The Obstacle is the Path

  • By Marcus Walton (ex officio), April 28, 2020

For many of us, 2020 has been a blur, full of change, requiring all the energy we can muster to move through various forms of adversity and make sense of it all. Indeed, the obstacles have been numerous. From the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have heard from many throughout the GEO community that being effective in our work has felt especially hard, requiring resolve to show up daily to confront the next moment without a clear sense of what we are up against or how long the challenges will last, and seeing the severity of the needs across our communities. Some among us have privately suffered the intense discomfort of quiet desperation as a result of not knowing how to support ourselves or the people in our stewardship.

If this resonates, then we invite you to redouble your efforts to take advantage of the resources within the GEO community; either re-discovering or discovering for the first time how the people and information may be helpful for preserving your own well-being while tending effectively to the needs of grantees, colleagues, or loved ones for whom you may represent an essential lifeline. Additionally, we encourage you to suspend the urge to rush into action out of a natural desire to want to “fix” the situation, appreciating that doing so may produce unintended consequences that actually curtail our collective ability to re-imagine a different set of possibilities for transforming the culture that shapes traditional grantmaking norms and practices.

In response to lingering feelings of fear or hopelessness, it is a common reflex to seek control, which only reinforces the dominant mindset that violently excludes, disenfranchises and separates us from each other despite our shared fates as human beings. Recognizing this as emotional rather than logical in nature, we offer instead the idea that making sure to reflect, revisit our values, and learn in community with others allows us to act with intentionality for the long term—which for grantmakers seeking to create lasting change is going to mean giving up control rather than seeking more of it.

Like so many others, there have been times throughout this period where I have felt emotionally drained and physically fatigued as I have tried to make sense of the crises unfolding all around us. And like so many others, I have had to put my personal disappointments into context. As a new leader at GEO, I was looking forward to a year of engaging members and partners at events in locations around the country—including Boston, where our National Conference was set to occur this week. As we all have, I have had to re-envision what success this year will look like, and what it will require I do differently.

The saving grace has been the supportive groups of people to which I belong, including my circle of friends and family as well as GEO members, partners, board and staff, who grant me space to lead with vulnerability—accepting the limitations of control in any situation enough to give myself permission to express my thoughts and emotions fully—as a genuine response to it. By having these spaces to learn and act with others, I am able to honor both who I am as well as any contributions I may offer, which grounds and protects me against the debilitating effects that can spiral into withdrawal, personal isolation and unhealthy anxiety.

For a similar reason, the GEO community exists as reassurance that you are never alone. We welcome you to join us as we breathe deeply, slow down/be present and move through this challenge together with the grounding assurance of peers and colleagues. In the same way that acceptance of the current circumstances (recognizing that they will change), acknowledging related feelings, and expressing each emotion fully (without holding back) are the steps that have reliably empowered me to cut through emotional clutter and respond with whatever past situations uniquely required, connecting with peers can offer relief from distraction and self-doubt as you cultivate mindsets of openness, responsiveness and adaptiveness to learn from what is happening around you. As your circle of support, the GEO community can reflect back to you the common human experience and invite consideration of the compassion required to move through any moment, including this one, with grace. Operationally, we express this as a commitment to equity, where grantmakers are actively:

  • Engaging people from the communities we intend to serve to inform the design and prioritization of programs and strategies;
  • Collecting data that is informed by the experiences of communities and people working with them and disaggregating it across a variety of variables, including race, to tell the most nuanced story of impact;
  • Conducting historical analyses of prevailing disparities and how they came to be over time; and
  • Shedding outdated policies and practices that erode trust or do not align with organizational values.

Overall, this highlights the wisdom of the ancient Zen principle: “The obstacle is the path”, which prompts me to engage life as the backdrop for learning through experience, and operate as a lifelong learner equipped with the agency to shape the quality of each encounter in a generative fulfilling manner.

Amidst the circumstances associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become apparent to me that being able to respond affirmatively to moments like this one, which challenge our most essential understanding of self and society, is both the current challenge and ongoing work of philanthropy. GEO remains as committed as ever to realizing our fullest collective potential. Thank you in advance for your energy and commitment.

Keep taking care,


Marcus Walton (ex officio)

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.