On December 31, 2018, Mari Kuraishi will step down as president of GlobalGiving, which she co-founded with Dennis Whittle in 2001. Gabe Cohen, GuideStar’s senior director of marketing and communications, sat down to talk with Mari. Yesterday’s post looks at GlobalGiving’s founding and early years. Today’s post discusses GlobalGiving’s values and the qualities the organization is looking for in its next leader.
Gabe: I was looking at your website and came across the core values, and I was curious if you could talk a little bit about how they were created, if they evolved at all over the years, why you picked those values, and how they’ve played out in a meaningful way for the organization.
Mari: So the core values were something that we felt we had lived by for a long time, but we only put together formally in 2006 or 7 or so. The management team did some work but then handed it over to the whole team and said, “Here, you guys live here and work here. Tell us how you would put it all together.” They’re the ones who came up with the exact words of “Always Open” or “Listen, Act, Learn. Repeat.”
We went through an exercise to get there that basically said, “Look, there are a lot of things that are threshold values—honesty or trustworthiness or whatever.” What we really wanted were values that could guide our behavior day to day. We’ve tried to create an organization that doesn’t have many rules or processes or checklists or whatever, and so people, justifiably so, said, “Not having rules is fine, but what do I do? What am I supposed to do?”
So then we came up with the values in an attempt to guide people’s behavior day to day. Always Open is a value that enshrines that part of our theory of change, that says that, as a bottom-up organization, we hold that a great idea can come from anyone, anywhere, any time. Which means that if some nonprofit based in Zimbabwe calls up, we take that call as seriously as some potential high net worth donor who wants to give through our site. And enshrining that value of Always Open guides the person who’s answering the phone call.
Listen, Act, Learn. Repeat, which is probably the first among all our values, basically outlines how we operate, which is that we try stuff and learn from it and iterate, and we don’t wait until things are perfect. I guess it’s a little analogous to Facebook’s “Break things.”
We hold that learning happens when you act, not when you just read a book or listen, and because the first passthrough is likely to be wrong, you have to be able to learn really quickly and turn around and start over again. Today, in the context of Agile and Lean Start-up, it all seems that of course that’s the way you should operate. But when we were starting out, that wasn’t the way … versioning was still a big deal. The idea that you would quickly throw stuff up and fix it, rather than design the perfect thing, was pretty alien. So trying to find that value really did give guidance to people as to how they should behave in the office.
Committed to WOW has to do really with our feeling that many of the customers we serve, which include extremely small nonprofits in the developing world, have never been, at least in the international aid construct, been treated like they are the potential source of creativity and dynamism. But they deserve to be treated that way, and that’s why Committed to WOW. It’s also based on our hunch that customer service is what distinguishes our brand and therefore we should want every interaction to lead to someone saying, “Wow.”
Gabe: That’s awesome. Shifting over to the current time frame, so why now? How did you know this was the right time for you to step down?
Mari: Mostly because I feel like the organization is in the right place. We had a great year last year, we’ve been able to set aside some money for our war chest, this year revenues and expenses look really good. So I am handing over an organization that is sorta firing on all cylinders, has play-around money for the next CEO. And I want to leave the organization positioned for success, and it’s also the right time for me to leave because if I stay much longer, the organization will get too closely associated with me, and it will become sort of the Mari show, and not the GlobalGiving show. And, finally, an organization needs to be able to make that sort of transition away from the founder. It’s just one of those rites of passage that allow an organization to grow up. And if I put it off much longer, it’s going to be harder.
Gabe: Will you be involved once the new CEO comes?
Gabe: In what capacity?
Mari: Probably on the board.
Gabe: Will you be involved in selecting a replacement?
Mari: The process we are engaged in to select the CEO is going to involve some mix of participation from staff, so yes in that context. But at the end of the day it is a board decision, and staff are basically there to give inputs into that board decision, not to actually make the decision.
Gabe: So will there be a team that will interview, encompassing a range of different individuals from the staff?
Mari: Yeah; it’s still being sorta being worked out. But we are working with the search firm to design a way that somehow does right by everybody, in terms of honoring the participatory culture here, honoring confidentiality and privacy, and firmly leaving the board in charge of making the decision. So we’re trying to align all three things and find a process that works.
Gabe: How much will cultural fit play a part in selecting the next leader?
Mari: That’s a good question. You know, this organization does run on culture, as we just said, so cultural fit matters. But I honestly don’t know how you would know ahead of time that a particular person is going to have an easy time or a difficult time making that cultural fit. I think you could probably assign probabilities, like high, medium, low, but exactly how rocky or how smooth that journey is going to be for that fit to happen … I mean, you’re only interviewing people. How would you really know?
Gabe: I have no idea how you’d do it from a CEO level, but I’m just curious if it’s something you’re being conscious of as you hire someone. Is that one of the checkboxes?
Mari: We’re certainly very conscious of it when we’re hiring anyone else besides the CEO. It is a question that we ask anyone who interviews, what do you think their cultural fit is gonna be?
Gabe: And do you agree that culture eats strategy for breakfast?
Mari: Yes. Absolutely.
Gabe: What do you think the one thing is that this candidate must have? What is the one quality, what is the one experience, what’s the one thing that is paramount to success here?
Mari: I think the candidate could come from any number of fields. Could come from international development, the way Dennis and I did, or could come from tech, could come from the nonprofit world, could come from philanthropy, from CSR, because we touch upon all those fields substantively. But I think the one thing that could make the difference between being a success or not successful candidate is the ability to admit that you’re wrong. Because our whole organization operates on the idea that we rely on doing something and discovering quickly if it’s wrong and being able to change course. If you can’t admit you’re wrong, you can’t change course, and the whole thing kind of falls apart.
Gabe: Last question: what’s next for you?
Mari: Uh … I don’t know is the honest answer. I’m looking around.
Gabe: Woodworking? Because you’ve got the whole set from someone that you inherited or whatever it was.
Mari: Yes, exactly, from Frank Fukuyama. The End of History guy.
Gabe: So that’s on the table as an option?
Mari: That’s always an option. As is getting into cooking or who knows … what else could I do?
Gabe: So is the plan to take some time off then?
Mari: I’m not necessarily planning to take time off, but I do want to take the time to find the right spot. So … I don’t know now. I might know by December 31, when I go off payroll here. Orrrr I might not know. In which case I will need to take some time off.
Gabe: Well, that’s it.
Mari: Great. Thank you.
You can find more information about becoming the next CEO of GlobalGiving here.
Mari Kuraishi is the co-founder and president of GlobalGiving, which helps donors make safe and easy U.S. tax-deductible donations to vetted, locally driven organizations around the world. She also is chair of GuideStar’s board of directors.
Gabe Cohen is GuideStar’s senior director of marketing and communications.