Setting 2023 Intentions with Satonya Fair and Roberto Cremonini
On January 24, 2023, President and CEO of PEAK Grantmaking, Satonya Fair, joined GivingData’s Roberto Cremonini for another discussion to kick off the new year. During the conversation, Satonya and Roberto reflected on the past year and how both PEAK and GivingData embraced the theme of transformation versus change, and how grantmakers can move from conversations to collaboration in 2023.
As always, their conversation was filled with insights and quotables that highlight how we can continue to advance philanthropy together and be a trusted partner in advancing conversations about equity, inclusion, and transformation within the space. Below are a few highlights from the discussion.
Roberto: I know you're embracing emergent learning at PEAK, and one of the key practices of emergent learning consists in looking back and reflecting on the past - What have we done? What do we know so far? - so that we can use our past experiences and facts to move forward in the future. So, let’s start with some reflections on PEAK’s work in 2022.
When you and I met at the beginning of last year, we centered our conversation around this idea of transformation being different from change, because there is a tendency for things you change to revert back. By contrast, once transformation happens, you can’t go back. We used the metaphor of a larva transforming into a butterfly. Once the larva transforms into a butterfly, there is no going back to being a larva again. And the larva may say, "I want to go back and be the larva and just drink my tea and be comfortable there. Forget about trying to soar to new heights as the butterfly." But that is not possible. A lot of the work that we do in this sector is very uncomfortable, and we have to accept the fact that to move forward and transform we must put ourselves in uncomfortable positions.
Source: The New Yorker
I think you embraced [this idea] at PEAK quite a bit. On the PEAK Grantmaking homepage, you say "Together, we are transforming philanthropy." You're not saying, "Together, we are changing philanthropy."
Tell us about why the distinction between transformation and change resonates so much with you and also…did it resonate right away with your staff and your members? Was it difficult for them to understand and buy into it?
Satonya: Well, I think that change starts with you, just like when we talk about equity, you have to be the vehicle for the thing.
I love the idea of really living the words. PEAK has been talking about this and this shift that needs to happen, but what we also saw, and the reason why this really resonated very easily for the team and for me, is that we saw people move very quickly during the pandemic to make grants differently, get reports differently, to do different things that they may have never done before.
That really resonated with me. The team has chosen to bring our talent, our expertise, and our skills to this place at this moment. We don't want that to be for naught. We want that choice to feel good.
I do think when you start to talk about transformation and the role that PEAK can play as an amplifier and an activator, an advocate, and both a teacher and a learner in this space, knowing that change is going to stick matters. I think that maybe many people come to work hoping for that thing, but I know for the board and the staff at this moment, we're like, "No. We figured out some stuff over time."
I don't think it was a sell for anyone to not only talk toward transformation, but to literally write it down and say that we are going from being transactional agents to transformational change masters.
This is what we will do. We will get very good not just at encouraging foundations and our members and consultants who are part of our ecosystem to do it. We will do it ourselves. PEAK will become an incubator for being an emergent learning environment as it relates to staffing, hiring, and how we go about benefits to ensure that PEAK can be the best place to work for the staff.
We're not doing it alone. We're doing it in partnership with people like you, with GivingData, and with so many other folks. We've all got something to contribute to change and transformation. We're trying to model what it looks like to do it alongside those who believe in similar things that you do. That's where we are right now.
Even though we're talking about going from conversations to collaboration, it is for the purpose of transformation that we do this.
"We're not doing it alone. We're doing it in partnership with people like you, with GivingData, and with so many other folks. We've all got something to contribute to change and transformation."
Roberto: I hear you say that transformation is a group exercise. And that’s why we need to move from conversations to collaboration. This came up as a call for action at the TAG [Technology Association of Grantmakers] Conference in November. Why do you think it’s important?
Satonya: I do think there has to be almost this bell ring for those of us who work and support this sector that all of our contributions are needed and that, more than anything, we have humility that it is the nonprofits on the ground who do the work. Many funders are needed. Many volunteers are needed. There are so many things that have to come together to truly name the problem, cost the solution, and get to it.
I do think that it is a really good reminder that philanthropy is a small portion of the big pie that supports social sector issues. It's a small portion, but it is probably the most flexible money out there. That makes our sector, the tools, the technology, and the people who work in it highly valued agents for this shift.
I know that as I have just been reflecting and preparing for this, we have to get to a point where we stop talking and we start moving. We do. Not to throw shade on academia, but just today, I started a conversation with a colleague who was saying if we're not careful, this will feel like academia where we're talking about solutions much more than we're activating in real-time. And she added, "I'm so glad that emergent learning is literally part of our strategic framework at PEAK Grantmaking because it will keep us as staff in that space."
This transformation as a group exercise is also reminding us that you can't do collaboration without a little humility and space.
Don't think that the talking and “blue-sky thinking” [in conversations] isn't part of the process. It's just that we may need to do both things at the same time. We have to understand that for all that we are contributing, there are contributions from others that we may not even know yet we need for us to bring real transformational change home.
The key is that a little humility goes a long way. Also, we're in this sector because we all have a ton of heart and passion for this work. Let people help you get there. Also, let people spark your movement. You can't just sit on the bench. There's no bench warming anymore.
"...you can't do collaboration without a little humility and space."
Roberto: As I was listening to you talk, I realized why so much of why GivingData is where it is today, is because it started with a conversation. Foundations told us, "We have a problem," "We have a need," and we said, "Ok, let's talk about it."
And from there, we moved into collaborations with clients, consultants, and all the “right” people we needed to solve the problem and add new functionality to our product. We shared a new way of doing work, and we created something useful for foundations and their grantees.
Satonya: Yes. You had to bring the right people in the room for that conversation. I think many times it's just the GivingData staff or it's just the foundation staff having conversations with themselves. One of the things that I think is so critical, and you highlighted it when we were preparing for this conversation, is that just as we ask a funder to be in a relationship with their grantees and to approach the grant relationship as a true partnership, we've got to make sure that we're bringing different and disparate opinions and ideas into rooms too. Maybe it's not who you normally would be in the room with, but they are the ones who bring that spark and you go, "Ah, that was a thing that we were missing."
I want to reflect on my recent Racial Healing Certification. One of the funny things is, for more than 20 years, I have had to lead these conversations around racial equity, justice, and things like that. I laughed that the thing I didn't have was healing, taking time to make sure I've moved through my own emotions.
I think about how much more effective I could have been had that been part of my language and knowledge set from the beginning. Sometimes, it was bringing the right people and different people together around similar problems. That's where the magic begins to happen. It's not when PEAK staff are all sitting there talking to each other. It's when we get that focus group that you were part of where we started thinking about, "In three to five years, where do we want to be?" Boom. Look at that. Now, we’ve got a plan.
That, I think, is also super important. You have to create a space, a good container, and have the right people in the room. You have to do the thing that haunts us all. You have to create time.
At the end of the day, just as equity can be wrapped by people saying they don't have time for the journey, so too can collaboration. You’ve got to make space and time to do it. That blue-sky thinking is often the last thing on your list, but it has to happen. You do have to set conditions right for success in the end.
That's why I think you and I just clicked when we thought about what it looks like to set good conditions in moving from conversation to collaboration.
"...just as we ask a funder to be in a relationship with their grantees and to approach the grant relationship as a true partnership, we've got to make sure that we're bringing different and disparate opinions and ideas into rooms too."
Roberto: What is the one thing that you would like people to think about or remember from today’s conversation as they set their intentions for 2023? If we're actually going to focus together on moving conversations to collaborations, what is your message? What is your advice?
Satonya: I would just encourage everyone to use your positional power for good. I think we have expertise. We have knowledge. This is not about moving alone or solo, but knowing, especially as it relates to transformation and to equity.
I think we have power that we don't always activate around. I think that sometimes you're the one who can bring up the hard subject that will get your organization started and moving. You should do that. It's a risk. You should take it. Just use positional power for good.
Thank you to Satonya Fair for joining us once again to start the year on the right foot. We can’t wait to continue the discussion with all of you - online and in person - as the year progresses!