Building the Capacity of the Capacity Builders

Tactical Philanthropy is currently covering the Grantmakers for Effective Organization conference with the help of a blog team. This is a guest post by Melinda Tuan of Melinda Tuan Consulting.

By Melinda Tuan

image Welcome to my first ever blog! I’m composing this from my home office where I do most of my work as an independent consultant in philanthropy. I’ve been thinking a lot about GEO, and the GEO conferences in particular, in anticipation of next week in Pittsburgh. For me, attending the GEO conference always feels like coming home; a professional but also very personal home.

I feel like I’ve been “growing up” in philanthropy along with GEO. I began my career in philanthropy in the summer of 1997 when I helped co-found REDF to build the capacity of nonprofit organizations to run social enterprises to employ formerly homeless individuals. I didn’t really think of myself as being involved in “philanthropy” or “capacity-building” at the time; I was just passionate about helping nonprofits be more effective in serving the poor. In that same summer, a few forward-thinking foundations began promoting organizational effectiveness for nonprofits. Their conversations led to the creation of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) and the first GEO conference in 1998.

Both GEO and I have grown and expanded the scope of our work and our understanding of organizational effectiveness in the past decade plus. Back in 1998, GEO began with a focus on helping grantmakers improve nonprofit effectiveness through capacity building. Since then, GEO has expanded its work to include improving grantmaker effectiveness; measuring the impact of organizational effectiveness grantmaking; and building the capacity of the philanthropic sector as a whole. The GEO conference is larger, growing from 120 participants in 1998 to over 500 expected in 2010. GEO’s vision is bigger – and will continue to grow as the philanthropic sector increases in size and reach.

Similarly, I’ve grown over time (well, hopefully not in size, but in other ways!) and the scope of my work has expanded. In 2002, my GEO conference nametag read: “Melinda Tuan – REDF”. In 2006, it said – “Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors”. When you see me next week in 2010, I will be sporting a nametag with: – “Impact Planning & Improvement, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation”. I joke with my friends that my career has transitioned from working directly in nonprofits; to funding nonprofits; to consulting to funders of nonprofits; to consulting to a consulting group within a funder that funds nonprofits. How much further from the ultimate beneficiaries of our work can I get???

While I may laugh about my career progression, I’ve also come to the conclusion that it is extremely important to build the capacity of the capacity builders. Without a strong philanthropic sector, there cannot be a strong nonprofit sector. And without a strong nonprofit sector, many people–and especially the people at the margins of society about whom I care so much—will suffer. GEO’s 2010 conference theme is “Unleashing Philanthropy’s Potential: Smarter Grantmaking for Better Results.” I’m looking forward to listening and learning about how I can be a part of unleashing philanthropy’s potential—and to that awesome feeling of coming home again!


  1. Thanks, Melinda, for getting the GEO blogging started! I look forward to blogging with you over the next few days. I appreciated the joke about your career taking you further and further away from the beneficiaries. Like most good jokes, it’s only funny because it’s partly true. In organized philanthropy, our distance from the beneficiaries is an occupational hazard that we need to recognize and mitigate. At conferences like GEO, I try to go to sessions that share ideas about minimizing that distance and learning from grantees and end-beneficiaries. The opening plenary on Monday, about building empathy for the communities we serve, should be a good start. At 3:00 on Monday, there’s a session on effective grantmaker-grantee relations, which should also be relevant for this particular challenge (and I’m not mentioning it just because Sean’s on the panel!) I’ll probably blog about one of these sessions and I look forward to reading everyone else’s insights.

  2. John H says:

    I’ve only recently learned about Tactical Philanthropy and the GEO conference. So far I’m really enjoying following the posts, thanks to all the bloggers!

    Like Daniel I loved Melinda’s story about her career progression. As someone towards the beginning of my career in nonprofits it speaks to a tension I feel; that between doing the work and working on the system that does the work. I’m beginning to recognize certain organizations that embrace this tension and use it to drive their work from the ground-up.

    I’m happy to know of the growing support for nonprofits and even support for those who support nonprofits. As the work of the sector grows in both scale and complexity our organizations will be challenged on multiple levels. An active network of support for agencies, funders, and consultants will help ensure we’re all ready to take on the challenges to come.

  3. Melinda Tuan says:

    Thanks Daniel and John for your comments. It is a huge challenge to stay grounded (that is, if one was grounded to begin with!) when engaged in this work. I remember being warned when I left REDF that I’d find out who my true friends were once I was no longer connected to the money. There were a few surprises then but overall I was pleased to find that most people still returned my phone calls and emails as quickly as before. I know that’s different from the grantor/grantee relationship kind of groundedness but it is all related isn’t it?

    I’ve continued to ponder how to stay grounded with the grantee perspective. At REDF it was so much easier because I could have meetings at our grantee’s offices and visit the social enterprises we supported and befriend the homeless youth. I could volunteer my time with some of our grantees off-work hours. There were so many avenues through which I could at least try to be in the reality of the nonprofits and people I cared about.

    Now, especially as a consultant working from home, it’s very difficult to stay connected. One way is to continue to volunteer with smaller nonprofit organizations so I can be reminded that no, they don’t have an extra desk/phone/office where I can take a phone call. And yes, it is helpful if I can bring my own set of markers and flipchart paper to meetings. Another way to have a reality check is in my friendships with people who are running nonprofits and hearing directly from them about what their challenges are on a daily basis.

    Any other ideas???

  4. Great post Melinda! Few people are capable of being reflective, informative, and humorous in a blog post about (of all things) philanthropy.

    As you rightly point out, the scope and scale of the philanthropic space is growing. And the challenge of wrapping our arms around its evolving complexities, tensions, and innovations in order to maximize our effectiveness will only continue to grow. Daunting as it may seem, thoughtful posts like yours provide both levity and insight. Well done!