In Dialogue: The Birth of The Generosity Network

In Dialogue: The Birth of The Generosity Network

A conversation with The Generosity Network founders, Jeff Walker and Jennifer McCrea.


Karl:  So The Generosity Network started with the two of you.  How did you first meet?

Jennifer:  Our paths had crossed several times, since Jeff and I were both involved in the worlds of fundraising, philanthropy, and nonprofit work here in New York.  Our mutual friend Ray Chambers had introduced us.  But it was at the Harvard Club on 44th Street that we had our first real conversation.

Jeff:  Right.  The circles keep circling.  These opportunities to connect.  You start noticing links that you should take advantage of, people in the same interest groups, people following the same paths.  You start to open yourself up to them.  And once you’re open, a lot of things start to happen.  You discover people who share your passions, and all these people start to circle around you in many different ways, and continue to circle back to you in other forms later on.

I think these lasting relationships are what differentiates the deeply connective model of philanthropy from the transactional model.  In the transactional model, a philanthropic gift is a one-off, quid-pro-quo with limited impact on your life and on the world.  In the connective model, the networks are continuously open, cycling and feeding and supporting each other through intense periods and less-intense periods.  And people you never knew before keep popping up, linked through friends and friends of friends, and begin joining with groups of others to do some really cool stuff together, with impacts you can’t possibly predict in advance.

Karl:  So ultimately it was Ray Chambers who made the introduction back in 2005 and said you two should get together.

Jeff:  He’s the man.

Karl:  Jennifer, how did you know Ray?

Jennifer:  It’s funny, but I can’t really remember.  I think what happened is I was working with Quincy Jones, and Ray was starting to put together the Millennium Promise board, and he wanted to reach out to Quincy. So Ray somehow got to me and asked to have a lunch to talk to me about what Millennium Promise was doing and see if I would be able to engage Quincy in the process.

Jeff:  So Ray introduced us, and then Jennifer and I met at the Harvard Club, and my memory is that we sat at a table for two in the large dining room, just past the room where Ivan Boesky used to hang out in the corner and next to the room where the elephant Teddy Roosevelt shot still hangs on the wall.  And so Jennifer and I sat by a window and just started getting to know each other.

Jennifer: We just kind of jumped right into asking, How can we collaborate?  What can we do together?  I remember before I left that lunch, Jeff said to me, “Here are the names and numbers of five people you have to meet.” You know, many people are really guarded with their networks.  It’s a testament to the flow state we got into that Jeff and I just immediately had all these points of connection to follow up.  Today, of course, our networks are so blended, it’s just one giant network.

Karl:  In other words, from the start there was something special about the connection between the two of you.

Jeff:  A connection, for sure. I like to connect to people, and so I will risk making a connection even before I’m totally sure that it’ll work.  I like networking and connecting people—it’s just kind of fun to do.

Jennifer:  It’s a spectrum when you’re meeting people. Something special actually happens in a first meeting that’s authentic, and you’re breaking down barriers.

Karl:  Was the first meeting between you two something like that?

Jennifer:  I would say yeah.

Jeff:  To my memory, it was two people with the same approach, the same sense of openness, looking for common interests and common connections.

Jennifer:  What I think is interesting is that you can break down that wall in the very first meeting.  Most people go into a first meeting and start selling  or pitching.  We’re always selling something—ourselves, if nothing else.  And we worry: What do they think about me?  Am I making a good impression?  That is just a recipe for disconnection and limiting your relationship with each other.

Jeff:  Back at that lunch, we explored different ways to work our networks and connect.  We started talking about how we could bring like-minded people together. How do we get people to self-organize?  How do we get true discussions going so that people are really open to each other?  It’s a joint passion of ours and an important challenge.

Jennifer:   I think that opening up and protecting a space for these kinds of dialogues is a skill that can be learned.  Soon after I started my own salon for open conversations—I call it Puresite—I actually put a website up which Jeff edited that explained how to organize a salon.  I know lots of people who say they’d like to hold their own salons, but no one really seems to do it.  It seems that gathering a group together and holding the space for it is not that easy to do.

Jeff:  Yet everybody loves connecting and participating in the protected conversations that a privileged space makes possible.

Karl:  What are the characteristics of that kind of space?

Jennifer:  I’m not sure.  Size is part of it.  It’s not so big that you’re kind of a nameless, faceless crowd, and it’s not so small that you don’t feel the sense of a community building, with solidarity and commitment to each other.  Making up your mind that you’re going to do something together—which we don’t do in the Puresite salon—certainly helps to form a community.  You could feel it happen in the Exponential Fundraising class, when it went from twenty individuals with their separate problems and goals to a community of shared, mutual interests.

Maybe not everybody is ready for that kind of open connection. Some people feel more comfortable keeping everything separate—business life and personal life and philanthropy.  And that makes it hard to talk openly with people about things that really matter to you. But I think most of us have been over that for a long time now.  At least, we need to be over it as a species . . .