Is Philanthropy Ready? End of Year Reflections from GEO President & CEO, Marcus Walton

  • By Marcus Walton, December 10, 2021

After one of the busiest and richest Fall conference seasons in recent memory, I have found it useful to create space for making sense of the events from the previous year. This exercise includes reconnecting with feelings of joy and appreciation; acknowledging any patterns, themes or personal habits; recalling any lessons for being more effective and fulfilled in the work of advancing social progress; and releasing any mindsets or attitudes that may no longer contribute to our collective thriving. Through this simple act, I am reminded of my connection to something bigger than myself as well as the critical value of community in helping me find meaning and purpose in my endeavors.

Through your connection to the efforts of the GEO community, the labor invested into various experiences continues to reinforce the fundamental understanding for our industry that the most meaningful effective philanthropic endeavors are equity-based and community-driven. We have learned that the grantmakers who generate the most impact with limited resources use their power as a convener/connector, an influential voice and a capital investor to partner with the people most directly impacted by any issue to develop strategies for addressing them – especially in a manner that responds to persistent patterns of inequity caused by the cumulative impact of policies or practices that deter social progress.

Two years into my tenure as GEO’s CEO, it occurs to me that I am ending the year as I started: drawing from the GEO community’s collective genius to proceed humbly through the generation-long journey of racial equity leadership with “more curiosity, less certainty.” While it is true that there are mixed emotions associated with unmet expectations that the pandemic would be behind us by now, grantmakers met uncertainty with a growing desire to improve conditions within our institutional homes in a manner that reflects our values. I enjoy the memories of partnering with colleagues at PEAK Grantmaking, BoardSource and Northern California Grantmakers – along with many others – to learn about trends from leaders within our networks, exchange insights for responding to the most pressing issues of the moment and align our thinking about strategies for generating optimal impact. Within GEO, I look fondly on the experiences of interactive and resource-rich webinars, workshops and the 2020-2021 Change Leaders in Philanthropy cohort.

The thought that continues to serve me as I consider possibilities for 2022 is to “Give up the notion that you know better!”, which was offered during the closing plenary of the 2021 GEO Learning Conference with Dr. Brittany Lewis of Research in Action, Neeraj Mehta of the McKnight Foundation and Leslie E. Redmond, an activist and attorney. While the conference seems eons from where we are now, these words prompt a series of critical questions with which grantmakers must grapple if we are in fact committed to moving beyond business-as-usual in philanthropic culture and practice. What counts as knowledge and whose questions are we asking, for instance? Or how are we investing in structural change? Lastly, what is stopping us from summoning the courage to explore the sources of any resistance and supporting ourselves through any complexity? These questions are as relevant today as they were when our plenary speakers introduced them to us. They are a constant reminder that a return to normalcy is not the end game for our collective striving.

As a result of GEO’s internal equity efforts to better align our work culture with our values, we experienced how the lure of normalcy is its ability to sooth, particularly after tough periods of discontent and disruption. However, your efforts, as a diverse group of philanthropic actors who collectively promote the vision of an actively engaged pluralistic society where we can all thrive, heightens our awareness as a network committed to transforming philanthropic culture and practices that too much is at stake to return to the creature comforts of conventionalism. For too long, the bar for effective stewardship has been set too low, and we can do better!

As the pandemic lingers, the glaring truth is that not all of us have come out of the global health crisis in equal fashion. From financial distress to disparate health outcomes and more, so many in our society, in our own communities, still have not found steady ground upon which to build (or rebuild). The 2021 Learning Conference highlighted that grantmakers are in fact well-positioned to support community needs, insofar as we are willing to conduct institutional philanthropy in a manner that reflects the best of community philanthropy practices, partnering closely with affected communities and centering the experiences of the full range of cultural identities represented among those populations. So, the question remains: is philanthropy ready to move from the way we were, to the way we aspire to be – how society is calling us to be?

Of course, this question does not go without its challenges. As grantmakers, we must wrestle with the uncomfortable realization that solutions and responses can shift because the challenges that nonprofits and communities face, too, change over time. This takes courage: to admit that we may not always know what nonprofits and communities need to thrive. But if we listen deeply and commit to collaboration with partners and peers, real change is possible. And that is the gap I believe GEO can bridge.

GEO convenings, webinars and learning networks are, at the root, spaces for grantmakers to contribute their insights to benefit a collective re-imagining of how institutional philanthropy can be used as a lever for social progress. Through intimate conversation, we are moving towards tackling big questions together.

Leading with Curiosity: Are we asking why? Revisit cemented practices with new eyes and ask why. Are you collecting and processing information because that is how it has always been done or because it is necessary to advance the mission? Consider the systems and practices that have been put in place. Do they meet the need or create distance between the foundation and its intended impact?

Leading with Equity: Are we being emergent? No community is a monolith. The solutions we co-create with our partners must always consider the context, and history, of the communities nonprofits serve. The more precise we can be with the data we gather and share, the more specific our responses can be.

Leading Responsively: Are we moving fast enough? Community has long been telling us what they know, but we are often reluctant to pivot without outside research, information, data. 2020 showed us that philanthropy can change quickly – more general operating grants, changing application requirements, increasing flexibility. How can we continue to change at the speed of community – not just in times of emergency, but always?

While we may not always know better, we can do better. The 2021 Learning Conference – and so many other GEO spaces – provided the forum to be reflective and creative, together. And now, moving into the new year, we can continue applying all that we have learned to our work, internally and externally.

On behalf of the team at GEO, we thank you for your energy, commitment and unwavering leadership. We wish you and your loved ones peace, ease and optimal wellbeing.



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.