PEAK2019 Co-Chairs Remember First Conference Experiences

As PEAK Grantmaking unveils our PEAK2019 conference program, we asked our three conference co-chairs—Katrin Ludwig, Kelli Rojas, and Ursula Stewart—to look back to their first conference and then forward to what they hope will make this year’s conference memorable for participants.

Kelli: One of my colleagues was leaving the foundation where I worked at the time, and, as a result, I was taking on more grants management in my responsibilities. The colleague who was leaving the foundation had been involved in PEAK Grantmaking and planned to attend the conference that year. Since there was money already in the budget, I was able to take her spot. I attended the conference and obviously fell in love. l pushed very hard every year since to ensure money is in the budget for conference.

Katrin: I knew about the conference as a member. I’d been a member for years. Finally, I decided it was about time I went. After I joined the regional chapter leadership team, I attended regularly.

Ursula: I’ve been to all 13 conferences. I started in philanthropy in the late 1980s, when PEAK Grantmaking was established. I wasn’t one of the founders, but I’ve been here since the very first meeting. I was one of the first chairs of this originally New York organization and helped lead our transition to a national organization. Right after that occurred, I left the foundation field to work for a company that produced technology for grants management. I was the client rep to the foundations. When I found out that PEAK Grantmaking was having its first conference, I told my company we could add value to the conference and be there to answer grants managers questions about our technology.

We were the first vendor at the first conference, and we have been at the conference ever since then. Feedback from conference attendees helped us enhance our products. The first year after I moved back to foundations, I wasn’t expecting to go to the conference, but I was asked to participate in a session that year, and I’ve gone as an attendee every year after that.

Katrin: Building on prior years, we’re anticipating that the plenary speakers will have inspirational and motivational messages. We hope the plenary speakers will generate enthusiasm for continuing to make a difference in our communities when we return home, for trying different ways to reach our goals, and for empowering ourselves to do that.

From member feedback we know members want to hear from presenters and speakers who they wouldn’t be able to otherwise pick up the phone and call. For many who attend the conference, it’s their only opportunity all year to get that external input. So, they’re looking to hear from someone who they wouldn’t be exposed to otherwise. We’ve tried to offer more of that in this conference.

Kelli: This year’s half-day, pre-conference workshop on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) will be a really great addition and build on what we did last year in the DEI learning track. The pre-conference workshop will create a focused, intentional time for folks who want to go deeper on DEI. I’m really excited about that this year.

Ursula: We focused this year more than in other years on having a new slate of presenters, so we have fresh voices and ideas. Also, the DEI committee is still somewhat new, and it’s helping us to focus more on our DEI slate of sessions in each track.

Katrin: When I attend conference, I go to the networking receptions, but I never do those first-time attendee events, like the PEAK Grantmaking conference scavenger hunt. They’re always described as “fun,” but I wonder if they’re really going to be fun. However, at my first PEAK Grantmaking conference I accidently ended up in the room where they were holding the scavenger hunt. I stayed and had a great time with other professionals who I’d never met before. We really had a blast. Not only were the sessions engaging, but I also met interesting and fun people. It was such a good experience that it kept me coming back to additional conferences.

Ursula: The main reason I keep coming back is the educational part. You’re not only learning about best practices, but you’re also hearing from others what they’re doing that you could apply in your organization. You can’t keep learning and enhancing your organization’s practices if you just stay in your own building.

The networking is also important. It’s fine to connect via email or text or telephone. But to have that face-to-face interaction means so much more when you get back to your office and you’re thinking: where can I go for advice on an issue. Then you can reach out, and it’s a much warmer interaction.

Kelli: I just fell in love. I’ve attended a lot of different types of conferences, and this one is particularly energizing. All our foundations and organizations are different—we have different focuses, and we approach things differently. But, despite those differences, there’s also a common through line—there are certain things we all do. Being able to connect and relate with others in similar roles and learn from them and bring that knowledge and those new ideas back to my organization each year after conference is exciting and invaluable. I’m privileged to have been able to have attended every year since my first conference.

Katrin Ludwig, community grants manager at Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas, will be attending her fifth conference. Kelli Rojas, grants manager at Rose Community Foundation in Denver, Colorado, will be attending her fourth conference. Ursula Stewart, grants manager at New York State Health Foundation will be attending her 14th conference. Ursula also co-chaired the PEAK2016 conference.

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Rachel Tillman

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