My Journey to GEO

  • By Marcus Walton, October 3, 2019

Throughout my career, I have committed myself to service. First, as a community organizer, nonprofit practitioner and grantmaker; then, as a leadership coach, racial equity trainer and executive, I eagerly attempted to test and learn strategies for cultivating thriving communities. The cumulative impact of these experiences has informed a personal vision grounded in a strong desire to lead change in society in a manner that leverages the collective wisdom of each person, family and institution. My sentiments are captured poignantly in this quote by the theologian, Henri Nouwen.

We cannot change the world by a new plan, project or idea. We cannot even change other people by our convictions, stories, advice and proposals. But, we can offer a space where people are encouraged to disarm themselves, lay aside their occupations and preoccupations and listen with attention and care to the voices speaking in their own center.

~ Henri Nouwen

Because of philanthropy’s unique role as a convener, we are an apropos space for nonprofit practitioners and the communities we serve to slow down, decompress, listen to each other, gain exposure to a range of perspectives and reconnect with our voice – the full expression of our inherent power.

Shaped, in part, by my childhood, which occurred within the working-class communities of North East, OH, I experienced early examples of self-determination, resiliency and pride among the residents of Cleveland’s vibrant communities. Back then, thriving manufacturing industries such as steel and automotives made it possible for a factory laborer to raise a large family with minimal formal education. Paradoxically, I realized over time that these same communities, which embodied the traditional American “boot straps” work ethic, as well as love for country and family, were also racially segregated and tinged with a pervasive strain of tacit intolerance that is often ingrained in homophobic, racist, and anti-immigrant value systems. When confronted with the three-fold onset of wide-scale economic disinvestment, global technological advancement and a decade long illicit drug epidemic, I witnessed the deterioration of these communities firsthand, engendering a lifelong curiosity for understanding and reversing the forces that threaten social and political stability, nationwide.

Thankfully, my experience with service organizations provided a counterbalance which continues to inspire my hope and optimism in the nonprofit sector to build power within communities. After leaving Cleveland, my educational pursuits took me to Florida, Georgia, New York and, ultimately, New Jersey where I learned more about the work of nonprofit organizations and philanthropy in supporting positive community change. Equipped with a comprehensive understanding of the national landscape, which included witnessing a tendency for certain philanthropies toward parochialism as well as a lack of generational diversity within the workforce, I could begin to imagine the potential for widescale quality-of-life improvements led, in part, by a new generation of service leaders. Over the next decade, I was intentional in my efforts to prepare myself for the opportunity to assert my own style of leadership. Altogether, I have learned that the institutions forming the core of the American social fabric also reinforce the historical legacy of how power has been distributed inequitably through legislative policy, thereby creating conditions that marginalize certain communities and benefit other ones. As a result, I believe that transforming society involves understanding the historical impact of events on our individual and collective well-being, in order to develop interventions that preserve and expand it. In the current social and political moment, I believe that philanthropy is poised to lead this process – and I believe GEO is ideal for executing this type of field-wide change strategy.

Unbeknownst to many, my experience working with GEO’s leadership did not begin with my onboarding earlier this summer, nor did it begin with the funder/grantee relationship that characterized the past few years in my role as Director of Racial Equity Initiatives at Borealis Philanthropy. Instead, I first came to know GEO intimately as a racial equity trainer for ABFE in 2014, when I was invited to meet with GEO’s racial equity task force to inform its internal learning agenda. Having already committed to cultivating an inclusive workplace culture to support diverse staff, the group explored various racial equity tools, definitions and common language to guide the journey.

Later, as a funder of GEO, I watched the team persevere through the early stages of “reinvention” to align its identity more deliberately with its intersectional and justice-focused values. At the 2018 National Conference in San Francisco, I cheered the organization when it declared that “effective = equitable”, and I noted the vulnerability demonstrated by participants in various plenaries and workshops that featured the integration of racial equity grantmaking practices – an often-unappreciated yet critical element of racial equity work. From that moment, I admired the audacity of GEO for taking on the formidable challenge of organizational transformation in such a public forum, and welcomed the opportunity to support them.

Most recently, I began witnessing a broad range of efforts that directly informed my decision to join GEO leadership. This includes the development of strategic goals that center peer-learning, partnering with thought leaders, mobilization of the network, strategic communications and eliminating racial disparities through smarter grantmaking practices. Additionally, GEO staff across the organization practice and engage in ongoing learning of equity-informed competencies such as IDI and bystander training. Also, the GEO staff and board have been working together to prioritize strategies for harm-reduction, healing, accountability and reconciliation as we actively cultivate an affirming workplace culture for employees. And this work extends to all members of the GEO community. Personally, as a participant in the national conference planning committee, I worked with a diverse mix of staff and members to discuss the implications of supporting a vision for GEO as an emotionally supportive workspace for shifting behaviors and grappling with the complexities that accompany racial equity practice. I was moved by the collective willingness to adopt as a guiding principle the preservation and deepening of connection between individual grantmakers, while simultaneously establishing agreements that allow for collective action, as well as accountability for being the most authentic and best version of ourselves among peers.

These are just a few examples that demonstrate GEO’s commitment over time to becoming a more equitable organization. Now, we are at a turning point, ready to respond to the needs of the current social and political moment, equipped with 20 years of best practices and committed to executing our multi-year strategy, which will bring together groups representing various backgrounds, disciplines and schools of thought to challenge and inform philanthropic practice in a manner that is both informed by our history and yet is forward-thinking. We will showcase leaders from exemplar organizations to discuss their processes and share their experiences to shape organizational priorities, culture and vision. We will cultivate pathways for peer learning and connection to reduce isolation, enhance effectiveness and promote inclusiveness for the broad spectrum of grantmakers operating in the field. Moreover, GEO will create space for members to examine emerging thinking for shaping culturally-responsive grantmaking practices to cultivate well-being and develop personal leadership practices that improve responsiveness to constituents and other stakeholders.

I’d like to acknowledge my appreciation for each staff and board member who has contributed to GEO’s change process over the past few years, in particular. Surely, it has been an experience filled with moments of exhilaration, ambiguity, disappointment and uncertainty of what happens next, all of which is common within organizations going through internal transformation. As I assume leadership of GEO, I am grateful, especially, for the current group of battle-tested leaders who remain on board to complete GEO’s racial equity content integration. Next, we look forward to entering a new phase of intentional practice and partnership with thought leaders to support the advancement of the field in new exciting ways.

I am humbled by the goodwill and encouragement offered by so many of you at this critical time in our nation’s history. Overall, we view the work of philanthropy as critical to supporting movements that promote thriving communities. With our internal practices refined and calibrated for facilitating change, I look forward to exploring how we might work together to achieve our mutual goals for stewardship, eliminating persistent disparities and realizing the aspirations of GEO’s founders and members regarding effective philanthropic practice in support of the communities we serve. I invite member trustees to engage your peers in conversations regarding how philanthropy might better eliminate disparities and increase impact within communities; GEO will foster an emotionally supportive space for framing equity-informed conversations. I also invite practitioners to more intentionally work toward a shared vision for equity-informed, justice-focused work, as it takes an aligned community of philanthropic organizations to effectively shift practice. GEO will be a workspace for meeting like-minded colleagues and exploring possibilities for coordinating their efforts within a structured supportive environment. Lastly, I ask that funders and other stakeholders comprising GEO’s base of supporters redouble their financial support of our efforts as a demonstration of solidarity, recognition of staff resiliency and support for the aspirational vision for change we are seeking to facilitate for the sector at-large.

Thank you for this opportunity to contribute my best to our collective efforts. I believe that we are the answer to the questions that characterize the current moment, and within our collective thoughts, ideas and aspirations, we contain exactly what is required to thrive. I invite you to join us at GEO on the journey to reveal this collective genius.

In the spirit of gratitude and community,


Marcus Walton

President & CEO

Marcus F. Walton joins GEO with over a decade of practice in both nonprofit management and the ontological learning model. He specializes in operationalizing conceptual frameworks; racial equity facilitation and training; leadership and management strategy; stakeholder engagement; program development and navigating philanthropy.

In his previous role as Director of Racial Equity Initiatives for Borealis Philanthropy, Marcus lead the Racial Equity Initiatives team and worked in partnership with 18 nationally-networked, philanthropy-serving grantee organizations to move past the “transactional” nature of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion to a unified movement which prioritizes strategies that close gaps in access to opportunity, resources and well-being (across all categories of gender, identity, sexual orientation, class and ability).

Before that, Marcus served as Vice President and Chief Operating Officer for the Association of Black Foundation Executives (ABFE), where he oversaw its operations, HR and staff development functions, including the overall strategy, conceptualization and administration of racial equity programming. Prior to ABFE, he combined his organizing experience and passion for public service in the role of Program Officer of Community Responsive Grantmaking with the Cleveland Foundation and Sr. Program Officer with Neighborhood Progress, Inc.

Marcus is a Newfield Network-trained ontological coach, with additional training in the Action Learning systems coaching model. He promotes coaching as a tool for personal mastery, racial equity & systems change, social sector excellence and transformation within marginalized communities.

Marcus received a Bachelor of Arts in History and Political Science from Bowling Green State University and has continued graduate studies in public administration at Georgia State University’s Andrew Young School of Public Policy as well as Rutgers University’s School of Public Affairs and Administration.