Five things philanthropy needs to do to support leadership development


NCRP, Niki Jagpal and Ryan Schlegel


The social change landscape is a complex network of advocacy organizations, community organizing groups and the funders who support them.  Too often, funders lose sight of the role that grassroots leaders play in advancing progress. The social justice ecosystem is made up of dedicated, dynamic leaders who work under enormous pressure to meet the challenges of their work. Leadership development, therefore, is an integral component of any work that seeks to address longstanding structural barriers to sustainable change.

And yet, as we note in NCRP’s latest report, Cultivating Nonprofit Leadership: A (Missed?) Philanthropic Opportunity, the largest US foundations provide less than 1 per cent of all their grants for leadership development.

Leadership development is essential to achieving real result in three ways: it disrupts usual ways of thinking and builds the networks needed to win; it prevents burnout; and it has a multiplier effect on organizations, providing benefits to secondary and tertiary leaders.

There are five ways philanthropy can support effective leadership development:

  1. Begin or increase funding for leadership development

First and foremost, any change-oriented foundation that is not yet funding leadership development should strongly consider doing so. Those already funding it at a modest level are urged to consider increasing their support.

  1. Integrate leadership development with programme strategy

Funding for leadership development cannot be an afterthought. It is most impactful when it is fully integrated with grantmaking strategy.

  1. Engage with grantees as true partners

Because of the iterative nature of leadership development, funders should engage grantees as true partners and create a mutually agreed upon vision of leadership.

  1. Use a culturally inclusive lens

It is important to consider how dynamics of identity, power and trauma may influence a participant’s experience with leadership development. Gender, race, sexual identity, disability and many other aspects of each participant’s identity will play a role in the efficacy of a particular leadership development programme.

  1. Build capacity that supports leadership development

Leaders of grassroots organizations often play many roles. For an executive to most effectively participate in leadership development, it may be necessary to assist in building the capacity of other staff too, so they can step in when the executive is engaged in training.

In the course of writing this report, we spoke to leadership development practitioners, funders, and grassroots leaders themselves. No matter their issue focus – from reproductive rights to economic and racial justice – the needs articulated by the leaders of social justice groups are clear. Their responsibilities are demanding as ever and the stress put upon them by funding constraints and the political climate grows heavier by the day. Grassroots leaders yearn to succeed in new, exciting and collaborative ways, but they cannot thrive unless philanthropy supports their growth.

Through Cultivating Nonprofit Leadership, we hope to continue the conversation around the philanthropic value of investing in grantee-driven leadership development and encourage critical self-reflection about the myriad benefits it offers to grantees and foundations alike.

Our sector is working to address problems that are urgent and longstanding, ranging from persistent poverty to environmental crises. An enormous potential lies in the people who have committed themselves to helping solve these problems. We believe it is time for more foundations to invest in good leadership development programmes and leaders who produce real results.

Niki Jagpal is senior director of research and policy and Ryan Schlegel is research and policy associate at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP). Follow @NCRP on Twitter.

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