By Wing Li, Senior Manager for Operations, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations
I’ll be honest – when I entered the philanthropic sector, it was hard to see my path.
My work history can be described as desultory. You see, I had been searching. As most post-college grads do, I tried on different jobs in different industries to see if it felt right. Throughout each experience, I learned something new – whether it was hard skills or soft knowledge that came with the industry. Each time, something was missing. I was looking for where my heart “clicked” into place.
Since I can remember, I wanted to be a lawyer, advocating for justice – ensuring that fairness was applied to all. I don’t quite remember how I came to have this bent. I happened upon the right place in my first post-college nonprofit job. I had the chance to run a legal nonprofit clinic staffed by a consortium of five Washington D.C. law schools that gave the disenfranchised a voice in both the housing and criminal justice systems. Our mission was to help everyone that came through the door, regardless of income, while instilling in students a commitment to social justice. It didn’t seem fair to turn away those who, against really stacked odds, sought us out for help at very dire junctures in their lives. As one of the only non-lawyer staff, my job was to develop the resources and maintain smooth operations so that my lawyer colleagues can focus on the programmatic work – preventing evictions from happening and kids from incarceration. At the end of each week, I could count how many people’s lives we touched. We all fought hard. But fighting hard had its price. Burnout was real. I yearned for a more effective path to change. So I sought.
I found ACLU. Working at the ACLU was a goal of mine for as long as I can remember and I jumped at the chance. ACLU is known to create systemic change through impact litigation. I was intellectually hooked. A case, should the ACLU choose to take it on, along with the advocacy and organizing work, had the effect of pushing real policy changes that affect the day to day lives of all. Yet, something Justice Ginsburg said struck a chord with me – the world’s change wasn’t going to be created in the judiciary system. Plus, it was time to look to other methods to achieve change other than fighting. So I sought again…
And I found Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO). GEO is a philanthropy-serving organization for grantmakers, lifting up effective grantmaking practices that enable nonprofits to be more effective. This is a meta-meta approach to systemic change. I was uber excited at the opportunity to work at an organization that is the most trusted source in the field. More impact, faster? My penchant for efficacy found its place!
I admit this is where I got stuck. I was so used to hitting the ground running as the next crisis called, that fighting became my default method for problem-solving. Having been a grantseeker for years, thinking about how grants were made was difficult. It was a tectonic shift in mindset and behavior. For the first time (discounting emigration), I felt lost – living in a topsy-turvy world. I wasn’t used to the pace of philanthropy and how it operated. I spent the first year trying to figure out what this field was and if I fit in it. When lost, you seek your place. I gravitated toward GEO’s commitment to equity and answered the call to be a part of the internal diversity, inclusion, and equity group a few months into the job.
As GEO’s equity work took shape, it was clear that I needed to seek “my people” in philanthropy. It can feel very lonely in a white-dominant field, doing work that is emotionally taxing with few role models who looked like me. At this juncture in my career, the Unity Summit proved fortuitous.
At the Unity Summit, I saw my previous world and philanthropy collide. This was evident in the content – which focused on investing in movements to advance equity – as well as the softer, intangible ways the convening was designed to create organic authentic connections. The sessions that were put on by the various Change Philanthropy partners really spoke to me. These were the folks who are inspiring me to think bigger, longer term, and more holistically. These were the folks with whom I can have conversations where I can rely on shorthand forged by common experiences and outlooks to cut to the chase.
I stayed behind to chat after sessions because I wanted to learn more and to soak in the collective wisdom of the group. I reconnected with old friends and introduced others, expanding the network of people who should know each other. We broke bread and drank wine; we had conversations about challenges to this work in this field. We shared stories and strategies between sessions. So I sought, I showed up, and I found the people I was searching for. It was the salve that my soul needed.
While I probably will not be able to see everyone as frequently as I’d like, I know that I would reflect back on these cherished memories when times get tough. It was and is the restorative source that we tap into as we collectively combat the onslaught of hate and fear coursing through the fabric of America today.
Wing Li is the senior manager of operations for Grantmakers for Effective Organizations ensuring smooth and strategic operations. She mainly focuses on accounting and finance, office management, and IT management. In her spare time, she likes to travel, cook, and learn about different cultures. She is a member of the Washington D.C. AAPIP chapter.