Thoughts from the GEO Conference

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It’s not everyday one attends a conference that features a soundtrack with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope.

As an old movie buff* I got a kick out of the fact that that the plenary facilitator used this song about Teamwork to bring us back together from our small working groups during the recent Grantmakers for Effective Organizations Collaboration Conference.

(*I hesitate to use the word aficionado, since Thanksgiving with my family always consists of at least one conversation involving “What do you mean you’ve never seen <insert name of classic western, film noir, musical etc.> Is that possible?”)

It’s not just a catchy tune, – it’s good advice on a challenge many of us face.

Rest assured that if you’re struggling with collaboration, you aren’t alone. One of the biggest take-aways from the conference is that collaboration takes constant work and stewardship – even for long standing collaborations, even for projects you’ve been doing a long time.   Sometimes collaborations alternate between humming along fantastically and being efforts that require careful cultivation and a great deal of energy.   So why put in so much effort?  Everyone concurred that, when successful, collaborations yield better results and more far-reaching impact than solo efforts.

There were several interesting specific stories shared at the conference about improving collaborations, but at the highest level it comes down to:

  • Trust – you need to build trust in the group and that takes…
  • Patience – it takes time to build trust, time to get everyone on the same page and to do that you need…
  • Communication – to make sure you’re truly aligned and you then need…
  • Flexibility – because what you may learn your partners need is not what you went into the process thinking it would look like; so many people sharing case studies said “this looks nothing like I thought it would” or “this looks nothing like it did when we started” but where it went (and how it continued to evolve) was key to progressing towards a shared goal.

Sounds just like your average grant, yes? Many of these things are countercultural in our desire for a move-fast, drive-for-results nonprofit culture.  Learning how to cultivate these four traits so that we can achieve more, together, takes awareness and support from colleagues.

Support came partly in the form of funders and nonprofits participating in either funder collaboratives or funder/nonprofit collaboratives sharing their stories as case studies. One of the breakout sessions, featured as Josh Miller of Jim Joseph Foundation and Lisa Farber Miller of Rose Community Foundation presenting on the Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Funder Collaborative. (You can view a case study of the Collaboration here; Josh and Lisa also shared additional insights post-case study and thoughts on what’s next as the collaboration evolves.) It was a thrill to have our community share a very sophisticated effort to make change as a model for the wider nonprofit community.

In addition, the conference featured a substantial presence from the Jewish community with one or more staff attending from: Jim Joseph Foundation, Rose Community Foundation, Emmanuel J. Friedman Philanthropies, Jewish Funders Network, The Charles & Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, and the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles. The opportunity to have colleagues approaching collaboration with thoughtfulness and reflection is a wonderful sign of where our community is going.

Overall, the conference was incredibly well put together – in just a little over a day and a half the organizers packed in a variety of sessions and “home teams” – a small group of folks who shared learnings from the conference, stories about personal collaboration successes and challenges, and a commitment to accountability – partners within the team were asked to commit to specific actions and to be back in touch in January 2016 to discuss progress.

You can view GEO’s new publication “Building Collaboration from the Inside Out”

I strongly encourage fellow funders to check out GEO’s resources, and while nonprofit organizations are not eligible for GEO membership, GEO’s online resources can be valuable for understanding what kind of support you need from your funders, how to build better relationships with funders and partners, and provide an expert reference point when collaborating with funders in order to help guide us all towards collaborative relationships and structures that are more robust, fulfilling, and productive.

Lessons from a Reviewer’s Chair

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It’s that time of year again – the time of year I think of as “Slingshot Season.” For me and for nearly 100 colleagues who are Slingshot evaluators, the applications have landed in our inboxes and we are diving into the work of reviewing. Each year, I’m momentarily overwhelmed (why did I think it was a good idea to take on an additional day of reading and analysis!) but that feeling quickly dissipates once I begin. Like many other foundation professionals, I occasionally read applications for fellowships and other forms of recognition. It is a special opportunity.

Here are 8 thoughts that come out of that process: 4 reminders for my reviewing colleagues and 4 bits of advice and encouragement for the applicants. Continue reading

When, how, why to ask – our theory of questions

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This post was inspired by reflections on Mamie Kanfer Stewart’s ELI Talk.

As children we were taught “there’s no such thing as a stupid question.” Today, thanks to the story of Nobel Laureate Isidor I. Rabi, many parents are now inspired by his mother’s example and, in an effort to foster children who are creative and critical thinkers ask “Did you ask a good question today?” instead of “What did you do today?”

did you ask a good question

But we can also go too far, making a fetish out of asking questions, even and especially the good ones. Continue reading