Transition as an Opportunity for Transformational Change

  • By J McCray, April 10, 2019

At GEO, we’ve written often over the years about leadership transitions as moments of great challenge and great opportunity for nonprofits. When I first started at GEO 16 years ago, a lot of people were talking about the looming leadership deficit as seasoned nonprofit leaders retired from their jobs. Over the years, I have had numerous discussions with nonprofit leaders about the challenges of maintaining funding during these transition moments, which ironically is the period when organizations are most vulnerable. We have also written about the opportunities new leadership creates for shaping culture.

While we have talked about the importance of these moments for nonprofits, we’ve never talked about our own. There’s a simple reason – this is our first leadership transition. Kathleen Enright was our founding CEO in 2001, and led the organization through the end of 2018. I’ve often wondered what our own leadership transition would be like, when the moment came. Right away, many in the GEO community offered words of encouragement and support. We’re feeling the love. While the leadership transition is important, it also isn’t the only way in which GEO is changing. We recently moved to a new office (it’s hard to believe, but this is our fourth office in 18 years). We’re just a little more than a year into our new strategic direction, which calls on us to build on what we’ve learned over the past two decades, yet challenges us to rethink who we need to be so we can meet the needs of the field for the next 20 years. This period of transition offers us a chance to evolve and to ask how our concept of smarter grantmaking needs to change. There is incredible opportunity in this moment, and to be frank, incredible challenges ahead as well.

We’ve gone through a lot of change at GEO in my time at the organization, from the days of being a startup in the basement of a row home in Dupont Circle here in Washington, DC to a growing community of more than 600 organizations. GEO started more than 20 years ago when a group of funders decided to create a learning community to talk about capacity building for their grantees. Over the years, our vision for the field has deepened and continually evolved. What has remained consistent is GEO’s commitment to deepening our understanding of smarter grantmaking and how we can better support nonprofits. Some of the most rewarding work at GEO that I’ve been involved in was working with our nonprofit advisory council to craft an open letter to philanthropy on what it will require to truly take on this difficult work together. This includes better communication, more opportunities to learn together, being true strategy partners and working together to crack through systemic inequity. I love these because they so succinctly describe the challenges our sector needs to be taking on right now.

GEO continues to evolve, as we must. In our new strategic direction, the board and staff made a commitment to racial equity. You may have seen our early efforts at one of our conferences, on a member call or in a peer learning cohort. We have an internal team working on bringing a racial equity analysis to our resources for the field. Our staff has also been questioning what this commitment to racial equity requires of us internally. This work is not only at the systems level, it is also personal. Each of us at GEO has our own story. For me, it has meant asking myself what it means for me to be a white male in my mid-40s in a leadership role at the organization during this time. Part of what this means is that I need to be aware of the limitations of my world view and experience and work to change systems that were designed to benefit people who look like me. The same internal infrastructure and systems that enabled GEO to grow over the past 20 years weren’t built so that all members, staff and volunteers, regardless of their identity, can thrive. These systems require reexamination. This won’t happen overnight, and I’m excited to work with our new CEO to tend culture through living out values, build staff’s intercultural competencies, provide equitable access to growth opportunities for all staff, and ensure the staff has the ability to support members and each other in advancing racial equity.

I know that many grantmaking organizations are going through struggles of your own as you figure out what a commitment to equity and justice mean to you. I know this because you share this with us privately, all the time. And yet, many of us don’t talk with each other about it. This is a time when it will be important that we learn together, support each other and explore these challenges as a community. I know many of you have stories to share, and in the coming months, we’ll be sharing more of ours. I won’t pretend it’s easy. I know it hasn’t been for us. What drives me is the knowledge that we in philanthropy must be better because our communities, and the nonprofits that serve them, need us to be.

I get the question a lot – are you applying for the CEO job? Thank you for asking! But, no, I’m not. I took on the role of interim chief executive officer because I care deeply about our mission, the GEO community and our fabulous team. But I’m a nonprofit geek at heart and I love my job as chief operating officer. As Vu Le writes, strong operations are vitally important for organizations to do their work effectively (and operations folks are amazing and magical!). It gives me the chance to spend every day thinking about our own organizational effectiveness. I am excited for a new leader to help us achieve the goals we set out in our four-year strategic direction. I am excited that our new CEO will be working with the thoughtful and dedicated members of the board to support GEO’s ability to meet our vision for the field. I am excited for this person to join me and my colleagues on the leadership team, Meghan Duffy, our vice president of programs, who joined GEO in 2011 to work on our Scaling What Works initiative and Suprotik Stotz-Ghosh, our vice president of racial equity, partnerships and talent, who recently stepped into the role of interim chief operating officer. And I am particularly thrilled for this person to get to know the group of amazing, committed staff who work tirelessly every day to serve the GEO community. If you know someone who would be a great leader for GEO during this next phase, we want to know, so please send your nominations.

We have an exciting year ahead. The Learning Conference, coming up in Seattle in late May, is an opportunity to integrate learning into all aspects of your work. Looking a little further ahead, we’re starting to plan for our 2020 National Conference in Boston. We are also launching a new cohort of Change Leaders in Philanthropy for senior executives who are responsible for leading change efforts in their organizations. We recently released Engaging Boards and Trustees in Strategic Learning in partnership with FSG and will be releasing another resource on learning before the Learning Conference. We’re also partnering with Equitable Evaluation Initiative, which will include a joint publication as well as a teaching case workshop this fall. Keep an eye out for more information on the workshop soon. We will be releasing a member survey soon, so please let us know what you value most and where you think we can do better. The survey comes at an important time for us, and will inform our decisions as we implement our strategy, integrate racial equity into our content and prepare to welcome our incoming CEO. If you’re in the area, come visit us in our new space at 1310 L Street in downtown DC. One of the benefits of membership is the ability to hold a meeting in our space, so if you’d like to hold a meeting here, let us know.

I look forward to continuing to build this phenomenal community with you.

J McCray
Interim CEO, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations

J McCray

Senior Advisor

Contact J about supporting GEO financially, or with questions about GEO’s strategic plan or field research.

J McCray is senior advisor at Grantmakers for Effective Organizations. J previously led GEO’s internal operations from 2004 to 2018, starting as manager of operations in 2004 and becoming chief operating officer in 2011. J authors the Is Grantmaking Getting Smarter? series, which tracks trends in grantmaker practice. He also leads GEO’s outreach to nonprofit partners.

J has spent his career in the nonprofit sector, both in front line and behind-the-scenes roles. He began his career in the sector as a case manager at the Council on Aging of St. Lucie County, Florida, where he worked to identify services that would allow seniors to remain independent and stay in their own homes. J also worked at the Title I Dissemination Project, providing support to Title I educators in Massachusetts, and at the National Prostate Cancer Coalition (NPCC) as a fundraiser. J holds a master’s of business administration from The George Washington University and a bachelor’s degree in psychology from The College of William and Mary. J also has a certificate in nonfiction, documentary writing from the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Maine where he profiled the daily lives of league bowlers in an eight lane candlepin bowling alley in Lisbon Falls.

J serves on the board of Innovation Network and has served on the boards of Idealware and Alternative Gifts of Greater Washington, Inc. He has also served on leadership committees for Independent Sector, Bridgespan’s DC area Nonprofit COO Group, the Funder Network Impact Assessment Project, Toastmasters, Takoma Foundation, Takoma Park Folk Festival and the City of Hyattsville Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Committee.