Choosing Leadership Development – and Spilling the Best-Kept Secret in Philanthropy

This post was authored by Elizabeth Ramirez, and first appeared on March 26, 2015 on NCRP's blog at:



PioneersinJusticeBy: Elizabeth Ramirez

NCRP Editor’s Note: This piece is the second in a series featuring leadership development experts on the value they’ve found in NCRP’s new report,Cultivating Nonprofit Leadership: A (Missed?) Philanthropic Opportunity. For past posts, click here.

Supporting nonprofit leadership development has clear benefits for the leaders themselves, their organizations and their movements. As detailed in NCRP’s new report, Cultivating Nonprofit Leadership:  A (Missed?) Philanthropic Opportunity, it disrupts usual ways of thinking, builds the networks needed to win, prevents burnout and supports organizational sustainability by “building the bench.”

However a high-impact strategy, leadership development is a niche funding priority in philanthropy, and only a mere handful of foundations have dedicated significant resources to it. NCRP’s analysis, looking at 10 years of Foundation Center data, shows that less than 1 percent of the total dollars granted by the top 1,000 foundation went to leadership development.

This shouldn’t be the case: investing in leadership is smart philanthropy that benefits not just grantees but the foundations themselves. In my previous tenure at the Levi Strauss Foundation (LSF), we got up close and personal with the riches and complexities of supporting leadership development through our Pioneers in Justice initiative – and discovered unexpected benefits along the way. (For more about Pioneers in Justice, which trained eight Bay Area leaders in network-building, read Daniel Lee’s “A Briefing for Foundations on Pioneering Nonprofit Leadership” in the winter issue of Responsive Philanthropy.)

As Daniel mentions, investing in leadership requires funders to “expand their toolkit” by playing a range of roles that go beyond typical grantmaking: convener, organizer, relationship broker, listener, policy promoter and knowledge disseminator. Much like how a nonprofit leader’s participation in a leadership program can disrupt his or her way of thinking and lead to new approaches, when a foundation flexes new muscles, it can lead to responsive innovation across program areas. 

To illustrate, a core part of the Pioneers in Justice initiative were bi-monthly, half-day  convenings for peer learning, skill-building workshops or discussions with guest speakers. These sessions have proven critical for building trust both among the group and with the foundation, as well as providing opportunities to access high-value speakers and resources. The impact of these sessions was so striking that LSF has since held international convenings of its HIV/AIDS and worker rights and well-being grantees, resulting in skill-building to help leverage grant dollars as well as the development of new curricula and resources.

Additionally, the Pioneers’ forums provided an ongoing feedback loop about what the grantees found to be valuable and where they were facing challenges. Needless to say, this level of transparency requires that both the funder and the grantee navigate an uncommon level of vulnerability. On the funder’s end, it requires a comfort with uncertainty and an openness to hearing feedback if a strategy isn’t working as anticipated. For a grantee, it means a new way of communicating with a funder. At the end of the day, it helps both do their work better.

This feedback loop is critical to refining grantmaking – making it responsive to the needs and aspirations of nonprofit leaders and helping every grant dollar go further. For example, it became clear that a critical bolster to the Pioneers’ social justice work is increasing their capacity to serve as spokespeople for their movements. In response, LSF is providing flexible grant support for leadership development activities such as working with writing coaches, increasing internal communications capacity and traveling to thought-leadership spaces. On the flip side, feedback is critical in helping to determine what is providing less value.

As noted in Cultivating Nonprofit Leadership, investing in nonprofit leadership development can help prevent burnout. For funders who are investing heavily in organizations, it’s smart grantmaking to support leadership development that addresses self-care and helps keep leaders in their roles. At the same time, it is a reality that no leadership program can fully counteract the personal and professional factors that lead to turnover.

During the past five years, the Levi Strauss Foundation learned this the hard way when four of our Pioneers left their positions. Leadership departures shouldn’t be something for organizations to fear, but to examine. Would an earlier intervention have helped retain the leader? However, while leaders may leave their positions, they are generally not leaving the social sector. (Of the transitions in LSF’s cohort, one leader went to another social justice nonprofit, one joined a progressive foundation and one is working in public interest law in academia.) And as a particular benefit to LSF, program alumni are in the best position to provide candid feedback about what they found most valuable and where the Pioneers program could improve.

Cultivating Nonprofit Leadership:  A (Missed?) Philanthropic Opportunity spills one of the best kept secrets in philanthropy: Investing in nonprofit leadership development is a high-impact strategy that pays off for not just the leaders, but for funders as well. To those grantmakers that are already funding leadership development, what are other benefits that you’ve found along the way? What do you know now that you wish you knew at the outset? And to those considering entering the field, what would help you make the case to key decision-makers in your foundation?

Elizabeth Ramirez is senior manager at the Social Impact Exchange, and former senior program associate at Levi Strauss Foundation. Follow @SIExchange and join the #CultivateNonprofitLeadership conversation on Twitter.

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