In your first year, you should have more questions than answers: Your first year is a chance to get your finger on the pulse of the organization: what’s working, and what’s not? The only way to learn is to listen more than you talk — and to constantly ask questions.
I had the pleasure to interview Katie Sawyer. Katie believes strongly that a network of determined, committed women can reach nearly any goal. Katie’s background includes extensive experience in philanthropy, community engagement and nonprofit management. Katie holds a BA in Spanish and Business from The Ohio State University and an MA in Latin American Literature from Tulane University. She is a graduate of LEAD San Diego’s Influence and Impact programs, a member of San Diego Rotary Club 33, and a volunteer coach with Girls on the Run at Monarch School. She lives in North Park, California, with her husband, Erik.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
My background is in nonprofit work — both running direct service programs and as a fundraiser.So, I’ve been on the other side of the check writing, so to speak! When I had the chance to transition into the grant-making side, and particularly at a collective giving organization, I knew it was a way for me personally to have bigger impact. We work to make sure both that our funding is used effectively, which includes funding staffing and administrative costs, and that our 200+ members have the knowledge, connections and resources that they need to be effective change-makers in their personal philanthropy.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Every day is interesting, truly! Even the “boring” work — budget projections and spreadsheets — is interesting because it shapes the future and tells the story of the organization.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
There are plenty of mistakes to choose from — if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not thinking big enough. A silly one, though: when I very first started, I had memorized an outdated mission statement. It was just one or two words off, but I felt pretty stupid when someone corrected me in front of a full room (but also grateful that everyone ended up hearing the correct mission!). Lesson learned? Know your elevator pitch cold. And laugh off the mistakes that are easily fixed.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?
I wasn’t job searching when my position became open, but I knew right away that I had to go for it. I believe strongly in the mission of SDWF, which is to educate and inspire women to engage in collective philanthropy. This job seemed to be, and has proven to be, an incredible way to lead change both by funding important work and by growing and supporting a network of women change-makers. And selfishly, I knew that I would personally enjoy working with the members of SDWF and our nonprofit partners (I was right).
Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
You must understand everything without micromanaging it.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?
Every day is different — I love the balance of behind-the-scenes strategic work and very public-facing leadership and coalition building.
What are the downsides of being an executive?
You must own every mistake. Only a bad leader would let someone else take the blame, and I try to always have my team’s back when things go sideways (which fortunately, isn’t often — because I have a great team!).
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
That being the leader means that you get to make all the decisions. You certainly have more influence than other positions, but to lead effectively, you have to listen and take the time to build support. Sometimes, it’s about leading from behind.
That saying: if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. It’s so unrealistic. I love my job — it’s meaningful, the work is interesting, and I work with people that I respect, admire and enjoy spending time with. But it’s work!
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
First, let me address that as a white, straight, cisgendered woman, I have not faced nearly the same barriers that many others have. With all groups that are underrepresented in leadership, one of our challenges is also a powerful strength: that our success is bound up in each other’s. If a woman CEO fails, that affects the broader conversation about women in leadership in a way just doesn’t happen if a male CEO fails. But the flip side of that is that, as more and more women reach the C-suite, we can work to bring others up with us.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I honestly wasn’t surprised by much — I had a pretty realistic understanding of what I was taking on in this role. The demands on my time can be more intense than I anticipated. You must guard your calendar and be laser-focused on what will drive outcomes. I try to be very thoughtful about what I’ll commit to.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?
Impeccable ethics. Lots of other traits are important to success, too — leadership, communication, tolerance for risk — but without a solid foundation of trust, none of that matters.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
I’d give the same advice to any leader, male or female: hire good people with skills that you lack and support their growth.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’m lucky to have close friendships with women who I admire and consider to be almost peer-mentors. We support and lean on each other in so many ways, including when we’re considering making a big career move that we’re not sure we’re ready for. They’re bold, strategic, bad-ass — and just amazing humans in so many ways. I wouldn’t be where I am, or who I am, without them.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I am very lucky that my day job is in perfect alignment with my values and goals for improving our community — not everyone can find that in a career. Most recently, we provided $243,000 in grant funding to combat human trafficking. I also try to support other leaders, and developing leaders, however I can. I’m told that I make good introductions. That seems like a small thing, but it captures something that I always try to do — lift others up and celebrate their successes.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- In your first year, you should have more questions than answers: Your first year is a chance to get your finger on the pulse of the organization: what’s working, and what’s not? The only way to learn is to listen more than you talk — and to constantly ask questions.
- Your most valuable asset is your time: learn to protect your calendar, and that means learning to say no. I would love to say yes to every opportunity and idea that comes my way — both for myself and for SDWF. But ultimately, I’d rather do fewer things exceptionally well.
- Bring your whole self to work: no matter what you do, everything is about relationships. And the way to build relationships is to care about people and to be your authentic self. I’m sure I told at least one hokey joke in my job interview.
- The most important decisions you make are hiring decisions: The only way to grow your own ability to get work done is to hire great people that you trust, and whose strengths complement your weaknesses. I have a phenomenal, talented team, and I’m so grateful for the work they do.
- Balance may not happen every day, but you can make sure that it happens over time: I like busy seasons at work — there’s something really satisfying about working long hours and making a lot of progress. But burnout is a real risk, even in a job you love (maybe especially in a job you love), and I know that I’m a better leader when I also prioritize time and relationships outside of work. I fiercely protect time with my sister and husband, and we do a lot of things outdoors and away from cell service. It’s easy to feel guilty about stepping away from the office, but that time away helps me come back recharged.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I think we need to keep pushing for trust-based philanthropy, and to always work to address traditional power dynamics. Philanthropists and funders tend to be whiter and wealthier than the communities that we serve. We need to trust the expertise of the nonprofits that we fund, and of the communities that they support. How do we get more voices in the rooms where decisions are made? If we want to solve systemic problems, addressing that question will be key.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Something I know about myself: when I have a lot on my plate, my natural tendency is to put my head down and work (I’m from the Midwest — we’re a non-complaining, hardworking people!). So, I am constantly reminding myself to look up and bring others in. I’ve gotten better. Having a good team, a dedicated board and a network of talented members helps. But I don’t know that I’ll ever stop having to fight that tendency.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. If you haven’t read “We Should All Be Feminists,” move it to the top of your list, and then buy several more copies to give to your friends. We should all, male or female, proudly own the title of “feminist.” Her writing is thought-provoking and challenging in important ways. A quote of hers from an interview that resonates with me: “For me, feminism is a movement for which the end goal is to make itself no longer needed.” I agree, and I think that’s true of philanthropy and nonprofit work, as well — the ultimate goal is to put ourselves out of business by solving the systemic injustices that our work addresses.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.