People: philanthropy’s great strength

Samantha Gilbert, John Harvey and Wangsheng Li

Pick up any edition of Alliance from the past few years, and one message is clear. In truly unprecedented ways, the global philanthropy sector is on the move, popping up in new places, growing in scale, diversifying in form, and, more than ever before, stretching to tackle the momentous challenges that define our times such as climate change, food and water security, and immigration. While there is much talk of the financial resources needed for success, much less attention is paid to the equally if not more important human resources.

At its best, philanthropy confronts these challenges with big ambitions and, in the aggregate, considerable financial resources. But there’s an even more important asset that is increasingly being recognized as quite possibly the philanthropy sector’s single most important strength: people. Smart and creative programme staff able to think systemically and work collaboratively across diverse sectors. Resourceful and imaginative operations staff able to build efficient and effective processes and systems that are directly aligned to the organization’s values, mandate and strategy. Visionary leaders capable of bold but pragmatic action. And all these individuals working effectively within and across organizations, in workplace cultures that nurture and reward innovation, prudent risk‑taking, continuous learning and high‑quality performance.

As guest editors for this issue of Alliance, we are delighted to have the opportunity to explore with our colleagues from around the globe this timely and essential topic of people and talent within 21st century philanthropy.

Now, there’s no denying that philanthropy has attracted some top talent. Every quarter, the pages of Alliance prove once again that there are some fantastic individuals working within our field. But, as a global sector, have we really done enough to bring in, and then hold on to and nurture, the very best? The short answer is: No. In our view, the professional development opportunities and resources currently available within philanthropy – the many conferences, seminars, workshops and webinars, the written materials, the ‘donor learning tours’ – are not enough to prepare foundation staff for the challenges they will face.

Peter Singer

Peter Singer

In Michael Liffman’s article, ‘A degree in grantmaking? It’s a no‑brainer’, he discusses the value of university‑level grantmaking education as a means of both attracting more people into the sector and equipping future programme officers with the multi‑dimensional skills needed to be successful in philanthropy. As Liffman points out, there is scepticism about whether a university‑level programme will help to attract talent into the field. As guest editors, we believe more focused higher education may indeed help generate greater interest among college‑age students and that a focused programme may offer the broad and diverse learning that is essential to be effective. But the skills needed for today’s programme officers also need to be found in on‑the‑job training, with a focus on mentoring and coaching.

Human resources in philanthropy

Historically, the philanthropy sector has paid scant attention to the function of human resources, viewing it simply as an administrative occupation responsible for payroll, benefits administration and the logistical aspects of recruitment. This very much contrasts with the global corporate sector, where the practice of human resources incorporates at its core the acquisition, management and development of talented employees to ensure business success. At the best‑run corporations, the Chief Human Resources Officer (or Chief Talent Officer, or, now growing in popularity, Chief People Officer) reports directly to the CEO and serves as one of the top advisers and architects of business strategy, which includes the carefully conceived and executed recruitment, engagement, development and retention of talented individuals to ensure success. If global philanthropy is to rise to the massive challenges our world faces – to take the best of what we have learned over the course of our centuries‑old traditions and combine that with the best of today’s practice – philanthropy leaders’ often weak focus on the acquisition and development of people must change. In short, the time has come to remake human resources practice within philanthropy from a transactional and administrative function into one that is strategic and powerfully transformational.

In October 2013, during its centennial year, the Rockefeller Foundation, in partnership with the US‑based Council on Foundations, took a first step in initiating a dialogue on people and talent within philanthropy. Twenty leaders from 16 countries in North and South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Australia, in a mix of roles from top leadership to chief human resources officers and chief operating officers, gathered for three and a half days at the foundation’s center in Bellagio, Italy. Several guests from outside the sector contributed greatly to the dialogue. This symposium, ‘Talent Management for Innovative and Impactful Philanthropy in the 21st Century’, explored the evolving challenges philanthropy seeks to address and the talent needed to ensure success. The robust agenda set out to consider a number of issues, including:

  • What skills, experiences and attributes are most needed in philanthropy today? How and why does that differ from the past?
  • Would the sector benefit from non‑traditional talent, for example private sector strategists who could design innovative market‑based solutions to social sector problems? And how best could a philanthropic organization, and the sector as a whole, attract and retain such non‑traditional talent?
  • How does an organization comfortably marry more traditional types of foundation employees – for example ‘experts’, whose strength is a narrow but deep understanding of a particular development issue, with ‘generalists’, whose strengths are wide and varied rather than deep?
  • What about long‑term versus short‑term staff, permanent versus contracted employees? How does a foundation find the right mix of each, given mission, culture and labour laws, and how does this composition shape project and people management?
  • What is employee engagement and why is it so critical for success?
  • What role do diversity and inclusion in employment practices play in the successful delivery of programmes in the development sector?
  • How does an investment in people contribute to organizational development and success?

The symposium explored these and many other questions, and participants left with a deepened appreciation that, if global philanthropy is to prosper and achieve great things in the future, the sector must dramatically change the way it views, deploys and invests in people and talent.

Demystifying ‘talent management’

A reader’s appreciation of this edition of Alliance will depend on their understanding and comfort with a few essential (if somewhat jargonistic) terms, most importantly ‘talent management’. For the purposes of this special feature, we consider talent management as a broad set of principles and activities, highly strategic in their thinking and approach, aimed at attracting, developing and retaining individuals and teams. Talent management entails a continuum of actions, several of the most important being the following:

  • Getting an organization’s workforce right: identifying the most effective composition of staff positions as well as the kind of people best suited to fill them.
  • Successful employee recruitment practices, including the cultivation of a diverse pipeline of potential employees for future needs.
  • The thoughtful ‘onboarding’ of new talent – not simply ‘new staff orientation’ but rather a set of practices that integrate new employees into the workplace and its culture.
  • Professional development of staff, with a particular emphasis on employees demonstrating high potential and a desire for growth.
  • Deliberate cultivation of an enabling workplace culture that aligns with an organization’s values and allows employees to work at their fullest potential.
  • Succession planning to ensure an organization’s continued well‑being.

Successful talent management can be measured in several ways. First, it should result in a high degree of employee engagement, another key if somewhat jargonistic term: employees who are ‘engaged’ demonstrate high levels of energy and motivation in their work and serve as strong advocates for the organization and its mission. In Grygo and Maruru’s article, ‘Journey to excellence: engaging philanthropy’s talent’, the writers emphasize that the real drivers of engagement in the workplace have to do with the experience of employment and that these are far more important than other factors such as remuneration.

However, while we appreciate the need for more active engagement activities, we cannot overlook the issues in some regions related to pay for professional experience and performance. Oksana Oracheva provides valuable insights into the difficulties of recruiting in the Russian marketplace due to very low pay scales, while Stuart Etherington highlights another side of the pay equation – a feeling that is developing across the UK that salaries in charitable organizations are too high.

In our view, if philanthropic organizations are to make increasingly valuable contributions to bettering communities and the world at large, they need to attract and develop the talent to lead them successfully. Jobs in the field of philanthropy are no less important, no less challenging, with no fewer hours demanded, than jobs in the private sector. It is time for the sector to stand up against its critics and fully adopt a pay‑for‑experience‑and‑performance philosophy and practice.

Successful talent management should lead to greater organizational success: the effective implementation of projects and programmes that support an organization’s raison d’être, its mission.

To succeed, talent management must be fully integrated into institutional philosophy and organizational development. Today, an effective human resources leader is someone skilled in designing and implementing a talent management strategy that helps shape organizational culture and helps enable high levels of employee engagement. A talent management strategy may include:

  • an assessment of skills and experience needed to deliver on work projected over several years;
  • an assessment of current talent strengths and gaps;
  • deliberate training, professional development and recruitment strategies to fill those gaps.

Historically, the global philanthropy sector has operated very differently when it comes to its people. A move to a talent management approach will no doubt bring new challenges to the way in which philanthropy professionals think about and engage in their work. When managed well, it will also bring new, often unexpected, opportunities. An example from our own experience nicely illustrates this dynamic:

In launching a deliberate and transparent leadership development programme for high‑potential employees, an organization had a surprising outcome. It not only helped elevate the skills of people identified within the organization as having high‑potential leadership ability, and got them in ‘ready’ position for succession needs, thus saving institutional knowledge and high recruitment costs (time with posts unfilled, search costs and on‑the‑job training‑up costs); it also addressed broader organizational needs. Many staff wanted to understand what they had to do to be considered for this high‑recognition, prestigious development programme and used the selection criteria to improve their own performance. Some employees took it as an opportunity to consider if they were in the right job and worked with their managers and HR professionals to more deliberately plan for their next career steps. Sometimes this review led to a move to another organization for a different type of role.

As this example clearly illustrates, talent management strategies involve an implicit appreciation that no two people are the same, including their ambitions. People bring to an organization diverse skills, experiences and expectations, and the best organizations recognize and leverage these differences. One employee may wish to advance professionally over time and work towards senior leadership roles, while another may be content remaining in an area where they can deeply invest their knowledge. Both employees are valuable, but in different ways. Employee One may come into an organization for a shorter stint to learn, contribute and do great work, and then take that experience to another organization within the philanthropy or broader NGO sector, contributing to our universal mission. Employee Two may stay with the organization for many years, perhaps even over their entire career, and within that time provide great value to the organization. For example, they may serve as the organization’s informal historian, leverage their institutional knowledge during times of change, offer deep‑rooted expertise on specific, essential organizational needs, and mentor new staff and leaders.

Focused talent management enables an organization to work with these two very different but equally valuable employees in a way that benefits all. In the first instance, talent management will help to ensure that Employee One stays for the ‘right’ amount of time, making a positive contribution to the organization before moving on to a new challenge. In the second instance, talent management will help to ensure that Employee Two, no matter how long they’ve held the same post, continues to thrive, to remain highly engaged and motivated, and to contribute positively to the organization. We have all known these two types of employees. Talent management allows an organization to support and benefit from the best of both.

Capacity building: investing in people for the broader sector

Investment in the people within an organization, we propose, is as critical to a foundation’s success as any other investment it makes. A foundation’s endowment is invested to generate strong returns and grow over time; a foundation’s grants result in a social return on investment; programme‑related investments result in both a social and a financial return on investment. Talent management helps enable highly engaged and skilled people to make immeasurable contributions to the work of the organization, at the same time building the collective capacity of the broader philanthropy sector.

Talent management can also build capacity in the broader non‑profit sector. Many talented staff of philanthropic organizations come from and go to other types of non‑profit organization. Neville Gabriel’s article ‘Poaching talent from NGOs: does it matter?’ suggests that foundations poaching staff from NGOs is both understandable from a knowledge perspective and mired with challenges, some related to pay and some to clarity of expectations regarding skills and experiences.

It is our considered view that good talent management has a broader and more lasting impact on the larger non‑profit sector. Talented individuals who work in environments where their skills and abilities are nurtured and developed make meaningful contributions to organizations. As part of their development plan, they learn leadership skills that they may then take with them to other non‑profits. In Judith Rodin’s interview, she speaks of her role of mentoring a number of senior staff who have left the Rockefeller Foundation and philanthropy to lead non‑profit organizations. There is something to be said for developing a pipeline of leaders in a field where the work is all about helping people live better lives.

Is a talent management focus right for all organizations?

We have heard it argued that talent management practice is only for very large organizations and that small‑staff organizations can get along just fine with traditional HR practice. We disagree. In small‑staff organizations – including the bulk of foundations across the globe – all staff need to be working at their highest potential to ensure the organization’s work has an impact. If a workplace doesn’t effectively address performance issues or work to foster a positive workplace culture, this can derail an organization’s success and prevent it from achieving its goals.

Additionally, there are few chances for promotion in small organizations; in such circumstances, turnover of the most talented people can be high. For small‑staff organizations wishing to retain their best employees, talent management offers an answer to the difficult challenge of unwanted turnover.

We have also heard it argued that only large organizations can afford the time and financial resources to engage in strategic talent management. Again, we strongly disagree. Certainly, small‑staff organizations would be hard‑pressed to take on the full scope of talent management practice all at once. For them, the task is to prioritize the steps along the talent management continuum and to prioritize those that are most urgent. Perhaps an organization expects a leadership change within the next few years. Make succession planning the priority for the year. Perhaps an organization has struggled to enable effective teamwork. Make workplace culture the focus for the year.

Nor is it essential that an organization should have a full‑time HR staff person for it to engage in strategic talent management. Rather, two things are needed: first, an institutional commitment to the principles of talent management; and second, an internal champion – someone whose job it is to advance talent management practice, even as that person is engaged in other activities. This might be the leader of an organization, or it might be the person chiefly responsible for an organization’s operations, or even a board member. In fact, it is incumbent upon all managers to carry this focus and commitment. The important thing is not ‘human resources’ or ‘talent management’ in a job title; what is needed is a designated champion or champions, a meaningful part of whose job description focuses on talent management practice.

We are delighted to be involved in this special issue of Alliance and know that the articles to follow reflect the collective wisdom of leading practitioners and opinion leaders in philanthropy. It will stir some good thinking and provide more specifics about how to engage employees, how to effectively manage global teams, the value of ensuring a diverse and inclusive work environment, lessons from the private sector, and more. This special feature is intended to provoke discussion of how we as a sector can start perceiving talent management strategies as the most essential means to a critical end – achieving the of often ambitious goals of 21st century philanthropy.


Human resources professionals have many critical responsibilities. They oversee hiring and staffing, benefits and compensation, organizational training and professional development. But too often their role is seen as an isolated support function rather than a central piece of the enterprise and its ongoing pursuit of mission. For an organization like the Ford Foundation that prizes learning and knowledge, talent is truly our most precious asset. And precisely because I want to foster a culture that embodies and advances our commitment to these two values, we created the position of vice president, talent and human resources, for the first time. It’s a signal of the elevated importance we assign to cultivating the tremendous talent that resides in our New York headquarters and our offices around the world.

Samantha Gilbert, the foundation’s new vice president, talent and human resources – reporting directly to me – will encourage our executive team to approach our work more holistically, making us more effective and raising the already high level of talent we attract and retain. Her voice will ensure that we always value our people as much as our programmes. And her participation at the foundation’s decision‑making leadership table will ensure that motivating and inspiring our staff to do great work becomes central to our culture. Peter Drucker was right: culture eats strategy for breakfast, and this is one more way I am acting on that belief.

Darren Walker
President, Ford Foundation


Pier Mario Vello

Pier Mario Vello

We are honoured to be able to dedicate this issue of Alliance to our very dear colleague Pier Mario Vello, whose untimely passing hits our community very hard. Pier Mario was among the most important advocates for advancing talent management practice and a participant in the Rockefeller Foundation’s symposium on talent in philanthropy. We very much hope that this issue of Alliance will contribute to Pier Mario’s legacy of visionary leadership within global philanthropy.

The guest editors for this Alliance special feature are:

Samantha Gilbert is chief human resources officer at the Rockefeller Foundation. She will take up a new post as vice president for talent and human resources at the Ford Foundation in September. Email

John Harvey is an independent global philanthropy professional, founding director of Grantmakers Without Borders (now EDGE Funders Alliance) and co‑founder of New England International Donors. Email

Wangsheng Li is president of the ZeShan Foundation (Hong Kong) and a Synergos senior fellow. Email

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