Marcus Walton

A Lesson in Leadership: An Interview with GEO CEO Marcus Walton

04/27/2020 | 7 mins

Summary

Marcus Walton brings deep racial equity work experience and an inclusive approach to leadership to his new role as the CEO of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO). With these strengths, he aims to help GEO and its members lean further into equitable philanthropic practices.

Marcus Walton was living his leadership philosophy.

A technology failure had thrown an embarrassing delay into the start of the interview we did with Walton in February for this story. Instead of growing impatient or suggesting to reschedule, he offered to set up his own dial-in line to record the call. It was a concrete example of his belief that “leadership is all about how you respond to moments.” In this moment, he put everyone at ease and set the tone for a conversation that will last long beyond this piece.

As the new CEO of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO), Walton knows there will be many such moments to come. In the role, he’ll guide the organization’s work, supporting the GEO team and its membership of more than 6,000 grantmakers around the world while also helping GEO lean further into the equity goals it established for itself two years ago.

Today, this role is even more complex, in light of the COVID-19 crisis. “It serves the grantmaking community as a whole to revisit our assumptions about what is possible and ask how we can shift our thinking to be of greater service to nonprofits and others serving communities during—and beyond—the crisis,” Marcus shares. “We are happy to see grantmakers recognizing the importance of this moment by adopting many of the principles that GEO has emphasized for years around more effective grantmaking, but we have to understand that these are not temporary solutions. I invite everyone who endeavors to foster thriving communities to scrap any outdated policies that erode trust, suspend any urge to operate in isolation, and summon our collective courage to adopt these approaches for the long-haul to shape how we interact with our grantee partners.”

Ready for the Challenges Ahead

My main job is to model vulnerability to the highest degree possible, in order to generate the buy-in and trust that facilitates progress.

In his former role—co-director for racial equity initiatives at Borealis Philanthropy—he found many opportunities to pressure test his thinking on racial equity as he led trainings as a consultant for grantmakers around the nation. At GEO, he’ll bring what he’s learned to a wider audience of grantmakers who are at various stages in their equity journeys—a task that he knows will require patience as well as an inclusive and creative approach to leadership. Marcus points to his experiences getting to this point that have made him ready for the challenges ahead and notes that his leadership style has evolved in two very specific ways that should be helpful. “First, I'm very intentional about incorporating a racial equity lens into my analysis. And by that I mean I look at historical context. It's never just about what's happening now in housing or with education, without understanding the policy backstory that has contributed to the current scenario,” he says.

The other thing he’s learned, he says, is the value of a willingness to be judged by people with different points of view. Taking that risk, he notes, is important. “My main job is to model vulnerability to the highest degree possible, in order to generate the buy-in and trust that facilitates progress.”

Achieving equity in giving may not come easily or quickly. He believes, however, that philanthropy is by definition primed for the conversation.

If you look up ‘philanthropy,’ it is love of all humankind. Humanity is at the core of grantmaking, and any meaningful grantmaking process intends to uplift and improve the conditions of our collective humanity.

“If you look up ‘philanthropy,’ it is love of all humankind. Humanity is at the core of grantmaking, and any meaningful grantmaking process intends to uplift and improve the conditions of our collective humanity,” he says. And for that grantmaking process to be most effective, it must listen to the ones it seeks to serve. “A process for good grantmaking includes being responsive. It includes building upon the insights and the assets within communities that we're serving, and creating opportunities for the people who are living with those experiences to contribute their genius to any design or implementation process for an intervention.”

Without that kind of collaboration, he says, it will be difficult to achieve more equitable giving. “If I look at a grantee,” he continues, “I'm saying, ‘How are you fairing compared to your peers within this community, and what are your particular needs, in order for you to reach a standard of excellence that we all aspire for? How do we get to a place of equals thriving?'”

Efficiency is not our friend when approaching a multifaceted set of dynamics impacting communities.

Marcus says to reach that point, it will take deeper conversations and a willingness for funders and their grantees to “complicate the analysis” rather than seeking simple answers to difficult questions that will require nuanced interventions. “Efficiency is not our friend when approaching a multifaceted set of dynamics impacting communities,” he cautions. “We actually want to allow ourselves the appropriate amount of time and attention—and maybe even resource investment—to comprehensively respond to each of the different layers. And that even includes prioritizing the causal factors over the more symptomatic ones. Let's prioritize interrogation of the root causes of what we are experiencing, so that they don't show up in different forms later on after we invest so many resources.”

My leadership style is to bring as many people as possible into a process and cultivate the collective genius of the group.

Convincing funders to try a different path may not be easy, he notes, and may require all of his relationships, as well as his leadership skills. “My leadership style is to bring as many people as possible into a process and cultivate the collective genius of the group,” he notes. That collective energy, in turn, can become an organization’s cultural norm—one that “invites staff to bring the best of what they offer into the work of the organization itself.”

That energy, he believes, can then help GEO build on its 20-year history as a source of trusted information for grantmakers to inform effective practice. His goal for the organization, he says, is to translate that knowledge of effective and smart grantmaking into action grounded in racial equity practice.

“My work involves meeting people where they are in three very specific ways,” he says. The first is where they are developmentally. He notes that some groups are still on the fence about racial equity conversations, which can generate anxiety. The approach to the conversations GEO has will need to change depending on the experience of the grantmaker involved. The second is meeting people where they are geographically, which means getting out on the road and inviting GEO members to co-sponsor local gatherings. Finally, he says, they must meet people on the individual level. “We believe that individual practice, developing your own leadership presence, matters,” he says. “In the way that I've outlined my own evolution around leadership as a distinct set of competencies, we're offering those to individual members in a variety of different programs through GEO.”

He says he realizes that the path he’s laid out may take more time than other approaches to finding answers around equitable giving, but he says, the tradeoff will be worthwhile. “People hear [me talk about] this, and they say, ‘Oh my god, that could take 30 years!’ And I'm saying, yeah, to address 300 years of a persistent issue, I'll take 30. This approach will put philanthropy on its head and really challenge us to think outside of the charity model and more about a change model.”

Marcus Walton’s Resource List on Leadership

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Organizational Change and Learning

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