Sharmila Rao Thakkar is the Executive Director of The Siragusa Foundation. She is responsible for providing expertise on and directing all operational, programmatic and administrative functions of the foundation. She guides the board's funding decisions, engages the next generations in their leadership development, and provides strategic direction on grantmaking and other grantee outreach and community partnership initiatives. Sharmila co-chairs the National Center for Family Philanthropy's Non-Family Peer Network and participates as an advisor/mentor in Exponent Philanthropy's Next Gen Fellows Program. Sharmila also serves on the boards of Allowance for Good, the South Asian Philanthropy Project and the Women's Funding Network.
Part 1: On obtaining leadership skills as an emerging leader in philanthropy
What are some resources that address obtaining task-based, tangible skills and leadership skills?
Nowadays there are many formal educational programs and opportunities in addition to the informal colleague workshops and sessions that are also an incredible resource. Certificate programs, graduate courses of study and one-off training programs provide education on the “hard skills” and soft skills that are called for in leading our nonprofit and philanthropic organizations. See this list for local and national leadership development and fellowship programs that build content learning and personal-professional skill development into the curriculum.
Develop a set of mentors, of peers. Folks you spend time with in the professional space who see you in action that you can periodically ask for feedback on how you’re doing with specific areas that you’re working on and looking to grow in.
You can also keep learning and growing by volunteering to be on a committee, board, or associate board. It’s a way to be exposed to different work environments, styles and projects and learn beyond the few ways your workplace offers. Coaching can also be a worthwhile experience. You should be ready to come with general areas you’d like to work on and feel comfortable sharing specific scenarios that have been challenging. Part of leadership development is realizing that it involves ongoing learning, assessment, tweaking. A good coach takes the time to get to know you and understand where you want to go.
What comes to mind when you think about leadership in philanthropy?
Learning… I find that to be a leader in this sector, one must be willing to realize that we are not the experts. This work is about partnership and collaboration, perhaps most importantly with those on the ground doing the work.
Trust and Patience… Relationship building is key. I’m reminded of the proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.
Generosity & Flexibility… We’re in the business of caring and that generosity must extend over to how we treat others personally and professionally. Whether we like it or plan on it, philanthropy carries such a responsibility and privilege.
We cannot underestimate the power and importance of empathy in this work. Philanthropy is about this love of humanity and human connection. We must keep strong that bond to each other and continually ensure we are aligning with our core values.
Courage & Confidence… Be bold in your thinking with a sense of urgency so as to inspire and energize but practice with patience and confidence such that those around you come with you and are allowed to lead.
Isn’t it “easier” to be on the grantmaking side?
Easy is relative. As grantmakers, we often take a wider lens in terms of knowledge, understanding and perspective sometimes making us generalists which can be challenging. We also must able to travel seamlessly between different environs, requiring different prowess in communicating, navigating, negotiating, etc. Most often we are not the ones doing the work, and that distance from the change happening on the ground can be difficult when you may be used to that level of intimacy with and responsibility over an issue, cause or project
While EPIP doesn’t define “emerging” as young, many of us are. What do you suggest to manage the challenges of being taken seriously as a young grantmaker?
I think even as we age depending on how we look, act and speak, we can be perceived as “young.” It’s a persistent challenge and often one I hear women face more than men. I believe that age should be no barrier and while that is the generally accepted principle, I know all too well that doesn’t always pan out. I am a strong proponent of letting your actions and words and product speak for you. Think before you act and always be prepared. With more experience you’ll see how invaluable it is to anticipate and forecast. Knowing when to ask questions versus questioning is just as important as being able to deliver what you do know.