One of my first assignments as a young program officer in the mid-1990s was to identify effective approaches to nonprofit leadership development. At that time, the field consisted of many good programs that addressed skill development and offered broader networking and peer-learning opportunities. The foundation decided to approach this domain of grantmaking in much the same way it did most of its work: We scanned the landscape, consulted with field experts, clarified and communicated a set of funding priorities, and identified aligned organizations and awarded grants. We were now leadership funders.
But times have changed and for the better. Over the years, many in philanthropy have come to realize that leadership development is not a stand-alone, separate domain. Indeed, building, fostering, and enhancing the leadership abilities of nonprofit partners is inextricably linked to the success of practically any activity that foundations support. We cannot overstate the centrality of effective leadership toward impact and outcomes.
So how has leadership funding evolved?
Thanks to a number of funders who have prioritized this issue, invested in a variety of approaches, and shared their lessons, we can understand how philanthropic support of leadership development has evolved.
Rather than a single-dose approach that confines leadership development to trainings, workshops, or retreats, we are increasingly seeing a focus on the ongoing and sustained development of leaders. And while particular approaches differ, let me suggest four common guiding principles—four Es, which I elaborate on below—for funders considering how to invest in one of the nonprofit sector’s most essential assets: its people.
- Encourage customization
- Entrust leaders
- Expand horizons
- Engage others
For many years, executive coaching has been a staple of leadership development in the corporate sector. It is now seeing wider adoption in the nonprofit community. At its core and at its best, coaching is a highly customized activity that considers a leader’s particular skills, context, and opportunities. With the guidance and support of a trained executive coach, leaders can realize their full potential. Such relationships are inherently time-intensive and more expensive than group trainings, but they can have significant payoff. My own experiences with coaching served to push my thinking, challenge my assumptions, and hold me accountable to results. I know others who can speak to similarly productive experiences with coaching that underscore the power and effectiveness of customization.
The best philanthropy enables leaders to do their best work without prescribing a path to the desired results. In this spirit, foundations should provide flexible resources that permit the leaders to identify how best to advance their goals. In recent years, both The James Irvine Foundation and the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund have taken this approach to supporting leadership, and each has documented publicly both its approach (Irvine, Haas) and lessons (Irvine, Haas). In philanthropy, we often speak of the value of partnership and collaboration, but there is no more empowering gesture than to offer trusted partners the resources, freedom, and support to address their leadership aspirations in ways that work best for the leaders.
Numerous foundations, such as the California Wellness, Durfee, and Barr foundations, have developed sabbatical programs for nonprofit leaders. While we often associate sabbaticals with taking a break, many of the leaders in these programs use this gift of time away from day-to-day demands to broaden their horizons, break out of familiar patterns, and expose themselves to new ideas and approaches. I cannot overstate the value of these experiences. Leaders return reinvigorated, refreshed, and energized—and, as importantly, they bring new ways of thinking and doing to their organizations, amplifying the benefit. And there can be similar benefits for those in the organization who step up and provide leadership during sabbaticals, as it offers those individuals a way to broaden their skills and engage differently as organizational leaders.
Related to this last point, too often, leadership development programs focus solely on the organization’s chief executive. Yet, as most talented chief executives will tell you, their success is highly dependent upon other leaders across the organization, at the staff and board level. Given this, funders would do well to actively support leadership teams and seek to build more effective systems for organizational leadership and governance. As part of the Barr Fellows program at our foundation, which entails a sabbatical for the fellows, we regularly convene the interim leaders at their organizations for peer learning and mutual support. We also provide general operating support for the organizations, which has been used in the past for professional development of the leadership teams that remain behind. Approaches such as these broaden the impact of our investments as funders, ensuring robust leadership across an organization, and advance the prospects for succession and growth of leaders across the sector.
As funders, we often extol concepts such as “leverage” and “multiplier effects” to extend the impact of our dollars. That makes sense as we aim to effectively apply our finite resources toward ambitious social missions. In that spirit, it is difficult to conceive a higher return on investment than supporting the ongoing growth of visionary, talented, and effective leaders. After all, our sector will never make the progress we seek without strong and well-supported leaders to guide the work.