When Marcus Walton joined Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) as CEO in late 2019, he had a vision for making an immediate impact. He had no shortage of action plans: travel around the world, meet hundreds of GEO members, connect with other changemakers in the nonprofit space, set timely ideas in motion, and more. For someone who earned his stripes as a man of action, Marcus was in the perfect place.
Six months later, a pandemic uprooted all those plans. A couple months after that, civil unrest swept America as millions protested systemic racism and police brutality.
For most business owners and nonprofit leaders, 2020 was not just a difficult time—it was emotional. Marcus was no exception. For him, 2020 compelled him to also work through the stinging emotions of what should have been. Weeks of brainstorming and drumming up the actions to take in this new opportunity suddenly went out the window.
Pivoting From Transactional to Transformational
A desperate need for changemakers to move from management to leadership—or from transactional to transformational—emerged in 2020. Marcus describes management as a science. It comes with a rich history of literature, curriculum, and repeatable best practices. But in dire moments when textbooks aren’t enough, leadership is the only way forward.
A leader must step out of their own habits, shift perspectives, and find new ways to meet a difficult moment. Taking the reins at GEO during a time of unprecedented unknowns proved one of those moments for Marcus—and fortunately for us, he shared just how he met that moment.
An Opportunity to Focus on the Inside Job
Through working with his own coach, Marcus spent much of 2020 reflecting deeply. He likes to talk about the notion of keeping conversations at the appropriate altitude. At that time, the appropriate altitude was about as high as one could go. What is the society we want to live in? What do we stand for? How are we showing up as an institution to make an impact? It became clear for Marcus that the conversation and the subsequent actions needed to stay at this big-picture level. Any lower-altitude ambitions he had for GEO could wait. The moment called for new plans, new tools, and a new, improvised form of leadership.
Ultimately, Marcus trusted the wisdom of the GEO staff and turned much of his focus inward. What could GEO do as an organization to meet the moment and better support its own people? A key answer was to better operationalize equity. As a)plan coaching CEO Sara Ellis Conant has said before, sometimes changemaking organizations need to help themselves before helping others. Changemaking starts as an inside job.
We’ve written before about the concept of operationalizing equity. A topic that touches many a)plan engagements, operationalizing equity is the process of embracing actions that make racial and social equity sustainable. For most organizations, operationalizing equity means embracing change, as it typically requires entirely new ideas and practices to take root at the organizational level—something that isn’t always easy.
3 Ways Marcus Helped Operationalize Equity at GEO
Despite the difficulty sometimes faced in implementing progressive change, Marcus and the GEO staff committed to cultivating organizational culture—and their work is never finished. Here are some key ways that GEO improved as an organization over the past couple years in order to better operationalize equity.
1. Changing Processes and Staff
Marcus would be the first to tell you that operationalizing equity is not easy work. It requires a commitment to “grappling,” or moving together through adversity, disagreement, or uncertainty to reach alignment—a process that often requires us to work out the kinks in existing habits and practices. As part of GEO’s organizational transformation, that grappling work led to some insights that meant out with the old and in with the new.
For example, GEO created and hired new positions to better support its staff and to integrate racial equity into all corners of the organization. GEO also abandoned old practices that no longer served them, like legacy meetings that had lost relevance. Through those high-altitude reflections on how GEO wanted to show up in this rapidly-changing world, small yet powerful actions revealed themselves as the next right actions.
2. Creating a Level Playing Field Built Around Empathy
Leading an organization through the past few years also inspired Marcus to double-down on a particular core value: empathy.
“As an organization, we adopted a different way of modeling our conversations,” says Marcus. “We needed to be able to say to one another, ‘Hey, this hurts. I need a moment to reflect. I will come back to you in 24 hours, and we can continue thinking this through.’”
Such a shift in communication allowed GEO to slow down, embrace empathy, and make real promises to each other. Team members committed to considering each others’ insights, to really listen before speaking. The result? More voices were heard. More ideas relied on team buy-in. GEO moved together, as opposed to individuals moving closer to their own goals.
3. Bringing in Coaches for Support
To follow through on this renewed commitment to operationalize equity, GEO also committed to coaching. Coaches supported GEO staff members to improve daily habits, reflection, feedback, making promises to each other, and more.
As Marcus explains, simply declaring what needs to happen accomplishes little. On the other hand, following through on promises is how we build trust and progress. When we follow through, we begin to chip away at lofty goals by creating plans with each other. Coaching supports that work better than just about any other tool.
A Safe Space to Pursue Change and New Possibilities
For Marcus, the word “coaching” leaves something to be desired. An avid supporter and user of coaching for more than 10 years, he speaks from firsthand experience. Whatever you imagine when you hear the word “coaching”—well, Marcus would say it probably doesn’t do it justice.
“Coaching is really about creating a space in which we can think, dream, and plan out new possibilities,” says Marcus. “It’s a space to think differently about how to have an impact on the world and to rethink ways to be effective.”
“Coaching creates a safe space for transformation,” adds Brian Gadsden, Head of Racial Equity at a)plan coaching.
When they first met in 2008, Marcus and Brian found a friend in each other who was equally willing to discuss lofty aspirations—not just for themselves, but for their BIPOC colleagues, friends, and families. Those intimate spaces and conversations arising naturally between two friends also come alive through the coaching experience. For them, coaching as a tool to create change just makes sense: everyone should have a coach. That’s exactly why Marcus brought coaching to GEO.
Operationalizing Equity Through a)plan coaching
Much like GEO, a)plan is proud to play a role in the movement to better operationalize equity. As an organization and with the guiding vision of Brian Gadsden, we have committed to consistent discussion and action around advancing this work.
Ultimately, our mission as an organization is to support changemaking leaders like Marcus who recognize the criticality of operationalizing equity. Coaching serves as the support system for these leaders to ideate, plan, and implement progressive strategies at their own companies.
Through our coaching and training programs, we support a number of social-impact organizations that share a)plan’s values around this work. Examples include:
- Black Citizen: a Bay Area start-up harnessing social justice movements to create, scale, and sustain social and economic power to advance Black lives
- Data for Black Lives: a movement of activists, organizers, and scientists who use data to create measurable change in the lives of Black people
- Cities United: a nonprofit working with 1,400 municipalities to reduce homicides and shootings among young Black men
- REVOLT Media: A media company covering culture, social justice, and Black news tailored to Millennial and Gen Z audiences
The City and County of San Francisco also selected a)plan through a competitive process to be the coaching provider for multiple racial equity projects. Through coaching, we have helped these organizations create and prioritize new projects, roles, hires, and initiatives that serve to operationalize equity.
Coaching allows us all to move together toward goals that are bigger than any one of us. As Marcus says, “The more of us who take steps together into areas of the unknown, the more we can see. We’re able to broaden the aperture.”
We’re extremely grateful to play a role in broadening the aperture through coaching and to continue doing so for years to come alongside changemakers like Marcus Walton.