up? I know. This double pandemic, which has exposed racial and health inequities across the globe? It's intense. It's intense for all of us collectively, and we're being called to show up and do better. Today we'll hear the story of one organization, which during a time, when so many nonprofits are furloughing and laying off staff made a different decision, retaining all staff and giving raises. This is Michelle Shireen Muri, your host and fellow traveler on The Ethical Rainmaker, a new podcast, examining the ways money and power work in the nonprofit world. I'm excited to introduce you to a Ananda Valenzuela to hear about how their group came to the decision to increase pay during a recession. We'll also get to know how their personal history has shaped their work and their worldview. Ananda is the interim executive director of RVC. This Seattle-based nonprofit provides organizational capacity, building support to a variety of small nonprofits led by people of color. They've been working at RVC in a shared leadership model with founder Vu Le for the past five years. They have a personal passion for self managing organizations and capacity building. We recorded this interview in May, 2020 at what we thought would be the peak of the pandemic. I so wish we were talking in the past tense about COVID and its economic and social ravages. But the nonprofit world is all about facing unprecedented challenges. And RVC has an interesting perspective to share on these crazy times. Let's get into it on The ethical Rainmaker

Musical Interlude (02:19):

Michelle Shireen Muri (02:20):

Thank you for joining us, Ananda.

Ananda Valenzuela (02:21):

Thanks for having me.

Michelle Shireen Muri (02:23):

When did you first get involved in nonprofit work?

Ananda Valenzuela (02:26):

The first time I truly got involved was during college work studied at this really tiny nonprofit that had been around for quite a long time, and it was kind of bootstrapping its way through everything ever. And it was a great kind of deep dive into the nonprofit world and how strange and wonderful it is. And in parallel with that, I was very involved in kind of advocacy and systems change at my college, which gave me kind of a view of the opposite end of the spectrum of very large nonprofits and the challenges that they face.

Michelle Shireen Muri (02:55):

And between college and your work at RVC, where have you been?

Ananda Valenzuela (03:00):

The majority of my time in between has been spent at an organization that used to be called Third Sector New England. You know, it goes by TSNE Mission Works based in Boston. They're a large capacity building firm that serves a range of nonprofits across all new England. And I kind of held every role imaginable there and moved between departments. I was doing internal operations. I was in the consulting team in particular. I managed their consulting program and their consulting program was really focused on transitions, both leadership and organizational transitions. And so that gave me an opportunity to dig deep into these questions of like, how do people move together, right? How do groups of people come together in this format that we call a nonprofit and do the work that they need to do, do it well. And weather change well. Incredibly complex work that we're all kind of still learning together about how to do effectively.

Michelle Shireen Muri (03:52):

That's sounds like an incredible experience to have. And I think a lot of us can relate to playing a lot of different roles at one nonprofit. What is it that brought you to rainy Seattle after having that wonderful experience?

Ananda Valenzuela (04:05):

RVC? It was my dream job. You know, I'd been reading whose blog nonprofit NAF for years, and it really inspired me to think about how do we change this sector. I had witnessed so much painful behavior, so much inequitable behavior of so many nonprofits in the sector, and I knew that we needed to be doing it differently and that we needed to really be rethinking how capacity building happens with nonprofits.

Michelle Shireen Muri (04:28):

Note to the listener capacity building can mean a lot of things, but for RVC, your ship development work, providing back office support for HR and finance and organizational development consulting like strategic planning and supervision.

Ananda Valenzuela (04:42):

How we get out of these stuck mindsets we have are up around the right and the wrong way of running a nonprofit. That's so deeply steeped in kind of white culture. And when I found out about this opportunity to step into leadership at RVC and be part of this really innovative work we're doing, we're setting up a model and speaking truth to power around things that matter for the entire sector across the entire nation. And that's a beautiful place that I'm really honored to be part of.

Michelle Shireen Muri (05:07):

Yeah, it's an incredible organization. Thank you for all the work that you're doing. Speaking of that work, we're in the middle of a COVID-19 pandemic and an impending recession. And at RVC you've made a decision that's pretty unusual for this time. While many nonprofits, and small businesses are furloughing and laying off staff, RVC has chosen to give their staff raises. I'd love to hear a little bit more about your thinking around that. How did you come to that decision? I got to say, it's not a decision I thought I would be making. We had been in the middle of a, quite a lengthy process of completely reworking our entire salary structure. You know, RVC is in the midst of transitioning into becoming a fully self managing organization. And that takes really changing so many things, but one of which was our salary structure. And it was really important to RVC that we pay our staff well. Especially in the context of the inequitable society we live in and, and the growing divide between the rich and the poor. We wanted to make sure that we started with a baseline of everyone having a living wage. And then that we built out salaries, such that books, salaries are competitive with the sector and really reflect the quality of their work and how difficult the work is. So in any case, we went through this really lengthy process of analyzing salaries and figuring it all out and researching in the sector. And then our consultants came to us with recommendations around the new salary format, right, as COVID-19 was hitting in March. And suddenly we found that we were making a really scary decision at a really strange moment in time where all signs are pointing towards a recession of who knows what scale for who knows how long. And we were thinking of adding $200,000 a year in fixed expenses to our budget by increasing folks' salaries and making sure they were paid well for their work. So there was a lot of anxiety around that. A lot of conversations, a lot of advice seeking and reflection and scenario planning. And what we came to at the end of the day is right, making this decision in a way that was really grounded in our values and grounded in our hopes for our sector.

Michelle Shireen Muri (07:22):

So as every business was being told to tighten their belts and hunker down as much as possible, your team at RVC was committing to making pay more equitable. Why?

Ananda Valenzuela (07:32):

Because even though like individually, we're all getting advice around. This is a scary time. We need to save up money. We need to tighten everything possible, cut our costs and keep that money going as long as possible. Even as we're getting that advice, the entire society in which we operate is full of so much pain and suffering and nonprofits are the forefront of supporting our communities who are feeling that pain. So if nonprofits slow down or cut down on other work, cut down on their budgets, that has a rolling impact on the very communities that we care about so deeply. What we need in this moment is to be doing far more, not doing less. That was kind of a really grounding piece of it. For us. It was recognizing a, our staff, our biggest asset. We want to be investing in our staff. We want them to be happy and healthy and thriving, and our sector needs us here more than ever. So we all need to be finding ways to make sure that we invest well in our organizations and keep them going. We need to shift the focus from wagging a finger at a nonprofit and being like, you need to tighten your belt. You need to cut your budget. You need to fix this problem to saying like, this is messed up. It is a crisis out there. Nonprofits need way more money than they have already. They have all these new programs and support services that they are providing, and they still have their normal programming. So we need to be pushing and challenging the philanthropic sector to invest far more in nonprofits. Right now we can't put the pressure on nonprofits to magically cut their budget even more than they already are.

Michelle Shireen Muri (09:09):

Yeah. I couldn't agree with you more. We're talking with theAnanda Valenzuela about giving raises during a recession and pandemic right now on The Ethical Rainmaker. You can learn more about Ananda and the work of RVC in the show notes, at You can also learn more about community-centric practices at We're a brand new podcast, and we're so excited to delve into these important issues with you. The best way you can support us is by subscribing, rating the show and sharing it with your friends and colleagues. Visit us at I'm Michelle Shireen Muri. The Ethical Rainmaker is brought to you by Freedom Conspiracy, my consulting firm. Take your ethical fundraising to the next level and bring values-aligned practices to growth opportunities at hand. Visit for more.

Michelle Shireen Muri (10:06):

So what outcomes are you seeing? What have you been learning so far?

Ananda Valenzuela (10:10):

Obviously there's a very immediate outcome in terms of staff morale. Like, it's such a scary moment in time and folks are seeing so many people in their communities getting laid off or getting their hours cut right now. So to be able to come back to our staff and reassure them, not only do you still have a job, but we're going to pay you better for that job, has been really beautiful and has really doubled down like, the passion of our team for doing this work and doing right by our communities. It has also meant that they've been able to turn around and support their own personal communities by us giving them a raise. Now they can support a family member who just lost their job, or they can donate to the amazing funds out there for our undocumented community members, for artists who no longer have a way to make a living from their art. There's so many spaces in need right now. And we're able to spread out that wealth and give everyone in our, in our staff community, the ability to better support their communities. And then it's also just really reemphasizing for us how, like we have these best practices around cutting costs, but there's actually a lot of research out there saying that the opposite is, are better like that organizations that don't lay off staff have significant increases in morale and productivity are able to rebound from recessions far more quickly, and they don't have all these other kinds of related issues. When you lay off staff, it just creates a snowball effect in your organization in a way that can be horribly, horribly painful for the organization. We've learned that this is the right path. And if we can kind of inspire the sector to walk down this path, then that will make all the difference. But it's gonna take hard work in terms of advocating to funders, if we're really gonna get anywhere with this.

Michelle Shireen Muri (11:51):

That makes a of sense. How did you all come to the decision? In an organization that is working towards self-governing, who is involved in making a decision like that?

Ananda Valenzuela (12:04):

One importantly for us, um, in terms of decision making, we use a model called the advice process, which comes from the book reinventing organizations,

Michelle Shireen Muri (12:13):

Note, for the listener, Reinventing Organizations is a book about creating organizations inspired by the next stage of human consciousness, it's written by a Frederic Laloux. And you can find more about how this book started a movement in the show notes.

Ananda Valenzuela (12:27):

So we do always identify one person or a certain team as the decision maker. It's not like we're making decisions by consensus or by a vote. So in this case, the overall organizational budget decision is one held by me in terms of what budget we would recommend to the board, because of course the board does have to vote on and approve our overall organizational budget, but that's by no means a decision made by me alone, right? We did a really beautiful iterative process of, we did all this analysis. We set out this plan where we wanted to do, and then we came back to the staff and engage in this dialogue and talked about what we were willing to do in terms of cuts to our budget, to be able to support staff salaries. And then what, where we needed to take some risks. We are going to be spending down some of our reserves to, in order to make this work, this upcoming fiscal year. And we're also able to make this decision because we have a couple of foundations that give us really big multi-year general operating funding. And so we have a degree of flexibility in our funding that not a lot of nonprofits have, and we can use that privilege to make this kind of decision. And so when we made this decision and we made it like really thoughtful of the risks involved for us personally, but also really thoughtful about the kind of message that we want to send to the sector right now, RVC should not be one of the privileged few of nonprofits that are able to make this kind of decision. We really need to be a strong voice in the sector to push funders, to fund more nonprofits than we were being funded so that they have the ability to make the right kind of decision to in crisis situations like this as well.

Michelle Shireen Muri (14:01):

I've heard recommendations for foundations. Do you have any recommendations for other nonprofit leaders in our sector?

Ananda Valenzuela (14:09):

Yeah. I'd say now is the time to take a risk. And in our case is looking like running a deficit budget next year and digging into our reserves. I think that for one, we need to be retaining our staff. Anyone who runs an organization knows how draining and difficult it is to hire a staff, right? And so we definitely need to be holding onto our staff in this moment, even if that means that our financial situation, our projections are looking a little scarier than usual. And second, we need to really be thinking proactively around staffing for the future and thinking strategically about making big asks to funders. You know, we need to not be scared to be asking for big money and asking for it to be given to us in a way that we deserve to be given money that's unrestricted, that is accessible and flexible in the way we need to make decisions in the moment. I think that we've all been stuck in such a messed up sector for so long that we just get stuck, right. In thinking that there's only one way for us to fundraise one way for us to do our work and that we have to be kind of wildly risk averse when it comes to managing our finances. And meanwhile, it's a crisis out there. Like we've got to be able to break those assumptions open and do this work differently.

Michelle Shireen Muri (15:17):

I have to imagine that this decision to spend more during a downturn is easier for some organizations than it is for others.

Ananda Valenzuela (15:26):

I mostly just want to emphasize that this really is a decision made coming from a place of privilege. And I really want to own that and not make nonprofit leaders feel guilty or bad for not having been able to access the degree of unrestricted funding that RVC has. That's not on you, that's on our funders. And what we need to be uniting around is pushing our funders to change and helping them understand that they are the core problem in this equation. We have so many amazing leaders out there who are working so hard and underpaid and stretched too thin. And we need to be unlocking more resources and supports for these leaders. Not making them feel worse about the things that they can't achieve in this impossible sector that they operate in. I really hope that by sharing this story and talking about it, that we can really pressure funders to do things differently.

Michelle Shireen Muri (16:18):

That is my hope too. Thank you for that. You're listening to The Ethical Rainmaker. I'm Michelle Shireen Muri. My guest, is Ananda Valenzuela, is a friend and colleague, and acts as the interim executive director of RVC, formerly called Rainier Valley Corps. RVC supports capacity building for many nonprofit organizations. They do this by cultivating leaders of color strengthening organizations led by communities of color and fostering collaboration between diverse communities. Ananda also sits on the board of Change Elemental, formerly known as Management Assistance Group, a capacity building nonprofit consultancy, engaged in thought leadership around equitable capacity building. Learn about their five principles in the show notes at Stay with us as Ananda shares, personal stories that inform their work.

Michelle Shireen Muri (17:13):

The moment you were born. And this moment there were things that happened that brought you to the place that you are now, who we are informs, how we do things. And I think it's important that we ground ourselves. And just a little bit about who you are. What about your personal history makes you want to engage in the nonprofit sector?

Ananda Valenzuela (17:33):

Growing up in Puerto Rico mixed - my Papa is Mexican American. My mom is white. Having that kind of background shaped who I am and shaped my lens on the, on the world, like having that intersectionality of a mixed background and then growing up in a place like Puerto Rico, where so many different cultures and identities come together, in such a beautiful way. And also in a space where Puerto Rico as a colony of the United States. You know, living there gives you such a different view into power in a way that most folks who are grew up in the United States don't really understand. And so there's something about that mix of aspects in my own identity, growing up in that space that really impacted my outlook on the world. I don't think it's possible to grow up in a colony and not have a much deeper understanding of power and the divide between the rich and the poor and how that impacts what happens in the world and what doesn't. Like it was just so obvious to me growing up that the system was broken. And that this money having it and the lack thereof was breeding corruption and causing so much pain in the communities I cared about. That background has really fed into my own passion around doing social justice work around centering communities of color. It's just so eye opening to be at that strange intersection of a mixed identity, but having so much white privilege and knowing that my lived experience is so different from folks whose skin is not as light as mine. And I think that kind of grounding myself in my own sense of my own privilege. And my own background has given me the opportunity to kind of learn and know when to step forward and when to step back and to know that doing this work needs to come from a place where you center equity and liberation. And if you're not centering that in your work, then you're going to make the wrong choices and you're going to make them for the wrong reasons. And a lot of the pain that I experienced and saw others experiencing growing up, so much of it was such from folks making decisions with the wrong values at the core of it. So I think that having that opportunity to grow up in Puerto Rico with that particular background and identity really opened my eyes to things much more quickly and in a much more different way than a lot of folks in the United States, they have the opportunity to experience.

Michelle Shireen Muri (20:02):

So we are still in the middle of COVID. What are you seeing as a silver lining to this entire situation?

Ananda Valenzuela (20:10):

One silver lining I'm seeing is talking to progressive organizers and folks in movement spaces, and hearing them have a degree of excitement about our future that I maybe am not there yet, but it's really comforting that they have far more kind of knowledge in the realm of like progressive activism and systems change than I do. Even though this is such a horrible moment in time and it's causing so much pain, it's also waking people up. And there's a lot of progressive organizers who see this as potentially a beautiful moment to pivot our political systems, our power systems in this country towards a much, much better direction. And hearing that analysis and that potentiality from folks who know what they're talking about is beautiful and inspiring. And that gives me hope. Yeah, I love that analysis also. It is amazing to have incredible organizers who are able to think like that in this moment and move us forward.

Musical Interlude (21:17):


Michelle Shireen Muri (21:18):

Ananda it is my honor to know you and to be able to track what you're doing and the life you're living. And I am so glad that we have your leadership right now in this moment. And that RVC is really stepping up to help communities of color, build their capacity, even in times like this one.

Ananda Valenzuela (21:38):

And thank you. I am honored to be part of this and I'm honored to get to be part of this amazing project you're doing. I'm so excited for where this is going and for getting to access your wisdom and partner with you in this way. It's really beautiful.

Michelle Shireen Muri (21:51):

For someone listening to this interview who wants to get more engaged in the work that you're doing, how can they help? First and foremost is amplifying voices of color that are advocating for change in how our sector operates. Like we need to center the many amazing leaders of color who are advocating for different way of doing things and making it clear that change needs to happen now. And so I'm really hoping that we can really shift the tide on it and push things a different direction. And of course, if you like our work, you know, there's a donate button on our website. And we'd love for you to click on that. Whether it's that, whether it's amplifying, whether it's just talking to the folks in your network who have the power to really change things, to reaching out to us and finding ways we can partner together to get funders, to look at things differently, to strategize about how to support nonprofit leaders in supporting their staff. During this time, I'm here for it.

Musical Interlude (22:47):


Michelle Shireen Muri (22:51):

And by the way, RVC reports that they're on solid footing and exceeding their fundraising goals in August 2020. And more importantly, their team is doing great and weathering the challenges with grace and care.

Michelle Shireen Muri (23:08):

That's our show! Find links to the work of RVC and more on community-centric fundraising in our show notes at We're new here. So subscribing sharing and rating The Ethical Rainmaker is so helpful as we launch. And Hey, follow us on Facebook and Instagram while you're at it. We hope you'll join us in two weeks for our next episode, featuring Fleur Larson, a facilitator and diversity, equity and inclusion consultant, talking about white women as gatekeepers. You seriously won't want to miss that episode. We'd love to hear from you as well. What issues have you been encountering in the world of nonprofits and fundraising? What questions do you have? You can email us anytime at The Ethical Rainmaker is sponsored by my consulting collective, Freedom Conspiracy. We're produced and edited in Seattle, Washington by Isaac Kaplan-Woolner. Rachelle Pierce runs our socials. Special thanks to Zoser for letting us use his new song "Quarantine," just released on August 5th, It's so good. And it's off of his EP "Evolve." Check him out! I'm Michelle Shireen Muri, see you in two weeks.

Musical Interlude (24:23)