Investing in Leadership to Accelerate Philanthropic Impact

Why some foundations are making leadership development a core part of their grantmaking strategy.

Talent Matters Talent Matters Talent Matters is a blog series exploring how nonprofit leaders have achieved real-world results through an emphasis on talent.

Less than 1 percent. That’s the portion of overall foundation giving that went to leadership development between 1992 and 2011.

Foundations ask a great deal of the organizations we support—to strengthen community, meet urgent needs for services, solve complex environmental problems, influence public policy, and build and sustain movements for change. In short, we hope grantees will deliver transformational results for the people and places they serve. So it’s striking how seldom we back that up with funds to help organizations develop and strengthen the ability of their leaders to meet those high expectations.

People are not born with everything it takes to manage and motivate a team, build coalitions, and lead change—and are certainly not born knowing how to be good board members. These are skills that current and future leaders develop as they are doing actual work. Leaders who have the opportunity to reflect on their strategies and hone their skills make better choices, develop innovative solutions and forge stronger collaborations.

This is what leadership development is about—and to the extent that foundations decide it is important and fund it, then we and our grantees will be better positioned to achieve our goals for impact.

The private sector allocates billions of dollars to leadership development because they know that skilled leaders are a powerful investment. In light of the social sector’s relatively small investment, I think it’s worth asking whether we are capitalizing leadership effectively.

At the Haas, Jr. Fund, we view investment in leadership as a core strategy to accelerate our foundation’s impact. An important question we ask ourselves is: What kind of leadership is needed at the individual, organizational, or network level to achieve our program priorities, and how can we invest in that?

For example, to advance the foundation’s goal of establishing gay marriage rights, we allocate substantial funding specifically to strengthening the leadership capacity of individuals and organizations central to the movement. We also partner with the Arcus Foundation and Gill Foundation to bring more diversity to the LBGT movement, supporting an initiative to help talented people of color advance into senior leadership roles—the Pipeline Project.

Given limited grantmaking resources and competing priorities, it’s reasonable to probe the added value of investing in leadership. Evaluation is one way to address this; for example, we did a formal evaluation of our Flexible Leadership Awards that showed how the program boosted impact.

It’s also important to hear what grantee leaders themselves have to say to funders on the matter. Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, explains: “It’s like adding protein powder to your other grants. If you want your other grants to be successful—if you want your grantees to do the best job in meeting their deliverables and moving the ball forward in their movements—you have to invest in leadership development.”

Over the next three months of the Talent Matters blog series, you will hear perspectives from six foundation leaders who agree with Rea Carey. They will share why they support leadership development and show how these investments advance their foundations’ broader programmatic priorities.

These leaders come from a diverse array of foundations in terms of size, region, and funding priorities. Some are focused on strengthening leadership in nonprofit organizations, some are investing in public sector leadership, and some are building leadership at the network or movement level.

While each foundation’s approach to investing in leadership is distinctive, they share attributes that our experience suggests are important. Chief among these are that leadership is best cultivated over time and that support is tailored to specific priorities and needs; in other words, this is not about a foundation coming in and telling grantees what to do. Nor is it simply about sending executive directors to single training sessions. Rather, it is about helping build leadership at the multiple levels needed to support broader goals.

Here are some of people you will be hearing from in the weeks ahead:

  • Donna Stark, vice president, Talent and Leadership Development of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, will discuss how important it is for leadership development to begin with the end in mind—to clearly define a “result” toward which individuals and groups working on social change can direct their leadership energy;
  • Surina Khan, incoming chief executive officer of the Women's Foundation of California, will spotlight efforts to expand the diversity of leaders in a field, in this case how funders are working to increase the representation of women leaders in public policy;
  • Pamela Shifman, executive director of the NoVo Foundation, will highlight the importance of understanding and supporting a movement’s specific leadership needs, and will share NoVo’s approach to strengthening leadership in the movement to end violence against girls and women;
  • Jim Canales, president of the Barr Foundation, will offer a set of principles to guide foundations who want to maximize the effectiveness of their investment in leadership development as a core strategy to achieve broader goals; and
  • Daniel Lee, executive director at Levi Strauss Foundation, will share some reflections and ideas for how to demonstrate the value proposition of investing in leadership to foundation board members.

I hope their reflections will inspire more of us to explore what lies behind philanthropy’s chronic underinvestment in leadership and see new possibilities. Investing in leadership doesn’t just deliver higher performance; it can also deliver a better, more equitable world.

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  • BY Gary Steuer

    ON September 11, 2014 11:52 AM

    Take a look at the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation’s Livingston Fellowship program - a nonprofit sector leadership effort we have been operating in Colorado for 10 years. It is a pretty extraordinary program - and the web site does not do it justice (we are working on that!). http://bonfils-stantonfoundation.org/leadership-development/livingston-fellowship-program/

  • BY Caroline Williamson

    ON September 11, 2014 01:15 PM

    We have been working on an Adaptive Leadership collaborative grant for the past year - it is a 3 year grant for senior staff of 3 organizations to learn the Adaptive Leadership framework together and then practice applying the framework to a specific challenge with a coach at each organization separately as well. The Executive Directors have enjoyed the positive side effects of the collaboration as well as the leadership training.

  • Nelson T. Enojo's avatar

    BY Nelson T. Enojo

    ON September 11, 2014 05:44 PM

    Yes, even to the smallest, the poorest among the poorest sector of society stands a potential leader.  Though she/he may lack leadership skills, it is also our duty in the professional world to look for this talents.

  • BY Bridget Jancarz

    ON September 12, 2014 06:35 AM

    At StriveTogether, we have been investigating the role of investors in collective impact initiatives. Conversations with communities and investors across the country have led us to three pertinent lessons on how investors can intentionally engage in collective impact and shift their behaviors and practices to ultimately align and impact a shared common outcome. Investment in and cultivation of leaders, leadership skills, and the talent pipeline are tenets of a key lesson on the role of investors. We recently published a blog on this topic (http://www.strivetogether.org/blog/) that highlights the importance of building the talent pipeline, training leadership, and changing investor staff roles.

    Career paths to provide people with skills necessary to move this work forward are still nascent as the field continues to emerge and evolve. Investors can support infrastructure to cultivate leaders, while reflecting on their internal roles and processes that can ultimately lead to systemic change.

    Collective impact requires leadership to understand both the technical and adaptive challenges presented by systems change - helping partners align and change their behaviors, keeping the result at the center of all the work. We believe that this type of leadership, and the skills that accompany it, are vital to the success of all collective impact initiatives.

  • BY Alan Foster

    ON September 15, 2014 08:39 AM

    A worthy topic and article.  We make the distinction between leadership selection and leadership development.  If <1% is going into development, only a fraction is going into getting better at selection.  Yet most leaders agree that hiring the right people in the first place is a big part of the answer.  Hiring well, stops you from investing in leadership development in the wrong people.  I would agree Foundations have an important role to play in helping boards and senior leaders to raise their game here too.  So far it is sadly a neglected area.

  • Gizelle Clemens's avatar

    BY Gizelle Clemens

    ON September 16, 2014 07:08 AM

    It could be safe to say that many foundations don’t invest in leadership development in nonprofit organizations because they don’t often do it in their own organizations. If it were valued internally, it would be valued externally. The impact leadership development has on an organization could be seen firsthand.

  • BY Rahsaan Harris

    ON September 16, 2014 12:43 PM

    Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (EPIP) has been leading the field of nonprofit leadership development for more than a decade. We are a national network of foundation professionals and social entrepreneurs who strive for excellence in the practice of philanthropy, committed to working together to build a just, equitable and sustainable society. In 2012, we launched our Generating Change initiative, a set of case studies highlighting the work of foundations who support talent development in their grantee organizations. That initiative was spearheaded by EPIP’s Founder, Rusty Stahl, who now serves as The Talent Philanthropy Project’s President and CEO where he continues to advocate for support of talent development in the sector. EPIP continues to be an important resource for individuals who are new to philanthropy and are passionate about developing themselves as change agents, regardless of whether they receive professional development from their employers. We are filling the need for a pipeline of passionate, committed, talented nonprofit leaders. Please visit us at http://www.epip.org

  • BY Jenna Cooper

    ON September 16, 2014 01:50 PM

    Thank you, Ira, for writing about a topic that is continuously under-represented. The Nonprofit Leadership Alliance is a network of 50 universities and national nonprofits and 9,000+ Certified Nonprofit Professionals (CNPs). Our CNP credential is helping to build the talent pipeline nonprofits need to move the needle from surviving to thriving. Recent research from LinkedIn shows that our CNPs remain in the sector 50% longer and are seven times more likely to rise to director+ level (compared to non-CNPs). However, even with programs like ours, too many best-and-brightest candidates are passing up careers in the nonprofit sector – mainly due to lack of information. This is no surprise considering only 10% of higher ed institutions offer programs in nonprofit studies. We look forward to your blog series and continuing the conversation of how we can both support the leadership in the sector – and increase the number of talented professionals who choose this career path.

    Jenna Cooper, CNP
    Nonprofit Leadership Alliance

  • BY Alexandra Mitchell

    ON September 17, 2014 07:47 AM

    I’m so pleased that interest in this topic in gaining momentum. Thank you! My colleague, Jeff Pryor, and I have been conducting research and providing services on this topic for years. Sometimes it feels like pushing a rope, but we’re determined. We are just now finishing up a book based on fabulous interviews with all kinds of people - famous and ordinary, which will be out next March, entitled “Compassionate Careers: Making a Living by Making a Difference.” This book is aimed at encouraging young people to seek careers in the social sector. We also run a research and advisory firm, Pathfinder Solutions, which is focused on organizational capacity-building and talent development. Inspiring people to join the field and helping organizations recruit, develop and retain talent are two sides of the same coin. You can’t invite people to dinner and not have any food in the house.

  • I am so surprised to see all this (worthy) conversation about leadership development without reference to pay and benefits. My experience is that most people leave the field for a combination of reasons. A big piece of that combination is the lack of a career path - and commensurate increase in salary - over time. In addition, many small nonprofits (below $2m) don’t offer retirement packages. How can we expect young leaders to stay in the field if they don’t see an investment in themselves that helps them pay the rent and plan for the future? I think that salaries and benefits such as retirement planning are going to be the big issues of our field in the coming years, especially as they pertain to leadership retention and development.

  • BY James W Shepard, Jr.

    ON September 24, 2014 02:48 PM

    Thanks, Ira, for the great addition to this extended blog series on talent and leadership. As one of the earlier series contributors (http://bit.ly/1rkJ98p), let me point to some useful resources aligned with the particular approach to leadership development that your article espouses.
    - Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (EPIP) did a case study (http://bit.ly/1wLLknc) on leadership investments made by the Kresge and Kellogg foundations as part of EPIP’s series on nonprofit and talent and leadership development. The case study expands on your point that most leadership capabilities are gained as leaders are “doing actual work.”
    - The Annie E. Casey Foundation funded a case study (http://bit.ly/1yrlIR4) on an investment they had made in the leadership development capacity of one of their grantees. The case study provides a useful framework nonprofits and foundations can use to answer your suggested question, “What kind of leadership is needed at the individual, organizational, or network level to achieve our program priorities, and how can we invest in that?”
    - Finally, your point that “The private sector allocates billions of dollars to leadership development because they know that skilled leaders are a powerful investment,” is echoed in a recent Bridgespan interview (http://bit.ly/1rnsEcW) with Mike Markovits who formerly ran worldwide leadership development at IBM and before that GE, and with Tom Eddington who formally set up leadership development programs at several corporations as a Partner at one of the largest and oldest human capital consulting firms. Both are now successfully adapting these practices to help nonprofits cost-effectively develop the current and future leaders they need.

  • Ira Hirschfield's avatar

    BY Ira Hirschfield

    ON October 2, 2014 04:53 PM

    Thanks to all of you for your interesting and informative comments. I think the examples referenced by many of you help demonstrate that philanthropic underinvestment in leadership cannot be blamed on lack of good models or lack of evidence of impact.
    I hope you stay tuned to the Talent Matters series and look forward to reading any comments you might have on the perspectives to come.

  • BY Jessica Mele

    ON October 14, 2014 03:02 PM

    As the ED of a mid-sized nonprofit, and someone who was nurtured as a young leader, I had strong feelings in response to this post. On the one hand, I am so pleased to see foundations like the Haas, Jr. Fund investing in leadership development in the nonprofit field. I have been the recipient of these kinds of investments. Now, I am reflecting on leadership development a lot. I have hired young leaders, and seen many good leaders leave my organization or the field as a whole for a myriad of reasons. Here’s where I am with this conversation: I believe that investment in leadership development in the nonprofit field will only go so far without investment in pay and benefits for those who work in the field.

    The work we do is important. “Nonprofits collectively employ more Americans than the construction, finance, and insurance industries combined. In many states, nonprofit employment exceeds 10 percent of the workforce and represents one of the top two or three industries.” (Council of Nonprofits)  And yet, pay is between 20-30% lower than that of the private sector.  And benefits don’t even come close to comparison with the private sector.

    Here in San Francisco, the cost of living has never been higher in our organization’s 50 year history. And I regret to say that our salaries have not kept pace with those costs. We are not alone.This issue is particularly acute in small to mid-sized organizations (below $2m), where staff is thin, pay is low, and the work is no less demanding. However, I believe that nonprofits - and particularly, the funders who support them, must make a stand when it comes to investment in the workforce, by advocating for a living wage for nonprofit workers.

    Equally important is investment in retirement planning - something that small organizations have little capacity to do. There is no shortage of comparison studies of nonprofit pay and benefits. As an employer, I review these annually with my board members. Our salaries seem in line with other organizations of our size. But, is that good enough? If salaries across the board are low, are we holding ourselves to an appropriate standard?

    Lack of investment in nonprofit pay and benefits ensures that only those with means will enter and stay in the profession. Support for fair and livable wages for nonprofit workers ensures a diverse workforce that will stay for the long haul. It seems that any meaningful discussion about leadership development in the nonprofit field must include a conversation about pay and benefits.

    Thank you!
    Jessica Mele

  • Sai Seigel's avatar

    BY Sai Seigel

    ON October 15, 2014 06:01 PM

    Thanks for calling attention to this vital issue.

    The Bayview Hunters Point Community Fund just released a final report to share what we learned over our 13-year grantmaking and capacity building initiative that supported 30 small youth development organizations within the Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood of San Francisco.

    Our original goal was to help build the organizational and programmatic capacity of our grantees. We quickly realized that to be effective, our capacity building activities needed to be much more individualized, responsive, and personal than we originally anticipated.

    Among our key lessons was the importance of supporting the whole leader. We found that formal training in nonprofit management training wasn’t always useful for very small organizations in under-resourced communities. It can be hard for our passionate and visionary leaders to prioritize capacity building in the face of community violence and other crises. Our grantees needed more than hard skill building and leadership development training. They needed time and support to nurture their softer leadership skills. To help our grantee partners cope with prevalent burnout and community trauma, we combined our capacity building support with activities for individual reflection, self-care, and healing. You can learn more about our work at http://www.bayviewfund.org.

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