Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Creative Disruption

The GEO Conference has also showcased some outstanding practice of foundations developing leaders as a core part of the support they can offer to the sector.

At a packed session this morning an overwhelming majority of the foundations polled said that they were already investing in leaders and almost everyone else said that they would like to start. It was acknowledged that there are many strategies for offering such support (and the value of these approaches are demonstrated in various of GEO’s publications), but the two we focused on were executive coaching and skills development.

Linda Wood from the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund talked about how the foundation considered the sector’s leaders to be its most significant asset. She showed a series of interviews with leaders who had received support for coaching from the foundation and it was clear that the experience had been transformational. One stood out, a founding leader of a nonprofit in California who had led the organisation for 30 years described how he was overwhelmed with fear at the thought of expanding to a new city and effectively starting again. The honesty and self awareness of his story was startling and effective coaching, with support aligned to the organisation’s mission, allowed the expansion to be a success.

Linda also reflected on the question of how you evaluate the impact and return on investment of such interventions and concluded that trying to turn such intangibles into quantitative data was pointless. The stories speak for themselves. Indeed in the private sector this kind of investment in leaders is considered a no-brainer, a duty even. Such investment must be core to how the sector is developed.

Also on the panel was Steve Fitzgerald from the Bank of America Charitable Foundation which runs the pioneering Neighbourhood Excellence Initiative (which is also run in London with support from ACEVO). The programme provides two year unrestricted grants for community organisations based in 45 cities where the bank has a big presence, and provides a bespoke leadership development programme, run by the Centre for Leadership Innovation, for the leader and a next generation leader in the organisation.

Steve spoke about how it has been a significant culture change for the bank to run with a programme which does not provide the kind of hard data on outcomes to which his colleagues are used. Instead they listened to the organisations they want to support and changed the programme to reflect their needs. An example which many other foundations could follow.

Most impressive of all though was a session yesterday on sabbaticals. The Durfee Foundation in LA provides support for non-profit leaders to take 3-4 month sabbaticals where they are not allowed to do anything work related at all.

An evaluation report written by Third Sector New England and CompassPoint (Creative Disruption) shows how such an investment can have amazing results for the leader and for the organisation as a whole, and more far-reaching results than almost any other form of capacity building.

Many of the leaders who qualified for the programme had been in post for a long time and faced burn out. The time off allowed them to focus on themselves and do something they had always wanted to do, from travelling the world to cultivating their gardens. When they came back those leaders were more likely to stay but also had time to separate the wood from the trees, and often came back to make significant improvements to the way the organisation was running.

The organisation also benefitted significantly with the next tier of leaders placed into a leadership role, helping with succession planning and emphasising the need for the organisation to nurture its talent. 60% of participants reported that governance was strengthened as the organisation build structures around the departure and return of the CEO. And funders benefit with new trusting relationship fostered and leaders able to better understanding the needs of their communities.

The report makes for fascinating reading and I can’t wait for ACEVO members to see it. Great potential for new methods of investing in leaders is out there, let’s hope the sector in the UK can realise that potential too.

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