Exploring GEO’s Approach to Equitable Conference Planning

  • By Kaitlyn Borysiewicz, August 15, 2022

Earlier this spring, GEO hosted our in-person 2022 National Conference in Chicago. For three days, grantmakers and other practitioners had the chance to come together, explore challenges and uncover solutions in service of creating a just, connected and inclusive society where we can all thrive. While a few months have passed since we gathered together, we wanted to spend a moment diving into the details of what it took for our team to plan and pull together an in-person and virtual experience for our participants. I spoke with Allison Beck and Allison Punch-Turner, two of GEO’s core conference team members, who shared their insights and lessons learned after a year of planning.

As our conference team, what did it feel like to be in-person after months and months of planning?  

Allison Beck: This was my first conference as a GEO staff member. There was much anticipation and excitement in planning GEO’s first in-person conference, especially around our safety policies that helped participants engage with each other in ways that were most comfortable for them. After a long lead-up of planning, it was powerful to put faces to emails and chat with our community outside of our Zoom boxes. I loved seeing ecstatic reunions between GEO members, experiencing (even if briefly) the vibrancy of Chicago – I felt a sense of relief to see it all come together. I am grateful for the ways that our community, GEO staff, speakers and session designers put so much thoughtful effort into planning and delivery of our gathering, both in-person and online. 

Allison Punch-Turner: Being in-person was both incredibly rewarding and incredibly jarring. While I’ve been on the conference team for nearly three years, due to the pandemic, this was my first in-person conference as a Program Manager, so I experienced it very differently for a multitude of reasons. So much has happened for us as individuals and for the philanthropic sector in the past two years – it’s impossible to capture how it felt. The GEO team is still predominately remote, so it was fun to be in-person. I was very grateful to connect with GEO staff and our committee members who contributed so much to the conference planning process.

This reminds me of something Dr. Shawn Ginwright of Flourish Agenda said at our second plenary session: “There’s something fundamental in how we relate to one another that matters.” Can you talk a bit about how you approached building intentional community? 

AB: Building intentional community was challenging. But to us, that meant it was worth the effort. One way we approached building intentional community was by rooting ourselves in place through our Land and Labor Acknowledgement. While Land and Labor Acknowledgements alone are just a starting point, we asked participants to reflect on their work in relation to the labor and land in their own communities, acknowledging that this call for a profound shift in grantmaking practices and priorities is not new.  

We leaned into one of GEO’s core beliefs that it takes multiple viewpoints and insights to create real change.

Allison Beck

This was the first time GEO experimented with drafting a written Land and Labor Acknowledgement – and we certainly didn’t do it alone. The first draft took a while to condense, research and decide on what other resources to include. The conference team also focused on learning about the land’s history, as well as Land and Labor Acknowledgements more broadly. We created a GEO sub-team to provide feedback on the Acknowledgement and then sought further guidance from the American Indian Center of Chicago, who graciously shared their experiences, research, and perspectives. As an example of collaboration at work, we leaned into one of GEO’s core beliefs that it takes multiple viewpoints and insights to create real change.  

Of course, no conference comes without its hiccups – and I hope sharing our journey at GEO helps others pinpoint areas of change within their own organizations. A big hurdle we faced was maintaining intentional community for our in-person and virtual participants. It was difficult at times to build a connection between the two audiences! Still, by setting up channels for participants to engage with us on social media or through Zoom chats, we got to see what was resonating with folks. These ever-evolving approaches aim to realize GEO’s long-term vision of equipping courageous grantmakers to work in service of nonprofits and communities, inspiring self-determination and cultivating resilience for an equitable, inclusive future.  

Taking us back to the plenaries, Carolyn Wang Kong of Blue Shield of California Foundation reminded us that people don’t show up as one experience and that we need to expand our perspectives to expand our solutions. I think we saw this in the range of topics represented. How did you approach the overall conference design? 

APT: It is important that we reflect the communities we seek to serve in our conference planning processes. While GEO aims to highlight a multitude of perspectives, the pandemic created challenges for how we showcased nonprofit and community voices.

One very valuable piece of feedback we received was the challenge of funders asking nonprofit partners to travel to a conference when there were real accessibility concerns – be it health and safety, financial or time constraints – within an ongoing pandemic. As a solution, we encouraged speakers to incorporate local community and nonprofit voices into their sessions so there was less of a time commitment. We also recommend speakers feature nonprofit voices through video recordings, so that participants could still hear from them. Whether or not we were successful is up to nonprofits and communities who need to see the realized shift in funder practices that better serves them.

It’s our goal to include the voices and perspectives of those that have been historically marginalized from white dominant, US-centered philanthropy spaces.

Allison Punch-Turner

Another example was from one our session designers, Hanh Le of iF Foundation. She asked GEO to provide real-time interpretation in service of language justice. This presented a learning opportunity, as this was not something we’d incorporated in my time at GEO. We are continuing to improve our planning processes so both accessibility and language justice are infused throughout our conferences, not just included by request. It’s our goal to include the voices and perspectives of those that have been historically marginalized from white dominant, US-centered philanthropy spaces. 

What was something that you didn’t expect during the conference planning process?  

AB: For me, it was important to notice patterns of white dominant norms crop up in times of stress. In planning large-scale events – or in any aspect of our work, really – it’s easy to slip back into perfectionism and ‘whatever the cost’ mentalities to meet external and internal deadlines. At GEO, we try to account for these moments using “RPR” – or relationship, process, and results. All dimensions of the framework are important for collaborative efforts, not just results. I was also surprised by how many people it takes to put it on these conferences! GEO was supported by a cross-country community from our program and host committees, A/V teams and KN95 mask suppliers. We give lots of gratitude to those who helped make this possible, while also staying curious about how we could expand our circle even further in 2024. 

APT: I completely agree with what Allison said regarding white dominant norms. The process’s intensity could lead me to prioritize “results” rather than centering justice-focused relationships and processes. Also, while I knew the pandemic would be stressful, I think I was unable to anticipate the emotional and physical toll of planning an in-person event. We took our duty of care very seriously to ensure we were doing as much as we could to keep our participants and community safe while reckoning with the inherent tension and ableism in in-person gatherings.    

Before we go, I did want to circle back to your collective efforts to center accessibility in planning. This relates to what GEO’s Marcus Walton said about philanthropy needing to operate from what’s possible, not practical. Accessibility is often approached as an afterthought, but I know a lot went into consideration. What was that process like? 

APT: From the beginning, we knew we had to offer a virtual component. GEO offers remote learning, webinars and other gatherings virtually year-round but we wanted to be sure that our conference content would be accessible for those who were unable to be in-person. We livestreamed our “mainstage” sessions for virtual conference participants and invited them to be part of the conversation during our plenary Q&A using the conference app. The virtual Q&A turned out to be such a success that we are planning to utilize the function moving forward, another example of how Universal Design principles serve us all. It allowed folks to be braver in their questions and improved our Q&A moderation. 

Because we wanted to make our breakout and workshop sessions interactive, we opted not to create those as hybrids. Instead, we did a “virtual encore” of some of our sessions. Eight session designers and speakers graciously offered to present their sessions the week following the in-person component for virtual participants. It also gave those in-person participants an opportunity to further engage in the content and attend sessions they may have missed. While there are financial and time considerations involved in conference planning processes, accessibility must be a priority. Moving forward, we’re continuing to devote more resources to accessibility in future conferences. 

AB: Also on the virtual conference front, we started using Otter.ai, a live transcription service, which has since expanded to serve all of GEO’s programming. Although transcription services through Artificial Intelligence (AI) are not perfect, it’s important to GEO that we offer a captioning option for every one of our programs. But like building intentional communities, we still have much to learn about accessibility – as a staff and within the philanthropic sector. For instance, while we partnered with interpreters to translate some sessions, the interpreters told us it was not clear to participants that they were providing a necessary service – not interrupting speakers mid-session. This miscommunication revealed an area of improvement in our efforts to help those historically excluded from resources, information and opportunities. 

APT: We are always learning and iterating how we can improve our work with accessibility. As Allison mentioned, we offered captioning for our plenary and virtual sessions, as well as one Salon Conversation, but there are inevitable tech issues. I learned on-site that if the captioner loses access to the session, we should pause the conversation while we wait for the captioner to catch back up to ensure that all participants don’t miss any aspect of the live conversation. I’m always grateful for feedback and partnership in building out this critical area of our work.

Kaitlyn Borysiewicz

Communications Manager


Kaitlyn Borysiewicz is communications manager at Grantmakers for Effective Organizations. She is responsible for designing and implementing external marketing campaigns that support of GEO’s programmatic offerings.

Throughout her professional career, Kaitlyn has been most passionate about using communication and storytelling to move audiences to action in support of social justice. As a co-founder of a disability-owned social enterprise she designed and led a survey campaign to capture the experiences of women of color in the workplace and is the author of the subsequent brown paper.

In her previous role at Georgetown University Center for Children and Families, she managed the creation of an online children’s health trends report card, which provided state advocates a landscape view of children’s health and policies in their states. During this time, she also served on the McCourt School of Public Policy’s Inclusive Environments Committee where she surfaced strategies for retaining BIPOC staff and students.

She has been featured in Stanford Social Innovation Review, Mother Jones, Vox, Fortune, WAMU 88.5, and The Washington Post, among other outlets, talking about equity in the workplace. She serves as a steering committee member for the EPIP-DC chapter. Kaitlyn received her bachelor’s degree in Communications Studies from Christopher Newport University.