Getting All the Players at the Table in Philanthropy

Tactical Philanthropy is currently covering the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations conference with the help of a blog team. This is a guest post by Victoria Vrana of Venture Philanthropy Partners.

By Victoria Vrana

clip_image001My first job after I graduated from college was with a teeny, tiny international nonprofit – an NGO. I was the first hired employee. I remember when our “grantmakers” came for a “site visit”. We would clean the office like crazy. Buy coffee. Bring in plants from home. Really spruce things up.

Those foundation officers generated such a mystique. The idea of a conference full of grantmakers evoked even more mystery. What could they all be talking about? Was it all just some giant plot or spa/golf trip? I would have been shocked to discover that one of the things grantmakers talk about the most when they are together is nonprofits. How to pick them. How to make better grants to them. How to communicate with them. How to measure them. How to have a successful site visit with them (Tip: compliment them on the coffee and plants).

So here at the GEO conference, many years later, I’m struck by that “behind the velvet curtain” feeling again. No Dorothy, there is no wizard – there are just a bunch of well-meaning people talking about nonprofits. O.k. – not just talking about nonprofits, but still, enough to make me miss them.

Don’t get me wrong – GEO obviously has a huge commitment to fostering the dialogue between and among grantmakers and grantees, and have gone to great efforts to incorporate nonprofit experience and perspective throughout this conference.

And I’m a big believer in channels and targeted conversations. My DC working mom listserve is still one of the most valuable conversation “channels” in which I participate. So this “channel” conversation of (mostly) grantmakers is needed and important.

But I still get uncomfortable in any group when we are constantly talking about people/orgs who aren’t there. And today’s amazing plenary about empathy, about organizations and companies performing most effectively when they have complete empathy with their “customers”, reminded me even more of the nonprofit leaders, the social entrepreneurs, and of course the community members who aren’t in this conversation.

I can already tell from half at day at this conference that I will come back rejuvenated, full of ideas and strategies and tools and new connections to help me in my every day work. But I am absolutely convinced that to change the social sector and ultimately increase the rate of social change, we need all the players at the table. And there are still very few places to have that shared conversation.

Tell me the ones you know about and/or if you’re one of the participants at GEO who is not a “grantmaker”, I’d love to hear about your experience.


  1. Mazarine says:

    What I would like to see at these conversations is not just grantmakers talking to each other, but two or three people who have been helped by the nonprofit around the table. They should require more people from different levels of the organization to be there, to ask them what they think.

    I want to say that Meyer Memorial Trust invited me to their connectipedia meeting, and I was the only nonprofit rep there. I felt pretty happy that they had included me. Let’s have less separation, and more acknowledgment and conversation from all levels!

    This will make more effective grants.


  2. Mazarine — I absolutely agree. We need to break down more of these silos. I also think the public sector folks should be in the conversation, at local, state and federal levels.

    Does anyone have examples of regular (annual?) gatherings that allow for this kind of cross-sectoral brainstorming? To me — SOCAP had more of the funder/intermediary/nonprofit-socialenterprise-social entrepreneur connection, but didn’t address Mazarine’s point at all.

    Maybe some of these happen locally?