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This Stuff is Hard but We Aren’t Alone: Perspectives on GEO from a Non-Grantmaking Technologist

Publication date: 
Saturday, March 1, 2014
Lisa RauChief Executive Officer, Confluence

The Setting

I was in good company as a newbie GEO conference attendee, given that there 47% of participants were first timers – but it was easy as everyone I met was friendly and welcoming to a person.  My firm is dedicated to technology capacity building in the foundation and nonprofit sector – and I hoped to take away some ideas and perspectives on how foundations can become more effective.

The setting was perfect; the waiters actor-esque; the logistics hitch-less. Los Angeles is a magical place – with a vibrant, dynamic nonprofit ecosystem that matches the diversity of the County itself. We felt welcomed by the local hosts who clearly enjoyed sharing the special qualities of the area. I was moved by our site visit to the Downtown Women’s Center - the vision of the organization and its concrete success in turning that vision into a reality, helping thousands of homeless women in downtown LA.

The Script

A favorite session was the encore / repeat performance of “Actions Speak Louder Than Words”. The week before, when cleaning up some papers on my desk, I came across a publication from Project Streamline, Drowning in Paperwork, Distracted from Purpose.  I re-read the publication, and I was reminded again of the quality and relevance of the advice offered by this group. Imagine my surprise when this and other publications were (re)summarized in this session. The session went “deep” into a couple of these recommendations – with a real-life example of a foundation that questioned the utility of financial information requested of grantees – the organization’s finances, as well as the grant proposal financial budget. While a good case was made for the former, as well as the latter in the context of a grant proposal for operating support, there are still a variety of useful functions a project-specific budget serves. 

Being a technologist, I enjoyed hearing about a foundation’s Sisyphean effort to catalogue all tools that can be used in a variety of collaborative settings in the “Technology Tools for Funder Collaborations” session. One resource I’ve found to be helpful for others who are involved in similar efforts is The Foundation Center’s resource, Harnessing Collaborative Tools. I see questions from foundations and other nonprofits along these lines all the time – what’s the “best” tool for project management? For collaborations? For intranets? This resource is an excellent starting point.

Other memorable takeaways for me included the short talk, “Is the Cult of Sustainability Sustainable” with Gregory Rodriguez. Seemingly without meaning to be a heretic, he questioned the goal of creating and maintaining “sustainable” nonprofits, chastised us for using jargon, and was a humorous voice of reason from the excellent perspective of a local, nonprofit executive.

During the plenary lunch on Tuesday, outgoing Meyer Foundation President and CEO Julie Rogers made an impression on us all with her understanding of the healthiness of moving on and openness to different points of view – in particular, about the role of taking a stand; acknowledging the position’s importance in the Washington, D.C. nonprofit community. This introspection, openness to other perspectives, and “authentic” communication spoke loudly as a model of effective grantmaking behaviors.

The session “Embedding Learning and Evaluation in the Grantmaking Cycle” got everyone in the standing-room-only room thinking. I left with a deeper appreciation for how hard this actually is. Which pretty much sums up my “big picture” takeaways from GEO:

This stuff is hard, but we aren’t alone.

The best part of GEO was the real, live people I met and interacted with throughout the conference. I look forward to being part of the 53% in two years.

Lisa Rau ([email protected])  is the Chief Executive Officer of Confluence – a 13-year-old, national firm that focuses on strategic technology consulting specifically for foundations and other nonprofits.


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