Voices from the Field: An Interview with Guidestar CEO, Jacob Harold

Jacob_HaroldIn an effort to help EPIP members gain value from the experience of professionals in the field, EPIP has started a new interview series. Blog readers will be able to learn valuable lessons from leaders in the field. This interview was conducted by Sophia Guevara, EPIP Social Media Fellow.

The next interview in this series is with Jacob Harold, President and CEO of Guidestar.

Could you provide a brief professional description of who you are and what you do?

I’ve had the great privilege of serving as President and CEO of GuideStar for about two-and-a-half years. I came to GuideStar after six-and-a-half years at the Hewlett Foundation where I led grantmaking for the Philanthropy Program. This position with GuideStar offered a natural continuation of my work at Hewlett—as we collectively try to build an infrastructure for smart philanthropy.

In this role, I have to constantly balance the internal and external. I do my best to articulate GuideStar’s value and vision to funders, users, and partners. And then I work to ensure alignment within the organization—both board and staff.

What drew you to your current work and how did you get your start?
I was interested in the question as to how money is allocated to the social good. At the beginning of my career I worked in the environmental movement where I saw that the highest-performing organizations were often not the ones that raised the most money. When I was at Hewlett I saw that GuideStar was well-positioned to tackle this problem—so started a close partnership with the organization, including service on GuideStar’s board.

According to your online bio on the EPIP Champions Board page, you are a writer and much of your content has been used in university courses to help the next generation of professionals learn. For emerging professionals who are looking to contribute to the field by publishing content but don’t know where to start, what are three tips you have for them? 

First of all, make sure you know the content that is already out there.  You’ll want to contribute something new, even if that just means bringing a new angle to an old question. Second, know what good writing looks like.  There’s a lot of bad writing out there – and you can be sure that bad writing doesn't help us solve problems. We need clear, compelling writing if we’re going to transform conversations in a way that actually matters.

For those who are about to get started writing for the field, start blogging on WordPress or another platform. And there are a lot of newspapers and publications in the field that are seeking content, so as you hone your skills there will be a home for your work.

For professionals in the field who think they are too busy to contribute content to the field, what are lessons you have learned during your own experience as a busy professional in contributing value not only to your organization but also the field?

Start small.  You can ever begin with Twitter; see if you can use the 140 character limit as a way to force clarity and focus.  With so much to write about, decide to focus on one particular issue. I find that I have to actually carve out time on my calendar and label it as “writing”—or else it gets lost in the flow of the day.

During your career, you have made the transition from consultant to foundation employee and now a CEO of an organization? What are three MC MaL skills that you have found to be essential at each of these career transitions?

As a consultant, I found it was surprisingly helpful to develop a mastery of basic computer programs—knowing tricks in PowerPoint and Excel makes you faster and more effective. And my colleagues laugh at how much time I invest in formatting documents, but I find it’s essential for communicating clearly. Beyond those tactical skills, it’s important to learn how to think in the really long term. This was something that I had the privilege of doing when at the Hewlett Foundation: there are some things that simply can’t be accomplished in the short term. We needed to have a willingness to stretch our time horizons—even to fifteen or twenty years.

Communication is essential.  In general, what feels like too much communication ends up being the right amount! A colleague at the Hewlett Foundation, Ruth Levine, writes a weekly letter to colleagues to share what she learned, what she’s hearing, what she’s thinking about. I haven’t quite had Ruth’s discipline to keep it up every week, but I have written 37 letters to the GuideStar staff to make sure they get to hear what I get to hear—which is extremely helpful for ensuring organizational alignment.

While it may not be a skill in the traditional sense, in the end what matters most is that we allow ourselves to be human—that we strive to act as our best selves. At GuideStar, we call our organizational values the “Four Cs”: clarity, compassion, courage and compassion. If we act with those values as our root we start from a strong place—and, in the end, have a far better chance of achieving the social change that we seek.

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