A view of Boston's historic Pilot House from the harbor

Matt Conti

Investing in Nonprofits’ Most Essential Assets: Leaders

Historically, less than one percent of foundation giving has gone to leadership development. A recent SSIR blog series offered a forum for foundation leaders, including Barr’s Jim Canales, to weigh in on smart ways to change that equation.

When I arrived at the Barr Foundation last year, one of my first priorities was to work with our founding trustees to articulate a set of values to guide the foundation now and for years to come. I introduced these in my Fall 2014 "From the President" message. One of these core values is to “invest in leaders.” We seek to support effective visionary, and collaborative leaders, who motivate others, drive change, and produce results.

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This conviction is why I eagerly contributed to a recent series in Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR). Called "Talent Matters," the series aimed to advance a conversation about how the social sector can make talent a bigger priority. Among those sharing their perspectives were esteemed foundation colleagues Daniel Lee, executive director at Levi Strauss Foundation; Pamela Shifman, executive director of the NoVo Foundation; Donna Stark, vice president of talent and leadership development of the Annie E. Casey Foundation; and Ira Hirschfield, president and trustee of the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund.

As Ira highlighted in his piece that initiated the series, less than one percent of overall foundation giving went to leadership development between 1992 and 2011. Drawing on the examples of a number of funders who have prioritized this issue, in my article, I offered four guiding principles—four Es—for funders considering how to invest in nonprofit leadership:

  • Encourage Customization: At its core and at its best, executive 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.
  • Entrust Leaders: The best philanthropy enables leaders to do their 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.
  • Expand Horizons: When given the opportunity to step back from the day-to-day demands, leaders are able to expose themselves to different ways of thinking. Sabbatical programs are one way that nonprofit leaders can return to their work refreshed, energized and full of new ideas.
  • Engage Others: 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 governance.

Prioritizing the sustained development of nonprofit leaders could mean a higher return on foundation investments. I hope this conversation sparked by the SSIR series continues to be prominent in the social sector as we strategize for greater impact.

Read the full article, "What is a Leadership Funder?" or visit SSIR’s series "Talent Matters."

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