Reflecting on 20 Years of Progress at GEO's 2018 National Conference
This year, the GEO community celebrates 20 years of making meaningful progress together. Throughout the next year, you’ll hear directly from members on what they’re grappling with, what they’re excited about and why they keep coming back to our community. Check back here each month for a new Perspectives post, and watch you inbox for more details on special 20th Anniversary opportunities.
At the beginning of the year, we kicked off our first post in our 20th Anniversary series by highlighting some of the areas where we have made meaningful progress together and where we hope to continue deepening the power of our community. As we approach GEO’s 2018 National Conference, there are many opportunities for continued reflection.
I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with three of GEO’s founders to talk about the past 20 years. Barbara Kibbe, director of organizational effectiveness at the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, Jim Canales, president of the Barr Foundation, and Janine Lee, president and CEO of the Southeastern Council of Foundations, have been active members since GEO’s inception, and they shared their insights with me.
In the Beginning
When the original GEO members first met, they were simply interested in learning from each other about how to better build the capacity of nonprofits. “It was very modest at first,” said Barbara Kibbe. The Packard Foundation, where Kibbe worked at the time, was preparing for rapid growth. She was tasked with exploring how to best help nonprofits with management and governance concerns at a national and international level. At the time, she felt alone in this work and wanted to connect with others who were doing similar things. “That’s how it started,” she said. “Just me looking for colleagues and advice.”
After hosting a breakfast roundtable on capacity building at a Council on Foundations conference, Kibbe decided to hold a convening in Monterey on this topic. Janine Lee remembers this meeting well. “There were around 120 or so leaders who came, and we were just blown away that there was that much interest. The energy was palpable around really trying to figure out how we could be better grantmakers and strengthen the nonprofit sector to deliver on these outcomes that we all care so much about. I hosted the second meeting in Kansas City, and we had about 250 folks that came. Again, we were just kind of astounded. We knew we were on to something that really resonated with people.”
During an early board discussion, it became clear that we couldn’t sit back and promote practices for our grantees to be effective if we weren’t willing to pick up the mirror and ask ourselves what funders are doing that makes our grantees more or less effective.
As the GEO community grew, the focus also expanded beyond capacity building. Barbara has a specific recollection of one of the discussions that lead to this broader set of priority practices. “During an early board discussion, it became clear that we couldn’t sit back and promote practices for our grantees to be effective if we weren’t willing to pick up the mirror and ask ourselves what funders are doing that makes our grantees more or less effective. There was a call for us to look at both sides of the equation. That for me was a historic moment that told me that this community had legs.”
Learning in Community
That strong sense of community and shared vision is what drew many people, including Jim Canales, to GEO. “As a relatively young grantmaker when GEO was forming, Barbara became an important mentor for me. GEO became a place where people could learn from one another and, in particular, learn from those who had done this work longer and who were more deeply engaged in the work, because of their role, their own knowledge, their reading, or their experience.”
Jim still sees the GEO community playing this role today. “It’s definitely a place where people come together to learn, to talk about what isn’t working or what they’re challenged by, and how we can improve our own practice, which I think fosters the curiosity that is at the heart of the kinds of people who join the GEO community.”
Barbara echoed the importance of learning with other grantmakers. “I don’t think it’s too much to say that, without the growing community of GEO colleagues, I would have learned less and would have learned slower. I am richer for having this fabulous opportunity for exchange, and for having been pushed to think more clearly and more deeply about what I knew and what I would share.”
Making Progress on Meaningful Outcomes
While there has been significant progress over the last 20 years, we are always striving to achieve more. “My priority is that, as a community, GEO members are learning together and don’t become complacent or self-congratulatory,” Barbara shared.
We’re also moving beyond our core set of smarter grantmaking approaches to consider what makes it possible for organizations to adopt effective practices. “We cannot start thinking about effectiveness without talking about the culture of an organization and how that culture reflects the leadership,” said Janine. “Whatever that culture is the ultimate beneficiary of the grant — the people on the ground – will see it demonstrated. We all have to continue to be diligent about building and evolving an effective culture.”
The field has also been increasingly focused on how to make equity a critical element of our work in order to create positive results for the communities we serve. Jim agrees that this is an important focus for the GEO community moving forward. “There is no doubt that there’s more progress that we as a field need to make on equity, and there’s a whole lot more that we need to learn, and I think it’s great that GEO is creating a space for that learning to occur.”
GEO identified 20 years ago this opportunity for us to be greater than we were and has really worked to lift up the field to aspire toward fulfilling that promise. This is transformative work.
There is power and promise in our work together and our commitment to each other. As Janine shared, “While GEO may not see itself as a movement, that’s what it has become over the last 20 years. It has been a movement inside philanthropy to lift our work up to a much higher level - to its own promise, to its own calling. Philanthropy and all of the great things about it come down to one thing: love of humankind. That’s a much higher-level calling than we’re sometimes able to live up to – it’s aspirational. GEO identified 20 years ago this opportunity for us to be greater than we were and has really worked to lift up the field to aspire toward fulfilling that promise. This is transformative work.”
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