By Noelle Evangelista, RVC Development & Communications Associate
Are you a nonprofit spending too much time doing administrative work and not enough time on program work? You are not the only one! A few years ago, one of our community partner organizations, Families of Color Seattle (FOCS) came to us for guidance and help. From that initial conversation sprang Rainier Valley Corps’ Operations Support Program.
RVC Operations Support Program is the first of its kind for us. Under it, RVC oversees operations management for our partners, such as areas like finance, human resources, payroll, and legal compliance. By centralizing the operations of many small partner organizations, the program has grown and flourished, and is key in our capacity building work.
What better way to learn more about our program than to have a chat with Amy Pak, Executive Director of Families of Color Seattle (FOCS), our first-ever Operations Support (OS) Partner. We sat together and discussed what it’s been like for FOCS to partner with RVC.
Tell us about FOCS. What does FOCS do?
FOCS is a women of color led organization that connects different parents together to build a loving community of families of color through parenting programs, resource-sharing, and fostering meaningful connections. We were founded in 2013 and are led by mothers of color. To date, we’ve connected more than 2,000 families into an intercultural and interethnic community.
RVC provides operations support to smaller organizations like yours. We manage finances, HR, payroll, and legal compliance so that you can focus more on doing impactful work. Can you tell people how you came to partner with RVC?
FOCS became a fellowship program partner in 2015 and then became an operations support partner in January 2017, in part because our board requested that FOCS build consistent internal systems and processes. But this was a challenge due to limited bandwidth. RVC was able to help with this, though, and we became RVC’s first fiscally sponsored project.
Since our partnership began, it has been an informative and fluid process of ongoing backend operative and administrative support. By partnering with people like Ananda (RVC’s Managing Director), who has skill sets and an extensive background in fiscal sponsorship, we leveraged her expertise, and that really helped FOCS overcome those challenges we had.
RVC actually took a chance on us as their first project. And after partnering with us, RVC knew and realized that in addition to FOCS, other emerging organizations also needed more support beyond staffing and people power.
Can you give us a little more details of the challenges that you were contending with, before FOCS started its partnership with RVC?
Sure. In its early days, FOCS struggled to build certain systems, like an accounting system and budget management. So, a lot of the work fell on the board’s shoulders, including website maintenance and a very basic donor management system.
The board knew that this wasn’t sustainable long-term, and they knew that our systems and documentation needed to be locked in. Clear roles and responsibilities are essential to the success of any organization. So, we started to problem-solve this.
In the course of troubleshooting, RVC proposed what would become this OS partnership. It ended up being just what we needed, and also, it’s cheaper for us to join the program than it is for us to become a 501(c)(3). Joining the RVC’s operations support program allows us to keep our focus on providing our services to our communities and parents of color.
What does RVC’s operations support of FOCS look like?
RVC handles all our fiscal management as well as our accounting and our human resources, including salary and benefits. RVC reviews all of our legal contracts, any funding that is awarded, and approves our annual budget. After our board reviews these items, RVC’s board also reviews and approves it.
Plus, FOCS looks at RVC as an advisor and mentor. Their coaching has immensely built up our capacity.
What’s it like partnering with RVC — in other words, what’s RVC’s organizational culture like?
RVC staff really embodies the importance of deep friendships with one another. They acknowledge that our work is unique in its impact and unique in meeting community needs. RVC extends beyond more than just the service it provides, it also builds up trust with each partnership.
In terms of RVC’s leadership, they’ve been quick to respond, ready to advise if needed, and provide the gentle nudges our organization needs to get grants submitted on time, to meet accounting requirements, and to review contracts in a timely manner.
Oftentimes I’ve found that the partnership FOCS has with RVC is a closer relationship than what we have with our board. Now that we’ve had systems and processes established, I now look to RVC for board development and capacity building.
So, I’m sure people are wondering: how much does the operations support that RVC provides cost?
The fee is 12% of our monthly expenses. Now, we are up to $1500 a month because we’ve increased our contractor expenses and are receiving more work. This system really works for us because it saves us money in the long term. For example, if we were paying $1,000 per month for RVC to handle our operations, that would be $12,000 a year for this support. But if we were to hire part-time or full-time staff in creating our own operations department, it would be at least $30,000 a year for the support. It makes more sense to partner with RVC because through RVC, we also get a full-time operations fellow and organizational management for a fraction of the market rate
How has your organization changed since you’ve joined the program?
We know that our books and records are accountable, legitimate, and tracked. It avoids opportunity for human error as opposed to having ill-trained hands managing the books or allowing inconsistency in HR processes. And with that, we at FOCS can focus our energy on analyzing trends in our reports and project what next years’ fiscal budget will look like.
Because we have our hands free from worrying about our books, we’re able to hone in on the skills we need. FOCs staff and I are getting consultations and trainings from people like Uma Rao and Kristine Maramot, who loves creating budgets, plus other trainings that build up our board and our staff in leadership development.
RVC also ensures that we’re doing all our donations processes accurately, and that our required documentation is accurate, which for people who generally aren’t lawyers or CPAs, it may be difficult to keep track of those items.
I think RVC also really believes in promoting our brand and our mission with their platform. With their donor-sharing, they show their donors how their work also impact our organization’s work, and they want us to have similar access and exposure and promotion to their donors, too. And with that, we’ve had a lot more name recognition.
What is your long term vision as an RVC Operations Support partner?
I would love to share a real house together as a family. For us, that is really enticing and I would love to be a part of a community space, having a large intergenerational forum, a space where it is community driven and with a strong social justice mission, not government created. We’d love to be part of a space where it is innovative, modern, and inclusive of all income, genders, and different neighborhoods.
How does partnering with RVC differ from being an independent 501(c)(3)?
For about three and a half years, we tried being our own 501(c)(3) nonprofit prior to partnering with RVC. So much of my time was going towards administrative and financial work — both not where my strengths lie. Administrative tasks take me away from the work I am more skilled at.
Even while getting trained and working with a strong board and awesome volunteers, there were still a lot of challenges to overcome and navigating those challenges on our own was stressful. I used to feel buried by the administrative work. Too much time was spent on these challenges rather than on being a community-builder and being a visionary executive director that I need to be.
Now with RVC handling our operations, it’s like night and day.
What advice do you have for organizations that are interested in using RVC’s Operations Support Program in the future?
I would say jump all in. Really get to know RVC’s capacity building opportunities. Say yes to each opportunity to grow in new and innovative ways, such as funder/donor sharing, attending their events, and witnessing the impact of their Fellowship Program. Feel secure and excited for capacity building coaching. Learn to seek the opportunities you need for your growth and ask for it.
RVC helps build hose skills that we sometimes fumble and fail at. With RVC, we can really help troubleshoot and intercept some of those pitfalls, working together in creating a stronger community.