Nonprofit Sector

Generational Impact

August 18, 2021

Where We Go From Here

Marcus Walton, President and CEO, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO)

Marcus Walton, President and CEO, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO), brings us into a space of trust and healing to show how philanthropy can contribute to ending white supremacy and achieving racial equity. Building relationships, creating brave spaces, and centering communities will lead us – Walton hopes – on a path toward truth and reconciliation.

In this video:

  • How GEO is bringing grantmakers together in “brave spaces” to create progress on racial equity (00:25)
  • How building intentional relationships based on trust can help spark change. (02:29)
  • Why listening to communities and centering racial equity can lead to better outcomes. (05:11)
  • How Walton has moved over the years from simply navigating racism and inequity to dismantling it. (07:26)
  • How America can heal through truth and reconciliation. (09:16)
  • How philanthropy can provide the insight and expertise to advance reconciliation conversations. (11:18)


ANTONY: You don't see this, but I'm running this hundred-foot cable from my Fios box in the living room.

MARCUS: Yes, oh my God!



ANTONY: You said quite often in writing recently that knowing better is not doing better. You also wrote in June that hope alone has never proven a sufficient strategy for change. So how do you put those two things together, especially for your membership? And what are you doing to ensure that what we now know translates into real and sustained progress on racial equity for funders specifically?

MARCUS: One is that we're operating within a dominant cultural, or some would say a white supremacist, paradigm. So, there's language, there's norms, everything. It serves us to question and revisit what we have considered as normal before. One of those things is how we define the work and essentially what we're saying is like look, in this moment we're responding to something that has been 300-plus years in the making. So, if it takes time to get here, let's give ourselves time to respond to it, not anticipate that three months is going to respond to 300 years. More like 30 years – probably more than 30 years – is something that's reasonable. And at GEO we've committed to being a place where we create forums, we create spaces. I like to say brave spaces. The safe space is the space that kind of keeps you in your comfort zone. The brave space says, “No we're encouraging everyone. We're going to try some different things.” We'll use change management. We'll bring people together to learn alongside each other. And we'll bring in resources that help us address the culture that defines philanthropy – so, peer learning, cohort learning, small groups – over time. So we're really leaning on those facilitative skills and partnering with groups that are expert … with different expertise in change management, racial equity practice, to infuse those into the practice over time and support people's emotional well-being as much as their intellectual capacity.

ANTONY: I am really interested to explore the cultural traits that are dominant in philanthropy and what needs to change. And I'd say one of the most hopeful things that I've observed in the first few months after COVID started, was one of the cultural traits around deliberation and paralysis was suspended for many foundations. What are the other cultural traits that you have seen in the last few months that have shifted in hopeful ways, that perhaps could point a light at what is possible in the future if we sustain them?

MARCUS: Again, thank you Antony. I really want to even challenge what you experience not as urgency but as actually pulling the trigger. The strategies that I saw during the first month of this process were strategies that people had explored for years. There was no innovation – you know, something that we've never seen or heard of before – it just happened quicker. There was less red tape. So, the way in which I understand what you described is that there were somehow, the institutions – grantmaking institutions – removed the red tape, [making it] easier to do what was already well thought through, well organized. Just pull the trigger sooner. So I’m not sure exactly what to call that, but that thing I definitely noticed and encourage more of that. And let's just call it courage – or trust. And so this trust factor is real, because … and another saying we hear is that “change happens at the speed of trust.” Well that's true. One of the cultural components of philanthropy that has not been as explicit or perhaps even as valued, is the quality of the relationships that we form. Offline we do it as an implicit thing to enhance our outcomes, but I would say that the development – the intentional cultivation of relationships that are based on trust – facilitate the kinds of decision-making that you just described. And not only that, but philanthropy has taken this notion of “we're all in this together,” focusing on relationships, and engaged communities in a different way. So having conversations – and community engagement is one of the core principles of racial equity. Involve the people that we're serving in the design process, the implementation process, and on the back end to make sense of what we've done.

ANTONY: So this gets the point about the importance of listening to the communities that grantmakers seek to serve. You've talked about this for years, long before you were at GEO: the importance of both listening to communities and funding organizations led by community members. Why is that so important – and has always been important? And why is it particularly important now?

MARCUS: By listening to communities – keeping our ear to the ground, so to speak – we always have a sense of what is actually working – what's not working perhaps more importantly. And people, from my experience, and I'm sure yours, they are not shy to tell you when something is not working. But it keeps us honest. For me, it keeps us as a sector grounded in the principles that underlie and define racial equity practice. And that is like disaggregating our data to appreciate the impact of anything that we're developing in terms of initiatives as a foundation. That includes engaging the communities directly from the onset and keeping them connected whether it's through focus groups or town hall, policy, back mapping. There's all types of different strategies to keep the process going and informed by community. Why? Because, at the end of the day, the historical nature of the disparities that face us are existing policies and practices. The disparities in communities were not created by the people living in those communities, and because of that, it serves us to be able to identify to what extent racially discriminatory policies – or discriminatory policies of any type – really underpin the situation, or whether it's something else. And we just don't check every time. We're not systematic about checking to what extent policy is driving this disparity in order to identify an intervention that undoes what has been done. And listening is one of the critical components that allows us to do that.

ANTONY: Do you think part of that is the ability to tell more of the truth to each other? It does strike me that both personally within my organization, NFF, and more generally in the field, that African American leaders especially just seem to be more comfortable or confident to tell the truth outside of what might have been more sort of insider conversations. It seems like there's been a breakthrough of what's always been an insider conversation now into the mainstream. And perhaps – I would also frame it as an unwillingness to be coy anymore because of the stakes that have been revealed to be so high. Have you felt that personally – not that you've ever been shy to tell the truth?

MARCUS: I have.

ANTONY: So, have you felt a shift in terms of your own confidence?

MARCUS: Yeah, one hundred percent. Antony, I love how you characterize it. I would describe that as: for my entire career I have learned to navigate racism, navigate inequity. Now, what you described and how I feel, now I'm dismantling it. It is the difference between I've accepted how things are. I've pushed here. I push there. I push here. There's a little space here. I'm going to move more in this direction. And it's more of an ebb and flow. And now if there's a wall we just push through. I'm free! I'm not trying to figure out how to do X, Y, or Z. I'm engaged in this conversation with you as Marcus Walton, human being, and we’ve moved totally beyond any construct: social, political, you name it. And we're just engaging. We're in it. So now I can bring all of the insights and thoughts that I've collected over the years and never had a platform to share before.

ANTONY: You wrote in June that we heal ourselves when we create out of rage.


ANTONY: What are you most hopeful about that is going to get created out of the rage of the last few months that others perhaps are overlooking?

MARCUS: Man, it almost makes me nervous to say this out loud. That's how vulnerable this disclosure is. But the belief – what I feel – is that we could actually produce the generational impact to respond to generational harm. I actually believe that the rage alone will destroy. So the energy of rage is important because there's plenty of stuff that we're talking about: dismantling, disruption – disrupting, destroying. But we also want to create. And so it's through expressing the rage – like something is on the other side of the rage and we don't know what that is unless we allow ourselves to express that in a way that's constructive. So, the constructive expression of rage produces healing. Again, all of the other cultures that came before us figured this out and have written about it. But, at the end of the day what I really want is reconciliation. I think that's what's possible now, Antony – to name the thing – is reconciliation in this country for atrocities that started with indigenous populations and were perfected on Black populations enslaved to drive the economy. And there's never been a moment to scale similar to South Africa. You and I have spoken about this in private spaces. I'm making it public. South African truth and reconciliation-style circles activities in this country is how I want to spend my last years and I believe it's possible now.

ANTONY: What would you want the people who have influence over philanthropy listening to this conversation to do differently to support that kind of movement that would have to happen to see that reconciliation take place?

MARCUS: Philanthropy to me represents a critical mass of professional conveners. So I mean we have it down pat. We've invested probably hundreds of millions of dollars in conferences, all of the different spaces, to generate conversations that produce a variety of different outcomes. I see philanthropy as providing that kind of insight and expertise in a way that becomes the infrastructure for those reconciliation conversations. Setting the context for an American reconciliation experience would take philanthropy into a space I don't know that it has ever experienced before. This transforms everyone's experience in this country, because quite frankly I believe the bar is too low for all of us, Antony, especially people who have been able to benefit from the privileges of the construct of whiteness. And so the insidiousness of it is that we're all being played, and we're all playing into it in ways that are just counterproductive to the overall experience. So, in the same way that people feel like these are the worst of times, that these are the most contentious of time, I believe that this might be the dark before the dawn.


Watch more episodes of Where We Go From Here.