An Outsider at a Philanthropy Tribe Meeting

Tactical Philanthropy is currently covering the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations conference with the help of a blog team. This is a guest post by Carla Javits of REDF.

By Carla Javits

image Since I have never worked for a foundation, although the nonprofit I lead now used to be one, I always experience foundation conferences as something of an outsider, part visitor from a neighboring tribe. A lot of it is familiar, though, because, as they say, ‘some of my best friends….’ and colleagues are in philanthropy, and I have had the ‘funder’ experience working in grant-making intermediaries and public agencies for more than two decades. So it’s not like philanthropy is foreign to me.

Nonetheless, grant-maker gatherings are a contrast with nonprofit get-togethers, which are a cross between revival meetings, the enormous stress that accompanies running these precariously funded groups, and fundraising bull sessions.

People who work at and lead foundations deal with stress like everyone does – and had more than their share last year with the stock market meltdown – but the general tenor of foundation conferences is usually more about exploration of ideas than angst.

Being at GEO this year got me thinking about the tribal nature of other gatherings I attend, how it feels to be an ‘outsider’ or an ‘insider’, and what that means in terms of getting the work done together. If we accept the premise — bubbling up from all quarters — about the centrality of ‘networks’ to accomplish great things in these times, how do we connect across the spoken and unspoken differences between us.

There’s a different feel, culture, set of assumptions, and language when you’re in a room with people who work in foundations, or with people who work for government agencies, people who are employed at for profit companies, or at nonprofits, large and small.

We gravitate to the comfortable familiarity of our own tribe, and there are many reasons to do so. We learn from one another, support and help each other. We look through a similar lens.

But to move the needle on major issues requires work across tribes – outside of our safety zones. And we have relatively few gatherings with more than token attendance of people from other arenas. The challenges, discomfort, confusion, and uncertainty that can breed also sparks new connections, relationships, and ideas. And it can be a lot of fun.

A focus of GEO is admirably about building the capacity of nonprofits to deliver. Multiple sectors have a lot to offer one another in solving the riddle of strengthening nonprofit capacity. As several speakers at GEO have said – foundation funding is only about 3% of nonprofit funding – government is the majority funder. Clearly they have a huge stake in nonprofit capacity, but what are they doing about it.

What arenas have you been in lately with other ‘tribes’ where you were challenged, but also moved forward? How can we create more of these situations? Are you motivated to do that?


  1. Jeff Jackson says:

    Thanks for your comments Carla. They resonate well with my way of working with non-profits, communities and foundations over the past 25 years. When it comes to networks – and even organizations that don’t yet see themselves as networks or networked – it makes complete sense to not be myopic with our own tribes and to belong to as many as add value. Some say it takes time to network or to collaborate; others say, it takes more time not to. Some say we need to focus; others say we need to focus and stay open to new ideas at the same time. Some say we need to be able to switch hats quickly; I say we need to be able to wear multiple hats simultaneously (as funny as it might look). When in healthcare, I use to attend business conferences and community organizing conferences to spread out some. I hope there are many others like you at GEO this year that are not directly from the foundation world and I hope your modeling provides inspiration for others of us to add a “left-field” conference or network or group or language to our learning path in the coming year.

  2. Carla Javits says:

    The multiple funny hats is definitely where it’s at. Coming to REDF, I have met many more people from the business community than I ever knew before, and I have not only learned a lot, but also formed beneficial relationships that have greatly strengthened our work. Support can come from sources that at first are hard to fully understand.