General News

Leveraging Social Sector Leadership

Fellow(s): Lissa Widoff

The field of philanthropy includes foundations that make grants and donations and nonprofit organizations that fulfill social purposes.  While both are nonprofits, they serve complementary roles in the “social sector”, the realm in which benefits for the social good are advanced, whether it is for clean water or safe neighborhoods.  Foundations have a useful vantage point of being able to look at trends over time or best practices among nonprofits within a field or region.  We all share an interest in evaluating and improving effectiveness and achieving outcomes.

A recent report, Leveraging Social Sector Leadership, produced by Grantmakers for Effective Organizations and the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business, calls attention to a trend the Switzer Foundation has been focused on for a long time – that the nonprofit sector chronically underinvests in its leaders. Funds for training, networking, program experimentation and even leadership coaching for new and emerging leaders are limited, with the dollars spent per employee significantly less than in the private sector, which is no surprise. 

Here are some of the interesting trends in the report that are most relevant to the Switzer Foundation’s approach:

  • Early career professionals seek mentors and coaches, peer networking, training and leadership development opportunities in their work and they will seek out those organizations that offer such benefits.
  • Early career professionals want advancement opportunity, yet they do not want their jobs to consume their whole lives.  The most oft-cited reasons given from this group for leaving non-profit work is “burnout”, stress and lack of clear advancement opportunity.
  • Established leaders cite a lack of coaching and networks outside of their discipline. In addition, they note the difficulty of being able to take a step back to reimagine how to lead more effectively, how to improve themselves, their organizations and missions.  A few sabbatical programs have offered executives the opportunity to regroup and re-energize in ways that can further their organization’s mission and focus.
  • Overall, there are very few flexible resources for investing in leadership across the field, in contrast to a few foundations that invest heavily in a small subset of leaders, typically “social entrepreneurs”, creating a sense that these individuals are the 1% of the sector at large.

Through surveys and interviews, six capabilities of social sector leaders were described, and the authors suggest that programs be developed to cultivate these qualities. The six capabilities necessary for effective leadership in the social sector are that a leader needs to be a:

  • Problem solver
  • Generous collaborator
  • Motivated mentor
  • Responsible steward
  • Applied researcher
  • Savvy networker

These are attributes that we select for within the Fellowship program and also cultivate through our ongoing training opportunities and by making funds available to Fellows for such opportunities when they arise.  The notion of a leadership pipeline was also addressed in the report – the sense that if you invest in leadership, the beneficiaries will in turn be better positioned to invest in their organizations and emerging leaders as well. The most effective leadership programs are those which include a coaching component, cohorts to enable peer learning, intergenerational and mentoring relationships and time for reflection and new thinking.

Absent our own longitudinal study of our Fellows’ leadership, but with years of meaningful conversations, grant funding experience and leadership investments, we can say that this report nicely corroborates our approach.  By supporting individuals, and coaching them on a path to follow their passion for meaningful work through a lifelong career of learning and leading, we are cultivating an ethic of giving back to our own community thereby modeling leadership for the new Fellows coming into our program. We knew we were on the right track, and now, the research is there to support our own leadership path.

Please share your thoughts, reflections and leadership lessons!