The Leadership Development Disconnect

Last month I was struck to see that less than half of nonprofit leaders surveyed in CEP’s recent study, Nonprofit Challenges: What Foundations Can Do, believe that foundations are aware of the various challenges their organizations face, and that almost three quarters of them – 73 percent – said they lack sufficient resources and opportunities to develop their leadership skills.

Does anyone else think it’s troubling that so many of the leaders of the organizations we support don’t feel particularly supported by their funders? What explains this disconnect and what should we do about it?

Nonprofits say again and again in surveys that they want leadership development support so their staffs and boards can lead their organizations to achieve higher impact. The Daring to Lead study by CompassPoint and the Meyer Foundation in 2011 also reached a similar conclusion, finding that nonprofit executives place great value on professional development activities such as coaching, peer networks and leadership development. One of the report’s top four recommendations to the field was to “Expand and diversify professional development options available to executive directors.”

So what gives? I think that there are two parts to this problem. First, not enough funders are investing in strengthening the leadership of their grantees. And second, many of those who do may not be providing the kind of support that nonprofit leaders want and need.

It’s hard to find national data pinpointing how much foundation support is targeted to building leadership capacity. But a recent Foundation Review article, by Rusty Stahl, estimates that perhaps as few as 1.24% of grant dollars over the past 20 years have been directed at leadership development.

Why so little? In my experience, the number one impediment that keeps more foundations from stepping up is skepticism about whether these investments produce results. In stark contrast to the corporate sector, most grantmakers do not view leadership development as an essential investment that pays off over the long run. They see such support as a “nice-to-have,” even a luxury. And so leadership development loses out when weighed against programmatic grants that funders can monitor with established metrics like numbers of people served, improvements in client and community outcomes, etc.

But the fact is, there is compelling evidence connecting the dots between investing in leadership and identifiable, measurable results for nonprofit organizations. For example, at the Haas, Jr. Fund, we just completed an in-depth evaluation of the first five years of our Flexible Leadership Awards (FLA) program. The program provides core grantees of the Fund with long-term, flexible support to focus on strengthening board and staff leadership. What the evaluation found is that this support not only fueled concrete gains in leadership capacity, such as building a board that is more engaged in fundraising and governance, but also directly contributed to organizations achieving greater impact, as judged by measurable gains in areas from budget growth to policy wins.

The evaluation also shed light on what types of leadership support organizations believe are the most valuable. Among the key findings: coaching had enormous power and potential to support not only individual but organizational goals; and, when given the opportunity, organizations directed the bulk of resources to support senior team development and “distributed leadership.”

These findings may help explain the other part of the disconnect.  Even funders who do fund leadership development may not be providing the kind of support leaders want and need.

After all, a significant subset of funders says they provide leadership development support. Of the 65 percent of foundations that offer capacity-building support in GEO’s latest field study, more than four out of five (81 percent) said they support leadership and/or management skills for grantee staff; and 63 percent say they support board development.

So why do so many nonprofit leaders still feel like they lack sufficient resources and opportunities to develop their leadership?

Perhaps the type of support is missing the mark. Maybe a funder is supporting training courses or networking events when a nonprofit executive really needs one-on-one coaching. Or maybe the leadership support is focused on the executive director when the organization really needs to build the skills of the board or senior team. It’s not one-size-fits-all. That’s why the Flexible Leadership Awards program helps each grantee develop and resource a tailored leadership development plan that is tied to their organization’s specific 3-5 year priorities.

So the disconnect between funder and nonprofit views of leadership support may not be such a puzzle at all.

It may simply be the result of differing understandings of what types of leadership support can help nonprofits most, as well as a perception among funders that this work is not an essential investment that helps leaders get better results for their organizations and their movements.

The question remains, are we funders listening closely enough? How should we respond when a respected national survey finds that almost 75% of nonprofit executive directors are asking for more support to develop their leadership?

Why do you think funders haven’t been more supportive? And what are your ideas about how we can address this need?


Linda Wood is Senior Director of the Haas Leadership Initiative at the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund.

funder/grantee relationships, grantee perspectives, Grantee Voice, leadership, nonprofit sector
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