10 Questions or Less for Suki O’Kane


10 Questions or Less is a feature here on the Forum’s Forum in which we get to know regional association staff members a little better—their work, what drives them, and more. This week,  Suki O’Kane, Director of Operations at Northern California Grantmakers. If you would like to suggest someone for a profile through 10 Questions or Less, contact Dan Brady.

Photo by Pak Han.

In your role as Director of Operations at Northern California Grantmakers, what are some of your day-to-day responsibilities?

I often refer to my work at NCG as “Making It Go,” which applies to toasters as well as laptops (they are occasionally indistinguishable), dropping payroll as well as financial forecasting, dynamic IP addresses as well as printing, folding, stuffing, and chasing after the postal carrier, a refreshingly analog experience. There will always be some part of the day imagining the system and infrastructure required to make a bold idea successful, or a process truly elegant. If I square away the toaster/laptop issue early enough, I’m able to make actual progress in the imagination area.

Is there anything you’re working on now that is particularly exciting?

It’s all EXTREMELY EXCITING, but if I had to select a few projects I would have to include an association modeling inquiry that we’re conducting here at NCG (drawing from theories of association, group decision science, movement building and change management).

I’m also working with Forum’s Content Management System project, which continues to strike me with its dramatic potential for impact not just technically, as an enterprise-level Open Source initiative, but as a reflection of the innovative relationships and relevance regionals can have with their members.

I must also give a shout out to Kim (ABAG), Martha (AGM) and Rebekah (Washington Grantmakers) for allowing me to shadow their projects on common grant applications, an outgrowth of our informal learning circle on grants management software. Although we don’t have CGAs in NorCal, we have a highly collaborative network, and I’m leveraging learning with these Forum folks to envision shared technology products that are relevant to the emerging interests of our grantmakers.

What’s one thing you do in your position that the Forum network can help with?

Keep. The Templates. Coming.

I’m philosophically opposed to reinventing the wheel, so the power of the network to give me building blocks for good association management is a key value for me. The Forum has provided me with strong peer connections for technology, but I also credit it with building my systems thinking about philanthropy and the role of intermediaries. Though I’ve worked in government grantmaking and the nonprofit sector, philanthropy itself was a mysterious sector when I came on board at NCG. The Forum Network has helped me navigate that with both big ideas and stone cold facts.

You’ve put in a lot of work on the Knowledge Management initiative. From your perspective, what is the best part of working on a shared system?

I’ve always been a strong advocate for the KM initiative on a practical level: pooling our expertise and our dollars with the Network meant NCG could move to robust association and web management tools at a fraction of the cost we would have faced if we went it alone. Yet the best part for me is the access to the expertise of all the partners in the collaborative, who are not just tech-savvy but association-savvy. We’ve created an environment where we can collectively solve problems, and institutionalize best practice, while maintaining our diverse organizational agendas. I noticed it strongly in the past year when new RA staff joined the group. As they onboarded with the AMS and/or CMS systems, they had the benefit of an experienced and candid group of colleagues ready to make a glad gift of their expertise.

The RA Finance listserve always surprises me. It’ll be dormant for months and then suddenly there is a question followed by a flurry of activity. What makes finance people so responsive?

I confess I’ve met *un*responsive finance people (not through the Forum!) who have taught me, by their agonizing example, to Never Do That. Ever. If you get My Meaning. By total contrast, the RA finance folks are great at what they do, are dedicated to the highest standards of fiduciary management, and are delighted to show off the tightness of their respective ships. It can be a point of pride among the financial managers I’ve worked with to have systems completely “tick and tie” not simply for process purposes (insert miracle check for caterer here), but because the public commonly scrutinizes the financial function of nonprofits as an expression of their overall effectiveness.

Outside of work, what are you passionate about?

I’m very interested in the role of the arts in everyday life, and fill my non-NCG hours with another full schedule as a cultural worker: I am a classically trained mallet percussionist, a composer and an instigator working with artists from a wide array of music, movement and public art genres. I’m currently composing for movement theater with Jason Ditzian and a collaboration of artists led by Inkboat’s Shinichi Ioga-Kova and Dohee Lee to develop the new performance work The Line Between (December 2011); and for Theatre of Yugen’s Cordelia by playwright Erik Ehn and part of Soulographie, a monumental suite of plays slated for festival presentation at La MaMa in 2012. Meanwhile I play in several bands as a sideman, and I’m most recently transfixed by the stuff coming from playing in the band Tiny Owl, although the new band Vegan Butcher may turn out to be an ear-shattering spectacle. Stay tuned.

In your music, you’re often working in collaboration with live theater or film (for example, your work on 2011 Academy Award nominee for Best Animated Short Film Let’s Pollute). Can you draw any parallels between artistic collaboration and the work you do at NCG, both with members and with other RAs in the network?

I’m grateful for the cross-fertilization of my cultural and association work. My creative training, especially as an improvising ensemble musician, heavily influences my approaches at NCG and in the Forum network, breaking open my thinking in strategy and problem-solving, validating non-hierarchical exchange, maintaining a sense of play in the workplace. Likewise my administrative training (yes, some call it OCD) is an asset in my creative projects, allowing me to manage artmaking that involves the precise alignment of many, many parts, all of them precious, such as 60 musicians and filmmakers relighting a public street, or 32 composers composing for 32 plays slated to be performed simultaneously. Notably, I’m not known as a soloist, preferring to make work that reflects collective engagement. Forum network projects have provided a great environment for my instincts, serving new challenges that have influenced my practice while allowing me to build influence to scale.

Anything else we should know?

Unfortunately for everyone I’ve started playing accordion.

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3 responses to “10 Questions or Less for Suki O’Kane

  1. Suki is awesome! I still keep learning new things about her and I’ve worked with her on virtually daily basis for 6 years 🙂 She’s an incredible asset to the KM initiative and Forum’s network as a whole. Great interview!

  2. I also must echo the Suki love. It’s been a real blast to gather around the grants management and now common grant format issues and don’t let that soft voice fool you – there’s a lot of power behind there.

    Terrified of the accordion in the same way some are terrified of clowns – but won’t hold that against you.

  3. Suki is stunning in her insight and quiet strength. I get so much out of our informal gatherings. I had no idea of the other side of Suki, always in awe of anyone that can make music! I’ve always been freaked out by clowns too.

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