A Q&A with Sampriti Ganguli, Arabella Advisors’ CEO, on Being a B Corporation; Lessons Learned on the Journey Toward Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; and the Future of Philanthropy
We are on the cusp of philanthropy's next big wave. The charitable sector is no longer limited to just giving grants to organizations and wishing them well. Whether it’s creating social change by engaging in advocacy, impact investing, or collaborative efforts designed to deliver outsized impact, foundations, philanthropists, and investors are showing a desire to experiment, be creative, and innovate with their charitable giving like never before.
At the center of this profound shift is Arabella Advisors, a certified B Corporation that has helped hundreds of clients representing more than $100 billion in assets increase their philanthropic impact. Arabella Advisors’ team of problem solvers helps clients make a difference on the issues that matter most to them, including community and economic development, climate issues, women's rights, education, good food, and more.
Leading the way at Arabella is its award-winning CEO Sampriti Ganguli, who is employing an innovative approach to ensure that Arabella’s clients achieve the best results with their resources while integrating diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace, as well as the field at large.
As she explains in a piece for the Stanford Social Innovation Review entitled “Building Inclusion from the Inside-Out: A Brief Case Study,” “We all have a role to play in making our field more diverse, equitable, and inclusive—both in how we treat the people who work there and in how we think about the work we do. It is a tough journey that takes time, facing hard truths, and learning from mistakes, but the change we want to see in the world needs to start in our own hallways.”
What follows is a transcribed Q&A from our discussion (slightly edited for length and clarity). Ms. Ganguli’s insights are powerful just as they are enlightening, thanks in large part to her transparent leadership approach. They are worth reading from top to bottom. As I have in previous pieces, I’ve also included “Five Key Takeaways for Purpose-Driven Leaders and Organizations.”
What can you tell me about your journey to Arabella?
I'm originally from India, but I spent most of my formative years in the Philippines. I came to the United States for college. The summer before my senior year, I went to Nepal to work on micro-credit lending. Our project focused on women who wanted to start micro-businesses with initial investments of $100 or less.
This was before the establishment of the Grameen Bank, and before there was widespread access to micro-credit financing. I found the work very emotional and difficult. Often, in these early days, these women-owned enterprises failed--not because they didn't have the right product or service, but because they faced a trying set of circumstances on the home front, obstacles that actively prevented them from becoming successful. They also were routinely taken advantage of by loan sharks.
For me, that was a call to action. I saw that the women in my project were often missing more than access to capital; they were missing a broad understanding of the basic business skills that would help them overcome the obstacles they faced. Based on that experience, I decided to go to business school and learn those skills, and that led to a series of job opportunities with consulting firms here in the United States. While I was excited about the opportunity to build a career here, that original desire for impact also stayed with me, so I got involved with several nonprofit boards along the way.
Three years ago, the founder of Arabella, Eric Kessler, and his co-principal, Bruce Boyd, went on their own journey. As their business had grown and become more successful, they were being drawn away from the work they most enjoyed: focusing on philanthropy, working directly with foundations, individuals, and families to ensure their grant-making was strategic. So they began a search for a CEO who could help them with their vision by managing the organization.
They had never hired a CEO. I had never been a CEO. But after a six-month journey of getting to know one another, we agreed that we wanted to work together. I was drawn to Arabella in part because it's a B Corp. To me, this means that we combine the best of what a for-profit entity can do with the best of what a nonprofit can do, such as centering around a meaningful mission, working with inspired talent, embracing inclusion, and communicating with vision and significance.
What would you say are some of the biggest benefits that you’ve seen in Arabella becoming a certified B Corporation?
One of the big benefits of this structure is that B Corps are the only entities that get to independently determine their growth rates and plot the course of their profitability. In a traditional, for-profit firm (and especially a publicly traded one), growth targets and profit goals are set for you and driven very much by short-term financial performance.
Most B Corp leaders I've met organize their companies around questions like "What kind of company do we want to be? With whom do we want to work? What service or product can we provide to delight customers? How can I translate these ideas into a company that is both profitable and meaningful?" From there, they determine how to grow.
Another thing I find attractive about B Corps is their commitment to transparency. As an example, at Arabella we share our financial information with the entire company twice a year, as well as a balanced scorecard that reflects a variety of metrics on our clients, our impact, and our people. I see transparency as part of a compact on our behalf as leaders, to share information and to engage everyone who is part of the company's journey. But it’s also more than that. By sharing understanding about all of our aspects, we unleash potential at every organizational level to fuel both good business and good stewardship.
What is the best career advice that you've ever received?
To think about careers as having three distinct chapters. Chapter one is the early part of a career: learning. Chapter two is applying what you've learned. And Chapter three is teaching - giving back what you have learned to others.
For me, working in the corporate sector, where organizations invest a lot training people about business, clients, and industry, made sense for my first chapter.
In my second chapter, which is where I am now, I'm focused on applying the skills I learned in the classroom and the workplace, and practicing them in a different sector. The social sector is highly nuanced -- metrics are harder to define, outcomes are decades long in the making, consensus building is an absolute necessity for long-term social change. All of these factors make the work more challenging.
Later, I hope the final chapter of my career will permit me to teach, whether that's on a one-to-one basis or in a classroom setting.
What would you say are some of the biggest challenges you've seen at Arabella thus far that you've overcome?
One of the biggest challenges has centered around our view of diversity, equity, and inclusion -- qualities that are vital to an organization as it grows. At 150 employees, we're large, although not as large as others in the philanthropy and investment fields. With four offices (New York, D.C., Chicago, and San Francisco), questions I think about include:
How can we include all of the voices across the organization? How can we incorporate the differences that come with diversity in our service business, while creating a structure that allows us to provide services and produce work efficiently?
And how do we then incorporate a final authority for decisions that strike the right balance between consensus, inclusion, and independent thought? How do we structure a kind of autonomy that makes our leaders feel comfortable making decisions?
While I wouldn’t say we’ve “overcome” these challenges, which aren’t the sort of challenges you overcome once and for all, I’m pleased with and proud of the progress we’ve made. We invest a lot in culture, including an annual retreat bringing everyone from all offices together, connecting all of us to meaning, purpose, and each other. We talk about and try to live our value of individuals bringing their “whole self” to work. And we think intentionally about our culture as we grow. This isn’t just important because of the work that we do -- it’s critical for who we are.
What are some lessons you’ve learned in working toward diversity, equity, and inclusion?
Arabella has come to recognize that while senior leadership sponsors or embraces diversity, their involvement alone is not sufficient to solve our challenges. Equity and inclusion are difficult issues for organizations because they are not driven simply based on a top-down dynamic. They are truly affected by what can be called, "the mood at the middle and the feelings at the front lines."
We must think about and ask, “How do middle managers live up to the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion? How do individuals on the front lines, and those who are just joining the organization, deal with unconscious biases they may bring with them, or with the biases they may find here? Also, what techniques, tools, and lessons do they bring with them, through their lived experiences, from which we could benefit?”
To help address these challenges, we've created groups called Inclusion Leaders at Arabella (ILAs) -- one on each team and in each of our offices -- with the responsibility to dedicate part of their time to reinforce our value of inclusion. They can call out micro-aggressions and help anyone who has been victimized or feels they've experienced behavior that is inconsistent with our values. They are empowered to bring together communities for discussions and to raise issues to the ombudsperson or HR.
We have ILAs because our journey toward inclusion makes progress only when we tend to our daily relationships, and that caretaking needs to occur at all levels.
What do you feel are some of the most innovative things happening in philanthropy today that Arabella Advisors is a part of? What does the future look like?
For one thing, there's a genuine desire to live the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion (or “DEI”). But it's not always easy to get there. So, we've helped to develop a DEI checklist along with several partners and donors. This checklist is a tool we believe all donors should be using in their grant-making.
It's one thing to want to support communities of color and disadvantaged communities, but it's another to shift an entire strategy to establish that. For example, in many communities, there are new nonprofits that don't yet meet the rigorous financial due diligence criteria that large foundations may require; but these new organizations need the foundation-level donors to get traction for their programs.
This is a fundamental challenge that the DEI checklist has been created to address. It asks, in effect, "If you want to be more inclusive in your grant-making, can you find ways to include smaller, newer organizations that are better positioned to serve their communities in some areas?"
We're still in early days, so it's too soon to declare victory, but we've certainly been met with a lot of institutional "leaning in." Foundations want to learn more about how they can both deploy more dollars to targeted communities and rethink some of their internal processes to become more impactful donors.
Do you feel that there's a growing role for storytelling in philanthropy?
I think that both the heart and the head are crucial in philanthropy and that storytelling gets at the “heart” of it. It’s critical because it provides an opportunity to reach others and engage them deeply by demonstrating the real-life impact of what a non-profit has done or aspires to achieve.
I also think there’s opportunity to better engage our “heads” in philanthropy—by more neatly defining the metrics non-profits use to measure their success. Philanthropy swings back and forth between being technocratically focused on outcome metrics and measures, and conforming to theories of social change or more qualitative assessments on progress. A grantee needs to understand where on this continuum a donor is, and be able to tailor their message accordingly.
Both better data and better storytelling are essential, because philanthropy will never be all head or all heart. It will always be a mix—even as the next generation is asking questions such as "Should we be doing just grant-making? Should we be doing impact investing?”—because the various impacts people seek will never all reduce to a single unit of measure.
There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. Many different goods are worth pursuing, and philanthropy will need both good storytelling and good metrics to pursue them better and better in the coming decades.
Five Key Takeaways for Purpose-Driven Leaders and Organizations
- Find your driving force. Sampriti Ganguli, Arabella Advisors' CEO, spent the summer in before her senior year working on microcredit lending in Nepal where saw women routinely being taken advantage of by unscrupulous loan sharks, who charged usurious interest rates. Seeing the women in her project without a broad understanding of the basic business skills that would help them overcome the obstacles surrounding them became her call to action. She attended business school to develop these skills, worked as a consultant, and stayed involved with several nonprofit boards. Her desire to make an impact never dissipated. Ganguli would later become very drawn to Arabella because it is a B Corp, which to her means "combining the best of what for-profit entity can do, with the privilege of aligning it with the best of what a nonprofit can do, such as centering around a meaningful mission, working with inspired talent, embracing inclusion, and communicating with vision and significance."
- Be fully transparent. According to Ganguli, at Arabella, "We share our financial information with the entire company twice a year. We have a balanced scorecard that reflects a variety of metrics, including our financial health, our clients, our impact, and our people. We share information about staff satisfaction and where we, as a leadership team, need to do better. I take this for granted, but many of those who join the organization say, 'Wow, I've never seen that kind of information before.' These comments come from individuals who worked with nonprofits, at for-profits, and in the public sector."
- Have conversations about current and emerging social issues out in the open. According to Sanguli, “We talk about and try to live our value of individuals bringing their ‘whole self’ to work.” Key leadership questions to contemplate include, “How do we take emerging and current social issues and conversations that begin outside the walls of our offices and bring them into the open here? How do we listen to and respect all of these various and often conflicting viewpoints—some of which are not consistent with our current value system—and decide how to incorporate changing voices and situations into our direction? Because these choices result in a delicate balance, many organizations shy away from such issues and conversations. They are controversial and difficult, but in a time of political and policy changes, Arabella consciously chooses to navigate our way through these hard issues as an organization. This isn’t just important because of the work that we do—it’s critical for who we are."
- Build inclusion from the inside out; good intentions aren't enough. According to Ganguli, “Arabella has come to recognize that while senior leadership sponsors or embraces diversity, their involvement alone is not sufficient to solve our challenges. That's because diversity is what you see, inclusion is what you feel, and both of these extend well beyond any organization's senior management team. Equity and inclusion are difficult issues for organizations to understand and make progress on because they are not driven simply based on a top-down dynamic. They are truly affected by what can be called, 'the mood at the middle and the feelings at the front lines.'"
- Look for ways that storytelling can amplify impact. Stories emotionalize information and allow people to connect with your message in a deeper, more meaningful way. Effective storytelling has the power to move a cause forward. Notes Ganguli, “I think you will see a healthy balance of storytelling and metrics in philanthropy as the field continues its progress into the 21st Century.”
Follow Ryan Rudominer on Twitter at @rrudominer