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PEAK Grantmaking

The History of Our Annual Conference


The History of Our Annual Conference

If you’ve ever been to a PEAK conference, then you know the joy of finding your people.

But our annual conference didn’t turn into an industry-wide event overnight. It required a bold vision, one that pushed well beyond what we thought possible.

A shot of six past PEAK conference program covers.

Daring to Dream

Before our first conference, PEAK Grantmaking (then Grants Managers Network) operated as an affinity group of the Council on Foundations. Our dependency on the Council made meetings challenging, because we had to plan our own meetings around their schedule.

“We kind of existed at their whim. We took whatever space they gave to us, whatever time they gave to us,” said Surdna Foundation Director of Learning and Grant Operations Jonathan Goldberg. “And we sort of sat down and said, ‘We’re better than that.’”

The idea to host an independent conference was ambitious, to say the least. PEAK Grantmaking lacked an executive director, paid staff and conference experience. Nevertheless, our membership dreamed big. They imagined our homegrown volunteer organization as a network that could transform philanthropy.

Following a group vote, members decided to hold our own stand-alone conference independent of the Council. But there were still many unknowns: where would the money come from and how would we make it happen? “We didn’t know a lot of things,” said Jonathan. “Not everybody was fully on board. It was kind of a scary moment.”

Members were also asking their peers to find the money to attend a first-time conference. “Professionals had to fight for their professional development budgets in order to go to a conference that hadn’t been necessarily proven,” said former PEAK conference co-chairand past board member Adin Miller. While the planning committee couldn’t anticipate who would show up, they knew they could create a valuable program.

We built that conference, that first one, and we were hoping for maybe about 150 to 200 people. We had no idea. … We ended up having great representation. We had a really strong program. It took a tremendous amount of volunteer time from the community that was pulled together to help ... but it was so incredibly worth it.

Former PEAK conference co-chair Adin Miller

Launching Our First Conference 

In 2006, the organization launched our first conference, “Taking Grants Management to New Heights,” in the place where our story beganNew York City.

Organizers identified key panelists and presenters and assembled 20 sessions on topics such as grants management software, knowledge management, professional development, ethics, planning for online grantmaking, and the communications function of grants managers: topics that still resonate with our community of philanthropy professionals today.

Over the course of three days, 250 conference participants attended sessions, networked with peers and had fun. Local members even organized “dine-arounds” and invited conference goers to check out their favorite New York restaurants.

Were you there? Which of our many conference locations have you attended:

  • New York City, NY (2006)
  • San Francisco, CA (2007)
  • Chicago, IL (2008)
  • Denver, CO (2009, 2019)
  • Baltimore, MD (2010)
  • Seattle, WA (2011)
  • San Antonio, TX (2012)
  • St. Petersburg, FL (2013)
  • San Diego, CA (2014)
  • Oxon Hill, MD (2015)
  • New Orleans, LA (2016)
  • Los Angeles, CA (2017)
  • Orland, VA (2018)
  • Online! (2020, 2021)

That first conference set the stage for a new era in PEAK Grantmaking. It became an annual event that traveled to a new city every year, uniting grants management professionals from across the country.

Soon, there were years when the conference grew by hundreds of attendees. “That’s pretty remarkable for what was seen as a pretty niche conference,” said former PEAK board member Christopher Percopo. By 2019, PEAK Grantmaking had hosted 14 conferences in locations across the country, from St. Petersburg, Florida, to San Diego, California. Conferences featured a range of plenary speakers, including Bill Gates, Sr. (2011), Vu Le (2017) and Edgar Villanueva (2019).

Did you know? Our first conference had five themes: Understanding Financials, Legal and Compliance, Professional Development, Best Practices in Grants Management, and Information Technology.

The Future of the PEAK Conference

Our annual conference has evolved considerably since our inaugural gathering in 2006. In 2020, faced with a global pandemic, we brought our conference online. Doing so made the conference safe and accessible during lockdown. Open to anyone and accessible like never before, the virtual conference brought in record-breaking participation: 1,132 conference attendees.

Fun Fact: Our conference attendance grew significantly between 2009 and 2016, growing from 375 participants to 775!

The new format, while temporary, has allowed members of the community to continue to connect with one another in a virtual environment. “The virtual conferences … really allowed the members to connect virtually and to connect with as many members as possible without feeling that time restraint,” said PEAK AAPI Affinity Group Co-Chair Jina Freiberg, who found that the online conference provided new avenues for networking.

The conference will undoubtedly evolve in the coming years as the PEAK community navigates a new “normal,” but we’re confident that it will continue to be a place where people gather and magic happens. As our 2011 keynote speaker Bill Gates Sr. said, “I am optimistic about the future of philanthropy because there are people like you who are committed to the never-ending search for better ways to do it.”

A group shot of Denver conference attendees, dressed to take on the outdoors in the form of running, walking, and moving.

Did you know? Before our conference went virtual, members would meet up for early morning walks and runs. PEAK Grantmaking AAPI Affinity Group Co-Chair Jina Freiberg remembers running with fellow grants managers at a 2019 conference in Denver, Colorado:

“It was so nice to just step away from the different conference room settings and just go out and breathe in the fresh air and actually talk about running and our hobbies and our personal lives. And in that sense, I’ve been able to make many, many relationships within the community, and I’m so thankful for that.”

Read more PEAK stories, illuminating milestones in our 25-year journey.