ASF – Leadership in small staff philanthropy: what matters most?

The US-based Association of Small Foundations (ASF) has been conducting dozens of interviews with leaders among its nearly 2,600 members, 55 per cent of whom are associated with family foundations, to better understand their views on leadership. They are exploring how it is that small funders have influence without having direct authority. Three key findings from this ongoing research are highlighted here.

Fuelled by passion
Interviewees concur that caring deeply about a specific societal challenge motivates leaders to learn as much as possible about an issue in order to devise effective philanthropic responses. Alternatively, some leaders discover an issue that inspires deep commitment through scanning the landscape to learn about a community’s needs. ‘Leaders take responsibility for finding their passion,’ said one interviewee, ‘or the thing that feeds them.’ Leaders share ‘the belief or conviction that we have to be better’, another interviewee noted.

A hunger for knowledge Interviewees frequently talked about how leaders’ deep hunger for knowledge leads to asking questions, taking in information from diverse sources, and creating space for creative, collaborative responses to community issues. As one interviewee reflected: ‘Foundations have the resources and reputation to be at a lot of tables. They use this access to be in touch constantly to learn what people are working on, learn about good people and programs, find out needs and weak spots, and get tipped off to authentic leaders. They get the whole story, the 360-degree view.’

Driven by vision Interviewees work to develop and articulate a vision that emerges from their understanding and analysis of issues. They described vision as ‘… seeing a path, seeing something clearly that should be done, and knowing where you want to go’. As one interviewee put it: ‘Leadership is having the ability to take in lots of information, take in others’ perspectives, and focus it for a purpose. The knowledge and perspective gained offers the ability to see what might otherwise be missed.’

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