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PEAK Grantmaking

A Conversation With PEAK Founding Members

25 YEARS OF PEAK

A Conversation With PEAK Founding Members

At PEAK Grantmaking’s 2021 Annual Meeting, President and CEO Satonya Fair was joined by co-founder Margaret Egan, Egan Consulting, and Ursula Stewart, Salesforce, and a member of PEAK’s (then GMN’s) first board of directors. The trio talked about why PEAK is so important to them, the organization’s evolving role in philanthropy, and their aspirations for PEAK’s next 25 years.

Satonya Fair: Thank you all so much for taking time with us this morning, or today, to celebrate what I think is just an amazing milestone for any organization, which is our 25th anniversary. We get to do it with so many of our friends and families who were here from the very beginning. And you two are front and center of our VIPs. So, I want to just thank you, Margaret Egan and Ursula. Oh! You both have just been so important to my own journey. And so I’m going to ask you, why have you always made time for PEAK? You could be doing other things. So, Margaret, if I can start with you, why is PEAK so important for you?

Margaret Egan: You know, we talk about continual learning so much. Expertise, development, and access to resources: I think it’s key to anybody’s growth professionally. And, you know, PEAK is the essence of knowledge-sharing and experience and professional development, which I think, why I want to be part of that is to see it grow in other people, as well as myself. I’ve become a better collaborator, and it’s all about relationship. Everything’s about relationship. And if we’re lucky sometimes we get to have not just colleagues, but also friends.

Satonya: Thank you so much, Margaret. Ursula, what about you?

Ursula Stewart: Well, in those beginning years, “why PEAK?” is because I knew nothing about the community, so I needed to be around people who I could not just learn from, but we learned with each other what our role was within the community. And then after I gained more confidence in my role in grants management, then I realized that with gratitude I wanted to give back and to share my experiences with others. But now that I’m in this more, I’d say, seasoned grantmaker, I feel obligated to play the role of that radical change agent. And basically, I love to speak the truth. I don’t care what the consequences are to me, but I think it’s important to speak the truth, and I find being around other PEAK members, they also speak the truth, and we feel comfortable talking with each other. And we welcome a discussion of all ideas. No ideas are off the table. So when I think about “why PEAK?” and why this community, is because I appreciate the impact that we have and continue to make courageous ideas and have courageous voices in expressing our ideas with others. And if we see something that needs to be changed, we do something about it. And so for me, every time I try to walk away from PEAK, you’re always advocating for something that I’m passionate about, so that’s why every time I walk away, I keep coming right back. So really, that’s what PEAK means to me. That’s right.

Satonya: That is absolutely beautiful. So, I have another question, it’s slightly different for both of you. But, you know, Margaret, having been a founder along with Ann Gael, I know there had to be like that moment where you said, “Ah, we truly are cooking with fire, this is going well beyond what Ann and I thought we could be.” Tell us one of those moments, one of those “aha!” times for you.

Margaret: This is about witnessing an organizational development process. We’re all business process improvers, right? And when we kind of started to reach more than 10 people at a meeting and then people would travel from outside New York City to come to the meetings, we kind of knew that it was growing in a way that we’d always envisioned. You know, whether or not it’s beyond, I don’t think it’s really is where I came from on any of this, it’s more around embracing the sense of how it could flourish. I am such a better nonprofiteer because of PEAK. You know, it is community to me. It’s where I can really feel relaxed, safe, supported, and informed. Operations are changed. And we’ve had such influence and still do. But visibility has completely shifted when we think about where it came from. You know, we’re a trendsetter on many levels, and I think we’re powerful examples of leadership.

Satonya: That’s so amazing. Thank you so much, Margaret. And for you, Ursula, I’m sure you’ve had your many “aha!” moments, but with the growing suite of expertise that we see among our grants management professionals, we probably could have more impact in the sector. But how are you seeing PEAK’s role in really continuing to generate big ideas that we can all take, follow, expand, and really use to help transform philanthropy?

Ursula: Well, I think one way is getting our voices out there. And I know for myself an “aha!” moment when I realized that PEAK is there, that we’ve actually arrived, was I was in a meeting with leadership at my organization, including the board. And there was a sticky situation that we had to address, and we didn’t quite know how to address that sticky situation that involved the grantee. So the question was, where do we go to gain knowledge to address the situation? The board immediately looked at our CEO and said, “Can you reach out to your colleagues in the field and get ideas from them of how to address this issue?” The CEO got a little quiet. And went, “Um, Ursula, do you know anyone in the field that you could speak to?” It’s like, “Uh, yes!” And it’s like, “I think we would gather more ideas of how to handle this from those Ursula is connected with, than who I am connected with.” And that was the “aha!” moment. It’s like, we’re recognized, we’re seen for that knowledge and being able to think out situations and to come up with the best solution, you know, to resolve issues. And I think that’s what it is. It’s like talk about why we’re talking about we’re influencers. That’s who we are, we’re influencers because of everything that we have experienced, that we are able to share that knowledge with others and be the leaders in not just doing the everyday work but solving those far-out problems as well.

Satonya: And so that that had to be amazing that your CEO both recognized that, right, and that you were ready, because you had built the community around you where you knew you had people to go to. So in the theme of community, thinking about the function of grants management, I think you’re articulating where we’re going next, which is really the perception. Right? And how grants management is being perceived by the insiders and how whether this has changed over the course of time. It sounds like you both are highlighting through your “aha!” moments that indeed it has. So maybe you could talk a little bit about where you’re seeing this perception shift for what we have all been doing for these many years. And so I’ll start with you, Ursula.

Ursula: Sure, I think what has happened throughout the years is that when the grants manager walks through the door, you have your philanthropic insiders saying, “Don’t rock the boat, please, please don’t rock the boat, don’t tip it over.” But we’re going to rock that boat, but we’re not going to tip it over. Instead, we’ll take that boat, we’ll rock it enough until it goes the correct direction, so that it stays the course of where we see that we need to advocate for, until we reach that dream. And for, I’d say throughout the years, the beginning years, as far as our philanthropic insiders, they just saw us as, “We’re just back office,” which, the term should never have existed—back-office administrators. But when we became those change agents and we started rocking that boat, that’s when they perceived us differently, because they saw that when we stayed that course, that we made change within our organization and within the community itself.

Satonya: I love that, I love that. Margaret, what would you add?

Margaret: You know, expertise in grants management is so much deeper than when we started, right, Ursula? We have a place at the table now, in a different way. And I think it’s a holistic kind of participation now in an organization where, as I mentioned, the hierarchy doesn’t exist the same way. And it extrapolates into things like equity and inclusion. But I honestly, the level we’re at now and the song that all three of us sing is, “You need us now in a way that you never knew, but we always knew.” And what we touch upon is just as much of a linchpin as program is. Program does a deeper dive in terms of content. But we’re the ones that have to put it in a way that it speaks English, you know, to comprehend for other people. We’ve always been in a service place, but now we’re at the table in a different way.

Satonya: Absolutely. I love it because I always think about our work as being: We’re knitters. We see things from so many different angles, and we get to bring them together. But we’re knitting the story together of mission to purpose, right? And how we do the work. So, such an important role, and it has been beautiful to see the evolution. I only have but so much time in this. You both have been at this much longer than I have. And so we thought it was so important to give you a sneak peek of our strategic framework as well as our refreshed vision and mission. And you all both had a chance to look at that in preparation for this. What was resonating for you all when you looked at kind of where we’re going and PEAK’s next chapter? Margaret?

Margaret: Really, the idea of it’s equity-centered, it’s values-driven grantmaking practices, and there has to be someone who has that voice to remind our colleagues that that’s really why we’re here. You know, PEAK has given me the greatest gift of really understanding in a whole new way how deep service can be in our beings. You know, and what’s really, as I said, the refresh, I think it’s amazing that it’s really gotten to this point where it is very substantive in its approach to that visibility that we talked about so that we’re out there as educators, influencers, as Ursula also mentioned. But we’ve come such a long way in helping to narrow that power gap.

Satonya: Beautiful. Thank you. Ursula?

Ursula: Well, I guess I feel a little fortunate in my current role that I get to work with and speak with a lot of nonprofits. And I think throughout the years that PEAK has always been change agents and influencers, we knew that, but the world did not know that. And I mean beyond philanthropy the world itself did not know the change agents that we are and what we are able to accomplish. And in speaking, just like Margaret mentioned about nonprofits, they’re not in the same shoes that we are. However, we can be that voice for them on the philanthropic side to help them do better and to support them actually, because nonprofits are doing wonderful work. But there’s so many times, and we’ve known ever since the time when we had our Project Streamline, that we were this hurdle they always had to keep getting over. So always trying to address what we were asking them to do. And in talking to a group of nonprofits yesterday, they’re frightened right now. They are talking about how funders really stepped up last year and, you know, it’s like they streamlined even further the requirements for reports. They streamlined even further the requirements of even submitting an application to make that process better. But they’re frightened that when all is done, that funders will go back to their same habits. And I think with our new framework that we’re the ones that can go back to our organizations and say, “No, we can’t do things like we used to. We can’t just, when there’s a crisis, step up, and when the crisis is over, go back to our own ways.” We have to keep changing. And if we don’t, what are we here for?

Satonya: So I just wanted to ask you all, what is your big aspiration for PEAK’s next 25 years? And I know it might not just be one thing, but when you think about it, what’s your hope? What’s the thing that we should be really using as our North Star?

Margaret: I have such great hope for the continuing adaptability or changeability. The idea of we’ve been early adopters since the get-go. We couldn’t wait for, for example, I don’t know, online applications. And, you know, it’s that continuous best practices evolution that we advocate. It’s an inspiring trajectory for me in terms of looking at where we’re heading. And I just, I know it’s going to flourish. It’s going to continue to be changeable. And advocacy grows because of community. If we don’t come together, then nothing congeals, messages are not gotten through. So I feel incredibly excited, as I was when Ann [Gael] and I came together for lunch. This was exciting to see it grow, and it continues to excite me. And honestly, the leadership has so fortified, you know. Satonya, it’s been a different kind of impact that you’ve brought, and I really want to compliment you on that. And in all gratitude, I think, yeah, has this gone beyond my vision? Yes and no. But mostly yes. In that we found leadership in a completely different way. I know for me, founder-itis was my worry. I wanted to back away, you know, it was important to make room and space for others and personally, you know, I got to pursue something that I’d always dreamed of. You know, parenthood is the hardest job you’ll ever love, but PEAK made it possible for me to be able to find confidence, to be able to go away for a little while and create a family. And personally, as I’ve said in some of my interviews, there were certain people like Orneida, like Becky Martin, they carried me through my adoption process of our daughter. And that’s really extraordinary when we think about community. And that’s how deep it goes for us. So the next 25 years, it’s just going to continue to flourish and continue to grow and help us refine ourselves as professionals. And spiritually, you know, I think we feed each other that way.

Satonya: That’s mission work, that’s for sure. Ursula?

Ursula: Well, first, I have to follow with Margaret and say how wonderful it is to have you leading PEAK. Because you are one of those visionaries that you’re willing to take risks, and we’re here to join you in taking those risks. And advocate for those who need us. And so what I think about the next 25 years, going back to rocking that boat, stay the course! And don’t get discouraged by events that counteract our dreams and try to steer us in the wrong direction. Because events will always happen, and events will always try to steer us in the wrong direction, but we have to remember: Today, we have, what, about 5,500 members? And tomorrow, just think, we’ll probably have 10,000 members. And when you place all those members in that boat and having us all steer full steam ahead, we’re going to reach our goals, our next set of goals, faster than we did the first set of goals. And so we have to always just remember, once we meet our dreams, reach our dreams, then think about what that next dream will be. And always remember after those 10,000 members, by the time we start going towards that next set of dreams, we’re going to have 50,000 members. So, snap. We’ll get there in a second.

Satonya: I love that. I think that is a perfect way to conclude this time with both of you. I just appreciate both of you so much, and I’m just very blessed to be in this moment here with PEAK and with everyone in community. That’s what we’re doing. We’re trying to use the community that we are for each other, the network that we are to really drive change. And so, again, it has been such a pleasure and a true thrill for me to spend this time with you as we gear up to launch and kick off our 25th anniversary. So, thank you all so much for your time, and thanks, everyone, for joining us for this celebration.