Cultivate Curiosity like a House Plant: Reflections from #GEO2024

Justice Funders
Justice Funders
Published in
6 min readMay 30, 2024

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Brief reflections on what we learned at the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations’ Annual Conference 2024.

“You can’t be risk-averse and be transformational.” Artist and icon Alok Vaid-Menon opened the 2024 Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) Annual Conference with a comedic yet honest tone to address the current state of philanthropy. If philanthropy, by definition, is a love of humanity, then the current structures of philanthropy fail to reflect it–something Alok reminded us of when they said that money is not the only capital; love is the fundamental capital. The truth is, that philanthropy replicates the same extractive practices it was founded upon by stealing from the labor of communities who built — and continue to build — up this country. If this is a love of humanity, then it’s time philanthropy study itself and be honest about the direction of the field moving forward.

Alok Vaid-Menon speaking at the Lunch Plenary at the 2024 Grantmakers for Effective Organizations Annual Conference. Los Angeles, CA. 20 May 2024. Photo by abdiel j. lópez.

Held at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, GEO’s 2024 Annual Conference promised to provide “equity-centered and community-driven grantmaking practices that support transformational change to create a just, connected, and inclusive society where we can all thrive.” While the programming focused on the grantmaking arm of philanthropy, I listened closely to identify “the edge” and the “ruptures” within this context. At Justice Funders, we often talk about finding the ruptures in the status quo and piloting new strategies that become — as Alok puts it — “glitches” within the system that inevitably have ripple effects, no matter how small or big, and can subsequently unlock new structures, models, and processes that unfetter the self-determination of the movements and communities we love. Below are key reflections inspired by the conversations I heard or had at GEO — reflections that move beyond our status quo and are transformational in practice:

  • Invest in communities beyond grantmaking. I heard many grantmakers at GEO talk about “investing in communities,” which prompted me to inquire about how we, as a field, are mobilizing resources in ways that ameliorate their material conditions. Our friends at Climate Justice Alliance reported that in 2020, U.S. philanthropy contributed 13 times to the global financial markets ($1.2T) as they did to all of their grantmaking focus areas ($88.6B). While grant dollars support many of our communities, they do not actively unfetter their self-determination. Grant dollars are not enough to help frontline communities build their political, economic, and cultural power, especially amidst economic turbulence, increasing political violence, and ecological catastrophes. So, how can we move beyond paying the 5% of an endowment to charitable purposes and make this figure the floor versus the ceiling of our giving? This question forces us to think beyond our current charity-based model and move into a solidarity approach to resourcing our movements and communities through regenerative, non-extractive capital and non-financial resources. This new approach requires curiosity to dismantle philanthropy’s ongoing extractive practices by co-creating emergent infrastructures and ecosystems with frontline communities to upend status quo philanthropy as we know it.
  • Center reparations. The call for reparations is not new, yet the renewed interest by different sectors gives me hope that more philanthropic practitioners are seriously considering reparations as the necessary tool for liberation. Yet the call to action in centering reparations must acknowledge philanthropy as an inherent and catalytic source of harm. This acknowledgment will help us move beyond thinking of harm to Black communities as a “problem that exists over there” and invite philanthropy to put up a mirror to itself to repair, amend, and reckon with the violence — intended or not — that it has caused on Black communities. As we wrote in our second edition of the Resonance Framework: Any reparations process must address and transform the legacies of colonialism and racial capitalism through relational repair (i.e., acknowledgment, apology, accountability, and amends); recenter the vision and leadership of those harmed; and reorganize for regeneration by changing who controls and stewards wealth, and decides how it circulates and to what ends. This includes the return of assets and wealth to the people and places from where resources were extracted in a way that gives communities total ownership and stewardship over those resources as a step toward repair. Reparations is not just a debt owed by the federal government; this is the work of our lifetimes and in every facet of our contemporary lives, for the love of humanity. As Justice Funders continues to build out our offerings on philanthropic reparations, we look to our friends & co-conspirators like Liberation Ventures; if, a Foundation for Radical Possibility; and the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (who were also the speakers of the sessions I attended) to continue to echo the call for reparations.
  • Build the base. We are disrupting the business of philanthropy as usual from the inside out, but we need to expand our circles and build strength in numbers. To build a stronger base, it’s time to start bridging our conversations with our Boards, investment officers and investment committee members, and executives. At Justice Funders, we believe that building a strong base of funder organizers who can champion the work of our movement partners within institutional philanthropy will eventually turn the tide so that restorative and regenerative philanthropic practices become more commonplace than they are now. But to support our funder organizers, we need to empower and equip ourselves with the tools, strategies, and skills to sit in rooms with those in positional power who are not yet aligned with our North Star and politicize them to understand that this work is as much an economic imperative as it is a moral one.

The conversations and sessions I witnessed at GEO are on the edge of transformation. The question remains: How do we go over the edge, beyond our perceived barriers, and harness the power of transformation? For starters, we must find our friends and co-conspirators in the field to cross-pollinate and pilot fresh strategies that will move us beyond reform and into regeneration and transformation. At Justice Funders, for example, we recruit values-aligned foundations that are proactively trying to move their institutions’ investment practices toward a Just Transition through our Just Transition Investment Community. This space allows us to exchange knowledge, hold each other accountable to the movement-led vision of a Just Transition, and move through the growing pains of hospicing the extractive economy and seeding the new regenerative economy.

Justice Funders also believes that we must build the vehicles and infrastructure we wish to see in the future — in other words, embody our values and vision today. One of the main challenges in dismantling the wall between grantmaking staff and investment professionals is the lack of access to the tools and skills required to meet each other halfway and co-design new investing practices that move beyond some of the false solutions like ESG screens and impact investing. To this extent, Justice Funders is designing a new training academy for foundation program staff who are ready to influence how their institution’s endowments are invested.

While this was my first participation at a GEO Annual Conference, I walked away with the idea of living into the possibility that change can happen. But change can only happen when we cultivate curiosity like a house plant and remain vigilant of our North Star.

Pictured from left to right: Rachel Humphrey, Senior Director of Practice Acceleration; abdiel j. lópez, Director of Capital Activation; and Rosita Lucas, Senior Director of Resource Development and Finance. Westin Bonaventure Hotel Lobby, Los Angeles, CA. 22 May 2024.

abdiel j. lópez (they/them) is the Director of Capital Activation at Justice Funders. You can reach them at abdiel@justicefunders.org.

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Justice Funders
Justice Funders

A partner and guide for philanthropy in re-imagining practices that advance a thriving and just world.