By Melinda Tuan
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!