Leadership in philanthropy: seven inspiring examples from outside the field


Kristin Majeska

Motivate others to work collaboratively to do great things’. I was struck by this definition used to select seven 2011 Top American Leaders. Wouldn’t it be a great expectation for philanthropy leaders as well?

We all know that philanthropic dollars will only accomplish a tiny portion of what we want to see in society. Motivating others, both inside and outside of your organization, and within and beyond the world of philanthropy is essential. Funders are making important progress at working collaboratively – I’ve seen a marked difference in the last ten years – but we’ve still got a long way to go. And grantmaking practices are still more likely to discourage collaboration than to encourage non-profits and other actors to work together productively.

The Top Leaders competition’s definition of leadership also included the intent to ‘do great things’. Don’t philanthropists need to be as daring and committed to doing ‘great things’ as the visionary community leaders, activists and social entrepreneurs we showcase and support? Doing great things doesn’t mean a vision to singlehandedly change the entire world with your endowment. Doing ‘great things’ starts with an honest assessment of how your money, and perhaps your knowledge and networks, can make the most difference for your causes.

The competition winners worked primarily from the US, but one was born in Egypt (Nobel Prize winner Ahmed Zewail) and three were recognized for their international work outside the US. Exemplary leadership today transcends national boundaries.

Each winner ‘led’ from a very different place in society (chemistry, bank regulation, journalism, higher education, arts management and high tech). Only one is an elected official – New Jersey governor Chris Christie – and only one leads a non-profit, but any of the winners could be a powerful partner for social change.

What can we learn from them?

The winners’ remarks on leadership were remarkably consistent. They recommended honesty and prioritizing the task at hand instead of worrying about the future, and they emphasized the group over the individual. UMBC College President Freeman Hrabowski summarized: ‘Leadership is not about the status of one person but the dreams and values of a group of people.’ What a great approach for philanthropists to take!

The selection committee was convened by the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School. They looked for leaders who ‘set direction, achieved results, and cultivated a culture of growth’. Philanthropists must also balance driving results for today with the need to learn and to evolve their grantmaking.

The winners excel in their fields and lead based on their knowledge. Jared Cohen, now director of Google Ideas, realized the role social media could play in democracy movements in the Middle East and acted on his insight. As the youngest member of the US Secretary of State’s planning staff he went directly to Twitter’s founder to ensure the service stayed online during hours that were critical for an early democracy uprising in Iran, violating official US policy. Many of you read Nick Kristof’s columns in the New York Times. He goes deep into the field, then goes out on a limb, time and time again, to share compelling stories and motivate his readers to act on human rights issues. Winner Ahmed Zewail was recognized for combining academic leadership with decades of contributions to education and economic development in Egypt long before he became the official science envoy from the US to the Middle East.

Two of the winners already partner with philanthropists. Michael Kaiser rescued the American Ballet Theater and raised millions for the Royal Opera House of London before revitalizing Washington’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. There, with the support of philanthropists like Dick and Betty DeVos, Kaiser created a groundbreaking Arts Management Institute, which trains grassroots arts managers from around the world. In Baltimore, Hrabwoski’s scholarship on teaching maths to minority youth in poor communities led to the scholarship programme for high-achieving minority students he cofounded with philanthropist Robert Meyerhoff. The programme’s success has made it a national model.

You can read more about each of the winners here and watch them here. But before you do, ask yourself, how can I ‘motivate others to work collaboratively to do great things?’

Kristin Majeska is partner at Philanthropic Intelligence.

Tagged in: Impact Leadership Partnerships Top Leader Awards

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