What is GEO? It’s awesome, that’s what it is!

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by: Heather Barberi

Where might one go to spend time with over 900 grantmakers – grantmakers learning together and using that learning to drive concrete changes in the way grantmaking work gets done? The 2018 National GEO Conference, of course. Earlier this month, Jeremy and I had the opportunity to head to the West Coast and spend time learning, meeting new people…and of course, taking in the beauty (and delicious food) of San Francisco.

You might be asking yourself, ‘What is GEO?’ GEO is the acronym for the organization, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations. It exists to help grantmakers turn their desire to improve into real progress. Their goal is to cut through the noise to identify smarter grantmaking approaches that bring about transformative change. This year marked the 20th anniversary of GEO, although we as a foundation were complete newbies to the organization and the event. Many of the sessions, both breakout and plenary, focused on funder-grantee relationships, learning & evaluation, social change, equity, collaboration, capacity building, and flexible funding. We also may have heard the plug for ‘multi-year, general operating support grants’ at least a dozen times. My non-profit friends, did I pique your interest with that? And while I absolutely learned something new from each of the sessions I attended, I felt the real value of the conference came from the people I met along the way and the offsite trips that we took. I want to spend this blog talking a bit about the latter of those two things.

Our first morning, jet-lagged of course, we hopped aboard a small bus and made our way to the Tenderloin District of San Francisco. When we set off, I thought the ‘Tenderloin’ might have been the meat-packing district of the city – I was completely off the mark. Some say the Tenderloin name is actually derived from this area being the ‘soft underbelly’ of the city. Historically, it has been one of the roughest areas of San Francisco – high crime rates, homelessness, illegal drug trade, and prostitution. Through all of this, however, the Tenderloin has also risen as a center for the arts scene – home to theatres, murals, art galleries, and more. The area is starting to see a transformation. More market-rate housing projects have been approved in the last two years than in the prior 30 years combined. I digress…so back to our visit. After a short journey from our hotel in the Embarcadero district, we made it to our destination – 826 Valencia.

826 Valencia is a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting under-resourced students ages six to eighteen with their creative and expository writing skills and to helping teachers inspire their students to write. As we walked through the doors, we were immediately whisked into a whole new world – an emporium for the wares collected by King Carl, a world-traveling pufferfish. So, what does a pufferfish have to do with helping kids with their writing skills? Everything! All of their spaces and projects encourage imagination and inspire creativity. Hence – walking into a magical storefront with ‘Gnome Be Gone’ and secret doors. Once inside the main workspace, the second location in San Francisco for 826 Valencia, we learned about their history and their work. Their programs run the gamut… in-school, after-school, workshops, field trips, college and career readiness. Last year alone, they served a total of 6,714 students. Through a scavenger hunt, we toured their life-size tree house, stepped into their podcast booth, and read through one of their many books of student-published works. Executive Director, Bita Nazarian, shared the journey of bringing the second location to the Tenderloin and about their relationship with the community. A really interesting piece about our visit was hearing from two funders, the Panta Rhea Foundation and Rockefeller Philanthropy Trust, about the role they played in supporting 826 Valencia and other non-profits with vital capacity needs. It broadened the conversation and gave a realistic example of how capacity investment can truly make an organization (and leader) flourish. (Visit www.826valencia.org to learn more)

On our second morning, we ventured to Women’s Audio Mission (WAM) where we met executive director, Terri Winston. WAM is the brain-child of Terri, who for the record, is super cool! A songwriter, composer, signed recording artist, recording engineer, producer, former tenured Professor and Director of the Sound Recording Arts Program at City College of San Francisco…oh, and has a degree in Electrical Engineering from Purdue University too! Her passion to start WAM began with the staggering statistic that less than five percent of the people working in the production side of the media and the entertainment industry are women. She truly wanted to see more women with the technical power to make change. So, in 2003 she founded WAM, a non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of women in music production and the recording arts. As a whole, Women’s Audio Mission prepares women and girls for careers in pro audio through in-person classes, online training materials, a nationally recognized youth program and a recording studio run entirely by women. In fact, it’s the only recording studio run entirely by women in the world. WAM’s award-winning curriculum weaves art and music with science, technology and computer programming and works to close the critical gender gap in creative technology careers. Their results are pretty amazing…500+ women have been placed in paid positions, 2,000+ classes have been given to 12,000 women/girls over 15 years, they have produced and recorded albums for over 150 artists from 21 countries, and so much more! I was impressed by their organization and how much they have been able to accomplish – even on a fairly small budget. (Visit www.womensaudiomission.org to learn more)

CAST (Community Arts Stabilization Trust), an organization that secures space and works with community arts organizations to help them purchase permanent facilities, was also on-hand for the visit. They recently helped WAM secure their new studio location – the former SF Soundworks studio, home to projects by Radiohead, R.E.M., Alanis Morissette and more. As a music junkie, it was amazing to sit in a studio with so much history and know some of the greats had recorded their albums there. One studio is currently up and running. The second studio is in renovation mode and getting wired and prepared, by women of course, to record the next wave of talent.

Throughout the rest of the time at the conference, Jeremy and I were busy in breakout sessions, meeting funders from across the country, and trying to take in a little of the San Francisco scene in the bits of free time we had. Having a hotel across from the bustling Ferry Terminal Building was a plus – incredible treats for days!

To sum it up, let’s just say…we came, we saw, we conquered GEO and San Francisco!

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